Railway Preservation News

The age of steam panic?
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Author:  Richard Glueck [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 10:43 am ]
Post subject:  The age of steam panic?

Figuring about 1938-39 as being the first appearance of the Diesel locomotive being touted as the perfect replacement for steam power, some supply manufacturers must have seen the handwriting on the wall. Big roads, like PRR, NYC, N&W, and others continued to develop larger, more highly perfected steam power. Companies like American, Baldwin, and Lima must have felt a shock wave in the future of their main products. Other companies, like Elesco, Franklin, Westinghouse, must have done a "knee-jerk" in response to the Diesel arriving in droves.
Are there any company records detailing this shock wave in the steam world?

Author:  David H. Hamley [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 1:32 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

I think the telling response by most companies in the locomotive business, with the notable exception of Lima, was their getting into--if they weren't already into--the diesel loco business. Granted, WWII and the WPB had some hand in this, but one often wonders how some of the allegedly knowledgeable railroad mechanical departments continued to buy steam power as late as 1949. Perhaps the answer is that some of the old-timers in charge knew steam and only steam, and thus forced decisions that in retrospect look very flawed.

Author:  Dave [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 1:44 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

I read a late 1940's era engineering text many years ago in which the author wrote that he fully expected diesel electrics to completely replace steam on our mainline railroads when the new steam was completely depreciated in the mid 1970s. Only about 20 years off......

I think what happened was a matter of accounting which made for a faster write off or other incentives to encourage the replacement of steam much faster.....but I'm no accountant. Somebody with better knowledge can certainly explain it better. Given the need to replace the existing capital investment in shops and union requirements of maintaining a fireman in diesels, it seems there must have been something going on in the background.


Author:  Lincoln Penn [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 1:52 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

Well, let's see....where to start.....

Elimination of water tanks, pumps, standpipes, pipelines and treatment plants and the people who maintained them.

Elimination of coal chutes, thousands of cars devoted to hauling locomotive coal (and cinders), coal chute attendants and laborers, cinder pits, fire builders, fire cleaners, hundreds of laborers.

Fewer shops, fewer boilermaker crafts (yes, there were more electricians needed), fewer service facilities.

Fewer, but longer and heavier, trains.

Capital was only one part of the equation.

Author:  G. W. Laepple [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 2:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

In addition to all of the above mention by Mr. Penn, by the end of World War II, the locomotive fleet in general was just about worn out. The war effort took its toll on the motive power of every railroad in the country, and buying new was the only solution for many of them. Many railroads had not acquired new motive power since the 1920's, prior to the Great Depression, so their locomotives were near the end of their useful lives and were fully depreciated.

Author:  p51 [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 2:38 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

Just ask someone who was working for a RR before the mid 50s. None of them will tell you they expected steam to vanish as fast as it did. I've talked to a few over the years and the one constant I got from them all was how shocked they were that steam went as fast as it did. Only one person who worked for the Southern - a RR that hadn't bought new steam since before the Great Depression - said he knew it was coming as their steam was totally worn out by the end of WW2. But even he said he assumed it would have bene well into the 60s befor a full transition took place.

Author:  IronTie [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 2:43 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

Another part of the equation that explains the behavior of PRR, C&O, N&W, etc. in hanging on to steam is the availability of cheap coal as a locomotive fuel. Many of the stockholders in these railroads also owned coal mines, and vice versa. (It would be interesting to know how many members of the boards of directors of the coal roads were also on the boards of the big mining companies of the time.)There was thus an economic synergy in favor of continuing to use steam, which was of course eventually overpowered by the labor savings of diesels with which we are all familiar. It was the loyalty to coal that also spurred the experiments in steam turbine technology (i.e. "Jawn Henry."

Author:  Bruce Duensing [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 4:20 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

I don't think that the onset of the diesel age came as a shock to the manufacturers as many had already had gotten their feet wet, but I do think the packaging of production line standardization and building block motive power that coincided with the same hammering out the beginnings of the automotive age as GM took advantage of shocked the steam advocates with it's velocity. The PRR ran out of time and money. Economies of scale for replacement parts vanished as the N&W threw in the towel. It was a far cry from customization, and the near hand craftsmanship of construction techniques. As mentioned earlier in this thread, the loss of railroad positions must have been the inevitable, second shock wave. It seems paradoxical, even to this day, this sort of story continues..the more productive and efficient processes become, the less employment opportunities there seems to be. I recall one futurist saying that production itself of goods was old fashioned..we would all be producing or selling information...I guess that's why PHD's are working at McDonalds.

Author:  G. W. Laepple [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 5:24 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

I suspect the rush to dieselization would have been even faster than it was if the manufacturers had had the capacity to turn locomotives out more quickly. Once the advantages noted above were recognized, everybody wanted diesels, the sooner the better. The bigger railroads, like PRR, C&O, UP, et al, spread dieselizing out over several years for financial reasons, while the Monons and Lehigh Valleys and Seaboard Air Lines of the industry could do it quickly because they didn't need to finance hundreds of units.

Author:  Bob Davis [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 5:28 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

We could draw a parallel to the disappearance of streetcar and interurban systems during the same time frame. With a few exceptions, the Pacific Electric network was still intact in 1949, but was totally gone by mid-1961. St. Louis and Pullman (Osgood-Bradley) were building PCCs right after the war, but St. Louis Car sent its last PCC to San Francisco in 1952 and that was it until the 1970s with BART and PATCO (Philly to NJ) and the San Diego Trolley opening in 1981.

This discussion reminded me of my teenage days, working in a music store in Monrovia CA. In 1957, the week before spring break/Easter Vacation, kids from the more affluent families would come in for batteries to power their portable radios. These were "tube type" radios and required an "A" battery and one or more "B" batteries, which were quite expensive. Came April of 1958 and the world had changed; the young folks all had transistor radios, with just a 9-volt battery required. The tube-type portable, which would also run on AC, would be retired to the garage, so Dad could listen to the ball games. (rather like an old steamer being "parked" and used to provide steam for a cannery)

Author:  JimBoylan [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 5:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

David H. Hamley wrote:
Perhaps the answer is that some of the old-timers in charge knew steam and only steam, and thus forced decisions that in retrospect look very flawed.
There is hearsay that the last industrial steam locomotive built and sold in the United States in 1950, to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, happened because the repairman didn't want to have to learn a new trade before he was old enough to retire, and the superintendent, who was a Doctor of something other than mechanical engineering, relied on his subordinates for knowledge outside of his field.
Does the steam to Diesel transition have any relation to when railroad officials started coming direct from college or other industries, instead of up through the ranks?

Author:  Richard Glueck [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 6:14 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

All good arrows in the direction of my question. I was actually thinking of companies that made parts specifically for steam locomotive application, such as steam dynamos, feed water heaters, stoker mechanisms. If you built a company which made products specifically applicable to steam locomotives, did they "panic", looking for other products or ways in which to keep what they were making viable in a changing market?

Author:  J3a-614 [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 6:53 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

Did any makers of steam locomotive specialties "panic?" Really don't know, although several did manage to transition to certain diesel specialties.

One that comes immediately to mind is Nathan, which made whistles, injectors, and a number of other things. I believe they would later make things like cab seats, perhaps cab heaters, and of course, air horns--so many railfans apparently adore the KL-5.

Other companies may not have been as wedded to steam anyway, or steam parts were but part of what they did. I'm thinking of General Steel Castings, which of course made all those big locomotive beds--but they were, and I believe still are, in business making truck frames and other cast railroad specialties, both for diesel locomotives and freight cars, and I believe for passenger cars, too. Worthington, which made feedwater heaters, also was in the general pump business, and I think they may be around.

Alco and Baldwin also branched out, making many other products, including stationary engines, and other things like ship propellers.

Having said that, many other firms likely just died, among them the Supeheater Company, Franklin Railway Supply, and who knows who else. And even the survivors likely had to live in reduced circumstances, not only because of the lack of the steam business, but because of the contraction of railroading itself.

That time had to be so dispiriting; there is a story that Bert Townsend, who was Will Woodard's successor at Lima after Woodard's death, was trying to convince Lima's management to make a last try with that double-Belpaire, poppet valve 4-8-6 that would have been a potent piece of machinery. When he was turned down and the decision made to concentrate on diesels, and with it the removal of Townsend to the company's power shovel division (which continued for decades after the end of locomotive work), it is said that Townsend became something of a recluse, and would die only a couple of years later.

Did the end of steam cause his death by breaking his heart?

Author:  David Johnston [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 7:25 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

I knew two boiler makers at an oil refinery I worked at in the 1970s. They had worked for the Santa Fe and then went off to WWII. When they returned from the war they went to work in the refinery. I ask them why they did not go back to the Santa Fe and they both said that in 1945 it was apparent that steam on the railroads was dead.

Many of the old line steam era suppliers that did survive the change from steam to diesel died in the 1970s due to asbestos law suits.

Author:  steamfan765 [ Wed Dec 11, 2013 7:42 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The age of steam panic?

I always knew WWII played a huge roll at the end of steam. The railroads and the workers knew the end was near for steam. I thought it was a waste to scrap steam locomotives so soon. Some steam locomotives were about 6-10 years old when they were scraped. I would've kept the most modern steam for long as I can and replace the worn out motive power with diesels. I believe if some has a lot of serviceable life left in it I would run it to the end of it's life. I also believe that steam is more usable than diesels because steam were built to last and were built to be rebuilt and upgraded. The diesels were wanted more because they're cheaper to maintain, operate, and were cleaner. I see it that the Railroads failed steam not them. The age of diesels are about to come to an end also since many are being built to run on natural gas. The evolution of technology continues onwards but steam outlast them all. Steam was and still is King.

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