They say that timing is everything. And certainly good timing and an aggressive, proactive approach to preservation lead to the saving of former Providence and Worcester U23B, 2203. What is so significant about a seemingly run-of-the-mill General Electric U-boat? It is the last unit built of the domestic Universal series of locomotives, the initial fleet of locomotives that GE built to break into the marketplace in 1960.
The 2203 was built as Conrail 2798 in June of 1977, the last unit of an order of 10 U23B’s, which made up Conrail’s first purchase of brand new locomotives. She is the last built of the “U-Boat” series of locomotives, of several models numbering more than 3100 units. She would work for Conrail for 14 years before being retired and then sold to the Providence and Worcester Railroad, along with six other U23B’s from the same Conrail order. At the P&W, she would be renumbered to 2203, retrucked from GSC drop equalizer trucks to the then-standard GE FB-2 trucks and would receive a moderate amount of preventive maintenance work that would keep her running for another 10 years. Hauling everything from mixed freight to stone trains, 2203 and her six sisters would prove to be the backbone of the P&W fleet. In June of 2002, P&W would retire the 2203 (as well as the other ex-Conrail U23B’s) in favor of newer GE B39-8 units. After leaving P&W property, 2203 would await her fate in the shops of her new owner, Susquehanna Locomotive & Railcar Services, at Utica, NY.
In October of 2002, volunteers of the Railroad Museum of New England became aware of 2203 having been retired from the P&W and was out of service sitting in Utica. Upon inquiry on the locomotive, its new owner, sympathetic to our cause, made us an offer that we couldn’t refuse – a price at about less than half the market value of the locomotive at that time. After discussion among museum members of the historical significance of the locomotive in addition to what role she would play on the museum’s subsidiary Naugatuck Railroad, we would aggressively seek to bring the historic locomotive to our home rails. As is often the case in preservation efforts, a small group of RMNE members dug deep into their pockets and quickly raised the not-insignificant sum to save this locomotive. Our timing was right for preserving this locomotive: in 2002 after the CSX-NS dismantling of Conrail, the used locomotive market quickly became saturated with old, worn-out GE locomotives. But in the last four years, the used locomotive market has contracted greatly due to many retired locomotives being scrapped, while at the same time many previously retired locomotives being called back into service. This is the case with all the ex-P&W U23B’s, which have found work on the Susquehanna and other shortlines. Had the members of the RMNE waited rather than acting quickly, 2203 would have most certainly been sold off and would be back to work for another shortline railroad. Preservation depends on generosity of its proponents.
After coming home to the Railroad Museum of New England, 2203 was very quickly put into service in June of 2003 on the Naugatuck Railroad, becoming the regular power on weekend excursion runs. In the last four years, the museum’s loyal band of volunteers have done a substantial amount work to keep this locomotive running. In the fall of 2003, a standby onboard heating system was added to the locomotive to keep its engine warm for winter service. Several significant repairs have been made to the engine, including the replacement of a damaged cam shaft segment, changing a defective cylinder, replacement of a failed oil cooler and rebuilding of the failed equipment blower drive shaft. Much work remains to make her a true museum piece. Additional repair and clean up of the diesel engine is needed to get it running in top notch condition. At some point, our hope is to replace the FB-2 trucks with the original style drop equalizer trucks, or so called “AAR-B” trucks. Finally, a complete cosmetic overhaul is needed – repair of the battery boxes and other rotten carbody steel and finishing up with a fresh paint job. While it hasn’t been decided how she will be painted, a safe assumption would be the locomotive will be painted in a New Haven Railroad-inspired paint scheme and lettered for the Naugatuck Railroad. Also at that time, she’ll get her original road number back – 2798.