Will gas engines have the same fate as steam locomotives?

A lecturer writing in the San Francisco Chronicle is comparing the growing popularity of gas-hybrid cars with the demise of the steam locomotive.

Arrol Gellner says steam locomotives ruled the rail system in the early 20th century. When the diesel-electric locomotive first appeared around 1930, Gellner says the Big 3 of steam-engine builders at the time brushed off the threat and kept building bigger steam locomotives.

Starting to sound familiar?

Gellner says the rail companies found the diesel more efficient, even though they cost more, and began replacing their fleets with diesel-electrics. According to Gellner's research, steam locomotives outsold diesels 4-to-1 in 1936. By 1948 only 13 steam engines were purchased, compared to 2,800 diesels.

In a closing jab, Gellner points out that General Motors built those early diesels that put the aging steam engines out of business.

While not disputing Gellner's research, I wonder if the torque differences and low-speed control had more to do with the switch than not having to stop for coal and water along the route. Trains probably needed the electric propulsion for the same reason today's heavy-duty trucks need diesel engines: low-speed torque. The larger the steam engine got, the harder it was to control the piston strokes when pulling away from a stop, especially with the increasingly heavier loads.

Interesting reading, anyway.

[Source: San Francisco Chronicle]

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