[N&W] Steam to Diesel

nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Tue May 4 22:29:35 EDT 2004

The following has been edited from a railfan
discussion thread concerning the steam to diesel

Mason Cooper

Steam To Diesel

	The first diesel locomotives were built around 1927. By
the forties, diesel locomotives were in use all around the county.
Steam engines could still be seen in the fifties and some up to
the mid-sixties. But why did it take so long to convert?

	The diesel-electric locomotive was a major technological
innovation that took time and money to fully develop. The first
were switcher/shunting locomotives incapable of handling mainline
speeds and tonnage. Questions of reliability, performance, power
transmission diesel-mechanical, diesel-electric, diesel-hydraulic,
diesel-compressed air) all had to be explored.

A good decade later, in the mid-1930s, technological improvement
were such that diesel-electrics were fit for main line passenger
and freight service. However, given both financial constraints
of the Great Depression and very conservative railroad management,
the diesel made slow inroads.  Its first successes were in new
publicity-grabbing streamliners, such as the Burlington's
"Zephyr," designed to woo the public back to rail travel.

Almost a decade later came the Second World War with production
restrictions on locomotives, thus halting major inroads of the
diesel-electric in the US. World War II began in the autumn of 1939
but the U.S. was not a belligerent until December 7, 1941; these
meaning production restrictions didn't really start to take effect
until 1942.

The end of the war in 1945 saw, in the US, the release of enormous
consumer demand, (remember the railroads are consumers here), for
all sorts of products that had been unavailable during the war years,
a demand that far exceeded manufacturer's ability to supply enough
of the goods desired.  This also delayed the ability of some railroad
companies to acquire the diesel-electrics they wanted. Interestingly,
it also caused some railroads to buy inferior diesel-electrics from
manufacturers who could promise faster delivery. As these units
proved mechanically unreliable as the years passed and thus contributed
to the delay in their owners being able to retire steam.

It is important to note that not all railroads jumped on the
diesel-electric bandwagon at war's end. Many railroads that had
a substantial coal-hauling business were reluctant to offend
shippers by switching to locomotives not powered by coal. The
best example of this might be the Norfolk and Western Railway.
Others found the diesel-electrics then available to be inferior
to the steam locomotives they already had, The Nickel Plate
and its 2-8-4 Berkshires spring to mind.

In 1948 there was a major nationwide (US) strike in the coal
industry, causing the availability of that fuel to fall dangerously
low. That was probably the straw that broke the camels back and
convinced most railroads that the future was with Diesel. It's from
about this point that I think the deisel-electric's decade begins.

By the late 1950s steam was very rare in mainline service in the
United States. Some steam locomotives lingered on into the 1960s.
Steam locomotives on N&W lasted into 1960, in yards and mine runs
where coal and water remained more readily available. N&W dispatched
Class Y6 2-8-8-2s out of Williamson on mine shifters into the first
few days on May 1960.

The other side of this coin was that most steam locomotives in service
during the war received minimal or deferred maintenance, so they were
pretty much worn out which helped their passing. By the late fifties
most of the manufacturers of steam engine appliances were out of business,
so those roads wishing to continue building their own steam (i.e. N&W)
couldn't get parts needed anymore. EMD covered wagon demonstrator sets
toured by country. By 1957 even the N&W was converting.

One thing railfans do not look at is the depreciation schedule
for capital equipment like locomotives. Once a railroad puts a
locomotive in service, it is looking at a 20 year service life
or there-abouts. So they were retired as they wore out.

Once diesels became reliable and effective enough, the railroads just
didn't throw away all their existing locomotives, even the low-milers,
and switch the whole fleet at once. On N&W, which was a very quick
changeover, only four years, it was hastened by parts shortages as
steam loco suppliers left the business. Once dieselization got started,
though, steam locomotives disappeared in about a decade. That is fast
for such a major change in an entire industry. We're still seeing
that today: the shift to high-horsepower/AC traction locomotives is
paced by manufacturing capacity.

Trhe following persons contributed to this article: Damon Hill,
Philip J. Kuhl, M. Gilligan, Pat LaTorres, and Rich Weyand

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