Thoughts on the End of Steam in America

I will attempt to answer this question in a few paragraphs where others have written, ponderous times to explain why the diesel replaced steam power in America. Dieselization did not occur in a vacuum and to understand it you have to look at the historic events that led up to it, the situation at the time, and what other factors contributed to the end of Steam. It was not a simple thing. Hopefully, everyone will find this discussion rational and thoughtful. I do this with some reservation because I am opening myself up for public attack.

Well here goes, go get some coffee or other beverage and have a seat.

First of all, the many, many arguments about which kind of engine is the most efficient from an engineering point of view takes us from the historic reality we want to examine and moves us to the realm of the academic. Every type of engine has certain advantages to the other types and anyone can arbitrarily pick data or create a category to prove their side of the argument. One of my professors in college said, Always beware of the writer's intention. My intention is to examine history and draw a conclusion. Honest enough.

The bottom line is: How much does it cost to move a train from point A to point B in a timely and reliable fashion? How can we make more profit with less overhead? That is the oldest and most persistent question in Capitalism.

In 1945 the question of which type of motive power was the best was yet left open because it was not clear by any means, however; forces outside and within the railroad industry compelled the answer by 1955.

We'll start with the year 1933, the year of the great Century Of Progress exhibition in Chicago, which was an extravaganza to celebrate how the railroad industry had changed the World in a hundred years. In that year the number of car loadings were down to less than 53% of 1929 levels. There were only 10 new locomotives ordered that year. These were class A2 4-8-4's for the Northern Pacific. All railroads had entire yards stuffed with surplus power. Passenger traffic had fallen to a trickle. In that dark year the most common locomotive by far was the 2-8-0 Consolidation of which the average age was 25 years plus. The railroads had to use what they had. There was no money for any new anything.

Steam locomotive design had made huge strides during the 20's and these quantum leaps continued up to the end of steam. The locomotive that was built in 1920 was positively obsolete by 1930, even if it was of the same size and wheel arrangement. The average steam locomotive of mid 30's technology did as much work as 3 engines from 1910 of the same weight and did it with far less cost and upkeep. However, the railroads for the most part had to keep the 1910 engines because they couldn't afford to replace them during the depression. There was a definite attitude problem with the railroad industry at the time as well, from the lowliest ash sweeper to the CEO's. They were comfortable with their arrogance and set in their 19th century ways. The steam railroad created the world and the world depended on them and thus the world had to cow tow to their way of doing things. A few bright people saw the handwriting on the wall, but they were laughed at. No one in the railroad world took Henry Ford's bouncing gas buggy as a serious threat to their all mighty power, even in the 30's

Then the war came along and money, materials etc. had to go for the war effort. Steam locomotive advance came to a halt. Again, those old engines still had to do for the time being. A lot of people make the argument that the war forestalled dieselization and it would have happened a lot sooner. That is simply not the case.

Every railroad of significance kept highly detailed records of expenses, down to how much water, coal and oil was used on each individual locomotive. I mean down to the pound, down to the pint. According to the records of the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, New York Central and other railroads, it was substantially cheaper to run their modern steam engines per mile than the diesels they were compared against, even with all the labor required for their maintenance and upkeep. This was true up until the mid 50's when the cost ratios reversed.

The key point: modern steam was cheaper and it has been pointed out that the percentage of modern steam in the national roster was very low. That is why those modern engines were run to the end. This fact was also borne out by an extensive marketing analysis commissioned jointly by Baldwin and Alco in 1945. They weren't stupid; they wanted to find out if they needed to do a huge re-tooling of their plants to start making diesels. The marketing report showed clearly that there was no evidence that diesels were economically advantageous. The costs to operate them and modern steam were about the same and if the railroads pursued a policy of replacing the legions of aged engines with modern steam, then the costs would be in the railroads favor because the support structure for steam was already existent and to dieselize would require an unneeded huge capital investment in new infrastructure. Therefore, Baldwin and Alco invested in a future where modern steam had a place. What the marketing report didn't cite (they didn't have a crystal ball) was the unexpected change in the world, society, and economics after the war.

After the War, the world changed almost overnight. The Federal Government which had been hostile to the railroad industry since the 1880's was still so; and they had new powerful pressure lobbies pushing for highway improvement and expansion, airport building, and open subsidizing of the trucking and airline industry. The railroad industry was hamstrung by ancient labor agreements and their own managerial inertia. They had to pay huge taxes to support the new competition and had to submit to outdated ICC regulations which hurt badly. Branch line traffic dried up, once busy freight houses closed. Passengers abandoned their once beloved trains for the automobile. GM and others within the oil industry colluded to destroy electric streetcar companies and the railroad industry as a whole. They were out for the kill with the blessing and aid of the government. It is a matter of historic record.

At first the railroad executives thought that all this was temporary and all they had was an image problem. Therefore, they spent millions on shiny new streamlined diesel passenger trains in an attempt to draw people back and to display a new "up to date" attitude to potential customers. It was all to no avail. In this new age of jet planes, atomic bombs, and concrete superhighways, the railroad industry was beset on all sides as their market share plummeted. Also, the technological change from coal to oil began in earnest at this time and the coal industry fought back by raising prices and the miner's union with crippling strikes. Domestic oil was a guaranteed source of cheap fuel. The age of coal was coming to an end.

Internal forces were also at work to undermine the profitability of the railroad industry as a whole. As the post war economy boomed there was a 35% decrease in the available entry-level workforce as compared to before the war. Birth rates had dropped greatly during the 20's and even more so during the depression. By the fifties the work force had shrunk to an alarming degree. The traditional hard work for marginal pay of most entry-level railroad jobs didn't appeal and other markets soaked up the workforce. The steam era railroad unions had huge political power since the early 1900's had even more leverage as there was a shortage of employees. In order to move the trains the railroads had to submit to the union's demands, over and over. Wages began to spiral upward as market share dropped and profits went out the window.

Many railroads saw the diesel as a method to do two things at once. One was to replace all the old engines that needed to be replaced anyway and two; begin a concerted effort (never publicly mentioned but real none the less) to erode union power. If there was a strike in the steam era, middle management couldn't run out of the office and get behind the throttle of a steam engine, but you can with a diesel. Incapable of adapting to these hostile times, the railroad companies saw a way to deal with these pressing issues. Simply get rid of the entire structure of steam, period.

Service continued to deteriorate even after dieselization. The industry was shrinking as a whole and the execs took the opportunity to abandon as much track as they could. Get rid of signal operators, tower operators, track maintenance people, and so on.

Now back to operations. A traditional steam era freight crew is made up of five people. An engineer, fireman, conductor, and two brakemen, according to the unions who had the power to set crew size. The crew got paid a whole day's pay for every hundred miles traveled. This policy dated from the mid 19th century when that's how long it took for a freight train to travel in the time of an average work shift. If the crew didn't go for a hundred miles they got paid for it anyway, also according to the unions. With the new geep (general purpose diesel) you could hook as many of them together as you wanted and run them with one crew. You could allow cars to stack up in any given yard until you could make up a super long train, THUS; you could run a lot fewer trains and hence a lot fewer crews, undercutting costs and the union. Management could then shrug their shoulders at the union bosses and say, Oh well, progress you know.

This strategy worked to greatly reduce labor costs and you could claim that your productivity per train hour was a lot better than with those old steam engines (which made the stockholders happy). This method of train dispatching also delayed delivery times of freight up to sometimes weeks (which made shippers very unhappy and they switched to trucks in droves). This inflexibility of service still exists in the railroad industry to this day, much to its hurt. Meanwhile Americans are sitting on the largest untapped coal reserves on Earth and at the time of this writing are reeling from the high cost of imported oil. So much for the once cheap endless supply of domestic oil which was one of the diesel's selling points in the 50's.

For some railroads, such as the Southern Railway, the choice to buy diesels over modern steam was quickly made. The Southern's physical plant was obsolete across the board. Light rail, tight curves, and many, many tunnels built for 4-4-0s and little Ten Wheelers, precluded the use of modern steam power altogether; modern power simply wouldn't fit. The Southern had 12 classes of locomotives and a huge, confusing set of sub classes all of which pre-dated World War One. By dieselizing they would be spared the great cost of eliminating curves, heavier bridges, removing or enlarging tunnels, and relaying hundred of miles of track with better rail, plus they could get those out of control labor costs down.

The Norfolk & Western on the other hand, had the most modern, well maintained railroad in the country and it was all steam. The N&W built their own locomotives and aggressively developed them to a high degree of efficiency from performance to servicing and maintenance. They did extensive research into improving locomotive servicing techniques and increasing locomotive availability. The result was that the N&W had the highest locomotive productivity at the lowest cost of any other railroad. Including the all diesel roads. They had rejected and improved upon the age-old ways of running steam engines and they were proud of it. An example of this was displayed in 1952 in which they invited EMD to test their F units against an A class 2-6-6-4 and a Y6b 2-8-8-2 compound. EMD secretly souped up the F set to a temporary 6800 horse power, yet during the tests couldn't beat the steam engines performance. After the test, the N&W said, Thanks anyway. Have a nice day.

When questioned about it afterward EMD confessed they had stacked their deck. The N&W stated that they had no intention of dieselizing, but by 1960 they did it anyway. Why? The reason for their change of heart was that the forces that had effected everyone else caught up to them too. They fought against it as long as possible, but the increase in labor and material costs compounded with a shrinking market share caused them to toss in the towel. There was no longer a commercial support system to supply the spare parts they needed for repair. They had to start making a lot of parts themselves and things such as stokers, injectors, feed water heaters, etc. were no longer manufactured. This coupled with labor costs, caused the price of overhauling an engine to become prohibitive; also they couldn't construct new locomotives as the existing ones grew old. They dieselized not because the diesel was this vastly superior machine, but doing business with steam was no longer possible.

The post war attempts to marry the electric traction motor with a steam boiler and other brief, poorly thought out concepts to burn coal were all abysmal failures. The pressing economic and political questions facing the railroad industry at that time could not be answered in a futile attempt to reinvent the wheel. They weren't answered by the diesel either. Railroad share of the market has continued to drop and slowly more and more jobs are lost. Perhaps now that the world's supply of oil is slowly running out, the railroad can once again take its rightful place in moving people and freight. We can only hope so.

Well, this post somehow got a lot longer than I wanted it to. I hope you enjoyed it and it has been informative, provides food for thought and discussion. I hope also, that it is clearly written and easily read.