How Much Do Locomotives Cost?

Locomotives are impressive machines with brute strength and reliability. They are equipped with many features and electronic safety systems. However, the more equipment, the higher the price point.

So, How much do locomotives cost? A diesel locomotive could cost from $500,000-$2 million. While an electric locomotive could cost more than $6 million. Price depends on whether it is powered by AC or DC traction, how much horsepower it has, or what electronics it is equipped with. 

As with many modes of transportation, technology has greatly enhanced the capabilities and features of locomotives. With increased pulling power and ease of operation, locomotives continue to improve technologically, while performing more efficiently than ever before. With simple modifications, it is possible for locomotives to perform in many different climates throughout the world. In the rail industry, efficiency is key to a sound operation, and locomotives are one of the most important assets a rail company will own.

Diesel Locomotive Costs

Cost of an Alternating Current (AC) Locomotive

Because of the increased pulling power of AC locomotives, the price will be significantly higher than a non- AC locomotive. The tractive effort of an AC locomotive gives its customers 40,000 more pound feet of tractive effort than a non-AC locomotive. These types of locomotives provide cost savings for the railroad, as less units are needed to haul a heavy train. This saves the rail company a significant amount on fuel and maintenance costs. This is made possible through an alternator, instead of a standard direct current (DC) generator providing the power. Additionally, AC current locomotives have proved to cost less for maintenance. The cost of an AC locomotive averages around $2 million, differing between manufacturers.

Cost of a Direct Current (DC) Locomotive

Some of the earliest diesel electric locomotives were powered by DC traction. These are useful motors, however, they do not offer the increased pulling power offered by AC locomotives. DC locomotives cost around $1.5 million, depending on manufacturer. Although powerful, these units offer less tractive effort than their AC counterparts. The average AC locomotive can supply 180,000 lbf of tractive effort, while the average DC locomotive can only supply an average of 140,000 lbf of tractive effort.

Although these locomotives offer a decreased cost for rail operators, more units are needed to haul a decent sized train. For example, to haul a one-hundred car coal train, a rail operator would only have to use two AC locomotives, however three DC locomotives would be needed to haul the same train.

AC vs. DC Current

Current TypeTractive EffortCost
AC Current180,000 lbf$2 million
DC Current140,000 lbf$1.5 million


Jeff Hampton

Electric Locomotive Costs

Electric locomotives are efficient, and surpass well over 6,000 horsepower per unit. These units are easy to maintain, as they do not include a prime mover, just generators and traction motors. Many electric locomotives are geared for high speed operation, making them ideal for busy urban centers.

Much like diesel locomotives, electric locomotives run on either AC or DC traction. Most new electric locomotives are delivered with AC traction, as it provides more horsepower and cost savings. This AC motors work similarly to diesels,except that the power is received through overhead wires instead of an on board prime mover.

Many DC electric locomotives are converted to AC traction as it is more efficient and cost effective to maintain. For example, in the early 2000s, Amtrak refurbished several of their DC AEM-7 units into AC traction. This helped Amtrak haul longer trains with one locomotive.

Electric locomotives carry a considerable higher cost however, as some units surpassing $6 million. For example Amtrak’s new ACS-64 locomotives ordered from Siemens, cost $6.66 million per locomotive. Interestingly, electric locomotives tend to be priced higher than diesels, as the electric locomotives sometime require an entire redesign, while diesel locomotives tend to be built upon an existing framework.

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Factors Contributing to the Cost of Locomotives

Locomotives are complicated machines and are packed with technology, like a massive computer. These technologies make daily operations safer, and improve the reliability and efficiency of operations. Most modern locomotives are equipped with computer screens that give the engineer real-time information on the status of the train including speed, oil temperature, train length, and other configurable settings.

The main factor in the cost of a locomotive is the prime mover, which is the diesel engine that powers the locomotive. The prime mover alone costs over $70,000, additionally traction motors could cost upwards of $15,000 per motor. If the locomotive is turbocharged, an extra cost of over $10,000 per turbo charger would be added.

Additionally, locomotives are equipped with many advanced electronics such as computerized displays, a microprocessor, and an event recorder. Installing these devices requires complex wiring and installation of software.

Rebuilding or Re-powering Locomotives

With the rising freight volumes and the constant need for new motive power, many railroads have begun rebuilding their current fleets of locomotives, instead of buying new. This gives the railroad the advantage of significant cost savings and gives the locomotive a second life.

Rebuilding locomotives is less expensive than purchasing new. Many rail companies consider rebuilding older locomotives, instead of purchasing new, as this saves rail companies a substantial amount of capital.

For example, many General Electric locomotives, currently owned by many North American railroads, are being rebuilt from direct current (DC) locomotives, to alternating current (AC) locomotives. Additionally, some of these rebuilt locomotives will receive cab upgrades, as well as electrical and safety upgrades. Re-manufacturing locomotives costs about 40% less than purchasing a new locomotive.

For example Norfolk Southern and Burlington Northern Santa Fe are in the process of rebuilding some of their DC C40-9 and C44-9W locomotives into AC traction. This is done by swapping out the DC traction motor for the AC motor, installing an alternator, and updating the electrical equipment.

Some manufacturers such as Motive Power Industries (MPI), will rebuild older EMD locomotives. These locomotives will be rebuilt from the ground up. The components of the locomotive are disassembled and are replaced or re-manufactured as needed. This process of re-manufacturing locomotives can add up to twenty years to a locomotives’ life.

Bill Johnson

Modifying Locomotives for Different Climates

Locomotives are manufactured for many railways throughout the world, and many times modifications are made so they will operate more efficiently in a certain environment. Some locomotive manufacturers will modify their locomotive to the specifications of their customer.

For example, due to the excessive heat in the Pilbara iron ore region in Western Australia, many General Electric locomotives are given advanced cooling systems, such as larger radiators, added cooling fans, and additional air vents. These modifications prevent the locomotives from overheating. Although these modifications are needed for the operating environment, they can add significant costs, and some of the locomotive’s frame and body must be configured accordingly.

For further information and pictures of modern diesel locomotives, Brian Solomon’s publication, “Diesel Locomotives” takes a detailed look at the modern locomotive. Solomon’s publication is available here. (link to Amazon)

Related Questions

How much does a used locomotive cost? A used locomotive could cost anywhere upwards of $100,000. It depends on the size and how much horsepower it produces. Another factor is if the locomotive has gone through a rebuild, which would mean the unit has new or refurbished parts. 

How much does a locomotive weigh? A locomotive could weigh anywhere from 200,000-440,000 pounds depending on what type of locomotive it is. Many locomotives are ordered with extra weight to improve tractive effort. AC locomotives are also heavier than DC locomotives.

How long does a locomotive last? A locomotive can last over 60 years, even longer if maintained properly. Many locomotives in daily service were built in the sixties and seventies, and are still serving their operators. The life of a locomotive can be prolonged further by rebuilding parts such as the prime mover, and rewiring the electrical system.  

How much horsepower does a modern locomotive have? A modern locomotive has between 1,500-6,000 horsepower. Horsepower varies by manufacturer, and how the locomotive is geared. In some locomotives, horsepower can be increased or down-rated with the flip of a switch during its regular maintenance cycle. 

How much does a new freight car cost? New freight cars can cost well over $100,000, for example, a new boxcar costs about $130,000. However, despite these astronomical costs, some of it is paid by the shipper in the form of fees. Many railcars are leased by railroads from leasing companies, as it is more cost effective than purchasing them outright. 







Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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