An SD20 Farewell

WSD20 2015 still wore NREX reporting marks when Paul Swanson photographed her on the “stub track” near the humptower at BRC’s Clearing Yard in Chicago on June 13, 1996.

The first pair of SD20’s—2004 and 2016—wait on the west leg of the wye at Metra’s A-5, just five miles from downtown Chicago on June 8, 1996. The SD20’s had been in Chicago service for several months. Paul Swanson photo.
n era of sorts has drawn to a close in Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. motive power history. As 2007 ended, only one SD20 locomotive out of a fleet that once numbered six, remained in service. Four have been sold and left the property, and one other remains at Horicon in retirement with a broken crankshaft, serving as a parts source. WSOR president and CEO William Gardner announced to WSOR employees in September 2007 that six “new” MP15’s were being purchased to replace the SD20’s: “The SD20’s have been on our property for over ten years and have done their job well for us. These units were the first six-axle units that pulled many trains to Chicago over the past years when train sizes grew to where they are now.” The SD20’s will be well-remembered by line-side observers and employees alike as they ushered in a new page in WSOR’s varied motive power history.

Back when the Wisconsin & Calumet first opened the Chicago gateway line from Janesville to Clearing Yard in Chicago in 1989, a pair of aged EMD F-units were leased to power these new trains. At only 1500 HP each, they were adequate for the light traffic that first traveled to the Windy City. Back then, these trains carried a small amount of general interchange freight, automotive seat cushions from a factory at Brodhead,
and once in awhile a 25-car set of corn for CPC Products at Argo, Illinois.

By the time WSOR took over WICT operations in August 1992, traffic had increased modestly, and WICT had added an occasional GP7 or 9 or a leased BL2 for the three-times-weekly trip. WSOR brought in its own fleet of GP35’s and GP9’s to cover the Chicago runs, but soon, traffic volumes would increase thanks
to WSOR’s attention to marketing and the diversion of Northern Division traffic through Janesville. By the fall of 1995, trains had increased over the 50-car mark, grain moved almost every trip, and WSOR

SD20 2055 is fresh in red and silver paint as she rides the Janesville turntable on May 22, 2001. With the repainting came a new number—2055 was previously 2015. This SD20 was a favorite with crews for her low idle, better pulling abilities, and quieter cab. Yes, each had their own personalities. Photo by Robert Eineke.

WSOR 1848 wore a special Wisconsin Sesquicentennial paint job that included the state seal. This unit was formerly NREX 2004. It was later repainted into the standard WSOR red and silver scheme and renumbered again to 2051. This was the last SD20 in service on the WSOR. Robert Eineke photo, taken at Mazomanie, WI on July 28, 1999.
looked at providing daily service. The tired old GP35’s were in need of rest, so WSOR’s president Bill Gardner looked at options. A pair of “SD20” locomotives were tried out from National Railway Equipment (NRE) for a 60-day trial period. NREX 2004 and NREX 2016 arrived on the property in late December 1995 and were immediately put to use on the Chicago jobs.

These “SD20” units were originally SD24B’s (cabless) or SD24’s from the Southern and Union Pacific. As built by EMD, the SD24 was a 6-axle turbocharged road-switcher rated at 2400 HP. They were in production from 1958 until 1963 and ushered in EMD’s second generation of diesel power. In 1979, the Illinois Central Gulf bought a large group of SD24’s from Precision National and cycled them through their Paducah Shops for a rebuild. When the units emerged, they were de-turboed, downrated to 2000HP, and cabless units had new cabs installed. Retired in 1995, many were sold to dealer NRE.

2004 and 2016 were a hit with the Chicago crews. Two more (2008 and 2012) were brought online in February 1996. To fully cover two trains operating between Chicago and Janesville seven days a week, six engines were needed, so the SD20 fleet was filled out to six total with the addition of NREX 2015 and 2009 in May 1996. Initially leased, all six eventually were purchased. When they first arrived, all were in the second generation IC black paint scheme. After the purchase, they were re-stenciled WSOR, and then finally repainted into WSOR’s red and silver scheme. Headlights were moved up from the short nose to above the cab, and units renumbered in the 2050-series.

All six SD20’s protected the Chicago Jobs throughout the rest of the 1990s, many times with three on each

SD20 2054 leads a unit coal train at McFarland, destined for Madison, WI in 2006. The SD20’s could fill in on just about any job, whether it was lugging a heavy drag freight, or switching customers on a local Jason Nates photo.

WSOR 2052 leads the Reedsburg local in the company of the locomotive that ultimately replaced the SD20—a GP38, 3808 to be exact. The SD20’s were regulars on locals out of the Madison terminal for several years after their Chicago careers ended. Dave Fry photo on March 11, 2007.
train in both directions. But tonnage continued to increase, and the SD20’s soon were in need of relief. In 2002, WSOR brought six SD40-2’s on to specifically replace the SD20’s in Chicago service. The SD20’s were then moved to locals and switching service out of Janesville and Madison. A pair of SD20’s could easily handle 25 grain loads plus commercial traffic on any of the jobs working from these two terminals to such places as Monroe, Prairie du Chien, or Elkhorn. The SD20’s remained mostly on the Southern Division, although they did work the Horicon-Chicago trains when these were first operated through as the JH/HJ. As a new fleet of GP38’s were brought in over the next few years, the SD20’s became the odd ducks out. The last straw was the purchase of six MP15 switchers in September 2007 to cover the Janesville, Madison, and Horicon terminals. The SD20’s were put up for sale to help fund acquisition of the MP15’s. On January 22, 2008, the last SD20 in service—2051—made its final trip from Madison to Janesville. After arrival, it was moved over to the Janesville roundhouse for cleaning and then was drained and moved to the old coach yard for storage until sold.

Crews will remember the SD20’s for their lugging ability. They weren’t necessarily speedsters, but they could shove 25 grain loads up the 1% hill at Darien solo if needed. The SD20’s had plenty of character. The cabs sat up higher on the frame than even the later SD40’s. They had a bouncy ride—the truck springs would squeak and groan as the engines lumbered down jointed track. The control stands had larger air gauges and every cab had a full complement of electric heaters that were welcome in Wisconsin’s cold winters. Train crews quickly nicknamed the SD20’s “skunks” obviously for the old IC paint scheme but also for their characteristic odors while working under load. The SD20’s had an unmistakable chugging exhaust that made them sound different than any other WSOR engine. And so it is farewell to another WSOR legend: the SD20.

WSOR 2053 and 2052 team up to bring the MAJ (Madison-Janesville) train back to Janesville on August 15, 2006. 2053 wore a one-of-a-kind Operation Lifesaver paint scheme to bring awareness to grade crossing safety. Mike Farrell photo, taken at McFarland, WI.

With “WISCONSIN & SOUTHERN” lettering obliterated, ex-WSOR 2052 and 2054 leave Janesville for the last time on November 12, 2007. Towed by a trio of UP MP15’s over the Rock River bridge in Janesville, they are destined for UP’s yard on the south side of town. Later that night, they left for Chicago Photo by Robert Eineke.

Its final night under power, WSOR 2051 idles outside the Janesville roundhouse in sub-zero weather, January 22, 2008. Within an hour, 2051 will be moved inside and shut down for the final time on Wisconsin & Southern property. A week later, 2051 was towed over to the coach yard for storage until sold. Paul Swanson photo.
HEAR THE SD20’s Click on the mp3 links below to hear WSOR’s SD20’s in action on the Chicago Jobs in 1996.

mp3 (3:10)—On September 30, 1996, the eastbound Chicago Job with 7 cars accelerates uphill out of the Turtle Creek valley from Bardwell, 17 miles east of Janesville. Because of the light train, the lead unit is isolated. Today, this track is welded rail.

mp3 (2:26)—On Wednesday, September 19, 1996, the eastbound Chicago Job accelerates out of a 10 mph slow order at Walworth, 25.5 miles east of Janesville. 2015 leads and 2004 trails with 17 loads and 14 empties. The engines’ exhaust can be heard reflecting off the walls of the Kikkomann soy plant.

mp3 (0:53)—Passing through Round Lake on Metra trackage October 1, 1996, the sound of 2015 and 2004’s exhaust reverberates off the walls of trackside buildings.

mp3 (5:41)—By 2:00am, on this October 1, 1996 run, the eastbound Chicago Job is between Mayfair and A5 on Metra’s double-track Milwaukee Line. The clatter of the Mayfair diamonds (crossing the ex-C&NW northwest line) are heard near the beginning of this cut as the train accelerates after stopping for a red signal at the Mayfair plant.

mp3 (2:55)—Now on the Belt Railway of Chicago at Archer Avenue, the train negotiates tight curvature to enter the 59th Street Branch and head for the West Receiving yard of Clearing. October 18, 1996.

mp3 (3:22)—Departing Clearing Yard on October 1, 1996, the Chicago-Janesville return trip accelerates to track speed (25 mph) out of the west departure yard. This recording allows us to hear the staccato exhaust of SD20 2004 as it reverberates off the sides of trackside buildings. The lead unit (2015) is isolated as it is not needed for horsepower for the light train today (8 loads, 19 empties).

mp3 (15:34)—On February 28, 1997, from trailing unit (WSOR GP9 4492, isolated) with SD20 2012 in the lead, running light westbound (north by compass). At Forest Glen, 2012’s exhaust and whine of traction motors echos off lineside buildings. One train is met at speed; an Amtrak Hiawatha at Morton Grove (about 12 minutes into the recording). The sound of jointed rail is occasionally broken by short stretches of welded rail at station platforms. All of this jointed rail has since been replaced with welded rail.

To view more photos of the SD20’ s and their career on the WSOR, check out the SD20 Photo Tribute.


model number axles/hp built notes
SD20 2051 6/2000 7/1959 ex-WSOR 1848, ex-WSOR 2004, ex-NREX 2004,
ex-IC 2004, ex-ICG 2004, nee UP 416B
(originally SD24B, cab later added by ICG)
SD20 2052 6/2000 9/1959 ex-WSOR 2008, ex-NREX 2008, ex-IC 2008
ex-ICG 2008, nee UP 438B (originally SD24B, cab
later added by ICG)
SD20 2053 6/2000 8/1959 ex-WSOR 2009, ex-NREX 2009, ex-IC 2009,
ex-ICG 2009, nee UP 408 (SD24)
SD20 2054 6/2000 12/1959 ex-WSOR 2012, ex-NREX 2012, ex-IC 2012,
ex-ICG 2012, nee SOU 2522 (SD24)
SD20 2055 6/2000 12/1959 ex-WSOR 2015, ex-NREX 2015, ex-IC 2015,
ex-ICG 2015, nee SOU 2523 (SD24)
SD20 2056 6/2000 2/1960 ex-WSOR 2016, ex-NREX 2016, ex-IC 2016,
ex-ICG 2016, nee SOU 6318 (SD24)