Out of Steam: Dieselization and American Railroad, 1920-1960

Out of Steam: Dieselization and American Railroad, 1920-1960

Out of Steam: Dieselization and American Railroad, 1920-1960

Out of Steam: Dieselization and American Railroad, 1920-1960

Synopsis

Out of Steam: Dieselization and American Railroads, 1920–1960 examines how and why American railroads embraced the diesel locomotive and abandoned steam. Highly regulated railroads were facing difficult business conditions from 1920 to 1960 that resulted in extensive cost cutting. Steam and diesel locomotives were capable machines but were designed, constructed, and maintained in vastly different ways. Railroads generally dieselized to control costs, especially labor costs, but different railroads adopted different strategies for doing so. Some were prompted to try diesels by government legislation in the 1920s while others were excited by streamlined diesels in the 1930s. Still others were attracted to the potential differences in performance that diesels offered in the 1940s. Dieselization had long-term and far-reaching impacts on railroads, rail labor, and communities served by railroads. Despite complete dieselization by 1960, the American railroad industry would continue to decline for the next twenty years. A technological fix like the diesel could not solve other complex problems facing the industry.

Excerpt

The pennsylvania railroad, one of the largest and most powerful railroads in the United States and one of the largest corporations in the world, introduced a new steam passenger locomotive in 1942. It was a massive machine and in many ways the ultimate steam locomotive. It was over one hundred feet long and when fully loaded with forty one tons of coal and 19,500 gallons of water weighed over one million pounds. It was designed to haul a full length express passenger train of 880 tons at speeds of over one hundred miles per hour. To publicize the introduction of this new locomotive the Pennsylvania Railroad drafted a short press release. the proposed headline was, “‘Pennsy’ Launches Streamline Land Dreadnaughts.” Just as the events of Pearl Harbor a few months prior had roved that the days of dreadnaught battleship dominance of the seas were over, events of the past few years had also proved that the days of the steam locomotive were as numbered as the days of the large battleship.

The technological history of American railroads in the twentieth century is dominated by the appearance and adoption of the diesel-electric locomotive. It was the single largest technological change since the beginnings of steam powered railroading in the early nineteenth century. From the first tentative experiments with diesel power in the 1920s to complete dieselization in the late 1950s, the American railroad scene was transformed. the diesel locomotive was more than a new form of motive power; it was an entirely new system of moving freight and passengers that had profound and far-reaching implications for all aspects of railroading. Diesels could move passengers and freight faster and more efficiently with much less maintenance and with much lower costs. Diesel locomotives made huge shop complexes, coal and water towers, and tens of thousands of skilled workers obsolete. Railroad operations no longer were constrained by the need to coal, water, operate, and service labor intensive steam locomotives. the diesel could do whatever the steam locomotive could do and could do it faster, cheaper, and better.

Such a monumental change to such a large and important industry raises many questions. Did the diesel win out . . .

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