For close to a century, steam locomotives had changed history; connected the United States, and changed the world in general. But with the evolving technology of diesel-powered locomotives that were being developed in the 1930s before becoming the in-thing after World War II and beyond, the popular iron horse (steam locomotive) that had ruled the railroads for close to a century was finally on its deathbed. But in a show of defiance toward this evolving technology and in an attempt for steam to hang on one last time, came the introduction of the not-so-successful steam turbine locomotives.
In an attempt to revitalize steam power and challenge diesel-powered locomotives that were being introduced, various locomotive builders in the USA began testing turbine power, which was commonplace in stationary power plants and steamships, as an alternative to the traditional steam power. From the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, steam turbine locomotives were designed, tested, and used. Unfortunately, they were not much of a success and remain a bleak part of history when steam locomotives attempted to hang on and rival the evolving technology of diesel locomotives.
To many historians, railroad fans, and even casual observers, the introduction of steam turbine locomotives was an interesting time in the locomotive industry. Although they were considered engineering triumphs, they were practical failures of epic proportions. But even with that, we need not forget about these historical if not momentous railroad times that remain a distant memory. And that’s why we walk you through the great but forgotten history of steam turbine locomotives in the United States.
WHAT IS A STEAM TURBINE LOCOMOTIVE?
Before going into the deep intricates of the history of steam turbine locomotives, it would only make sense to understand what a steam turbine locomotive actually is. Well, a steam turbine locomotive is, technically, still a steam locomotive. But unlike, the traditional steam locomotive, a steam turbine locomotive employs the transmission of steam power to the wheels of the locomotive via a steam turbine.
The idea here is that a steam turbine is used to extract thermal energy from pressurized steam, which is then used to power the locomotive. As shallow as this explanation may seem, it’s in its simplest form, so you need not worry because we’ll go much into detail in terms of design and operation later in the article.
From a historical standpoint, the railroad industry wanted to borrow a leaf from their counterparts in the marine industry. For decades, Navy ships had been powered by turbines and were a lot quicker than anything else on the water. So given the inherent power and efficiency of turbines, engineers in the railroad industry wanted to use the same logic by building steam turbine locomotives and it made a lot of sense.
THE HISTORY OF STEAM TURBINE LOCOMOTIVES
When we think about steam locomotives, our minds undeniably flashback to the traditional “choo-choo” trains designed with a huge funnel in front, a barrel-shaped boiler in the middle, and a crew cab at the back. The train must emit loads of smoke and steam into the atmosphere. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that perception. After all, these were the most popular designs for decades when steam locos were the kings of the railroads.
Unknown to many, there was another not-so-popular but far more complex type of locomotive that relied on steam as well. Known as steam turbine locomotives, it’s worth noting that they weren’t very successful. While they were considered engineering triumphs, they were practical failures and spent more time in the garage than they spent on the railroads.
The history of steam turbine locomotives can be categorized into two distinct phases. The first phase (1893-1923) was generally associated with the development of steam turbine locomotives in Europe. During this phase, French, German, and Italian engineers attempted to create a new form of steam locomotive that would be an alternative to the traditional steam locomotive.
The second phase (1936-1958) was associated with Americans attempting to find alternatives to diesel-powered locomotives that were rapidly gaining a foothold in the railroad industry and displacing steam locomotives that were gradually becoming obsolete.
Although the idea of steam turbine locomotives had been in place from as early as the late 1920s, it was almost a decade later in 1938 when the actual application of steam turbine locomotives on the railroad began. As it later came to be, the introduction of steam turbine locomotives in 1938 by General Electric (GE) for Union Pacific (UP) was a river too deep to cross at that time, but we have to appreciate the two companies for not just dreaming up the idea but also for putting it into practice albeit for a couple of short years.
To this point, the history of steam turbine locomotives will make much more sense, if we look at them from each railroad’s perspective. By doing this, it will be a lot easier to understand why the railroads were interested in implementing the steam turbine technology at a time when dieselization was taking shape as the future of locomotives.
While the steam turbine technology was powerful, it had several shortcomings and was only implemented by a few railroad companies including Union Pacific, Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Central, Chesapeake & Ohio, Great Northern, and Norfolk & Western.
UNION PACIFIC STEAM TURBINE LOCOMOTIVES
General Electric came up with a project called the teamotive’ project. This was a counter move to rival General Motors, which had set up the Electro-Motive Division to produce diesel-powered locomotives in 1936. General Motors had intended to introduce diesel-powered locomotives that they believed to be more efficient, lightweight, reliable, and faster than the archetypical steam locomotives.
DESIGN (ADVANTAGES OF STEAM TURBINE LOCOMOTIVES)
To compete with GM, General Electric hatched a plan to produce a new form of locomotive that could give them a large portion of the booming railway market. As such, GE came up with the idea of a steam turbine locomotive. The idea was to create a steam locomotive that could eliminate the undesirable elements of traditional steam locomotives such as low thermal efficiency and multiple-unit operation.
To make the steam turbine locomotive even better, GE included various features such as electric transmission that were based on diesel-powered locos. GE’s steam turbine locomotives were also designed with streamlined bodies that were similar to diesel-powered locomotives. To afford the crew greater visibility, GE designed these units with elevated cabs.
In essence, each unit measured 90 feet 10 inches in length, 15 feet inches in height, and 10 feet in width. GE also noted that its steam turbine locomotives would attain speeds of 125 mph and would produce 2500 horsepower. These locomotives would weigh 548,000 pounds and had a wheel arrangement of 2-C+C-2.
In terms of power, the turbines were designed to operate at 12,500 rpm. They would be paired with a twin-armature DC generator that would power the locomotive. As far as braking was concerned, GE’s steam turbine locomotives had dynamic brakes and braking was created by running the traction motors in reverse.
Built for close to three years at the GE plant in Erie, PA at a cost of about $2 million, Union Pacific steam turbine locomotives were the first steam locomotive in the United States. The two units were completed in December 1938 and road-tested on New York Central rail tracks between January and March 1939.
They were then delivered to Union Pacific in April 1939 and were on public display through a national tour and were even inspected by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The steam turbine locomotives exhibited the ability to maintain schedule than traditional steam locomotives thanks to their excellent acceleration.
On the other hand, these steam turbine locomotives showed signs of unreliability and excessive maintenance costs. In one instance, the locomotives couldn’t haul a train from Colorado to Omaha and had to be pulled along with the rest of the train for the remaining part of the journey.
For these and many other reliability issues, these steam turbine locomotives operated for just six months in what was recorded as one of the shortest operational periods in railroading history. Although Union Pacific returned the trains to GE in late 1939, the company retained an interest in the steam turbine locomotive concept for another two years before ending its agreement with GE in December 1941.
NEW YORK CENTRAL AND GREAT NORTHERN STEAM TURBINE LOCOMOTIVES
Even though Union Pacific lost interest in steam turbine locomotives, GE continued working on the project. In 1941, New York Central used the two steam turbine locos on its Water Level Route in New York but without much success.
Great Northern Railroad then took the initiative in 1943 and operated the steam turbine locos between Spokane and Wenatchee, Washington. They had been repainted and renamed GE-1 and GE-2. Unfortunately, they still exhibited previous issues and were returned to GE by late 1943 before being retired from service and scrapped during World War II.
PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD STEAM TURBINE LOCOMOTIVES
By World War II, diesel-powered locomotives were rapidly gaining ground. They were becoming popular not just among freighters but also among railroad owners as they could see their advantages from a financial standpoint. As such, you can’t stop to wonder why some railroad companies still bothered to come up or even implement a new style of steam locomotive in the name of steam turbine locomotive.
With that in mind, we can’t stop asking; what about turbine technology that kept attracting railroad companies despite its initial failures? Your guess is as good as mine: some of these railroads had some vested interests in steam locomotives.
Even though there were practical reasons to implement steam turbine locomotives, some senior officials at these railroad companies had some interests that necessitated the continued use of steam locomotives. From a practical viewpoint, steam locomotives used coal as the main source of fuel, and this was half the cost of diesel.
For Pennsylvania Railroad, they did a lot of business transporting coal and so it was important for them to keep doing that. This means that they looked at it both from the business and practical side. In other words, they could continue using a cheaper source of fuel in coal and also implement steam turbines that had been successfully used in navy warships.
“All across the country, major railroad companies were buying diesel-powered locomotives and either scrapping or retiring coal-powered locomotives,” said Albert Burkhardt, a local historian. “But some of them such as the Chesapeake & Ohio, Pennsylvania Railroad, and Norfolk & Western held on because they owned huge coal reserves and were guaranteed of a cheaper source of fuel.”
Again, Pennsylvania Railroad was attracted to steam turbine locomotives as they wanted to succeed where their main rivals, the New York Central Railroad, had failed. An interesting competition had emerged between these two rivals on who could create better, quicker, and fuel-efficient locomotives. For this reason, Pennsylvania Railroad was willing to experiment with the steam turbine locomotive just as they had done with some of their most creative designs such as the S1 Duplex and the T1 Duplex.
THE CREATION OF S2 NO. 6200
For the reasons discussed above, Pennsylvania Railroad through a collaborative effort with Baldwin Locomotive Works and Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company created the S2 steam turbine locomotive. As we’ve mentioned a couple of times in this article, the main idea was to attempt to prolong the use and dominance of steam locos by incorporating a technology that had been widely used with success in the marine industry.
Have you been wondering; what was the difference between steam turbine locomotives and the regular steam locomotive and yet they all used coal, steam, and a firebox? Well, the S2 clearly showed the difference. World War II created material shortages and some design decisions had to be made differently.
Making its grand debut in September 1944, the S2 didn’t have the familiar “chuff chuff” sound of the regular steam locomotives. Instead, it had this powerful “whoosh” sound, which was quite strange at the time. But as the largest, heaviest, and fastest steam turbine locomotive ever built, the S2 was said to be capable of easily pulling a full load at over 100 mph! In fact, it would do it more efficiently than an Electro-Motive E7 diesel once it got to 40 mph.
Even with that, the main problem with the S2 was that it was coal hungry and water-thirsty at speeds below 40 mph. The most trouble, however, arose in starting the locomotive. The train had to overcome the initial starting resistance but doing this often caused the boiler pressure of the locomotive to drop from over 300 psi to below 100 psi. This rapid drop caused serious thermal problems in the firebox. This meant that the S2 spent a lot of time in the workshops than on the rails.
It was later discovered that the boiler and firebox designs were faulty and new ones would be needed. There was also the complex issue of controlling two turbines, which proved to be the final nail in S2’s coffin. Most of its six years of existence were spent in the workshops rather than on the tracks before it was retired and scrapped in 1949.
THE CHESAPEAKE & OHIO RAILROAD STEAM TURBINE LOCOMOTIVE
One of the most major railroad companies that prominently tried to offer a competitive edge against diesel-powered locos was the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. The glorious reign of steam locomotives was coming to an end but C&O felt that steam turbine locomotive could offer competition and experimented with this concept through its class M-1 steam turbine locomotive, which was infamously known as Chessie the Cat.
Although C&O wasn’t known for its passenger trains, it peculiarly intended to use its steam turbine loco in high-speed passenger service. At the time, the company’s new president, Robert R. Young believed passenger service was the way to go since it was an important part of the railroad’s business. This belief led to the creation of the Chessie, which was to ply the Washington D.C.-Cincinnati route.
Having been the president of C&O since 1942, Young was a strong supporter of passenger trains. And in maintaining C&O’s entrenched coal roots, Young believed that the new train had to be a steam turbine locomotive; a technology that he believed would always trounce the more expensive diesel. Again, Young boasted that Chessie would be the most luxurious passenger train in the country.
Perhaps in realizing that its predecessors had failed in steam turbine locomotive, C&O managed to bring together Baldwin Locomotive Works, Westinghouse, and General Electric for this project. Numbered 500, Chessie had a wheel arrangement of 2-C1+2-C1-B (this translates to 4-8-0-4-8-4). It weighed 856,000 pounds, was 106 feet long, and had 6,000 horsepower. In essence, Chessie was an imposing if not impressive machine thanks to its streamlined body.
“The M-1 worked like regular steam locomotives, but differently,” said Thomas Dixon Jr. in his book, Chesapeake & Ohio Railway: A Concise History And Fact Book. “It had a standard boiler where coal was fed to power electrified traction motors on the axles to power the locomotive.”
To put this into perspective, Chessie combined the use of steam and diesel locomotive in the sense that it had both a boiler and traction motor. Its only difference from a diesel-powered locomotive was that it didn’t have a diesel engine. Unlike the traditional steam locomotives, Chessie had the boiler at the rear of the locomotive while the coal tender was situated ahead of the cab. As weird as it sounds, the cab was actually between the tender and the boiler!
There was a feeling that Young was ahead of himself when he commissioned the creation of Chessie No. 501 and No. 502 even before No. 500 had been up and running. The main problem with No. 500 was the turbines. Although turbines were practical in a marine setup, they couldn’t keep up with the vibrating action and heavy beating that was the norm on the railroads. Dirt, dust, and other particles were also part of the problem.
Young had planned to launch the new steam turbine locomotive immediately after the end of WWII (in 1947-1948) but this was never to be. Believe it or not, this grand idea of having Chessie ferrying passengers between Washington D.C and Cincinnati never came to be!
Its builders had claimed that Chessie would require less maintenance because it had fewer moving parts but this only proved to be an illusion. Chessie the cat never made it to the tracks as they proved unreliable as a result of endless mechanical problems. The company had to accept the bitter fact that diesel was the future and Chessie the cat was scrapped a few years after being built. C&O swallowed a bitter pill and ended the steam turbine idea. The three units; No.500, 501, and 502 were sent back to Baldwin and scrapped in 1950.
NORFOLK & WESTERN’S LEGENDARY “JAWN HENRY” STEAM TURBINE LOCOMOTIVE
Even though Union Pacific, New York Central, Pennsylvania Railroad, and Chesapeake & Ohio had tested steam turbine locomotives without success, Norfolk & Western wasn’t just going to give up on its beloved coal and steam locomotives without a fight. Its experimental Jawn Henry was the last in the short and unsuccessful series of steam turbine locomotives.
Given its huge coal reserves and the belief that steam power was still the way to go, N&W had hoped to find a proper way of not only providing competition against the rapidly growing dieselization but also to continue maximizing its main power and business model; the use of coal. The company had its roots in coal and had a long-standing policy of strictly using steam locomotives.
The steam loco, which was the last steam turbine locomotive to be made, was named “Jawn Henry” after the mythical John Henry – the steel-driving man [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_(folklore)] . Legend has it that John Henry was a famous African American railroad worker who defeated a steam drill but died immediately after his heart gave out. It was built by Baldwin-Westinghouse in 1954. But even after numerous attempts, it’s safe to say that these leading locomotive builders couldn’t work out or rather solve the problems that engulfed steam turbine locomotives even after including marine boilermaker Babcock & Wilcox in this last project.
Jawn Henry was a C-C-C-C design and weighed 818,000 pounds. This means that it was shorter and lighter than the last steam turbine loco: C&O’s M-1. Numbered 2300, Jawn Henry could produce over 600 psi, which was twice the pressure of regular steam locomotives. Its tractive efforts surpassed those of N&W’s class A and Y workhorses and had superior fuel savings to both regular steam locomotives and the new diesel locomotives. Unfortunately, these illustrious features proved illusionary.
No. 2300 proved to be far more expensive to construct than the regular steam locomotive or the diesel locomotives. To counter this, Baldwin offered that the costs would go down if the unit was mass-produced. As if that wasn’t a problem enough, Jawn Henry had complex controls that were difficult to master. Its electrical motor was regularly damaged by various particles of dust and dirt. Worst still, the turbines could be problematic if the train moved at a high speed. But then again, moving at a slower speed (below 40 mph) led to extremely high fuel consumption.
For these reasons, Jawn Henry could never be trusted to haul freights on major railroads. It had to be used as a helper along the main lines between Virginia, Roanoke, and Bluefield, WV. In the end, Jawn Henry was an epic failure that didn’t turn out to be the savior of steam turbine locomotives as had been expected.
Despite its efforts, N&W had to accept that diesel was the future and had to change its steam locomotive policy or face extinction. By 1955, the company bought its first diesel locomotive and the not-so legendary Jawn Henry was scrapped in 1958.
To this end, the interesting but epic failure of steam turbine locomotives remains a distant memory at a time when diesel-powered locomotives were taking over and steam locomotives tried to hang on one last time by introducing steam turbines to its fold.
As it turned out, diesel proved to be cheaper and more reliable. Although there was no need for a fireman, the train driver’s life become so solitary if not boring. While diesel-powered locomotives were cheaper to run and maintain, they weren’t as captivating as steam locos. In fact, the end of the steam locomotive age seemed not to benefit the railroads. A majority of the people shunned trains and started using buses and cars.
Sadly, all the steam turbine locomotives were scrapped perhaps out of shame that they never succeeded. But even with that, it’s only proper to appreciate the above-discussed railroad companies for introducing steam turbine locomotives not just to fight off dieselization but also in their numerous attempts to try keeping the unending romance with steam locomotives alive.
A longtime railfan, Bob enjoys the research that goes into his articles. He is knowledgeable on many railroad topics and enjoys learning about new topics. You can get a hold of Bob at his email link below.