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The Death Of Steam

May 2024
1min read


As a railroad observer for the last thirty years, I couldn’t let a couple of items in John H. White, Jr.'s article “The Power of Live Steam,” in the April issue, go by without setting the record straight. First, Mr. White states that up until 1955, steam locomotives “were the dominant form of power on American railways” and, second, that steam locomotives disappeared from mainline railroads in five years. Both of these statements are untrue.

By 1955, contrary to what White asserts, steam was just about dead on the majority of main-line railroads in the United States. In fact, whole railroads, such as the New York, Ontario & Western and the Lehigh & New England, had completely dieselized by 1950, and several of the bigger systems, such as New York Central, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific, had ended all steam operations by middecade. By the time main-line steam operations in the U.S. ended in 1960, only three railroads ran steam locomotives in regular service (and a small number at that): Grand Trunk & Western, Norfolk & Western, and Illinois Central.

The demise of the American steam locomotive began in November 1939, not 1955, when the Electro-Motive Division sent a four-unit, 5,400-horsepower diesel electric set on an 83,764-mile nationwide demonstration tour that included more than twenty railroads in thirty-five states. The result of the tour was that railroads realized the vast cost efficiencies diesels had over steam even before the demonstration set made it home to the EMD plant at LaGrange, Illinois, in October of 1940, when several railroads began placing orders for the new units.

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