Lately I ordered a Paragon(TM) Series EMD Diesel E6B/E7B unit. Nowadays these units are rare to get, but I was happy to find one to complete my E7A unit. The Southern Railway only had E6B units. The E6B unit from the Southern Railway fits well together with my E7A unit.
A “B” unit, in railroad terminology, is a locomotive unit (generally a diesel locomotive) which does not have a driving cab, or crew compartment, and must therefore be controlled from another, coupled locomotive with a driving cab (an A unit). The term booster unit is also used. The concept was largely confined to North America. Elsewhere, locomotives without driving cabs were rare.
Some “B” units cannot be moved without a controlling unit attached, but most have some simple controls inside, and often a side window at that control station. For example, B unit versions of the EMD FT with conventional couplers had a fifth porthole-style window added on the right side only for the control station. Other models used existing windows. These controls enable a hostler to move the B-unit locomotive by itself in a yard or shops. A hostler is an employee permitted to move locomotives within the confines of a yard or shops complex, but not on the main railroad.
B units without controls are generally semi-permanently coupled to controlling units. Sometimes, there is a terminology distinction between the types: a booster is a B unit with hostler controls, and a slave is a B unit without hostler controls.
Reasons for use
The reasons railroads ordered B units included the fact that a B unit was slightly cheaper. With no driving cab, B units lack windshields, crew seats, radios, heating, and air conditioning. There would also be no toilets, which were usually found in the short hood of an A unit. In the early days of dieselization, there was also no argument from the railroad unions that a B unit deserved a second crew; this was a major point of contention for a while.
Additionally, at first, railroads bought multiple-unit diesel locomotives as one for one replacements for steam locomotives; the flexibility of interchangeable units which could be assembled into any power output the railroad desired was not well realised. When a three or four unit locomotive was considered an indivisible unit, there was no point in the intermediate units having cabs. Finally, B units gave a smoother line to the train for passenger service.
The B unit era
B units were commonly built in the cab unit days in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. When hood unit road switchers became the common kind of diesel locomotive, some B units were built, but many railroads soon came to the opinion that the lower cost of a B unit did not offset the lack of operational flexibility. Few B units have been built in the last 40 years.
Railroads that kept ordering B units longer than most were largely Western roads, including the Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, and the Santa Fe. Santa Fe ordered the GP60B model in 1991, which were the final B units built for road service in North America as of 2005. However they’re experiencing a comeback of sorts recently for radio controlled yard switching units, which don’t require a traditional cab.
In some cases, a B unit is converted from an already existing A unit. The cab is either removed or has its windows blanked out (such as on CSX GE BQ23-7 units), and all non-essential equipment is removed. The degree to which this equipment is removed depends on the railroad, but may (and usually) include the removal of the speedometer, event recorder, horn, headlights, toilet, and cab heaters.
This conversion was sometimes performed when the A unit had been in a collision and rebuilding the cab was not cost-effective. And in some rare instances, B units were converted to incorporate a cab, such as on the Chicago & North Western Railway in the 1970s with some EMD E8B units bought from the Union Pacific. The homebuilt cabs were referred to as “Crandall Cabs.” Also, the Santa Fe rebuilt four of its five GP7Bs to GP9us with cabs. In the Illinois Central Gulf‘s GP11 rebuild program, some of the engines used were ex-UP GP9Bs, and in their SD20 program, some ex-UP SD24Bs were also used.
In rare instances, a B unit will run at the front of a train. This is avoided because it limits visibility from the locomotive cab, but locomotive orientation and operational requirements may dictate the B-unit running first. See this photo of a SD40-2/SD45-2B, a GP30/GP30B and GP35/GP9B for examples.
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