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Burlington Northern’s Auburn Shop: Home, Sweet Home

Classics in a driving rain: the oldest F-unit on the railroad, Burlington Northern F3A 702, built as Northern Pacific 6011D in January 1947, rests alongside ancient brick buildings and a 40-foot boxcar wearing the NP’s Monad logo at the NP roundhouse at Auburn, Wash., on April 21, 1978.

Burlington Northern’s Auburn Shop: Home, Sweet Home

March 2020By Blair Kooistra/photos by the author

When I first started hanging out there as a teenaged railfan in late 1976, Auburn, Wash., and the Electro-Motive F-unit had already been closely associated for more than 30 years. Northern Pacific built its first diesel shop there in 1944 to service its 11 new 5,400-hp FT freight locomotives. Auburn was a vital terminal on NP, at the junction of the Seattle–Portland main line and the transcontinental route from the Twin Cities. The red brick and glass-block shop building, 230 feet in length, could perform everything short of a complete strip-down rebuild on a locomotive — engine, generator and heavy component change-outs, wheel truing, and running repairs were possible within the three-track building. It wasn’t long until NP’s growing fleet of EMD switch engines and Geeps working both Tacoma Division branches as well as the main line were also assigned there. F-units working west over the mountains were serviced there, along with second-generation EMD and General Electric diesels of the 1960s.

Burlington Northern

At least nine F-units were gathered at Auburn’s locomotive shop on June 2, 1978.

Burlington Northern News 1970Things didn’t change that much right after the Burlington Northern merger was finally consummated in March 1970. For a locomotive design already obsolete for over a dozen years, nearly 15 percent of the new BN’s locomotive fleet were EMD F-units — 288 locomotives, according to the first Burlington Northern Motive Power Annual. The railroad made headway in modernizing its fleet in the following few years, relegating the F-units and early Geeps to local and secondary freight status. But efforts to eliminate these obsolete relics — along with the remaining Alco holdovers and early General Electric units — were slowed by a booming coal business that left the railroad short of motive power even as it added hundreds of new locomotives a year. BN even explored rebuilding rather than retiring several of the F-units, but quickly abandoned that effort.

By 1976, Burlington Northern had reduced the F-unit fleet to 115 — still the largest cab unit fleet remaining in the U.S. — and distributed them about equally between terminals in the Twin Cities Region (at Northtown, Superior, and Dilworth, Minn., and Grand Forks, N.D.) and the Seattle/Portland Region (at Vancouver, Wash., Seattle, Spokane, and Auburn). Curiously, apart from the pioneer FTs, the BN merger found F-units assigned to Auburn for maintenance for the first time!

Burlington Northern

With time running out, F7s 720 and 708 roll south along the Puget Sound seawall entering Mukilteo, Wash., with a returning Auburn–Everett turn on July 18, 1981, just 11 days before the final F-unit operated on Burlington Northern’s Pacific Division.

Discovering Auburn
When I moved with family to Seattle in late 1976, the railfanning options were overwhelming — not only was The Milwaukee Road in my backyard, but BN still operated Alcos and F-units. I was a little late to the show to see these locomotives in their pre-merger colors (“Cascade Green?” the local fans harrumphed, still upset about the merger six years before) — but it all looked good to me. And no place was better to start a day photographing the railroad than Auburn, where sets of covered wagons, portholes glowing in the pre-dawn darkness and amber beacons flashing, beckoned down below as I turned off the highway just north of the roundhouse…

March 2020Read the rest of this article in the March 2020 issue of Railfan & Railroad!

This article was posted on: March 2, 2020