Return to the Lounge Car

New Jersey Transit's U34CH's:

The Last Hurrah


by Paul R. Tupaczewski

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All photos copyright 1994 by the Author.

In the late 1960's, the Erie Lackawanna Railway was looking to replace its old and tired E8's and RS3's running commuter service out of Hoboken, New Jersey. The units were getting cranky and harder to maintain, and the Stillwell and Boonton coaches they pulled were no younger -- some approaching 50 years of age! Citing mounting deficits for the commuter trains, the EL was able to enlist the help of the New Jersey Department of Transportation. NJDOT agreed to fund the purchase of new commuter engines and cars. The question was: What to buy?

Pullman-Standard offered to design new commuter coaches for NJDOT; the new "Comet" coaches, as they were designated, represented the first new non-MU commuter coaches in several decades. Their striking white aluminum body with black window band and small tinted windows resembled nothing ever seen before. Climate control and large, well-lit space gave commuters much to cheer.

Since the Pullman-Standard cars had electric lighting, heat and air conditioning, a locomotive that could provide power was required. With Alco exiting the locomotive business just a year earlier, the obvious choice seemed to be EMD's FP45. However, General Electric approached NJDOT with a proposal for a new locomotive designed for commuter service. The locomotive was to be based upon the U33C, with an upgraded prime mover that output 3,600 horsepower. There would also be a generator driven off the prime mover to power the cars. The generator effectively reduced the usable horsepower to 3,400. The idea of an integrated generator appealed to NJDOT, and an order was inked for 32 of the ground-breaking units. The U34CH also proved to be the predecessor of GE's U36C, as well.

The new units proved to be ground-breaking in areas other than technical. They came dressed in an NJDOT-specified scheme -- a very dark blue body with a silver stripe running around the unit at cab- floor-level, with red separating stripes. A red EL logo graced the ends of the unit, while NJDOT "arrows" decorated the sides. The units proved to be very striking in appearance. To conform to the EL numbering scheme, the new units were given numbers 3351-3382. By early 1973, all the units had arrived and were in service. The last EL commuter E8's were transferred to freight service in late 1974.

With the coming of Conrail, the NJDOT units were renumbered into the former Penn Central's commuter diesel number slot, being assigned numbers 4151-4182. One was even repainted in a bicentennial scheme for a short time! However, CR wanted to rid itself of all commuter service. Therefore, in 1978, the State of New Jersey formed an organization called NJ Transit to take over all commuter service in New Jersey. In addition, the State of New York's commuter authority, Metro-North, purchased new coaches to help cover the expense of the interstate runs. Metro-North also purchased a single U34CH, numbered 4183, from GE. This unit was unique, as it was rebuilt from a former C&NW U30C. The unit was painted to match the rest of the NJT fleet.

NJT overhauled many of the U34CH's in the early 1980's, painting several in the New Jersey Transit "disco" paint scheme of silver with orange/magenta/blue diagonal stripes. The units continued running until time began taking its toll, and slowly, one by one, were removed from service.

The story doesn't end quite yet, though. Philadelphia's commuter authority, SEPTA, needed some temporary diesel aid when several of their electrified lines were de-electrified for rebuilding. NJT came to their aid by leasing three U34CH's to the commuter authority on a short-term basis. Amazingly, one of the U-boats was repainted into SEPTA blue paint! After a few months of service, they were returned to NJT.

The death knell was sounded for the U34CH's when NJT signed a contract to purchase 19 rebuilt GP40PH-2B units from Conrail's Juniata Shops in Altoona, Pennsylvania. After the first units arrived in 1993, the rest of the U-boats were slowly taken out of service.

Recognizing the significance of their departure, the United Railway Historical Society sponsored a "Farewell to the U34CH" excursion on August 27, 1994. The excursion was originally scheduled to travel to Denville via the Boonton Line, then return and travel to Spring Valley, New York via the Pascack Valley Line. However, once boarded, the trip itinerary proved otherwise -- the assumed two-line trip now blossomed into a trip that covered every Hoboken-based diesel line! The trip left Hoboken soon after 9 AM, and once out of the Bergen Tunnels, switched over to the former Erie Greenwood Lake Branch, today's Boonton Line. This was a trip to be valued as well, as this portion of the Boonton Line is slated to be abandoned in favor of a rerouting through Montclair in 1996.

After a leisurely trip along the Boonton Line (the former Erie Greenwood Lake Branch and ex- DL&W Boonton Line), the first photo stop was held at Mountain Lakes. A quaint little stone passenger station made for a handy prop for this stop. The trip organizers also performed yeoman service in manually getting a large red dumpster out of camera range! (Photo)

The trip then continued on to Denville, where the Boonton Line meets up with the Morris & Essex Line (former Lackawanna electrified main). The train then stopped again at the current end of the line, Netcong. Another former Lackawanna brick station stands here, serving this once-former junction of the Lackawanna's Sussex Branch, traces of which can still be seen from the station parking lot. A photo stop was also held here, to allow passengers to step off and stretch their legs.

Once all the passengers reboarded, the train reversed direction and returned via the Morris & Essex Line. Passing Denville, a newly rebuilt GP40PH-2B and U34CH 4166, wearing an ersatz EL diamond on its side, waited for our train to clear so they could continue on their way in work train service. The train made an uneventful journey to West End, the junction of the former Erie and Lackawanna lines west of the Bergen Tunnels, and only two miles from the Hoboken starting point. At West End, the train took a sharp turn around the wye there; for mileage collectors, this was an added bonus, as revenue passenger moves are extremely rare around the wye. The train now aimed itself north, and was doing track speed up the former Erie "Main Line." A lunch and photo stop was held at Ridgewood, perhaps one of the nicest stations and locales on NJ Transit. Ridgewood was once home to prominent railroad officials and other business magnates. The station building itself is noted for its Spanish Revival architecture, a unique example on the Erie. At Ridgewood, most passengers discovered that NJ Transit had a GP40PH-2 shadowing the train in case of mechanical failure, as NJT 4104 coasted up carefully and parked directly behind the excursion train. Fortunately, the U-boats refused to quit, and the unit proved unnecessary.

After eating, and answering the queries of many startled townspeople, the train continued north to Suffern for its fourth photo stop. (Photo) At Suffern, the train switched over to the southbound (timetable east) main and reboarded. Unfortunately, a freshly painted RS3 (purchased by upstart shortline New York & Greenwood Lake) was just slightly out of walking distance for this trip. The train sped south, and just below Ridgewood, switched over to the parallel former Erie "Bergen County" Main. At Radburn (a locale of Fair Lawn -- known by many as a location of Kodulux!), photo stop #5 was held at the Erie stone station. (Photo) Construction around the station made photo taking slightly treacherous, but the hearty managed to obtain beautiful unobstructed views of NJDOT-painted 4172.

After this short stop, everyone climbed aboard to continue the trip. The train continued south and stopped in the middle of the Jersey Meadowlands, within sight of the well-known Meadowlands Sports Complex. Reversing direction, the excursion continued north once again, this time on the former New Jersey & New York. A sixth photo stop was held at Oradell, a large rambling wooden station. (Photo - #4176) (Photo - #4172) (Photo - "Smoking") The excursion continued north to Spring Valley, New York, the end of the current Pascack Valley Line. Within a minute, the train was rolling south once again. A quick run and the excursion was once again on the Erie "Bergen County" Line. The seventh and final photo stop was held at Harmon Cove, a relatively new station built to serve a large condominium complex. (Photo - #4176) (Photo - #4176) This station is less than a mile north of the former Erie Croxton Yard. The shadowing GP40PH-2 was maneuvered into place for photos, (Photo - #4104 with #4176) but this didn't last long, as large thunderstorm clouds blocked out the sun in a period of minutes. The train then continued back to Hoboken, returning a few minutes after 6:00 PM.

All told, the excursion ran smoothly and on time. The passengers onboard seemed to be enjoying themselves, and everyone came away from the trip smiling -- a fitting tribute to 20+ years of dependable service for these majestic units.

As this is being written, there are at least two U34CH's in work train service; numbers 4166 and 4172, both in NJDOT paint. U34CH 4176 is being saved for the URHS' historical collection. One U34CH, Metro-North-owned 4183, has been scrapped. The rest of the U-boats lie in storage in several long strings at NJ Transit's Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny, NJ (the former PRR enginehouse and shops' location). Many of the stored U34CH's show signs of fire damage, and many have been noticeably cannibalized to keep the rest of the fleet running. The entire fleet is now officially retired from revenue service, awaiting purchase. Several sources indicated that Conrail or CSX might purchase some of the fleet to cannibalize for parts. In any event, it is probably safe to assume that the retired units will never run again under their own power.

So the book closes on GE's first attempt at a commuter locomotive. The experiment proved to be a success. Now NJ Transit joins the ranks of "lookalike GP40 rebuild" commuter services; progress marches on...

Photo captions (given by filename):

EL4172A.JPG: "Erie Lackawanna" 4172 pulls forward during a photo stop at Suffern, New York. This line was one of the U34CH's main haunts for the past two decades.

EL4172B.JPG: U34CH 4172 basks in the sun at the Radburn, New Jersey station, along the former Erie Railroad "Bergen County Line."

HARMONCV.JPG: The classic lines of a General Electric U-boat complement the towers of the Harmon Cove condominium complex during a late-day photo stop at Secaucus, New Jersey. The former EL Croxton Yard lies a quarter-mile to the right of the photograph.

HARMONC2.JPG: The brutish pug nose of U34CH 4176 poses grandly in front of the Harmon Cove condominium complex at Secaucus, New Jersey.

MTLAKES.JPG: Freshly repainted NJ Transit U34CH 4176 offers a unique contrast to the classic Lackawanna Railroad stone-construction Mountain Lakes, New Jersey station, during a photo stop on the United Railroad Historical Society's "Farewell to the U34CH" excursion.

ORADELL.JPG: U34CH 4176 reposes in the shadows at Oradell, New Jersey, on what once was the Erie's New Jersey & New York line.

ORADELL2.JPG: The engineer on U34CH 4172 enjoys his brief respite while posing for photographs at Oradell, New Jersey. Just another quaint scene in Northern New Jersey.

SMOKEU34.JPG: Something commonly seen while in regular commuter service, but rarely visible during this excursion, was a thick plume of black smoke, accompanied by that characteristic GE "chugging" - obviously a very close cousin of Alco!

TWONJT.JPG: The Victor and the Vanquished. NJ Transit U34CH 4176 poses next to GP40PH-2 4104 at Secaucus, New Jersey. The Geep was built for the Jersey Central Railroad in the late 1960's, and the entire fleet was recently rebuilt by Conrail for service well into the 21st Century. The U-boat will enjoy no such luck.