The F40 is Still Serving as the Face of Amtrak

I was looking at the cover of an Amtrak timetable for the Lake Shore Limited while waiting for a photograph to upload to one of my blogs when I came to a startling realization. The timetable, dated October 27, 2008, had an image of an F40PH locomotive on the cover.

Yes, that is an F40PH locomotive adoring the logo that appaears on recent Amtrak timetables and in print advertisements.

Yes, that is an F40PH locomotive adorning the logo that appaears on recent Amtrak timetables and in print advertisements.

Why is that startling? Because it has been more than a decade since the F40 was Amtrak’s primary diesel locomotive. Today members of the Genesis family of locomotives pull most Amtrak trains.

Yet there was no mistaking that the image of the locomotive within the circular logo promoting how Amtrak serves more than 500 destinations is an F40. The square nose and positioning of the headlights are a dead give away. Even the nose markings are suggestive of the three-color band that adorned Amtrak locomotives and rolling stock through the early 1990s.

The locomotive image in the logo probably is an artist rendering, but surely Amtrak could have provided the artist with a photo a P42DC to work from. The P42 plays the role today that the F40 performed during the 1980s and early 1990s. The P42 is ubiquitous on the point of long-distance, medium-distance and Midwest corridor trains.

Perhaps using the F40 as the model for the logo was purely happenstance. I don’t assume that those who work in Amtrak’s marketing department are train enthusiasts who make it their business to know all of the locomotive models that Amtrak operates or once operated, let alone what they look like and how they differ.

They probably do not remember, know or care that when the first batch of F40 locomotives arrived at Amtrak in early 1976 they were intended to work only in corridor service. But problems with the SDP40F locomotive resulted in the F40 becoming the backbone of the diesel motive power fleet for more than a decade.

By 2000, P40s and P42s had relegated most Amtrak’s F40s to the sidelines. Many of them were sold and since have gone on to have productive second lives. Others were rebuilt into cab units with a baggage compartment where the prime mover used to be. You can still see some of these “cabbages” working in push-pull service. Some even have the current blue and silver livery. But no Amtrak trains today are pulled by honest to goodness F40s.

To the public, a locomotive is a locomotive. Maybe that is the way a lot of the folks at Amtrak think, too, outside of the operating department. So long as the engine gets the train to where it is going what difference does it make what make or model it is or what it looks like? Well, it must make some difference because the Genesis locomotives have worn three different liveries since entering service beginning in 1993.

What’s in an image? Plenty. It is the face of your product, both to your customers and to those who just happen to see one of your trains go by. It defines who you are and says something about how you got there and where you want to go next.

Amtrak approved a design for the Genesis locomotives that was decidedly different from the boxy, compact F40. The wedge-shaped Genesis locomotive was designed to suggest something sleek, fast and contemporary. In that regard, the Genesis locomotive somewhat resemble high-speed equipment found in Japan, Western Europe and even on Amtrak’s Acela Express.

A lot of railroad enthusiasts who do make it their business to keep track of the intricacies of the Amtrak motive fleet disliked the design of the Genesis units. I was one of them. It looked like someone had chopped off part of the nose on an angle.

I’ve since gotten over my initial dislike of the Genesis, not because I think it looks great, but because I’ve seen it so many times that it now looks familiar. Interestingly, many railroad enthusiasts went through a similar progression with the F40. The knock on the F40s was that it didn’t have the style and grace of an E or F unit. It looked like a junior version of a freight locomotive, which is probably why Amtrak wanted its Genesis locomotives to look like something other than the engines that freight railroads have.

It’s funny how certain locomotives have come to represent the image of railroads. Most E and F units have long since been scrapped, sent out to pasture in railroad museums or been limited to tourist train duty, yet you still see the familiar shape of their streamlined noses in many places where someone needed a “railroad” image. To some extent this occurs because these images are available in clip art, which are generic images used by graphic artists and others to design all kinds of products.

But it also occurs because the design worked its way into the public consciousness to the point that people associated the image with railroads. In the case of the E and F units, it was the first thing that many passengers saw when a passenger train pulled into a station or if you saw a passenger train pass by while going about your business. Railroads placed images of E and F units in countless advertisements, and marketing and public relations products.

The F40 has managed to attain a level of “clip art” fame, which assures that its profile will continue for many years to come. It also has worked its way into the public consciousness, although probably to a lesser degree than was the case with E and F units. Still, there will come a day where the number of people alive who remember seeing or knowing what an E or F unit was will lose critical mass status. At that point, perhaps the F40 will become the dominant image of railroads.

The F40 is, of course, far from dead. It continues to play a major role in pulling commuter trains, VIA Rail Canada passenger trains, a few freight trains, some excursion trains and the CSX executive train fleet.

Aside from timetables, the “over 500 destinations” logo also appears in Amtrak advertisements in newspapers and magazines. Some day that logo will give way to another image. Some day Amtrak will permanently retire its F40 cab cars. By then the F40 will have served Amtrak for more than three decades.

Will the contemporary design of the Genesis locomotive serve Amtrak that long? Will it come to define the image of railroads? It’s hard to say. It all depends on how well the Genesis units age both physically and perceptually.

The F40 managed to age gracefully and with style and class. It may not have won any design awards, as the Genesis design did, but it set a high standard for its successor to meet both on and off the rails.

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3 Responses to “The F40 is Still Serving as the Face of Amtrak”

  1. Ran Says:

    You are exactly right that it’s an F40, and you are right that most of the marketing group does not know one from another. I have seen Indian railroad timetables that used the old Amtrak train-ribbon image – I think the shape of the F40 has become generic for many. Curiously, the National Train Day web site accurately portrays a P42 in its graphics.

    Luckily, none of them use the ugly duckling HHP as their inspiration.

  2. TurboDad Says:

    Which one is the F40? I had this one when taking the Coast Starlight up from L.A. to Portland:

    Our train at Klamath Falls

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