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Why did Diesel replace Steam power?

Diesel -vs -steam -660

I think we’re all agreed that Steam power is much more exciting than Diesel power - although, admittedly we may have a vested interest in promoting that opinion.

Romantic movies, for example, have never been the same since the passing of the steam locomotive.

So why was it that steam locomotives were replaced by the less exciting, less romantic Diesel powered upstarts?

A short history of Steam power

Steam power evolved over a period of several hundred years - this is possibly explained because it’s power source (water and heat) has been readily available throughout history, unlike other fuels requiring more involved processes to be created (i.e. petrol or electricity).

There are recorded uses of steam power as far back as the 1st century AD when a device called the Aeolipile used steam jets to power a rotating ball

The practical applications of such early experiments were limited to either curiosities or fairly modest domestic chores such as a steam powered rotating spit for roasting meat in 1551.

The first person credited with inventing modern steam power is the English engineer Thomas Savery who, in 1698, patented a machine for pumping water out of coal mines.

Savery met with great success developing and selling several types of steam engines for various applications, with engineers such as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt developing and refining stationary engines - but their weakness under high pressure steam prevented them from being used as a method of transport.

It was Richard Trevithick who won the race to build a viable steam locomotive in 1804 - his design was able to use high-pressure steam allowing him to reduce the weight of the engine whilst increasing the efficiency, making it practical for transportation.

A short history of Diesel power

The development of Diesel power, compared to Steam Power, happened at lightning speed - it’s invention being down to one man - Rudolf Diesel.

Rudolf Diesel was born in Paris in 1858 - during the height of the rule of Steam locomotives.  He started developing a “Compression Ignition Engine” in 1885 - and following several unsuccessful attempts finally led to successful tests of his diesel engine in 1897.

Sadly Diesel’s engineering prowess was not matched by his commercial skills - his attempts to market his invention before it was fully developed led to him having a nervous breakdown, leading tragically to his disappearance  and presumed suicide in 1913 on a sea voyage from France to England.

After his patents expired several other companies snapped up his invention and developed it into the modern diesel invention we know today.

Why did Diesel power replace steam power?

The replacement of steam locomotives with their diesel counterparts took place between the 1930’s and 60’s and is often referred to as “Dieselisation”.

To begin with diesel locomotives were less powerful than steam engines which meant smaller train sizes (ie.e the amount of carriages they could tow) which you would have thought made them a less preferable option - so why make the switch?

Firstly the diesel engine has an impressively high thermal efficiency - with modern diesel engines achieving 45% efficiency compared to a steam engines 10% giving them to achieve greater distances between refuelling stops.

This combined with the absence of water stops and reduced inspection and repair costs resulted in greatly reduced overall running costs.

In short the switch from Steam to Diesel was a no-brainer for the railway companies, speeded up greatly by the need to cut costs following the economic depression of the 1930’s.

The Saturday Evening Post, an American publication, has a great article on the transition from Steam to Diesel featuring an original article from 1934 with eye-witness reports of the fastest passenger train of the the day, the diesel powered Zephyr, maiden journey along theBurlington railroad.

Is there anything we should’ve mentioned?

Do you have any thoughts, comments or views on the death of the Steam locomotive?

Is there anything you think we should have mentioned?

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By Alastair Baker at 15 Jan 2018, 00:00 AM