Gensets in Europe

Gensets in Europe

By Ernest H. Robl

Revised repost with pictures

I’m always trying to understand the “why” behind various railroad developments, so, when I saw the unusual shape of the new German series 245 diesel locomotives, I was curious.

The 245 is a member of the Bombardier Traxx family and has the familiar Bombardier cabs — but the center of the locomotive has an unusual peaked roof.

It only took me a little reading about these locomotives, Bombardier’s class P160 DE ME, to say to myself, “Oh, it’s a genset!”  The clue is in the last letters of the model designation, “ME,” which stand for multi-engine.


A Bombardier class P160 DE ME (DB 245) in a Bombardier factory publicity photo, showing the large bulge over the multiple diesel motors.

It’s also a distinctly European application of an American railroad development.



Never heard of gensets?  Unless you’ve followed American railroading closely, you may not have.

In my previous discussion of MU (multiple-unit) controls, we looked at how railroads add locomotives to provide more power to heavier trains.  The genset is a step in the opposite direction — subtracting power when it’s not needed.

In the U.S., where railroad freight traffic is almost totally diesel powered, railroads are painfully aware of the cost of diesel fuel, which, for the major railroads, can run in the millions of dollars per year.


At the same time, many railroads faced the issues of reducing both noise and particulate pollution, particularly in urban areas where many of the large freight yards are located.

The traditional American diesel-electric locomotive has one extremely large diesel motor (sometimes called the prime mover) which is connected to a generator or alternator, which produces the electricity that powers the traction motors for the wheels.  These large diesel motors, while efficient when operating under heavy load, also have some drawbacks.

These large diesel motors still consume a lot of fuel even when at idle.  And, because starting such a large diesel is not a simple procedure, it is usually easier to leave the locomotive idling rather than shuttling it down, particularly during cold weather.

The design of these motors requires a huge quantity of coolant, making it prohibitively expensive to use antifreeze.  Rather the coolant is usually just water.  If the engine were to be shut down during cold weather, the water could freeze, causing damage to the engine block.  (These locomotives have a fail-safe system that detects below-freezing temperatures when the engine is not running – and that system then automatically dumps all the coolant water before it can freeze.  Of course, alll that water has to be replaced before the engine can be restarted.)

Some locomotives are equipped with an electric engine block heater to avoid just such situations, but you need electric power at the locations where the engine is to be stored, and that limits where the engine can be left.

Large diesel motors are more difficult to maintain than the smaller diesel motors used in industrial applications.  And, of course, if the diesel motor fails, the entire large diesel locomotive is out of service.



To address some of these issues, late in the 20th century, some American railroads and second-tier locomotive manufacturers began experimenting with a concept that was based on having several smaller diesel motors and generators aboard a single locomotive.

With little load or while idling, a single diesel motor could be left running and have its generator supply adequate power for on-board needs.  Electronic equipment onboard the locomotive could sense the load requirement and, as necessary, start up the additional diesel motors to provide more power.  Smaller diesel motors are much easier to start and shut down.

These smaller diesels were readily available as they were already being used in a variety of industrial applications.  That also made the smaller diesel motors easier to service, as parts were often readily available from a local supplier.

In fact, a shortline or industry with one of these locomotives could simply call the local diesel motor dealer for service on its equipment.

In the U.S., these locomotives became known as motor-generator sets, ultimately shortened to just gensets.  Invariably, they were built on the frames of older retired diesel locomotives.  (Unless involved in a major accident that causes structural damage, locomotive frames last nearly forever — while the same cannot be said of other locomotive components.)

These American gensets, used primarily in switching and local freight service, typically had two or three motor-generator sets.  These gensets were still fully MU compatible with other diesel-electric locomotives, so could, if necessary, be used in a multi-locomotive consist.


The DB 245

Bombardier’s Traxx P160 DE ME is a new, purpose-built locomotive, intended primarily for passenger service.  First built in 2012, it has four Caterpillar C18 diesel motors, which together produce about 3,000 hp.  The output of two of the locomotive’s four diesel motors is 1,500 hp, more than enough for short local trains, and, of course, as more cars are added or when the train gets on an incline, the effort of an additional diesel motor is added.

Single class 245 locomotives are intended, among other uses, as replacement for tandem 218 sets on regional trains. But, the 245 is also MU (multiple-unit) capable and can be used in tandem sets on heavier trains.  Some 200 units are on order.

They are geared for a top speed of 160 km/h (100 mph), making them well suitable for passenger as well as freight traffic.



Multiple models

ACME has already produced (and delivered) an HO model (order number 60420) of this distinctive locomotive.  See information here:


The ACME model of the DB 245 in an ACME factory photo.

ACME is also offering a second version consisting of two models of the DB class 245, one powered, and the other a dummy unit —to simulate double traction on trains.

Brawa is also offering HO DC versions of the 245, both in analog (with a 21-pin interface) and in digital format, with built in sound decoder.  See


So, if you want to the have the latest in Era VI German diesel power to your layout, then you now know where to start.

As most German diesels are approved for operation into neighboring countries, you may also see them beyond Germany’s borders before too long.  I may even find one of them visiting my future Austrian-themed layout.





One Response to Gensets in Europe

  1. Danilo Jimenez says:


    Just a quick remark: far as I know Brawa also offers a Märklin compatible model.


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