I hear that train a-comin....
April 3, 2008 6:56 AM   Subscribe

Steam locomotives are dead, right? Awe-inspiring though they might be, labor issues and diesel fuel at 4 cents a gallon killed them in the 1950's and 60's, and they survive only in isolated pockets around the world and on tourist railways.

A dedicated cadre of railfans and unusually sentimental railroad companies preserved some examples that can still be found running today, so that sixty years on, we can still appreciate the sound and fury of a great locomotive. Mainland China still uses them, and some of the Chinese locomotives have been imported into the US for tourist service.

What is it about steam locomotives that will not die? Just the number will launch old time railfans into arguments resembling ed vs. emacs. 844. 610. 4449. 614. 3985. 4960.

Back during the 1973 embargo, efforts were made to design new steam locomotives in response to the crisis. The technology, for something considered dead and buried, has continued to advance. Now, there's even a new company building standardized parts for steam locomotives.

There have been arguments in railroading circles for years regarding steam vs. diesel power. With diesel fuel at $4.00 a gallon in the US, it might appear that the cost equation might be moving back in the other direction.

Think we can't build a new steam locomotive any more? These guys did, from the rails up, and they're going to run it this year.
posted by pjern (49 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Japan has a love affair with steam locomotives (SL):

SL and shinkansen I
SL and shinkansen II
SL's side by side

With many more links on the YouTube sidebar.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:06 AM on April 3, 2008

I love this post! This post is so cool! I am so excited about this post! I wish I could think of something to contribute to a cool discussion about steam engines besides the idea C.W. McCall's song about the Silverton Train is one of the best songs about trains ever!
posted by barchan at 7:08 AM on April 3, 2008

Damn and blast!

Heard an article on the Tornado on BBC Radio 4 at the weekend and was carefully researching a post. Gotta be quick round here!!
Apparently there were plans to preserve a Peppercorn when they were decommissioned but it coincided with some kind of metal mining crisis in Africa. Scrap prices rocketed and there are 5 tons of pure copper just in the firebox of one of these fellers!

Great post
posted by surfdad at 7:08 AM on April 3, 2008

I travel a lot, and one of the things we do as tourists is seek out steam conveyances. One of my fondest memories was riding the improbably restored West Coast Wilderness Railway from Strahan to Queenstown, in Tasmania. Old logging train turned into a beautifully restored tourist line way out in the middle of nowhere. Absolutely fantastic. It cost some 37 million AUD to restore, I hope the tourist demand is there.
posted by Nelson at 7:09 AM on April 3, 2008

Full disclosure: I used to work as a steam locomotive engineer (the guy that runs it, not the designer), but not on any of the locomotives featured here. It was a lot of hard, dirty work. But it was worth it to sit up there and run the train. I wrote about the dirty job side of it here.
posted by pjern at 7:14 AM on April 3, 2008

I've been idly wondering recently whether an electrically heated steam engine would be anywhere near approaching feasibility. Big battery in the tender, maybe electrical pickups from a third rail or overhead lines in some places, electrical heater in the firebox. Obviously it would make more sense to just convert that electrical energy to motion through motors instead of a steam engine, except for the awesome side rod pushing steam chuffing factor.

I've been dreaming of full scale a "Henry the Green Engine" touring the country, pulling chartered coaches, and promoting green energy.
posted by Reverend John at 7:16 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Addendum: I had one link left over that I decided didn't fit in the post, but it's too cool not to share: In 1989, with matched trainsets, 844 and 4449 raced side by side up Cajon Pass. I hope to see a steam locomotive race again some day.
posted by pjern at 7:27 AM on April 3, 2008

Most run on coal, can it be done with wood, what are the limits of wood? Wood seems like a carbon-neutral solution to transportation. Once the cap-trade system is implimented it may even be economically competitive with modern systems, assuming a wood/steam engine was built with the latest-greatest tech.
posted by stbalbach at 7:27 AM on April 3, 2008

"Steam locomotives are dead, right?"

No, in fact a friend of mine is an engineer for this railroad.
posted by krinklyfig at 7:29 AM on April 3, 2008

I wonder if there have been any efforts to power a steam locomotive with nuclear energy. I bet that would be relatively cheap. Amazingly dangerous, require boggling amounts of security and training, and a not insignificant amount of work to develop a crash-proof containment chamber, but still relatively cheap to operate.

Personally, I think the idea of a nuclear reactor hurtling down a narrow pair of tracks at 70 or 80 miles an hour to be... exhilarating. I'm sure all those folks that live near switching yards would have no problem with it, either.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:30 AM on April 3, 2008

krinklyfig: It was a rhetorical question :)
posted by pjern at 7:33 AM on April 3, 2008

The right way to do green steam is with nuclear power.

Well, yes, but you'd want to do it as a closed loop, so you didn't have to stop and take on water. So you wouldn't get any 'chuffing', but the locomotive could go for hundreds of thousands of miles without a refuel.

There's enough size and room to make a containment vessel that would be pretty much impregnable to any conceivable collision or accident, but there's the problem of someone stealing the whole locomotive. And I don't mean by the non-existent American terrorists, either. A semi-portable device like that, configured to generate tons of power for many years, would be immensely valuable, and might be stolen just for that reason.
posted by Malor at 7:42 AM on April 3, 2008

For the techheads: a cost comparison between modern steam and diesels. [.pdf]
posted by pjern at 7:56 AM on April 3, 2008

Are there any Stirling engine trains?
posted by DU at 8:07 AM on April 3, 2008

Rheilffordd Ffestiniog!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:19 AM on April 3, 2008

Stirling engines need a great deal of mass for an effective heat exchanger, so a moving locomotive is probably not an optimal application. It would be neat looking though.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:23 AM on April 3, 2008

Let's not forget the massive Union Pacific 9000, the longest rigid wheelbase locomotive in the US.

Labor and fuel costs are not the only reasons diesel doomed steam. Steam engines have considerably more moving parts than the internal combustion engines of diesel. Steam trains used to spend a few days a month in the shop, diesels require at most several hours. Furthermore, by its very nature, the internal combustion engine is more amenable to attachment with a transmission, which can provide variable power output as needed. Finally, It is more efficient to run trains with multiple medium sized engines (a "consist") rather than one or a few huge engines, because it distributes the motive power along a greater length of any arcs or inclines in the track, allowing for more efficient use of the engines collective power.

That said, steam engines have a certain charm. Steam engines represent the last example of the Victorian age aesthetic in which the mechanical parts of a machine were exposed to plain view. With the advent of the internal combustion engine, the parts of the engine doing the work became hidden within the block and under the hood. Seeing the pistons and linkages working to move the wheels is a reminder that the machine, no matter how large, is still a product of someone's creativity and invention. It is just an amalgamation of many very simple machines, like cranks and levers, that had been known for centuries. To study the running gear of a steam locomotive is a fairly decent independent study course in mechanical engineering. But the internal combustion engine, based primarily on the very specific chemical properties of the fuel and having its moving parts hidden deep within appears more like a beast that drinks fuels and is at most only temporarily under your control.

The same design approach was true of other devices at this time, including clocks, telephones, radios, and the like. Even into the 20's and 30's, radios had removable back panels which not only exposed the tubes and wires to view, but those same circuits were laid out with the express purpose of accommodating people's hands. Many radios even included schematic diagrams of the circuit on the inside of the back panel. The understanding was that the circuit was something the user might reasonably interact with in addition to the radio control on the front panel. The user was likely to be, or was likely to become, a tinkerer.

The disappearance of steam engines from the American landscape therefore coincides with the ascendancy of mass production, whose primary industrial design requirement was to shield the workings of devices from the view of their users. Because by this time, users became consumers. It was assumed not only that most users would not interact with the workings of most devices, but that they could not.

Interestingly, the digital age has brought us full circle. The workings of many devices are now found in source code and API's rather than in the hardware circuits themselves, and the exposure of these workings have enabled users to again become inventors, remaking their devices according to their own design.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:23 AM on April 3, 2008 [7 favorites]

Most run on coal, can it be done with wood, what are the limits of wood?

Green wood contains only one third the energy per ton of anthracite, and less than a quarter of the energy per ton of diesel fuel. Wood has to be loaded manually because it has to be stacked. It also has to be fed to the firebox manually.

If you just pour it in to the hopper, you don't fit as much in. And it's dangerous for the fireman; you can get collapses as he takes pieces of wood away to put into the firebox.

Anthracite has three times the energy density. It can be crushed and poured into the hopper on the train and will pack densely, and can be fed to the firebox automatically. It also produces less ash when it burns.

Historically the advantage of wood was that it was produced locally, whereas anthracite had to be hauled in.
posted by Class Goat at 8:31 AM on April 3, 2008

Those A1 Steam Locomotive Trust guys are literally around the corner from me. I can see the shed where they're building it from my front window.
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 9:29 AM on April 3, 2008

Pics, No Mutant Enemy, I want pics!
posted by pjern at 9:32 AM on April 3, 2008

Stirling engines need a great deal of mass for an effective heat exchanger...

Whereas a huge container full of water...

I don't really see what you are saying, though. Just light a fire directly under the hot end of the engine. Or do you mean the regenerator? Because that can be just a big mass of wire. Heavy probably, but nowhere near the equivalent enclosed volume of water.
posted by DU at 9:38 AM on April 3, 2008

Several of the posts above discuss whether steam power (from coal or oil) might be a cost-effective alternative to diesel power given the rise in diesel/gas prices lately. The question that should be posed is what can be done to move freight/cargo transportation back to the rails rather than via truck here in the U.S. It's an interesting question with lots of hidden variables not immediately obvious.

As for the posts re. nuclear powered locomotives, thank god this never happened. It's hard to believe that this deathtrap (YT) could ever be topped, let alone by the same manufacturer!
posted by webhund at 10:11 AM on April 3, 2008

Thanks for the link on rail vs truck transport. I was wondering about that just this week.
posted by DU at 10:49 AM on April 3, 2008

I don't really miss them much. I used to ride steamers a lot in Romania before 1995. After a few hours riding on a hot day with the windows open your hair would be full of soot from the coal. When you would shampoo it out you would see black water going down the drain. I like diesel!
posted by zaelic at 10:52 AM on April 3, 2008

Thomas the Tank Engine is keeping the torch burning among the younger set (and their parents!). Steamies are way cool. Apparently the big thing that proved to be their undoing was the much lower labor costs associated with operating and maintaining diesels. The steam engines apparently suffer no deficit in power compared with the diesels.
posted by Mister_A at 10:55 AM on April 3, 2008

Apparently I need a proofreader.
posted by Mister_A at 10:55 AM on April 3, 2008

If you live in or near Philadelphia, check out the Baldwin 60000 at the Franklin Institute. It is a HUGE locomotive. It's like Gordon on steroids, HGH, and crank.
posted by Mister_A at 11:04 AM on April 3, 2008

Malor: If a locomotive were "stolen", just where exactly could one take it? It won't exactly fit under your shirt :)
posted by pjern at 11:46 AM on April 3, 2008

slightly related about China's railways: "Riding the Iron Rooster" by Paul Theroux.
posted by lemuel at 12:11 PM on April 3, 2008

I was under the impression that by the end of the steam era, most locomotives fired with oil rather than coal.
posted by gyusan at 12:23 PM on April 3, 2008

I've been idly wondering recently whether an electrically heated steam engine would be anywhere near approaching feasibility.

Not with batteries. You'll get an energy density of about 160 watt-hours per kilogram out of lithium-ion batteries; a watt-hour is 3600 watt-seconds, and a watt-second is a joule. Fossil fuel energy densities are usually specified in megajoules per kilogram, which ought at this point to be giving you a bit of a sinking feeling.

Fairly lousy coal manages 30 megajoules per kilo, more than 50 times the energy per unit weight of lithium-ion batteries. So even if your fossil fuel drive system is much less efficient than your electric one (as it will be, if the electric is a normal batteries-to-motors arrangement and not the romantic but harebrained electro-steam idea), the range advantage for fossil fuel will still be huge.

(Fuel oil, as used to power the more advanced steam locos, manages about 45 megajoules per kilo.)

I wonder if there have been any efforts to power a steam locomotive with nuclear energy.

People have thought about it on numerous occasions, but the obvious dangers and lack of any Russkie-thwacking value have kept such notions quite far from even the drawing board.

Whose sci-fi book was it that had the fissionables-rich planet with industrial-age technology, where nuclear locos had boilers heated by mildly refined hot-in-every-sense radioactives? I'm thinking Iain M Banks, but I'm not sure.
posted by dansdata at 12:38 PM on April 3, 2008

"Harebrained"? Ouch. Half baked (or less) perhaps. But fine, I see your energy density argument and modify my Henry The Green Engine to be hydrogen fired instead. And to pacify the nuke enthusiasts the hydrogen will be produced by electrolysis from a nuclear power plant.
posted by Reverend John at 1:06 PM on April 3, 2008

I've wanted for quite some time an author to write a sci-fi story that features nuclear-powered steam trains, crossing the country through barren stretches of land that have been poisoned by radiation from a world war; the engineers (who have a lifespan of not-very-long) would be willing to do it because they were very old, or were dying from an incurable disease, or whatever, and would be dying not only from the radiation in the lands they passed through, but from the train itself as well.
posted by davejay at 1:06 PM on April 3, 2008

I was on this one just last week. It's stinky and jerky and the cabins, heated by steam, were very warm.

There's something about it though, the clouds of steam, if pushed down alongside the cars, move along at the same speed and you feel like you're floating in clouds.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:00 PM on April 3, 2008

Class Goat writes "Wood has to be loaded manually because it has to be stacked. It also has to be fed to the firebox manually."

Though far from making wood fired steam engines practical, wood can be pellettized to overcome these specific hurdles.

pjern writes "If a locomotive were 'stolen', just where exactly could one take it? It won't exactly fit under your shirt :)"

About 8-10 years ago some grow op types stole both a loaded lpg super-b and a huge bucket loader (something like the Cat 988H). Now sure the super-b is common OVR equipment. But transporting that huge cat would be like moving a house without anyone noticing.
posted by Mitheral at 2:11 PM on April 3, 2008

wood can be pellettized to overcome these specific hurdles.

As soon as you start seriously processing the wood, the expense goes way up. Moreover, processing will probably be concentrated in a few processing plants, which means you have to haul wood to it, and haul the processed wood to where the locomotives need it.

If you're going to do all that, you're better off (economically) using anthracite, because it'll be cheaper and you don't have to refuel the engine as often.
posted by Class Goat at 2:33 PM on April 3, 2008

posted by Smedleyman at 2:45 PM on April 3, 2008

DU: "Stirling engines need a great deal of mass for an effective heat exchanger...

Whereas a huge container full of water...

I don't really see what you are saying, though. Just light a fire directly under the hot end of the engine. Or do you mean the regenerator? Because that can be just a big mass of wire. Heavy probably, but nowhere near the equivalent enclosed volume of water.

If you were to use water as a heat exchanger in a Stirling engine, you would need not only the water but eventually a way to cool the water as well. This is where the massive heat exchanging surface works against the engine's use in something that has to move like a locomotive. On the other hand, there is no need to cool the water in a steam engine unless you are using a closed system, which none of the locomotives do. I suppose you could use wire in a Stirling engine to pump out all of the heat necessary, but that's a lot of wire with a lot of necessary air circulation. Here's a wikipedia entry about size and cost issues.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 3:01 PM on April 3, 2008

I have no idea why I always get a little teary-eyed around steam locomotives...
posted by anthill at 3:51 PM on April 3, 2008

It might be the sulfur in the coal smoke, anthill.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:20 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by ZakDaddy at 9:33 PM on April 3, 2008

posted by ZakDaddy at 9:51 PM on April 3, 2008

The year: 1971. Aged 11, I am visiting my German relatives in southern Germany. The area is remote enough to still use a steam locomotive for the local train, which passes through town about noon. The train whistles as it nears town, which signals me and my brother to run as fast as we can about 5 blocks away where there is a pedestrian bridge going over the tracks. The sound, faint at first, grows satisfyingly louder as the train approaches, and sounds like a great beast huffing and chuffing up a grade. Then the steam is visible, great plumes of white spouting into the air in sync with the sound. It becomes unbelievably thrilling as the train closes in on our bridge, the noise, the steam, the spectacle. Then...the moment that we wait for every day...the train grows louder and closer, bigger and blacker, huffing and chuffing and we lean over the edge of the handrail and look down into the chimney and breathe in the sulpherous steam as the vibrations envelop and shake us. A cloud of wet, warm steam dampens our grinning faces. Ahhhhh! Then we slowly walk back, young-drunk on the thrill, still smelling and tasting the sulpher steam, talking about how we almost missed it today, gotta get up there sooner tomorrow.
posted by telstar at 12:24 AM on April 4, 2008

You want electric steam locomotives? Try this.

(All manner of bizarre locomotives on that site.)
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 1:22 AM on April 4, 2008

My point about water was that a steam engine filled with water is just as heavy as, if not heavier than, a stirling engine of equivalent power, which contains no water.

I still don't know what you mean by "heat exchanger," but neither of the two things you could mean by that need by all that heavy.
posted by DU at 4:23 AM on April 4, 2008

I am not a physicist or engineer, so if I am using the term "heat exchanger" incorrectly, by all means let me know. What I mean by it is this:

A Stirling engine operates on the difference between a hot end and a cold end. The greater the difference is, then the greater power the engine can produce. To keep things on the cold end cold, you need a "heat exchanger". By this I mean a radiator, cooling fins, thermal mass, ball of wire, tank of water, whatever. Someplace for the heat to go to maximize the difference between hot side and cold side of the engine. For the cold side to dissipate greater heat, you would need greater mass, or larger cooling fins, radiators, masses of wire, whatever. If this structure doesn't need to be heavy, it probably needs to be large or expensive.

I never said it couldn't be done. I said that the Stirling engine would not be an optimal application for a locomotive.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 7:31 AM on April 4, 2008

That actually isn't either of the things I was imagining you meant, so I'm glad you clarified.

I'm still not really seeing why this is a special problem for Stirling engines. All heat engines operate on a temperature differential. All heat engines need to keep the cold side cold.

You don't want to use a thermal mass (i.e. wire, water, etc) at the cold end, because it's just going to heat up and eventually be "full". You need to dump the heat to the atmosphere. That does indeed mean big cooling fins or radiators, but these are not exactly unheard of on existing vehicles.
posted by DU at 8:45 AM on April 4, 2008

I think to operate well - that is provide enough power, the amount of dissipation is very large. Stirling engines have been used by the Swedish Navy in their subs. When you consider how Stirling engines work best, (in situations with a large temp.diff.) it makes sense.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:50 AM on April 4, 2008

From what I understand, dumping heat is easier in a steam engine or steam turbine in that in the steam engine, the steam which is used to transfer the heat energy to the piston or turbine then carries the waste heat away in the exhaust cycle, and water's high specific heat is good for this job, at least better than air. This explains the choice of a Stirling in a submarine, where the heat is easily rid through water.

My faith in the hundreds of designers and engineers of the Industrial age says that if a Stirling engine worked cheaper and better than a steam engine, they would have used it. That faith may be displaced at any time by new technology and lighter, more heat radiant and cheap materials. I'd love to see it.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:07 PM on April 4, 2008

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