Portugal's Alco treasure

Portugal's RSC2 No. 1501 is one of two of the Alco models remaining in the world
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A side view of the short hood end of Combios de Portugal Alco RSC-2 No. 1501 on display in Portugal’s national railway museum.
Ralph Spielman
A nose-on view of No. 1501. Except for different brakes, buffers, and broad gauge, this is essentially the same locomotive that would have operated in the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s.
Ralph Spielman
A backlit, three-quarter wedge shot of rare Alco RSC2 No. 1501. The broad gauge diesel locomotive operated on a broad range of services in Portugal from 1948 to 2000.
Ralph Spielman
ENTRONCAMENTO, Portugal — The closest country in western Europe to the continental United States, Portugal, is still 3,000 miles from Maine but bears a secret treasure worth visiting.

Believe it or not, this Maine-sized country of 11 million people has a well-preserved Alco RSC2.

The Comboios De Portugal, the state-owned rail system of 1,700 miles, operated it for more than 50 years before it attained museum status. The largely broad gauge, five-foot, five-inch, network covers the bases from operations on what would be tourist lines to high speed freight and passenger routes.

In Entroncamento, a still-active railroad shop town about 70 miles north of capital city Lisbon lies the country’s National Railway Museum which contains 36,000 objects, with rolling stock and locomotives, three buildings, a working turntable and railroad operation artifacts.

The gem of the collection to North American railfans would be Portugal’s preserved Alco RSC2, one of two on exhibit in the world. The other is an ex-Milwaukee Road RSC2 at the Illinois Railway Museum.

At World War II’s end, the paucity of available coal was a huge problem for Portugal, which meant that it needed diesels badly. Alco Schenectady delivered and built 12 units for export to the Portuguese Railways in 1948 as part of the Marshall Plan.

While No. 1501's U.S. cousins were operated in freight service on the Milwaukee Road, Seaboard, Soo Line, and Union Pacific, Portugal’s 1500 Class was used in dual service, including crack passenger trains. Geared for 75 miles per hour and 1,500-hp at the onset, they were different from any previous locomotives in Portugal. Unlike the sophisticated diesel customer dictates of today with specific requirements, these were basically the same units as the U.S. assembly line units, albeit delivered with vacuum brakes and buffers.

The locomotives’ first assignment was from Lisbon over steep grades to Porto, about 200 miles north. The Alcos knocked off 1925 Herschel and Sohn German-built Pacifics from that run and eliminated a few helper districts for good measure.

Working in dual service, they handled freight trains and the Silver Arrow Express between Lisbon and the Porto area, although they were prohibited from using The Ponte Maria D. Bridge given their axle loadings.

This Gustave Eiffel 1,150-foot single-track bridge, 200 feet above the Douro River was deemed too spindly for the Alcos. The silver and green Heritage scheme in the pictures was from the era when the Silver Arrow was comprised of RSC2s as power, pulling Budd-licensee built passenger cars. As delivered in 1948, the engines were dark green with a silver band; the reverse was to blend in better with the stainless steel cars they pulled.

As the years progressed, the RSC2s’ assignments changed. The electrification of the Lisbon-Porto main line rendered them unnecessary, and they were then redeployed to the lines south and west of Lisbon. In 1973, the 12 units were upgraded to 2,000-hp by the Barreiro Shops, across the Tagus River from Lisbon, and served the rest of their working lives in all services, from passenger locals to maintenance-of-way.

Increasing electrification marginalized the locomotives further until Portugal retired them in 2000 after 52 years of service.
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