The dieselization of North American railroading was nearing completion by 1960. The previously dominant steam engines had been removed largely not due to concern over the cost of fuel, but rather maintenance and crew costs. Steam engines were very expensive to maintain – they spent almost twice as much time in a shop than they spent pulling trains. They were also expensive to crew – for instance, a freight train pulled by two steam engines requires two complete 3 or 4 man crews, whereas a freight train pulled by a dozen diesels can be run by two men. Also, whereas a diesel can be started almost like an automobile and be ready to run in minutes, a steam engine takes hours to heat the fire and build up enough steam to move a train.
Because the move to diesel power was not motivated primarily by energy costs, the changing price gap between oil and coal did not result in railways switching back and forth between coal powered steam and oil powered diesel. If a firm had wanted to put steamers back in service, this would have been possible only through not only restoration of the locomotives, but also reconstruction of the watering infrastructure, and hiring, training and paying the large number of people required to crew the engines.
When extreme price disparity between oil and coal arose during the late 70’s oil crisis, it motivated American Coal Enterprises (ACE) to design a “modern” steam engine (which I’ve written about before on my blog). To show they were serious about coal as a still current railroading fuel, Ross Rowland (their head) acquired the use of a steam locomotive and ran it in freight service pulling coal trains – and demonstrated that even using 1950’s technology the fuel costs were lower using coal. As for crew costs, the ACE 3000 was modern – computer controlled etc, needing no more crew than a diesel. The problem of water was solved with a steam condensing system, which meant new water was required only every 1000 miles. It was also designed to require far less maintenance than steam engines of old. However, there were no orders, and the engine was never built. I think this is significant – why would no firms want to be isolated from the fluctuating price of oil? Are firms simply inherently conservative?
The problem with the conservative thesis is that there are other examples of railroads taking risks on new technologies to exploit cheap fuel – for instance Union Pacific’s GTEL (Gas Turbine Electric) locomotives of the 50’s and 60’s presented a tempting alternative to dieselization.
Unlike diesels, they were powerful (4000-8000hp), and also unlike diesels they ran on very inexpensive “Bunker C” fuel (which is nasty stuff). They were procured to replace the Big Boy steam locomotives, to pull heavy freights over the most challenging sections of UP mainline (romanticized here). There was even coal-powered variant which ran on ground up coal dust – however this proved unreliable as any oversized speck of coal would damage the turbine blades.
I think it is significant that the ACE program was never brought to fruition. Railroad firms are not inherently conservative – this is demonstrated by the GTEL locomotives, and also by CN’s TurboTrain. I think the project never came to pass because railroads in the United States are concerned with appearing modern, and forward-looking. Returning to coal fired steam power might have tainted a railroads image, and would certainly not have been perceived as environmentally friendly. With the development of the computer to the point where it became usable in capitalist products, the 1980s were a period of rapid technological development. For instance, private cars in 1980 were not so different from 1960, and by 1990 bore many of the significant changes that make cars today “modern”, i.e. computer controlled ignition and fuel injection, modern crash testing and air bags, etc. Coal was not the right fit for this forward looking time and – hopefully – it remains the wrong fuel today.