Is the Iron Horse Doomed? (Feb, 1932)

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Is the Iron Horse Doomed?

Electrification of Pennsylvania R.R. on Gigantic Scale May Presage End of the Steam Locomotive

By Kenneth M. Swezey

FROM the Pennsylvania Railroad route between New York and Washington, D. C, the snorting monsters which for more than fifty years have hauled some of the heaviest freight and passenger traffic in America are soon to disappear. By the middle of 1933, at least 150 electric-powered giants, and several hundred multiple-unit cars, will be handling the entire traffic on this section of the line with a speed, smoothness, and economy never before achieved. This greatest steam railroad electrification project, involving 325 miles of route and 1,300 miles of track and costing a hundred million dollars, marks the beginning of a new era in railroad transportation. For almost half a century, the Iron Horse has roared across the continents of the world, snorting defiance at the threat of electricity. Without undue humiliation it let its sleek rival do the quiet and smokeless auxiliary work at terminals, in long tunnels, and on suburban and inter-urban passenger lines.

The hurt was deeper when electric locomotives proved themselves more capable of hauling heavy trains at high speeds over steep mountain grades. None of these auxiliary services, however, seriously affected the sovereignty of the steam locomotive over the long open trails, in the blazing of which it has made thrilling history.

While the oil lamp and the small stationary steam engine vanished before the advance of the new power, the puffing iron giant of the rails has obstinately held its own. Bigger and more efficient —embodying automatic stokers, superheaters, feedwater heaters, improved valve motion, compounding, the use of cast steel to lighten parts, greater adhesive weight—this heritage from the Age of Steam still dominates about ninety-eight percent of the main line railroad tracks of the world.

The Pennsylvania electrification, however, differs from previous electrifications in that it makes a direct and substantial advance upon what had been considered exclusive steam territory. With no special problem to solve—except an expected increase in traffic—and under no external compulsion, this railroad is substituting entire electric operation for steam operation, confident that it will thus be better able to handle the ever-growing demands of the new day.

Does this project indicate, even faintly, that the great Iron Horse, with its fascinating exuberance of power, has at last met the challenge that marks the beginning of its end?

Any answer is complicated by many conditions, technical and economic, and must necessarily contain a large element of speculation. Comparative costs of steam and electric equipment and its maintenance governs part of the problem; nature and density of traffic governs another. But no one I have asked, including representatives of several of the largest railroads in the country, is willing to deny that some day the steam locomotive may puff its last; or at least that it may be reserved for a few odd jobs. It may continue to dominate the roads for a long, long time, but it is not impossible that its day will come.

A REPRESENTATIVE of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which has made steam locomotives since 1832 and in addition now makes the chassis for electric locomotives, told me that his company was not at present worried about an electric invasion, and assured me that the steam engine would probably remain long after the present generation had gone. A New York Central official agreed that it was entirely possible that electricity would surpersede steam for main line traction, but that the rate would depend entirely upon future developments which he dared not predict.

General W. W. Atterbury, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, however, was blunt and emphatic in telling why his company was spending a considerable fortune for electrifying. He did not hesitate to suggest that continuous electric service from Boston to Washington and from New York to Chicago could be expected in the not far distant future.

THE electrically-powered train,” he said, “makes better time and can haul greater loads. It has a quicker pickup in starting and can be stopped in a much shorter distance than the steam-powered train. Between Washington and New York, use of electric power will give us more than the equivalent of an additional track. It will cut a full hour or more off our present running time without sacrificing one iota of safety. It will eliminate the smoke nuisance and the bother of stopping the train for the taking on of coal and water.

“It is necessary on the present New York-Chicago runs to make three or four changes of steam locomotives as a precaution against mechanical troubles, for steam locomotives must be taken to the shop for attention at fairly frequent intervals. Electric-powered trains could make the same runs many times without a stop or special mechanical attention. They would make a fourteen-hour schedule a simple matter between these two largest cities of the United States.

“Along the coast I expect to see unbroken electric service from Washington to Boston.”

With such a statement, coming from such an authority, it is not difficult to imagine that the next few years will see a progress of electrification at a rate unprecedented in the past, particularly through the Companies, the Baldwin Locomotive Works, and the Pennsylvania Railroad has been pooled in their design. Indeed, the term “motive power unit” is more descriptive than “locomotive,” for these new electric engines, although complete in themselves, may be coupled together in groups of two or three to build power sufficient to haul the heaviest train that coupling equipment can hold together.

The units that will specialize in hauling freight will have four motors and eight driving wheels and will develop more than 2,000 horsepower. Sixty are being built. The passenger motive power units will be of two types, one having four motors and four driving wheels and the other having six motors and six driving wheels. They will develop more than 2,000 and 3,000 horsepower, respectively. Ninety of these have been ordered.

A NUMBER of these new locomotives have for many months been pacing back and forth over the sixty miles of already electrified route between Trenton, N. J., and Wilmington, Del., proving their mettle. How fast could they go? How much could they pull? How smoothly and quickly could they accelerate and stop? How would they stand up under the grueling demands of practice? Every moment of the several hundred thousand miles of performance to date has been checked.

As a result of the tests, the railroad is confident that with electric operation freight trains of at least 125 cars may be hauled at speeds exceeding fifty miles an hour; while passenger trains may be operated with perfect safety at speeds as high as ninety miles an hour! To hasten the completion of the roadside and overhead work, some 6.000 men are now placing foundations, erecting poles and other structures, stringing wires, bonding rails, and putting up new signal bridges. Into this construction are going 39,000,000 pounds of copper and bronze and 150,000 tons of steel.

Working for months during the quiet hours of the night, gangs of men have lowered the tracks in the tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers, and have cut sockets for insulators in the roof of each tunnel to give clearance for the overhead wires. For the complete length of the electrification, signal bridges are being torn down, and higher ones are being erected to allow room for these wires.

Stationary transformer stations are being erected along the route at distances of from seven to ten miles apart. These stations, each with a continuous capacity of 18,000 kilowatts, will feed alternating current to the conductor wire at a voltage of 11,000, stepping it down to this value from the 132,000 volts of the transmission line.

Like ordinary householders, except on an incomparably larger scale, the railroad expects to purchase from electric generating companies the current needed to run its trains. To get an idea of the tremendous amount of current that will have to be bought, it is sufficient to know that each of the 150 locomotives will consume as much current in an hour’s run as the average home user would consume, for lighting, electric irons, vacuum cleaners, and so on, in five years!

TO UNDERSTAND the advantages of electric operation of steam railroads, comparisons with steam must be made at many points.

The first electrification projects in this country, begun as early as 1895, recognized three of the advantages of which in later years wide use has been made. The electric train was quiet and smokeless. It was capable of being started, accelerated to full speed, and stopped in a small fraction of the time required by a steam-operated train. This latter was particularly true of multiple-unit trains—or trains made up of cars having individual motors, all under a common control.

Today, quiet, smokeless, and rapid terminal service is performed by electricity in most of the great cities of the world. Electric locomotive and multiple-unit service has invaded the congested suburban districts of cities as far separated as New York, London, and Sydney, Australia. The electric suburban service of the Long Island Railroad transports 85,000,000 passengers a year. With only 365 miles of the 422,000 miles of track in the United States, it carries twelve passengers out of every hundred carried by all the class one railroads!

As locomotives and transmission systems were improved, it became evident that electric locomotives could be built with power at least as great as achieved by the heaviest steam locomotives, and that because of additional inherent characteristics the electric locomotive was capable of better meeting the fluctuating and rigorous duty required in pulling heavy trains over steep grades.

STEAM or electric, every locomotive must have sufficient power to pull its train over the steepest grade on its route. Having little overload ability, the steam locomotive’s power must often be largely in excess of the power required for the greater part of the run. As electric locomotives, however, are merely transformers of energy, and not self-contained units of power, these locomotives may be designed with a rating more in proportion to the power required for the average part of the run, and still be able to more than double, or even triple, this rating for short times.

Electric locomotives are better than steam for going up grades, and also for descending them. On down grades, the motors may be made to perform as generators, feeding current back to the power line, and at the same time giving a powerful braking effect to the train.

A number of railroads, including the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, the Great Northern, the Norfolk and Western, and the Virginian have electrified their mountain divisions, and by virtue of the electrification have distinctly improved their service.

The Virginian Railway, which performs almost the exclusive service of hauling coal from the mining district in the vicinity of Mullens, W. Va., over the mountains to Norfolk, offers a striking example of what electric power can do. This railway has long been noted for the operation of long trains of tremendous tonnage, and the use of powerful locomotives of the Mallet 2-10—10-2 class.

Until the electrification of the most difficult part of its road, in 1025, the Virginian had hauled 5,500-ton trains from Elmore to Clark’s Gap with the straining assistance of three of the most powerful steam locomotives used anywhere in the world—a Mallet 2-8—8-2 engine pulling and two Mallet 2-10—10-2 engines pushing These three locomotives had a total of fifty-six driving wheels, and weighed together 1,270 tons! With great effort, they could move the train up the steep grade at a maximum speed of six or seven miles an hour.

AFTER electrification, the trains were loaded to 6,ooo tons, and were hauled smoothly over the same track at the rate of fourteen miles an hour with but a single electric locomotive at each end! With but twelve of the new locomotives, the Virginian discovered that it could perform with greater expediency the work that had previously required forty-eight of its giant steam locomotives!

The electric locomotives which do this work are 152 feet long, and represent the largest and most powerful locomotives, either steam or electric, in the world.

Although electric locomotives cost on an average about twice as much per unit as steam locomotives of equal power, the number of units required to handle a given traffic is so much lower that the total cost for a given installation comes out about the same.

Due to the time taken for building and extinguishing fires, turning at terminals, cleaning fire boxes, cleaning boiler tubes, and general overhauling, steam locomotives spend only about half of their hours on the road. Electric locomotives can show an average of over ninety percent of their time in actual service.

THROUGH the years of trial, with apparatus which, in many cases, was almost experimental, the electric locomotive can show records of remarkable endurance. At the vast Oak Point freight classification yard of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, which has a main line electrification system next largest to the Pennsylvania, switching locomotives have often shown records of twenty-four-hour service a day for thirty days at a stretch. And the regular freight and passenger locomotives of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul run half a million miles without need of serious overhauling!

Sometimes dozens of steam locomotives stand idle in a single yard, steam up, waiting to be called into service; coal being burned. Electric engines have no such stand-by losses.

Other advantages, such as flexibility, the possibility of doubling the track capacity, operation in either direction, simpler operation, and operation from the front end, make it clear that from a purely technical standpoint there is no reason why electricity should not supplant steam on every main line in the country.

Here, however, the matter of cost steps in. Although the final operation and maintenance of an electric road may be considerably cheaper than that of a steam road hauling similar traffic, the roadside equipment requires a large initial outlay. If the traffic over the road is not sufficiently heavy, or if there is not some other saving condition such as cheap electricity from water power, the original outlay might take far too many years to pay for itself. It is on the long single- and double-tracked lines, with little grade and through sparsely settled areas, that the Iron Horse, for the present at least, is comparatively safe.

In twenty-nine countries, electric giants now race along rails once ruled entirely by steam. With heavy grades and a meager supply of coal, but with abundant water power, it is not surprising to learn that in the percentage of electrified to steam-operated railroad, Switzerland leads the world. Fully eighty-five percent of the ton-miles of its trains is today hauled by electricity.

However, if the vast scheme proposed to the British House of Commons by Lord Weir’s committee on railroad electrification should be accepted, the leadership would turn to Great Britain. According to this proposal all the main line track in Great Britain would be changed over to electric operation. The project would give continuous employment to 60,000 men for fifteen years, and would cost $2,000,000,000.

1 comment
  1. avatar28 says: June 2, 20076:05 am

    I guess they didn’t consider the possibility of electric locomotives generating their own electricity as most of them do now. Saved on a lot of that upfront cost for laying out the infrastructure they mentioned.

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