When Did Diesel Trains Replace Steam?

Ever since the very beginning of rail transport, the steam engine was a common sight at the head end of a train. The sights and sounds of the steam engines could not be mistaken. However, with the advent of the diesel electric locomotive, railroads began to phase out steam.

When did diesel trains replace steam? Diesel trains began to replace steam in the late 1930s, however, it took about ten years for diesels to be the standard motive power used. In the 1950s, diesels began taking over steam power, as they were easier to maintain, and more efficient. 

Diesel locomotives required less maintenance and fewer crew members to run. They proved to be versatile and proven to tackle any task with ease. These factors were enough to convince railroads to switch to diesel power.

Beginnings of Steam Locomotion

The steam locomotive was a staple for railways throughout the world, and remained the mainstay of rail companies for over one-hundred years. The first operational steam locomotive was invented in Britain in 1802, and was called the Coalbrookdale Locomotive. This was one of the first functioning steam locomotives on record.

In the United States, the first steam locomotive was introduced in 1831, and is known for introducing steam locomotives to the United States. This locomotive known as the “John Bull” was built in the United Kingdom by Robert Stephenson and Company.

The United States soon began building locomotives domestically, beginning with the Baltimore and Ohio’s “Tom Thumb” locomotive. This locomotive was not meant to be used for revenue service, as it was to display the awesome potential for steam powered railways.

Before the introduction of steam locomotion, railways were powered with horse draw carriages. The steam engine revolutionized rail transport in the 19th century. Additionally, steam power became widely used in many industries, most notably, the shipping industry.

The world soon realized the potential of steam power, and the benefit that it could instill in transportation in the 19th century. It revolutionized the way we travel and ship goods, and proved beneficial and effective for many years. It proved to be a key factor in the industrial revolution, and gave way to greater future advances in both transportation and technology as a whole.

Drew Jacksich

Alternatives To Steam

Beginning in the early 1900s, a railcar, named the “Doodlebug” was produced. The Doodlebug was self-propelled, and was powered by a gasoline engine. The efficiency and reliability of the Doodlebug opened the door to steam alternatives in the future.

Beginning in the 1920s, diesel locomotives were introduced, although they were ultimately confined to yard duty and did not make it onto the mainline. This changed in 1934, when the Budd Company introduced the “Pioneer Zephyr” trainset, built for the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy. This train was powered by an Electro-Motive Corporation’s (EMC) prime mover. This train made history, traveling between Denver, Colorado, and Chicago, Illinois in just over 13 hours.

Seeing the success of the diesel engine, railroads soon began to invest in diesel power, beginning with the EMD FT locomotive in 1941, which was delivered to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (ATSF). This continued with the later E-series passenger units, used for hauling streamlined passenger trains.

Perhaps the most revolutionary diesel introduced in the United States was the EMD GP series of locomotive. These locomotives combine both power and versatility, including ease of maintenance.

Although steam locomotives were successful, they were not economically viable after the introduction of the diesel locomotive, with the proven cost savings and reliable performance of diesel power.

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Reduced Costs of Diesel Locomotives

Diesel locomotives proved more efficient and reliable than steam. They required less maintenance, and were much like a car, just start it and go. Whereas with steam power it took hours to ready a locomotive for service. When it came time for a diesel to have maintenance, it was as simple as changing fluids, brake pads, etc. As with steam engines, the boiler would have to be cleaned, which required a crew to climb inside the locomotive, which was a daunting task for many maintenance workers. Steam locomotives also had to be extensively cleaned both before and after use. Additionally, the running gear, mainly the pistons, had to be lubricated with each use.

Additionally, in the United States, law required that once a month the boiler had to be cleaned, this led to increased maintenance times and only allowed steam locomotives to be available 35% of the time. Steam locomotives required constant attention, as if maintenance was not performed regularly, failures such as boiler explosions could occur.

For diesels, maintenance was a breeze, resulting in them having 95% availability. This resulted in an increased return on investment for diesel locomotives, as they were hauling trains more than they were in the maintenance shop. Additionally, they could idle for an extended period of time without supervision. As if a steam engine was left with the fire burning, its fuel, whether it be coal, wood, or oil had to be constantly fed into the firebox.

Diesels also required less crew members to operate, as only an engineer and conductor were needed, even with the addition of multiple units. As opposed to steam power which required multiple crew members including a fireman, brakeman, engineer and conductor.

Although initially diesels offered less tractive effort than steam, the ability to couple a number of diesel locomotives in a consist, with the ability to be controlled by one crew, made it a worthwhile investment.

Jeff Hampton

Phasing Out Steam

Initially, diesel locomotives were only seen suitable for yard use, as they were versatile units. However, crews quickly began to prefer diesel over steam power due to their weather proof cabs, which kept elements such as dust and dirt away from the crew. Additionally, diesels were much easier for crews to operate, and introduced a new era in efficiency.

Realizing the added efficiency of diesel locomotion, and the ease of operation, railroads soon began buying streamlined diesel to haul their premier passenger trains. With the added cost savings of diesel locomotives, railroads soon began investing in modern streamlined passenger cars.

By the fifties, most railroads had diesels on their property, or they were on order. Their proven reliability and reduced maintenance costs proved to be worthwhile. Perhaps one of the most versatile features of these locomotives is the ability to run multiple locomotives, while under control of a single crew. This was due to the introduction of multiple unit operation, which allowed multiple units to be controlled by one crew, made possible with hoses that controlled the brakes, and a electrical cable controlling the prime mover, and electrical settings.

Phasing Out Steam in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the Great Western Railway (GWR) began to operate diesel rail cars in the 1930s. Although this new technology seemed promising, and proved versatile with many operational advantages over steam power, the technology was still young and was not adopted by other railways.

BR Class D16/1
Photo: Open Source

The London, Midland, and Scottish Railway (LMS) engineered the first mainline diesel electric locomotive, the British Rail Class D16/1, of which two were produced, numbered 10000 and 10001. These locomotives were manufactured by Derby Works, and were powered by an English Electric prime mover, producing 1600 horsepower. These locomotives were often used on express services, as they were equipped with a steam generator for passenger car power. Although these two units were short lived, and were retired and scrapped in the 1960s, these units built the framework for the future of diesel locomotion in Britain.

In 1955, when the newly formed British Rail began a modernization effort, most steam locomotives were slated to be replaced with diesels in an effort to have a more modern and advanced railway.

Syd Young

Related Questions

What was the last steam engine built in the USA? The last steam locomotive built in the USA was the Norfolk & Western 0-8-0 number 244, and acted as a yard switcher. This was the last domestic built steam locomotive in the USA, as railroads were quickly converting to diesel power. 

What was the speed of steam trains in the late 19th century? In the 19th century, steam locomotives traveled at speeds between 20-30 miles per hour. Some are even recorded as reaching speeds of 40-50 miles per hour on special runs. 

When was the last steam locomotive used in the US? 1961. The last steam locomotive was used in the US in 1961 by the Grand Trunk Railroad. After 1961, the US had fully moved away from steam, except in special excursion services. 



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