BOOK REVIEW: The Steam Locomotive Energy Story

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
image description

THE STEAM LOCOMOTIVE ENERGY STORY: How These Locomotives Used Energy and What Was Done to Make Them More Efficient. By Walter Simpson. The Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, Inc. Hardcover, 144 pages, $44.95. Available from Simmons-Boardman Books,

Among railroaders and railroad enthusiasts, and even those who aren’t, who doesn’t love steam locomotives? Walter Simpson’s new book, The Steam Locomotive Energy Story: How These Locomotives Used Energy and What Was Done to Make Them More Efficient, offers readers the chance to crawl into the inner workings of the locomotives that were the primary source of U.S. railroad motive power for well more than a century, from crude beginnings in the early 19th century through the Super-Power era of the 1920s through 1940s and short-lived experiments with steam turbines, to the end of regular revenue service around 1960. Detailed technical drawings, scientific graphs and charts cover everything from smokeboxes to superheaters, boilers to fireboxes, drivers to side rods, safety valves to poppet valves, tenders to stokers, etc.—no detail is overlooked.

“It is, in this reviewers’ mind, the best discussion of steam locomotive efficiency ever done,” says Tom Dixon of the C&O Historical Society. “Simpson uses original sources from a variety of railroads, as well as authoritative books and articles by the mechanical engineers who worked so hard to make the steam locomotive ever more efficient, especially through the last four decades of steam operation. His conclusion is that a good steam locomotive could convert 7% of its fuel to mechanical energy, and most didn’t reach that level, while the very best got only up to the 8% range. A typical diesel-electric locomotive, by contrast, produces around 30%-35%. And, for further comparison, an electric generating plant is 33% efficient, and an automobile about 25%.

“Simpson understands and documents how the steam engine builders and railroads worked hard to increase efficiency. Yet, the very design of the machine prevented much increase in capability, even in the much heralded Super Power locomotives, post-1925.

“The study is a scholarly review, fully footnoted with an extensive bibliography, so it should assume an important place in the literature of steam power. It is, at the same time, a highly readable and understandable discussion that the ordinary person can readily appreciate and enjoy. It is a visually pleasing book as well as an authoritative one. The book is well-illustrated with great photos both in black and white and color showing all types of steam locomotives at work.

“This reviewer has read hundreds of books and probably thousands of articles about steam locomotives, and has written several himself, but this book gave me new insights and understanding I never had in 52 years of being involved in railroad history.”

Simpson’s book dives into a less-well-known aspect of steam locomotives: attempts to design and build a “modern” locomotive. In the book’s epilogue, “Advanced Steam – The Quest for a High Efficiency Steam Locomotive,” the author describes initiatives like the Red Devil, a 1981 retrofit of a South African Railways Class 26 4-8-4 with GPCS (Gas Producing Combustion System), double Lempor exhausts, Porta water treatment and other improvements. He also covers Ross Rowland’s long-abandoned American Coal Enterprises ACE 3000 3,000-hp reciprocating steam locomotive, which, if it had been built, would have incorporated such features as GPCS, draft produced by steam-powered fans, four-cylinder compound expansion, connected duplex drive, diesel-type piston rings, and microprocessor controls, including multiple-unit capability.

Fascinating stuff. Well worth adding to your railroad library.

Categories: Locomotives, Mechanical, News Tags: