The Un-Romantic Return of Steam Locomotives

Steam trains are wonderful to behold – to watch one go by is to experience the power of the machine. Unlike modern diesel locomotives which start instantly, never make a fuss, Steam locomotives take hours to get going, and must let off steam when being shut down – literally spewing energy away in a wondrous display of power and might. Worse, steam engines needed such a high degree of maintenance that they were in the shop 7 hours for every 3 they spent on the rails. So, it’s easy to see why they were replaced with technically superior, and aesthetically much more boring machines.

However, the high cost of oil prompted ACE to desing the 3000 in the early 1980’s. Never put into production, it was an attempt to exploit the differential between the costs of oil and coal to build a cheaper running freight engine. Impressively, it doubles the thermal efficiency of older steamers – up to 15% from just 7% when steam was being phased out in the 50s. Thermal efficiency means how much of the heat energy created by burning the fuel is turned into mechanical energy. 15% is impressive compared to your car, which is lucky to squeeze out 9% from its gasoline engine, but a bit crap compared to the 30% modern diesel locomotives achieve.

Half the therman efficiency means coal needs to cost half as much per energy unit for the machine to be profitable. In the early 80s, We should in no way desire this bank managers dream to come true. And it was true – to prove their case ACE took that pretty old Steamer you see above, and fitted it with various sensors, put it into service, and proved it was profitable to run at existing coal prices compared to diesel (in the early 80s), and this was with an engine running 6% thermal efficiency.

ACE’s project failed because the price of oil fell in the mid 80s. However, if the cost of oil climbs again to 150$ a barrel, you can be certain there will be renewed interest in the 3000. This should make us afraid, because Coal produces a lot more C02 for every joule of heat created than does oil, and this runs half the therman efficiency of a diesel loco. This means it produces at least 4 times as much C02 for the same amount of work done, and although that’s surely a lot less than moving things by truck, it is certainly not the direction we need to be moving.

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4 thoughts on “The Un-Romantic Return of Steam Locomotives

  1. No, unfortunately. It wouldn’t be steam though – the only cases where steam was used after the mid 60s were states where de-steamification was stopped, or slowed down, for economic reasons. It is important to recognize that although the cost of replacing the locomotives was high, the cost of maintaining the old steam engines was very high – diesel meant many layoffs were possible The best example of later steam use is South Africa, where the oil embargo made steam the obvious choice.

    Also, some large countries kept steam very late. China used steam on mainline railways until 2006, and the last new engine was completed in 1999. I don’t know why this is. Russia kept a thousand steam engines in operable condition until 1994 in case of national emergency – and there are still 200 in operable condition today. Also, steam engines were used on main lines until the 90s in Russia.

    I think India is a good clue as to the reasons – in India steam was not completely phased out until 1989. My guess is that labour rates were cheap, so the increased cost of labour was not significant. This would explain why China and Russia kept steam running into the 90s.

  2. i visited your website and i will like to tell you that i have travelled in steam engine trains in childhood.so i want that you please send me every update of your site and also some pictures of steam engines. i will be greateful to you.thank you. i also want to join your community.

  3. From Wikipedia’s entry on the Chesapeake and Ohio 614: “For several weeks in January and February 1985, 614 (now 614T, symbolizing it as testing) hauled coal trains between Huntington and Hinton, West Virginia. The 614’s fuel consumption costs were actually lower than most diesel locomotives operating at that time. Unfortunately firebox problems and a booster failure later on severely hampered the test results in the end. After the test runs, it was later returned to Baltimore under steam. The project never moved farther than the testing stage.”

    Video of these runs has surfaced on youtube:

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