The Rail Diesel Car, also known as the RDC or Budd Car, was a series of self-propelled diesel passenger trains produced by the Budd company of Philadelphia between 1949 and 1962. A total of 398 units were built in a range of five models. A few of them survive in service to this day. Born of the same corrugrated stainless steel construction of the great North American streamliner passenger trains of the 1930s and 1940s, the Budd RDCs were in many cases the last rural passenger trains to run in the North American continent. Over the years, the number of routes served with Budd RDCs has gradually dwindled, and now there are only a very few remaining. While many of the rural passenger services disappeared during the 1960s and 1970s, some particularly in Canada, remained until much more recently. One of the last great mainline Budd RDC runs to fall under the axe was BCRail’s Cariboo Prospector service from Vancouver to Prince George BC, which was discontinued in September 2002. In terms of year round mainline services, really only VIArail Canada’s Malahat service on Vancouver Island, and their Lake Superior service in western Ontario remain. A few commuter rail operations possess some RDCs which are sometimes still used, most notably in Dallas TX and Syracuse NY. The Alaska railroad also use Budd RDCs on their summer flag train service, The Hurricane Turn. The Oregon Department of Transport also use Budd RDCs for their summer passenger service from Portland to Astoria OR.
This is not to say that the Budd RDC has passed completely into history, for a number of units still operate all over North America, particularly in the remote wilderness areas where they are particularly well suited to operating Flag Train services. In terms of year round mainline services, really only VIArail Canada’s Malahat service on Vancouver Island is still operated by RDCs on a daily basis. VIArail’s Lake Superior service in western Ontario operates six days a week, but that only consists of three journeys in each direction each week, the diagram having the RDCs operate North-West one day and return South-East the following day. A few commuter rail operations possess some RDCs which are sometimes still used – in Dallas TX they are used for some off-peak services, while a loco-hauled coach set is used for busier services. On-Track in Syracuse NY do primarily use RDCs, but they only operate services on certain days of the week. The Alaska railroad also use Budd RDCs on their summer flag train service, The Hurricane Turn, and on the Whitter and Spencer glacier services. The Oregon Department of Transport also use Budd RDCs for their summer passenger service from Portland to Astoria OR. Some, like the Cape May Seashore Lines in southern New Jersey have even managed to obtain some of the Budd RDCs that worked on the same line in it’s hayday. Others have been preserved by railroad museums across North America, such as the MBTA (Boston MA, formerly Chicago North-Western) unit now residing at the Illinois Railroad Museum at Union IL.
In this article, I will endeavour to tell some of the story behind this fascinating little train which struggled for the survival of rural passenger rail travel in North America for more than half a decade. Bizarrely enough, the Budd RDC also still holds the North American rail speed record for a self-powered train!
The Budd RDC existed in five main configurations; but all share a number of basic features. The RDC body is an eighty-five foot long (73ft on the RDC-4) sleek corrugated stainless steel shell with two 250-280hp diesel engines mounted underneath the floor. greasy conditions. One distinct advantage of the Budd RDC, is that these two diesel engines are completely independant. A Budd RDC can still limp home quite reasonably with one engine out of service – actual rescues with a locomotive are rarely needed. Most Budd RDC services now use a minimum of two RDCs in multiple – a sensible precaution given their age, and the loss of one of the four available engines on the pair is far from uncommon but typically does not impact on the train’s ability to keep to it’s timetable.
At each end of the RDC is a vestibule with three doors, one on each side out to the platform (or descending steps when used in remote locations without raised platforms), and a further one in the middle which can be openned to allow access to the next RDC unit when the the RDC is being run as a multi-coach train. Some RDCs were fitted with diaphragms to allow the full enclosure of the walkway between cars – most of VIArail’s refurbished Budd RDCs are so equiped. Also in the vestibule are fold-away controls for the driver allowing the RDC to be operated from either end although many operators installed a more permanent engineers seat at at least one end of the car.
The most common configuration was the RDC-1 – an all-passenger coach capable of seating ninety people. The next type, the RDC-2, lost around a quarter of the seats to provide a compartment for baggage and parcel service – the RDC has a second service door located behind the vestibule doors on either side of the baggage compartment. The next type, the RDC-3, sacrificed almost half of it’s length to providing both a baggage compartment and a Railway Post Office (RPO) allowing mail to be handled as it moved from town to town along the line. In some units, a Galley for the preparation of food replaced the RPO section of the car. The final of the original designs, the RDC-4, was rather shorter at seventy-three feet and originally included no passenger seats at all being divided between baggage and Railway Post Office operations solely. The fifth and final design, the RDC-9 was basically an RDC-1 without the drivers stations or vestibules at either end of the car, increasing the number of seats to around one hundred. The RDC-9 had to be operated remotely from one of the other types of RDC in a multiple unit formation. The RDC-9 was introduced later than the other models after some railroads had caused problems by placing a passenger car between RDCs and thus over-stressing the gearbox and torque converter on the powered units.
One of the keys to the design of the Budd RDC units was their ability to be linked together with other similar units to operate as a single train under the control of one driver. In this, the Budd RDC was a new departure in North American train design, and ulitmately the only real product (excluding the unsuccessful 1970s update, the Budd SPV2000) to bring diesel multiple units to North America. To a European such as myself, where diesel multiple units are an every day sight, with new designs appearing annually, it’s a sobering thought to think that as far as North America is concerned the Budd RDC introduced in 1949 is IT – all there is. That it is still running today in sizable numbers attest to the quality of the design. [Addendum: the Diesel Multiple Unit is finally on the verge of making a long overdue comeback to North America thanks to Colorado Railcar’s new experimental DMU called “DMU”.]
Amongst self-powered passenger vehicles, the Budd RDCs were the first production type to use diesel engines. Prior to this, diesel engines were considered too bulky for use in a self-powered passenger vehicle. However the reduction in diesel engine size during World War II due to their development for use in tanks, made the Budd company believe that underfloor diesel power was finally viable. The Budd RDCs used two independant 250-280hp diesel engines, each connected by a drive shaft to the wheels. Originally these were Detroit 6-110 engines; the Budd company gained experience with small diesel engines while building Tanks for the Second World War, and the Budd RDC leaveraged this knowledge into a peacetime use. In later refurbishments, the original Detroit engines have typically been replaced with newer, slightly more powerful ones. In discussions with present day Budd RDC train crews, this has not always proved a total advantage – the higher output of the newer engines can cause the wheels to slip more in wet or greasy rails. With a top speed of 85mph and an acceleration from stationary to 60mph in less than two minutes, the Budd RDC proved them right. In a famous early demonstration, Budd engineers stopped an RDC on the steepest part of the climb over the Sierra Nevada and were able to restart it and accellerate up to a reasonable speed. Previous self-powered vehicles had been incapable of this achievement.
Many of the RDCs were used to continue passenger services of the major railroad companies after the rise of the motor car had rendered many routes unprofitable for larger passenger trains. When the railroad companies were absolved of their responsibilities in running passenger services by the formation in 1971 of Amtrak in the USA and later in Canada, VIA Rail, many of the RDCs were sold by their previous owners. Some went to the new passenger rail corportations, Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada, while others went to various commuter railroad operations across North America. The biggest single owner of Budd RDCs was at one time the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) who acquired the RDCs from wherever they could. Hence the former Chicago and North Western RDC1 #9933 at the Illinois Railroad Museum in Union IL still carries MBTA colors as their #10. As their RDCs became older and more unreliable, MBTA rebuilt them with the gearboxes disconnected from the wheels and only one engine kept serviceable to provide power for light, heat and air conditioning for the car. This also allowed for the use of a freight locomotive without provision for providing head end power to be used on passenger trains.
The last operator of a large original self-powered fleet was BC Rail (British Columbia Railway) who’s daily Cariboo Prospector service operated until the end of October 2002. The Photos section includes pictures of this service during it’s last months of operation. At times the BC Rail fleet included nearly a dozen RDCs, and no less than five RDCs remained in daily use until the end. This was an impressive run for the RDC, since they had been bought from new by the Pacific Great Eastern (BCRail’s direct predecessor) in 1953 for use on same route as they operated until October 2002. Since the discountinuation of this service, the five remaining fully operational BCRail Budd cars were sold on to two other operators, the Oregon Department of Transport and The Wilton Scenic Railroad – see our Where To See Them – Lines and Where To See Them – Museums sections for more details. Three non-serviceable but repairable Budd RDCs from BCRail’s fleet are now located at the West Coast Railway Hertitage Park in Squamish BC, and they hope to have at least one, PGE Veteran RDC-3, BC-33 back in service as soon as possible. UPDATE: From August 13th, 2005 – BC-33 is back in service and offering rides within the West Coast Railway Associations’ Heritage Park in Squamish BC.
The northern parts of North America continue to be a home for mainline RDC services with three units operating out of Sudbury Ontario with the thrice-weekly VIArail Canada “The Lake Superior” service, and two units operating their daily “Malahat” service on Vancouver Island. A further four units are kept in regular service by the Alaska Railroad. The Lake Superior runs between Sudbury ON and White River ON; this service uses typically one RDC-2 and an RDC-4 (the last remaining in service?) with a second RDC-2 added in peak summer periods. Video clips and related stills from a trip on this service will be added shortly. The “Malahat” service is on the Esquimalt & Naniamo line on Vancouver Island also still uses the RDC-2, this time partnered with an RDC-1. VIArail have just refurbished all five RDC units allocated to these services with new engines and control equipment, and barring major political changes are likely to continue using them for some considerable time to come. Further north in Alaska, the Alaska Railroad uses two RDCs on their summer “Hurricane Turn” flag train between Talkeetna AK and Hurricane Gulch, and a further RDC on their Whittier and Spencer Glacier/Grandview services. In the summer, these are often used in parallel with a GP-series “Geep” locomotive in a push-pull configuration. Unlike some of the commuter rail modifications, the RDC used on these services maintains full independent power and is used “in multiple” with the locomotive.
The Budd RDC is a fascinating piece of equipment and is even to this day used to operate some of the most interesting wilderness passenger services in North America. It harks back to another era, yet still lives on to this day – a true survivor.