For those of you thanks aren’t already railfans or in the biz, there are and for decades have been pretty much two manufacturers of locomotives: EMD  and GE. EMD used to be the Electomotive Division of GM and of course everybody knows who GE is, though you may not know they build locomotives as well as appliances. The market is a small one, a thousand or so locomotives in good year, largely because the locomotives are so efficient and durable. To give you an idea of rail productivity and durability, there are a couple million big trucks in America, and but 30,000 or so locomotives… Yet the locomotives haul more freight than the trucks. Given that a mere pair of locomotives can pull a train loaded with a couple hundred semitrailers or containers and last twice as the long doing so, not surprising. Then figure in the fact that locomotives get upwards of 400 ton miles per gallon versus trucks that are barely breaking 100, and it’s not hard to see why the railroads are busier than ever and in the market for more locomotives as soon as they can get ’em…

But there’s some rough tracks ahead, in the form of the tighter EPA Tier 4 emissions standards taking effect in 2015. But the big railroads are making healthy profits, and despite some possible grumblings they’re not about to cancel any locomotive orders. Plain and simple, every new locomotive delivered already has trains waiting for it to pull, and the big railroads aren’t trading in old locomotives either- they need all the power they can get. This puts the smaller shortline railroads that used to feed off the big railroad’s glut of surplus locomotives in a bind… Used to be a used locomotives price was largely dictated by scrap metal prices, even if it ran. Meanwhile, shortlines that once needed modest power to move short trains on track limited to slow speeds now find themselves with 100+ car trainloads of freight on rehabilitated track that allows higher speeds.

And those 2015 EPA regulations? Well, both EMD’s venerable two strokes and GE’s mere bit over a decade old diesels can meet the tougher standards, but at what cost in fuel economy, DEF (diesel exhaust fluid), durability, and just plain cost? EMD’s two stroke may in fact have some advantages in this regard, as it’s double the power strokes may allow better cooling, a problem as emissions regulations tighten.  GE has the advantage of working with an engine that was actually designed in an era when emissions standards were at least contemplated. But as the full page ads in just about every rail mag attest, there’s some new kids tryin’ to get into the enginehouse- diesels from Cat, Cummins, and MTU with half the displacement that rev twice as fast and put out about the same 4000+ horsepower.

Now why would a conservative biz like railroading allow one of these newbie diesels under their new locomotives hoods? Well , for a start, they’re not all newbies, for example Cummin’s QSK has been building a good rep for itself since it was introduced back in the 70s as the KT series. Emissions wise, smaller high revving engines seem to have an easier time meeting emissions standards too, and respond faster to the throttle. These engines can have significant cost advantages too, as the cost of developing, tooling, and building them can be spread over mining, ag, power generation, construction, etc. markets that locomotive diesels are often too big for. That’s still not the million a year market seen in the auto biz, but a lot better than trying to spread the cost of keeping an engine current on maybe half of a thousand units a year. Then there’s the issue of packaging… rumor has it that the 2015 locomotives may need to be stretched a bit just to fit all the new emissions control equipment and increased cooling capacity needed, thus a smaller engine may be literally a better fit even on a big ‘ol locomotive. The downside? Well, they do spin twice as fast, up from 900 to 1800 RPM, which increases piston speeds even though those pistons have shorter strokes.

So we’ve got at least five engines for the railroads to choose from, and two established manufacturers and a few rebuilders looking to move upmarket in the fight for sales. And while the major railroads with their long hauls will probably stick with their traditional big block power, commuter railroads and the shortlines may very well go for the up and coming smallblocks. Why? Even on mainline single tracks a locomotive may cover only 200 miles a day, and in the yard duty or on a shortline switching in every town they often don’t even cover 100 miles a day. Compared to the thousand miles a day an Amtrak long distance passenger locomotive can see and the 500 mile a day pace on BNSF’s multiple track “raceways”, that’s light duty by comparison. Thus the “small block” locomotive engines are a win-win for shortlines and commuter railroads, and that market may be about to explode. And whether the big blocks? Well, GE is firmly wedded to their big V-12, having bought it lock, stock, and tooling from Deutz… But they could always make V8 and even V6 “chips” off the old block. Over at EMD, it’s telling that new owner Cat hasn’t done much to integrate them into the corporate image, in fact giving EMD acquirer and now Cat subsidiary Progressive Rail higher visibility. Given Cat’s hatred for old school union workers like the skilled tradespeople that build the guts of EMD locomotives at the historic “home of the diesel locomotive” in LaGrange, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the traditional big block EMD content fade as they substitute small block Cat power in their products. in fact, they’ve already done that in their new passenger locomotive, powered by a small block Cat C175 diesel.

So we may get to railfan some wild and wooly years as railroads great and small decide if they want big or small diesels from what may be a handful of makers. And oh, I forgot to mention… They’re not even sure if they’ll be fueling with diesel, natural gas, or whatever…