In 1977 a French CC 21000 electric locomotive was tested on Amtrak's Northeast
Corridor between New York and Washington, DC. X996, as it was referred to in the
United States, underwent a test program to see if it would be suitable as a high speed
electric locomotive for Amtrak. Unfortunately it was not to be, as a Swedish
competitor outperformed it and became the basis for today's familiar AEM-7 locomotive.
In the early 1970s, the newly created Amtrak ordered high speed electric locomotives
from General Electric to replace the aging GG-1s on the Northeast Corridor between New
Haven and Washington. Twenty-six E60 locomotives were built in 1974 and 1975; they
were designed to operate at a top speed of 120 mph (193 km/h). Their trucks,
however, were modified freight locomotive components with a performance that proved
disastrous at high speed. After high speed instability caused a test train to derail
at Elkton, Maryland, at 105 mph (169 km/h), their rated top speed was slashed to 90 mph
(145 km/h). Amtrak still needed high speed electric locomotives, and turned to
Europe for more options.
Two locomotives were imported for testing on Amtrak. The first is probably the
better known of the two; it was a silicon-rectifier Rc4 from Sweden which came to the
United States in late 1976, and was numbered X995 for its stay with Amtrak. The design of
the Rc4 was later licensed as the basis for the AEM-7 locomotive, built by General Motors'
Electro-Motive Division starting in 1979. X995's test nickname "Swedish
Meatball" stuck and is still used to refer to the AEM-7.
Less well-known is X996, known at the time as the "French Fry". This
locomotive's 1977 visit to the United States was more quickly forgotten.
X996 started life as one of a series of six-axle, high-speed, high-horsepower
locomotives built for the SNCF (the French national railways) beginning in 1969. By
1977 these 8000-horsepower locomotives had already built an established record with
service up to 135 mph (220 km/h), most notably hauling the prestigious "Le
Capitole" express from Paris to Toulouse. A total of seventy units were built
for DC supply (the CC 6500 series), and four for dual AC/DC operation (the CC 21000
series). The pure-AC version was never built, but would have been numbered in the CC
14500 series. In mid-1976, SNCF lent unit CC 21003 back to its builder, Alsthom of
Belfort, France, as the starting point for an American test locomotive. What
happened next is detailed below. It is worth noting that after the Amtrak test
campaign, X996 was returned to France and rebuilt to its original specification. A
few years ago the AC capability was removed and it joined the CC 6500 series, and still
operates to this day.
From CC 21003 to X996
The many modifications made to the locomotive for service in the United States
- Reinforced pilot beams to comply with AAR buff force standards
- New coupler pockets for standard knuckle couplers, replacing the European screw-link and
- A new transformer, for the 11kV 25Hz supply on the Northeast Corridor, instead of the
25kV 50Hz supply in France. The lower frequency required a larger core, and the
transformer built at the Venissieux shops weighed in at 13.5 metric tons, 2.5 more than
the original transformer.
- Modified control systems and thyristor firing logic in order to operate under
25Hz instead of 50Hz
- New AC motors in the cooling oil pumps and blowers
- Pilots extending further downwards than on French units, per AAR standards
- A second air compressor, per AAR standards
- New headlights and a bell, per AAR standards
- An new pantograph with increased vertical reach
- Amtrak cab signaling and speed control equipment
- Amtrak's silver paint scheme with the contemporary striping
- English labeling in the cab and manuals
After this work was done at the Alsthom factory in Belfort, the locomotive weighed in
at 133 metric tons (293,000 lbs.), up from 126 metric tons in its original state.
X996 departed by ship from the French port of Le Havre on January 10th, 1977, bound for
French Suspension Meets American Track
During the testing of X996 on the Northeast Corridor, it quickly became clear that the
locomotive's suspension was not compatible with the track. In the US this was seen
as a failure of the suspension design (the Swedish X995 performed adequately under the
same conditions) and in France it was viewed as substandard track geometry (the same
suspension did just fine in France). There is truth in both viewpoints, because the
locomotive was originally designed to a specification that was not met on the Northeast
Each three-axle truck on X996 had a single, large DC traction motor driving all three
axles through a gear train and hollow shafts. This arrangement is known as a quill
drive, in reference to the hollow part of a bird feather, and is very common in France.
The hollow shaft driving each axle is fixed in the truck frame and driven by the
traction motor gear train. Each axle, threaded through its respective hollow shaft,
is driven by a "spider" pushing on the wheel through a spring and rubber block
arrangement. This allows the axle to take up track irregularities through the
primary suspension without affecting the drive mechanism. In the case of X996, the
design inherently limited the amount of travel allowable in the primary suspension;
therefore the primary suspension springs had to be relatively stiff.
Too stiff, as it turned out, because the Northeast Corridor track was maintained to
lower standards than the French track the suspension was designed for. This fact was
not lost upon the French test personnel even before the locomotive ever turned a wheel on
American rails, but in the end there was no suspension adjustment that provided
satisfactory performance under all service conditions.
(click on any of the preview images to get a full size JPEG image.)
||X996 outside Alsthom's Belfort factory in France, late 1976. Note the pilot
extensions, reminiscent of an old-style cow catcher! Alsthom photo scanned by Yann Nottara
||X996 seen in early 1977 in Amtrak's Penn Coach Yard in Philadelphia, PA. Waving
from the cab is Amtrak test engineer Ed Lombardi, currently (1997) manager of performance
and tests for Amtrak. Behind X996 is a Conrail test car. Photo courtesy of Ed
Lombardi, scanned by Clem Tillier (firstname.lastname@example.org)
||CC 21003 undergoing modifications at Belfort. In this photo the original SNCF paint
scheme is still visible. Alsthom photo scanned by Yann Nottara (email@example.com)
||Underneath the frame, looking forward. The newly installed coupler pocket is
visible, as are the pilot beam reinforcements. At left is a sander box.
Alsthom photo scanned by Yann Nottara (firstname.lastname@example.org)
||A view from the front, with the nose hood removed. The impact structure is
visible, as are the modifications for the knuckle coupler. Alsthom photo scanned by
Yann Nottara (email@example.com)
Additional pictures of French CC 6500 locomotives,
as X996 looked before and after its American tour, are available on the European Railway
Server's Picture Gallery.
Written by Clem Tillier (firstname.lastname@example.org) with thanks to Yann
Nottara, Ed Lombardi, and an article from the AFAC
magazine Chemins de Fer, January 1977 issue.