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Restoring a Southern E8

By October 13, 2018Features

By Robert Frye, Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

Above photo by Harrison Rogers

Reproduced with permission from the TVRM Smoke & Cinders newsletter.

It all started with a birthday party. And, my wife is still mad at herself.  I can’t help but laugh as I sit here and remember the details.  On August 26, 2000, my wife and I were over in East Ridge shopping, and she became sick and needed to go home ASAP.  On our way to Harrison, as we pulled off at the Jersey Pike exit, she asked me to make a left turn rather than the normal right. Against my concern for her health, she then directed me over to TVRM at Grand Junction.   “OK, what’s the deal?” I ask.  She reminded me of a conversation we had where I mentioned I was getting to the age where there are some things I will just never get the opportunity to do. “Like what?” she says.  “Well I always wanted to drive a locomotive.” So, here we are at TVRM, and she says she is granting my wish as she hands me a hickory-striped engineer’s hat.

Wow, this is great! I board the train and I’m whisked over to East Chattanooga where Mike Little Sr. and the Alco RSD-1, #8669 locomotive is waiting for me.  We board, go through the basics, and off we head back to Grand Junction with me as the “engineer”.  We pass in front of the depot, cross the road, back around the top of the Wye, and then slide down to the platform at Grand Junction. On the platform we saw a Swing band, lots of decorations, and a bunch of folks, and Mike suggested we stop. I stepped out on the running board and realized everybody I knew was there.  I was so stunned I didn’t even realize they had yelled SURPRISE! It was even a bigger surprise when you consider my birthday is actually in December.

You know, I’m not that observant. My wonderful wife, April, had organized this huge party with family and friends and even gave me a membership to the museum. She took care of every detail from the Cokes in coal buckets to commissioning Brent Sanders to create a piece of artwork commemorating the event!   It was a day I will never forget.

With my new membership, I would occasionally go over to Grand Junction and have lunch in the Wye on Saturdays watching the trains come and go.  Throughout my life, I always enjoyed watching the occasional train go by at railroad crossings, but I wasn’t a “rail fan.”  While sitting in the Wye, at TVRM, I realized this place was absolutely magical, and I had to be part of it.  Over time I began to volunteer at the shop and gradually moved into train operations.

Then in 2003, my wife stunned me again.  She had been accepted at Mercer and was going to Atlanta for four years to obtain a graduate degree!   Wow, what was I going to do with all this free time?  Being a builder at heart, I thought maybe TVRM might have something I could do with my idle hands.  I went to the East Chattanooga shop and asked George Walker if he had anything that could use my electrical skills to help the museum.  “Well you can rewire the E8,” he says.  I say “What’s an E8?”  “It’s that big green streamliner locomotive over, under the shed.”  I go take a look, and it seemed like a good fit.

6914 pulled the Crescent in the 70s and 80s.

At the time, I was extremely naïve about the monumental amount of work and skills required in locomotive restoration.  I agreed to do it. Right away Mike Overlander and Andy Hendee joined the project.  Our first task was to clean and de-clutter the locomotive to make it a safe work environment.  This took several weekends of work.  As work continued and more folks became involved, we became more familiar with the locomotive and its faults.  The more we rehabilitated, the more problems we found.  As you can imagine, this was very disappointing. TVRM’s President, Bob Soule, would visit us occasionally.  I can still remember his words “You are doing a great job.  Just don’t stop!”  You have to think of these projects as a long series of small victories rather than a single, massive finish line.  We worked every night for six weeks and finally had a set of beautiful new electrical drawings of which we were proud.

At one point TVRM was short on cash, and we wanted to have one of the roof hatches blasted and painted. The answer was NO.  We didn’t have the money.  That didn’t suit us because we really wanted to keep going.  We realized TVRM has tons of scrap material on hand that was never going to be used.  The management gave us the go ahead, and I became the new “Surplus Material Manager.”  Quickly, material was loaded and taken to the junkyard. In no time we had the funds to rehabilitate the E8’s roof hatch.  This was a fun victory!

You have to remember the E8 is in a museum because it was obsolete as far as the manufacturer and the Southern Railway were concerned.  This meant many parts were difficult to find or simply not available.  We scavenged the country looking for parts. Sure, we used the internet, but we also used lots of windshield time and hotel rooms.

This is what they started with.

We went to South Carolina and south Alabama to pull parts from scrap locomotives.  I remember in South Carolina I meant to get a section of the rear wall on the Engineer’s side of a locomotive.  Ours on the 6914 was rusted-out and none were to be found anywhere.  I simply left South Carolina and forgot it. About a week went by and I remembered.  Oh no! Scrapping projects don’t take long and scrappers don’t want to be delayed.  I called and asked if he would cut it out and send it to me.  He said NO because he didn’t have time.  I begged, and he still said NO.  I finally used the universal solvent, money.  “Just cut it out, send it to me, and charge me whatever you want,” I said.  “Well…..I’ll think about it.”  The wait was agonizing, but about six weeks later the rear wall showed up at TVRM!  I guess he took pity on me because he didn’t rob me on the price.

One of the difficulties novices face in restorations is they don’t know how something is supposed to look or how something is supposed to connect.  The dynamic brake control system on the E8 was a perfect example of this because it had been built by EMD, modified by the Southern, modified by Amtrak, modified by New Jersey Transit, and finally cannibalized while it was in storage in the Dead Line.  So how were we supposed to recreate something when we didn’t even know what it looked like?  We couldn’t look at a new locomotive’s dynamic brakes because they use a modern design.  We had to scavenge the internet for information, and we had to look at similar locomotives…more windshield time.

The 6914’s restoration is the first, complete diesel locomotive restoration done at TVRM.  Sure, TVRM has restored steam locomotives, but not a diesel.  We had to obtain new tools and cross new bridges that had never been crossed at TVRM.  For example, we had to remove the trucks from under the locomotive and load them on a flatcar to be sent away to the repair shop.  It sounds easy enough, but we had never lifted the E8 before let alone handled two, 50,000 pound sets of trucks in the shop.  Plans were made, jacks were inspected, and slings & shackles were purchased.  Finally the day came, and we did it!  We were so happy!  The last thing we needed to do was slowly roll the E8 up to the front of the shop using one of the other locomotives.  No big deal, then WHAM!  What the heck was that!?  The E8 had derailed in the pit in the shop at two miles per hour. Fortunately, it didn’t actually fall in the pit.  It was late at night, and we were all tired, but we stayed and rerailed it. I was so grateful for all the highly experienced folks at TVRM.  Their leadership made the rerailing effort as easy as it could be. Remember the E8 weighs 325,000 pounds so “easy” is a relative term.

Big projects are like this.  Some days you leave the shop beaming with victory.  Other days you move one step forward then take four steps backward.

The 6914’s restoration is the first, complete diesel locomotive restoration done at TVRM.

Refurbishing the cab was one of our biggest hurdles.  Before TVRM began work on the E8, the cab had been almost completely stripped.  There was no floor, no brake equipment, no heaters, no defrosters, no seats, no sand boxes, and no windows.  Much of the electrical system had been cannibalized, and we had an abundance of rust.  We first removed or covered everything in the cab that could be damaged by sand blasting and then hired a contractor to blast the cab interior.  He worked round the clock and did a great job too.  Then we had to learn how to operate a paint sprayer and apply Corlar Epoxy and Emron paints.  That gave me a new respect for professional painters!

Next, we ordered marine plywood and installed the floor.  This made the cab a much safer work environment because we weren’t walking on the narrow steel floor support beams.

In all restoration projects, you have to ask yourself if you want to end up with a display piece, a barely running locomotive, or an every day runner?  The answer to this question determines the amount of work you do and the solution you chose to solve problems as you move forward.  We decided that we wanted a reliable E8 locomotive we could run every day with no fear of breakdowns.

The E8 originally had a #24 brake system, which is obsolete and requires frequent inspection.  So, we wouldn’t want this in a daily running locomotive.  The most common brake system in modern locomotives is the #26 brake system.  We initially chose this system for the E8, provided we could find some place near the engineer’s seat to locate the brake controls for him to easily manipulate while running the train.  After trying out several ideas, we discovered the engineer would have to be a contortionist to use this in the 6914, so we gave up on the #26 brake system.

Then we realized there was another modern brake system called the #30 brake system.  The controls are mounted in a desktop panel exactly where the engineer needed them, and it has a five-year maintenance interval.  We then had to choose if we wanted to continue with the historical fabric of the locomotive, or make that good, reliable, every day locomotive we wanted.  We chose the latter, which meantwe had to create a place to mount this new set of controls.  We looked at modern locomotive designs using the #30 brake for ideas.  Once we were happy with the dimensions, we built it with steel—one more item off the list and another victory for us.

The rest of the items in the cab followed along.  Old windows were replaced with new federally-required bullet resistant glass.  New defrosters were built and connected to run electrically rather than on steam.  A new, modern electrical system was designed and installed.  Obsolete electrical components were retired and replaced with modern components.  A new engineer’s seat from a scrapped Canadian Pacific locomotive was installed.  Hundreds of feet of copper tubing and fittings were meticulously installed to connect the new #30 brake system to the locomotive.  Mike Overlander, our resident contortionist, worked months and months to get all this tubing properly installed under the cab floor.

TVRM shop forces reworked the diesel’s two engines within the locomotive.  The engines were carefully disassembled, cleaned, lubricated, regasketed, and reassembled.  They even pressure tested the engines to ensure they didn’t have any water leaks.  New injectors in the engines, two rebuilt governors, two rebuilt load regulators, and four rebuilt water pumps were installed.  The old, crummy stuff was slowly going away, and a pulse was starting to beat in the locomotive and within the people doing the restoration!

The shop installed new draft gear, which is the “rubber baby buggy bumpers” mounted under the locomotive and between the couplers and the locomotive.  They help absorb the shock when the locomotive couples to something else.  And speaking of couplers, we installed two new ones!

The fuel tank had old, dead diesel fuel in it—yuck!  To clean out the glop, we performed the calculations and decided Steam Engine 630 was perfect for the job.  We placed the E8 over the pit and drained the old fuel into drums.  We then set up the 630 outside the shop and ran a steam line from a small valve on the 630’s boiler to the E8’s fuel tank.  Steam condensed in the fuel tank and drained into a container in the pit under the E8.  It only took a few minutes before the E8’s fuel tank was scalding hot.  We let this run overnight to dissolve the old fuel and gum, and in the morning we had a pristine fuel tank on the E8.

Did you know the E8 made steam when it was working for the Southern Railway?  Yep.  Remember, the E8 was placed in service while the steam engines were being removed from service.  This presented a problem for the passenger cars.  They were steam heated, which required diesel-fired, steam boilers in the back of the locomotive.  That’s the simple part.   Maintaining the steam generators and keeping them running are the hard part.  The E8 had two steam generators when it was built.  Not long after the 6914 arrived at TVRM, the steam generators were removed from the locomotive and sold, but this isn’t the end of the story.

Each steam generator weighed 4,000 pounds.  Since the steam generators were removed, this meant the E8 was 8,000 pounds light in the rear and would cause lots of wheel slipping issues.  To correct this, we needed to install ballast in a very small space in order to replace that lost weight.  We looked at numerous options from using steel plates to using second hand railroad rail, but none seemed to meet our needs.  About this time, we obtained a small, 10KW generator to power the heating and air conditioning in the cab and decided it should be part of the ballast.  In fact, the generator would sit on top of the ballast.  We eventually called and presented our problem to a company that builds counterweights for excavators and cranes.  “No big deal,” they said.  They have all sorts of high density concrete mixes, and they can “dial” any mixture we need.  After we designed and fabricated a steel box composed of one-inch and quarter-inch thick plates, we rushed it over to Tennessee Galvanizing to have it zinc plated to avoid rusting.  The next day we took the box over to have it filled with the ballast concrete.  Problem solved!

Earlier we talked about preserving the historic fabric of the locomotive.  This is always a good idea if you can do it.  Occasionally in restoration projects, you look at something the factory designed, and you ask yourself “What were they thinking!?”  This was the case with the sides of the locomotive which were put together with battens and thousands of nuts, bolts, and washers.  The crazy part of the design is that there are hundreds of places where steel is resting on steel.  As the locomotive moves down the railroad, these places will rub all the paint off and start rusting.  Also, when the locomotive makes a quick stop, such as when it couples to a string of cars, the side sheets all slam to the front or rear depending on the direction of the locomotive movement.  Over time this rubbing causes rusting and rust streaks will run down the side of the locomotive, and eventually, the side sheets will disintegrate.  During this whole process, lots of unwanted water enters the locomotive through the poor joint design and further damages the locomotive.  I’m sorry EMD, but you guys really blew it with the side sheets.

So we had a choice to reproduce the crummy design or come up with something better.  As we looked at E-units around the country, it was clear most of them had the same problem.  The solutions were varied, but a group on the West Coast had used flat steel side sheets supported by Ultra High Molecular Weight plastic otherwise known as UHMW.  This appeared to be a fantastic solution, and we chose to proceed with something similar.  Briefly, strips of UHMW are cut and formed with grooves and bolted to the locomotive frame.  Then the side sheets are installed, and they nestle in the nice, soft grooves in the UHMW so there is no metal-to-metal contact.  These joints are then sealed with a high grade caulk and the battens are installed to give us a solid water-tight design with no steel-on-steel rubbing and rusting.  The sides we installed should last indefinitely! (Famous last words)

One last word about UHMW.  We had a terrible time trying to find something to cut it.  Lots of cutters would turn it into a melted gooey mess, but only carbide would cut it or shape it and leave a nice, clean edge.

The frame was a monumental undertaking.  Remember, the locomotive is 70 feet long!  It seems like everybody at the railroad worked on the frame in one capacity or another.  I know I did for sure.  The job was so big that we had to break it up into three basic goals.  The first goal was to remove and repair all the rusted-out and damaged structural steel.  This would get us back to a whole frame again.  The second goal was to clean the frame and remove the grit and grime so the new paint would have a good surface to adhere to.  The third objective was to paint the frame.

Damaged and rusted-out steel was to be found in the steam generator room, around the battery boxes, along the floor level, and anywhere water would stand throughout the history of the locomotive.  The damage was mostly due to exposure to lots of rain water and battery acid.  The first problem we encountered was all the special shapes of steel that were used 65 years ago when industry standards were different.  To further complicate the problem, the locomotive and passenger car manufacturers utilized lots of custom shapes and sizes of steel, such as zees, hat rails, and odd channels to get those smooth lines.  Many of these shapes are simply not available today so we had to either make our own or have local companies fabricate the shapes we needed.  Cutting-out and replacing dozens and dozens of bad sections was a slow and tedious process.  Probably 20 people were involved in this over the years, but we finally completed it.

If you want to clean a locomotive frame, you had better bring your dirty clothes and a respirator.  To begin, the shop employees went over the frame with needle scalers to remove all the loose paint.  When I say needle scalers, visualize miniature jackhammers used to chip off the paint.  Then we rented a high pressure, high temperature, pressure washer.  This effort went on for two days until the frame was clean.

We had hoped to hire a contractor to paint the frame, but it would have been too expensive.  We had no choice but to tackle the frame painting ourselves.  The official industry term is coating—not paint, but I’ll use the term paint for simplicity.  We wanted a paint that was easy to apply, would not set up too quickly like epoxy paints, and would be extremely tough and resist rust.  These requirements led us to Rust Bullet which met all our needs.  Rust Bullet required a second coat the same day, and we found we could get to the shop early in the morning to apply one quart of paint before lunch.  By the time we returned from lunch and put-on our painting clothes, the first coat would be dry enough for the second coat.  With this system, we meticulously worked our way through and painted the whole frame ourselves.

Locomotive restoration projects need people.  That sounds like a trivial statement, but I assure you it’s not.  I once heard someone say if they had 200 people on a project but they didn’t have a skill such as electrician, welder, machinist, engineer, pipe fitter, etc., he couldn’t use most of them.  So, the key is to have the right people at the right time on a project to fulfill its needs.  As I look back over the 15 years of restoration, we had nearly 100 people helping.

The cosmetic work was completed this year. There’s more to do to make 6914 operational.









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