By Eric Berger
A half-century after most of the remaining Alco FA locomotives in the United States were transformed into Head End Power control cabs on the Long Island Rail Road, one of the survivors is making news after being restored to operation in the Garden State.
On October 3, LIRR FA-2 602, originally built as Louisville & Nashville 309, came to life for the first time in 49 years and moved under its own power at the shops of SMS Rail Lines. It is believed to be the first of the former Long Island units to operate under its own power again.
The FA is privately owned and has been at SMS — a short line known for its fleet of Baldwin locomotives — for restoration work, including replacement of the grills and repairs to the cooling system and prime mover. After initial testing is complete, it is expected to be laid up for more minor repairs over the winter months. The work is being done exclusively by SMS personnel and the locomotive’s owners. As major work on 602 nears completion, plans are being made to move another former L&N FA-2 to SMS for similar treatment.
The first six LIRR control cabs arrived on the commuter railroad in May 1971, all from the same 1956 L&N order, the last FA-2s built for an American railroad. By 1971, the ranks of Alco cab units in the U.S. were dwindling fast as railroads traded them in to GE or EMD for new Second Generation diesels. Most were financed for 15 years, and since FA-2 production ended in 1956, even the newest of them were eligible for retirement. Orphaned by the closure of Alco in 1969, they joined Baldwin and Fairbanks-Morse products on the fast track to the scrap yard.
That is where the remaining FA units were headed when GE and LIRR came up with the plan to convert the surviving units into control cabs that would also provide Head End Power for push-pull trains powered by high hood C-420s. At the time, LIRR was an all-Alco road already versed in the maintenance of 244 prime movers.
A total of eight FA-1s and 11 FA-2s were converted at the GE facility in North Bergen, N.J., and put in service between 1971 and 1974, along with four EMD F-units. The Alcos came from L&N, Burlington Northern, Penn Central and Western Maryland.
While the traction motors were removed, the Alco 244 series prime movers were retained for HEP generation. Most would eventually be repowered, first with smaller, engine-generator sets from Detroit Diesel, then with Cummins equipment a decade later. Seven kept their 244s, LIRR 600-604, 610 and 618, all of which were retired and sold or donated in 1986 and 1987.
While the startup of 602 is a milestone in the remarkable saga of the surviving Alco cab units, its return to public view is not expected in the near future, nor will speculation about a paint scheme be resolved anytime soon. Plans currently call for paint to be applied only after the mechanical and cosmetic work is complete on all of the units involved in the project, and the timetable for that is uncertain.
At this time, the owner has disclosed only that a set of Alco freight cab units will be operating in the United States within the next few years, wearing the paint of a notable fallen flag.