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SPSF: Shouldn’t Paint So Fast

Freshly rebuilt and repainted SD39 1568 basks in the sun outside Santa Fe’s shop complex at San Bernardino, Calif., in January 1986.

SPSF: Shouldn’t Paint So Fast

July 2021by Elrond Lawrence/photos by the author

“Shouldn’t Paint So Fast.”
There, we got that out of the way. The infamous railfan gag about the planned “SPSF” merger name of Southern Pacific and Santa Fe — arguably the most famous failed merger attempt in railroad history — is endlessly quoted to the point of madness, but there’s no denying its brilliance.

Thirty-six years after the first trial paint scheme was unveiled on rebuilt Santa Fe SD45 5394 in August 1985, fans are still talking about the combined fleet of more than 400 locomotives that were painted red, yellow, and black in anticipation of a merger later rejected by the Interstate Commerce Commission. It’s the ultimate “what could have been” story that led to a complete reshaping of the western railroad map. The bright Southwest-inspired colors of the planned merger either invoke intense hatred or love, depending on whom you speak with. Either way, they made their mark on railroad history and the bright new image inspired the “Kodachrome” nickname among railfans.

I lived through that crazy, anxious, and exciting time, growing up in Fontana, Calif., 20 minutes from San Bernardino where the first locomotives were painted. Santa Fe’s San Bernardino shops painted red and yellow locomotives by the dozens for nearly a year, beginning in fall 1985 and ending on July 24, 1986, when the merger was denied. They were joined in the painting frenzy by Southern Pacific’s equally historic shops in Sacramento.

SPSF Railway

ABOVE: Santa Fe’s rebuilt F45 and FP45 fleet looked especially good in Kodachrome colors. The 5975 suns itself next to SF30C 9509 in front of the railroad’s landmark shops at Barstow, Calif., on January 10, 1987.

Looking back, I now realize that the Kodachrome era was not only a pivotal moment in railroad history, but also a transforming time for my early years as a rail photographer. Kodachromes may have polarized the railfan community back then, but I’m grateful for every frame of film I shot that included a red and yellow warbonnet.

It all started with a stark, seismic announcement in the San Bernardino Sun — Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads were going to merge into a single rail company, the latest in a round of mega-mergers that had most recently included Union Pacific’s 1982 “mop-up” of Missouri Pacific and Western Pacific. The two holding companies combined in December 1983 to form the new Santa Fe-Southern Pacific Corporation and filed an application to combine the railroads into a new SPSF Railway.

By summer 1985, confidence was high that the merger would be approved by the ICC. So high, in fact, that plans for a new railroad identity were pushed into action. Rebuilt SD45 5394 was rolled into the paint booth at San Bernardino, emerging for company photos in a Santa Fe yellow cab, warbonnet, and frame stripe that matched a hood of rich SP red capped with a black roofline. Big, white “SPSF” letters adorned the long hood while a black “SPSF” was featured on the yellow nose. Pictures were taken and the SD45u rolled back into the paint shops for some fine-tuning. In round two, the yellow nose was dressed with a red stripe and white “SF” letters, leaving room for the “SP” to be eventually added. Red number boards completed the new look.


SPSF Railway

ABOVE: Southern Pacific 8286 East winds through Southern California’s San Timoteo Canyon on February 5, 1987. The SD40T-2 “tunnel motors” wore the SPSF colors well and — as long as they stayed clean — brightened up the parade of somber gray SP trains.

This was the sight that greeted me as I made one of my many drives across the historic Mount Vernon Viaduct located over the San Bernardino shops and “A” Yard in downtown San Bernardino. It was August 2, 1985; for years, my 18-year-old self had driven over the bridge to see what new locomotive delights were emerging from the shops. (This could be a dangerously distracting habit when something especially cool was visible.) There was freshly painted 5394, sandwiched between a pair of blue and yellow Santa Fe units! I almost drove off the bridge in my excitement. The engine would go on to lead a train up Cajon Pass for promotional photos — which I missed — but as the railfan community buzzed about 5394, word was a second SD45u would emerge with a different livery.

Sure enough, a visit to the paint booth revealed 5401 in process, now with yellow letters instead of white. On September 7, 1985, 5401 embarked on its maiden eastbound trip up Cajon Pass, pausing for a Sullivan’s Curve photo shoot led by Santa Fe Public Relations Manager Mike Martin. This would result in my first-ever photo published in Railfan & Railroad, when a color view of 5401 East blazed across the top of the January 1986 issue’s inside rear cover.

One day later, 5401 led another train up Cajon, this time a mind-blowing nine-unit power move that included 5394 and three of the railroad’s sharp business cars. Santa Fe was changing and this new era was off to a spectacular start. Southern Pacific’s Sacramento Shops had released SD45R 7551 with the same paint scheme as 5394 (later updated to yellow letters), but with space left after the big “SP” to add the future “SF.”


SPSF Railway

ABOVE: The 5401 poses for photos on Sullivan’s Curve, orchestrated by Santa Fe Public Relations Manager Mike Martin on September 7, 1985. This was the author’s first published photo in Railfan & Railroad.

Less than two weeks later, the new colors were finalized with Santa Fe SD45u 5402, where the black roofline was raised and the red nose stripe was simplified from four thin stripes on each side of the nose to three. The new look of railroading in the Southwest was settled. This was real. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never again shoot a freshly painted Santa Fe “warbonnet” or Southern Pacific “bloody nose” locomotive. Only Union Pacific would continue its historic colors I thought to myself at the time… But the new red and yellow was pretty cool. So cool that the livery was given a nickname, inspired by the red and yellow film boxes most fans carried in their camera bags — “Kodachrome.”

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This article was posted on: June 17, 2021