Why did we ever get rid of steam trains?

Increasingly we choose to ride behind main line locomotives hauling special trains from Edinburgh to London over Shap Fell or along the Devon coast where rails meet the sea and mingle with steam and salt spray and with the sound of rollers breaking over rocks and the compelling rhythm of a Great Western “king” or “castle” at speed. While many of us remain in thrall to the steam locomotive this most soulful of machines has all but disappeared from   everyday service worldwide.

A number of powerful SY class locomotives are still hard at work on China’s industrial railways. Remarkably the last of these 1,800 engines were built as recently as 1999. Elsewhere you can commute by steam on  Polish state railways  between Poznan and Wolzstyn, where British enthusiasts, who run the Wolzstyn Experience have an agreement to keep scheduled steam pounding into the future.

The question of why steam went is one to address and even challenge when remembering the Giants Of Steam, a homage to the world’s last great steam railway design engineers and the emotive machines they conjured. The why is important because, in the hands of engineers as refined as Britain’s Nigel Gresley and William Stanier, France’s André Chapelon, Germany’s Otto Wolff and Paul Kiefer, and William E Woodard, of the United States, the steam  locomotive was raised to prodigious heights of power and speed.

In Britain, France, Germany and the United States, from the mid- Twenties and for the next 20 years, what was known as “super steam” – a phrase coined in the land of Superman, streamlining, starlets and skyscrapers – gave the first generation of rival diesel and electrics a very good run for their money indeed.

On July 3, 1938, 4468 Mallard, a brand new streamlined London and North Eastern Railway Pacific designed under the direction of Gresley and named after the birds the famous engineer kept in the moat of his Hertfordshire home, streaked down Stoke Bank between Grantham and Peter borough at two miles a minute,   peaking for a few critical yards at 126mph. This was a world record for steam on the railways. It has yet to be beaten.

Two years earlier a streamlined Deutsche Reichsbahn Baltic, 05 002 designed by Wolff, had soared to just over 200kph, or 124½mph, on level track near Friesack between Berlin and Hamburg. Across the Atlantic the silver streamlined locomotives of the Milwaukee Road, designed by Charles H Bilty and the Alco locomotive works in upstate New York, galloped daily between Chicago and Minneapolis and St Paul at well over 100mph but may well have sprinted up to 120mph and more.challenger

Some Americans claim speeds of 140mph for the largest and longest passenger steam locomotive ever built: the Pennsylvania Railroad’s vast and solitary S1 6-4-4-6 of 1939, streamlined by industrial designer Raymond Loewy, better known for styling Coca-Cola bottles, Lucky Strike cigarette packages and Studebaker cars.

This is wishful thinking, though the greatest steam locomotive engineer of all, Chapelon (1892- 1978), was working on plans for a future generation of highly efficient passenger loco motives for SNCF, the French state railway, with top speeds of up to 270kph, or 168mph.

Such locomotives could have been built. Chapelon believed that steam should have been progressed throughout the Fifties and Sixties, giving way on main lines in the developed world only to the high speed electrics we admire in France and Japan  today. However what Chapelon and the other last great steam engineers railed against was the change from steam to oil-burning diesels, especially if that oil had to be imported. And the extraction, supply and politics of the oil needed for diesels led to   disputes, embargos and war. This argument holds today and so much so that the development of steam is back on the rails again.

Environmental researchers at the University of   Minnesota have started work recently with the   nonprofit SRI (Sustainable Rail International) to design and build the world’s first carbon-neutral steam locomotive. Burning “bio-coal”, the exhaust from the 130mph locomotive will be nothing more than water vapour. If it works might US railroads be tempted back to steam? Whatever the future for steam the emotional pull and aesthetic tug of this enchanting machine is unlikely to ever go away completely.

In 1739, French engineer Bernard Forest de Belidor wrote: “Here is the most marvellous of all machines of which the mechanism most closely related is that of animals.” British engineer David Wardale likens the elemental forces at work in a steam locomotive to “the power of a thunderstorm”, contrasting this with “the monotonous drizzle of our ever more  synthetic world”. I’m sure most of us agree…..