The GTEL (gas turbine-electric) program was the 1950s manifestation of the Union Pacific's ongoing fascination with high-horsepower, larger-than-life locomotives. UP No. 57, the only propane turbine the railroad ever ran, was originally one of 10 oil-powered 4500 hp turbines ordered from General Electric in 1951. The railroad was pleased with the performance of the turbines, which tested well in head-to-head competition with diesel lashups of similar horsepower.
The Bunker C fuel oil that powered the turbines, however, was thick and heavy, difficult to handle, and required heating to make it flow from the tender into the turbine. The fuel also burned dirty, leaving carbon residue on the turbine blades and shortening their life.
So the UP decided to experiment with an alternate fuel source. Shortly after delivery, No. 57 was modified to run on clean-burning propane gas. The engine was equipped with a pressurized tank car for a tender and assigned a Los Angeles-Las Vegas run. The propane turbine made its first revenue run on May 31, 1953. As expected, the engine's turbine blades wore better than those of its oil-fired siblings. But the high cost of special safety precautions and operating procedures outweighed the engine's advantages - to cut its high rate of fuel consumption, No. 57's turbine had to be stopped and restarted on each run - and in the end No. 57 was converted back to Bunker C fuel in 1954.
Did You Know?
UP's first-generation turbines, including No. 57, were all retired by June 1964. Their running gear, including trucks, traction motors and span bolsters, was later recycled into new GE U50 diesels.