The Story of the Standard Turbine – ScaleTrains.com Inc.
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The Story of the Standard Turbine

Union Pacific Standard Turbine marked the beginning of a new era in high horsepower locomotive design. However, the origins of the Standard Turbine isn’t quite what one would expect. In the late 30s, as the transition from steam power to diesel-electric locomotives continued to progress, Union Pacific began to experiment with other types of motive-power. Over the next twenty years, these experiments would include steam, coal, and Gas-Electric Turbines.  In 1938, UP’s first turbine experiment utilized steam. General Electric (GE) approached UP with the proposal: to build two steam turbine locomotives that could compete head-on with EMD and ALCO passenger locomotives.

This 1939 postcard shows the Steam Turbine shortly after being built by General Electric in Erie, Pennsylvania.

They were built to look like passenger diesels that were being introduced to the railroads around the same time. The sleek, streamlined look appealed to the passenger market and the American public was taking notice. The wheel arrangement of both locomotives was 4-6-6-4. The coast of each locomotive was $1,000,000 in 1938 – which translates to over $18,000,000 in 2020 dollars. These expensive turbines were built in Erie, Pennsylvania. They were rated at 2,500 horsepower each and able to attain speeds up to 125 MPH. After several trial trips made over the New York Central, they left the Erie works Saturday, April 1st, 1939 for Omaha, Nebraska where they were to be used to pull streamlined passenger trains throughout the west on the Union Pacific system.

They were only “operational” for six months before returning to GE in late 1939. Subsequently, during the motive power shortage caused by WWII, the Steam Turbines pulled freight for the Great Northern and the New York Central System for a few months in early 1943. However, it was determined that the locomotives were too cumbersome to maintain. As a result, they were returned GE and later scrapped that same year. These two experimental models were the only two condensing steam locomotives ever built and operated in North America. While they offered promise and were considered marvels of engineering at the time, they were practical failures and the likes of such would never be repeated again.

After World War II, Union Pacific started to acquire more and more diesel locomotives. However, the Class I giant was still wary of running freight trains over the steep Wasatch Grade in Utah, which sustained a 1.14% uphill climb along Weber Canyon to Echo, where trains then turn away from Weber Canyon and then climb through Echo Canyon while en route to the top of the Wasatch Mountains near the Utah/Wyoming state line.

The idea of using four or more diesels to equal the power of Big Boy steam locomotive was unappealing to Union Pacific, so the search began for something bigger. GE had been building gas turbines for aircraft and proposed using something similar for a locomotive. In 1948, UP and GE joined forces to create a prototype Gas-Electric Turbine. The locomotive generated up to 4,800 horsepower, was reliable, and as a result, UP ordered ten Standard Turbines (51-60) which were delivered in 1952 and 1953 at the cost of $540,000 each – over $5.2 million dollars today (2020).

Rivet Counter N Scale GE Standard Turbine without Tender, Union Pacific (Run 1) by ScaleTrains.com

In the early years of their careers, these powerful locomotives ran alongside UP’s most-famous steam locomotives including the FEFs, Challengers, and Big Boys. In addition, they also operated alongside the Veranda Turbines and “Big Blow” Turbines throughout their long and fruitful careers.

While the Standard Turbines consumed a lot of fuel, Union Pacific chose to use Bunker C Fuel Oil which was less expensive than diesel fuel. However, Bunker C is highly viscous fuel and unless properly filtered, is unusable. Bunker C has a room-temperature consistency similar to tar or molasses. To solve this problem, GE built heaters (and later into fuel tenders) designed to warm the fuel to 200 °F before pumping the fuel into the turbine. Eventually, Union Pacific switched to modified No. 6 heavy fuel oil, which contained fewer pollutants and solvents and promoted better fuel efficiency.

The GTELs initially pulled freights between Ogden, Utah, and Green River, Wyoming, passing through Weber Canyon and Echo Canyon, Utah. In 1954, they began running Ogden-Laramie and, soon after, Ogden-Cheyenne. In 1955 and 1956, 24,000-gallon fuel tenders were added behind the turbines, allowing them to run all the way to Council Bluffs, Iowa.

According to Union Pacific, the Standard Turbines, along with the GTELs and Verandas, hauled 10% of Rivet Counter N Scale GE Standard Turbine with Tender, Union Pacific (Run 1) by ScaleTrains.comtheir total freight tonnage in the 1960s. The huge locomotives were among some of the largest and most-powerful ever-built, but with their big appetite for fuel oil, they eventually fell victim to the more efficient diesels, and in 1964 the Standard Turbines ran their last miles, being retired later that year. None were preserved.

Even though none of the Standard Turbines were saved from the scrapper’s torch, the Rivet Counter™ N Scale model faithfully captures the road number specific details of these ground-breaking locomotives.

Features include:

  • Clear LED lighted front mars light*
  • Red LED lighted front “UDE” light*
  • Printed and LED lighted number boards
  • With or without 22-C-GTE Cylindrical Fuel Tender (available separately)
  • With or without Farr grilles
  • Numerous factory-applied detail parts
  • Available DC/DCC Ready or with ESU-LokSound 5 DCC & Sound pre-installed
  • And more…
* Note: some sound and lighting functions included with DCC & sound-equipped locomotives are not operable using DC.

The Standard Turbine is now available through ScaleTrains.com and Select Retailers™.

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