Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Last Locomotive

Do you ever wonder about "lasts"? When was the last time you left your high school? When was the last time your child called you "Daddy"? I sometimes wonder about "lasts" in technology. My question for today: When was the last steam locomotive built in this country? The answer: December, 1953.

The last steam engine was not some mighty passenger engine with huge driving wheels or even one of the monster freight engines that were used to haul long trains over the mountains. The last steam locomotive built was a lowly switch engine, what in railroad parlance is referred to as an 0-8-0 (no lead wheels, eight driving wheels, and no trailing wheels). You can see the wheel arrangement in the picture. It was built at the Roanoake, Virginia shops of the Norfolk and Western Railroad.

What interested me more about this particular steam engine was the history of its design. During World War I, all of the railroads in the United States were nationalized under a government agency called the U.S. Railroad Administration, or USRA for short. Not only did the agency control the operation and prioritization of shipments and passengers to support the war effort, it mounted an emergency program to design new steam engines to fill a big gap in the number of locomotives available. The USRA came up with excellent designs for eight different engines in a variety of configurations. But of all these, the 0-8-0 was the single most-copied design. Over thirteen hundred of them were built before that last engine in 1953.

It is not hard to see why steam engines gave way to diesel-electric locomotives. By almost any measure, steam engines just couldn't compete with diesels. At their most efficient, steam engines only converted 8 percent of the energy available in the heat of their coal to mechanical work (compared to 25 to 35 percent efficiency for a diesel). In addition, operational and maintenance costs are much less for diesels than for steam engines.

But for pure dramatic effect, it is hard to beat the belching, hissing sounds of a steam locomotive as it begins to pull a long load of cars from a dead stop. The stroke of the huge drivers and connecting rods declare a kind of brute power that is not so easily seen in a diesel.

So my last "last" question lead to another. When was the last steam locomotive taken out of regular service? According to Wikipedia, the last standard gauge class 1 regular service steam engine was used on the Leadville branch of the Colorado and Southern (Burlington Lines) on October 11, 1962. But lo and behold, I find there is one more last: the last class 1 railroad with engine in its roster. The Union Pacific still has one steam locomotive that it has never retired. This engine, UP 844, was built in 1944 and is still occasionally used for excursion trains. The UP 844 is allegedly able to pull 26 passenger cars at over 100 mph on level track. I would love to see it. But instead, here is video clip from bbundridge on YouTube of the UP engine passing a a grade crossing at over 70 mph. Awesome!

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