BOOK REVIEW: The History of Steam Locomotive Power

Written by

William C. Vantuono, editor

STEAM LOCOMOTIVE ENERGY HISTORY: 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 railway workers and railroad enthusiasts, and even the uninitiated, who doesn’t like steam locomotives? Walter Simpson’s new book, The history of steam locomotive energy: how these locomotives used energy and what was done to make them more efficient, offers readers the opportunity to delve into the inner workings of the locomotives that have been the main source of motive power for American railroads for more than a century, from the brutal beginnings of the early 19th century to the superpower era from the 1920s through the 1940s and short-lived experiments with steam turbines, until the end of regular service around 1960. Detailed engineering drawings, graphs and scientific charts cover everything from smokehouses to superheaters, boilers to hearths, from conductors to side rods, from safety valves to flap valves, from tenders to stokers, etc.—no detail is overlooked.

“It is, in the minds of these reviewers, the best discussion of steam locomotive efficiency ever,” says Tom Dixon of the C&O Historical Society. “Simpson uses original sources from various railroads, as well as authoritative books and articles by the mechanical engineers who have worked so hard to make the steam locomotive ever more efficient, especially during the past four decades of steam operation. His conclusion was that a good steam locomotive could convert 7% of its fuel into mechanical energy, and most did not reach this level, while the best only reached 8%. A typical diesel-electric locomotive, on the other hand, produces around 30-35%. And, for comparison, a power plant is 33% efficient and an automobile about 25%.

“Simpson understands and documents how steam engine builders and railroads worked hard to increase efficiency. Yet the very design of the machine prevented a large increase in capacity, even in Super Power locomotives both announced, after 1925.

“The study is a scholarly review, fully footnoted with an extensive bibliography, so it should figure prominently in the steam power literature. It is, at the same time, a highly readable and comprehensible that the ordinary person can easily appreciate and enjoy.This is a visually pleasing and authoritative book.The book is well illustrated with superb black and white and color photographs showing all types of steam locomotives at the job.

“This reviewer has read hundreds of books and probably thousands of articles on steam locomotives, and has written several himself, but this book has given me new ideas and an understanding that I never had before. had in 52 years of involvement in railway history.”

Simpson’s book delves into a lesser-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 such as the Red Devil, a 1981 retrofit of a South African Railways Class 26 4-8-4 with GPCS (Gas Producing Combustion System), twin Lempor exhausts, Porta water treatment and other upgrades. It also covers Ross Rowland’s long-abandoned American Coal Enterprises. ACE 3000 3,000 hp reciprocating steam locomotive which, if built, would have incorporated features such as GPCS, draft produced by steam fans, four-cylinder compound expansion, connected duplex drive, piston rings of diesel type and microprocessor controls, including multiple unit capability.

Fascinating stuff. Worth adding to your railroad library.

Jose P. Rogers