The International Steam Pages

Brief case for an investigation to be made into the suitability of modern
steam locomotive production in areas with heavy production capability.

Harry Valentine, Transportation Researcher. writes:

Renewed interest in developing a modern steam railway locomotive began during the period of rising fuel prices during the 1980's. Many advances had been developed in the world of thermodynamics since the withdrawal of steam traction from mainline rail services. Several such advances were incorporated into steam railway locomotives in South Africa, Argentina and more recently in Switzerland. Many new ideas on workable steam power have come from various parts of the world, ideas that could form the basis of a new generation heavy-haul locomotive.

Such ideas include the improved Lempor exhaust systems developed by Porta in Argentina; on-board water purification systems which require twice annual boiler wash downs; fluidized bed coal combustion which reduce the build-up of soot and clinker in the locomotive smokebox and firebox thus extended operating duration; advances in thermal insulation which allow a locomotive to remain out of service for 24 to 48-hours with short restart times; improvements in efficiency which have seen modified steam locomotives yield 15% efficiency on Argentina's Rio Turbio railway system. Another concept in related steam power include a high-pressure uniflow steam engine in Australia, yielding efficiencies up to 21%. Another proposal is a quad-turbine system involving 4-steam turbines in a 1-2-4-8 power ratio, yielding 15-equal step power settings operating at maximum thermal efficiency, thereby bypassing the turbine's horrendous part load inefficiency.

Building a Contemporary Heavy Haul Steam Locomotive:

Much of the componentry to actual build a modern steam railway locomotive is actually readily available in the thermal marketplace ..... and from the same manufacturer, Mitsui of Japan. Mitsui manufactures railway motive stock, so much railway traction componentry is already in their inventory. They also manufacture steam turbines, including at power settings such as 1, 000-Hp (750-Kw), 2000-Hp (1500-Kw), 4000-Hp (3000-Kw) and a 500-Hp turbine may also be available. Mitsui has a division, Mitsui-Babcock, which builds boilers similar to those used in traditional steam locomotives. It may be that these boilers are already able to operate on the fluidized bed of coal combustion system, with other modifications possible. The talent to modify the combustion system to optimize efficiency, already exists within Mitsui as well as with such steam traction people as Livio Dante Porta, David Wardale, Shaun McMahon, Phil Girdlestone, Hugh Odom, John Davies, Andreas Schwandler and a few others. In short, an efficient and state of the art modern, heavy-haul steam-turbine-electric locomotive can be built .... as most of the componentry to put it all together, is presently in production. This includes both a 7500-Hp as well as a 15, 000-Hp quad-turbine concept.

Customers and Competition:

Whether or not Mitsui would build a new generation steam turbine locomotive will depend on finding a customer for the locomotive. Potential customers may be available in Australia, where coal is plentiful, or in the United States which is experiencing energy-related problems. World oil production is expected to decline after 2010, unless new oil reserves are found and drilled ..... future oil price increases may be expected. The fuel costs of diesel locomotives could give future heavy-haul steam an economic edge for a period of several years. Other competitive concepts such as fuel cell locomotives, may still be decades away ..... fuel cells cost $US2000 - $US3000 per Kw .... and the fuel of choice, methanol may be in short supply due to increased market demand for natural gas, which is the primary resource from which methanol is processed. The only modern electric power stations built in the USA over the past 30-years are fueled on natural gas. Both the USA and Canada are facing a tight future electric power market .... so much so that mothballed coal fired power stations may actually be re-activated in Canada.

The cost of long distance railway electrification is estimated at $US3-million per mile, in a tight electric market. Not only would major long distance railway lines have to be electrified at exhorbitant cost, the railways may have to finance the construction of new electric power stations to energise the overhead catenary. During the mid-1980's, a study into the economics of modern steam traction was undertaken by the London School of Business (UK) ..... and modern steam power was shown to beat diesel and electric traction on basis of costs (using high mid-1980's diesel prices). The findings of that study are still valid at the present day .... rising diesel prices and a tight US electric market give modern steam traction the economic edge. At present, some 51% of the electric power produced in the USA comes from coal fired power stations ...... a large coal distribution system already exists in the USA, as well as a powerful coal industry lobby. Australia and South Africa are also nations which depend on coal to generate electricity. At present, coking coal sells for $US50 per metric tonne, while thermal coal sells for $US25 per metric tonne.

A tonne of coal costing $US60 holds an energy content of 22-million to 26-million BTU's of energy, 20% of which could theoretically be delivered to the drawbar as horsepower in a heavy-haul modern steam turbine locomotive. Diesel fuel costs some $US1.20 per imperial gallon (160, 000 BTU's) and 22-million BTU's would cost $US165. 00, 37% of which would be delivered to the drawbar. The 22-million BTU's would deliver 1730-Hp to the drawbar in the steam locomotive (US 3.5-cents/Hp) and 3300-Hp to the drawbar in the diesel loco (US 5.0-cents/Hp). If cheaper thermal coal is used in the steam locomotive, its fuel cost would drop to US 1.8-cents/Hp at the drawbar. If present trends in world oil production continue, the price of diesel fuel could double after 2010, in comparison with a negligible increase in projected future coal prices. (2545 BTU = 1-Hp-hr)

Making the Heavy Haul Steam Locomotive competitive:

The DLM company has pioneered methods of adapting modernised steam locomotives to one-person operation. DLM and others have also broken new ground in areas of thermal insulation of the locomotive boiler, enabling high internal heat to maintained for extended periods out of service. Some pioneering research undertaken by Ross Rowland and American Coal Enterprises could also be incorporated into a heavy haul concept. Such modifications could include:

  • Modern thermal isulation technology

  • A thermal storage tank in the boiler, to maintain high internal heat for extended periods out of service

  • A perforated tube at or near the bottom of the boiler, similiar to that used on certain designs of "fireless cooker" steam locomotives ..... to enable rapid reheating,  including from an external source (a DLM concept).

  • Computer control over fuel feeding and firebox management. Idle turbines could be preheated prior to being engaged into service .... route data could be stored in the onboard computer, so that various power settings of various route sections would be known well ahead of time. Efficient fuel and power control would be ensured. (Such a system concept originated with Ross Rowland's ACE research project).

  • A single tube boiler (simiiar to Doble, with thicker alloy steel tubing) could be incorporated into the firebox, to enable more rapid heating of boiler water during  locomotive start-up phase. The single tube could be connected to the perforated pipe at the bottom of the boiler ... water could be pumped (DLM style) from the main boiler, through the single tube and back to the main boiler, in the form of steam.

  • Cyclonic fluidized bed combustion may improved heat transfer efficiency .... a spiral guide made from deep-hard anodised aluminium could be located above the coal bed, to ensure a spiralling mixing of the combusting coal and its byproducts. Heater and superheater tubes could be located in the spiral. Soot and clinker buildup could be reduced, if not eliminated .... reducing the need for frequent firebox and smokebox maintenance and cleanings. This could be a modication to the Porta system.

  • A system of burning coal slurry (powdered paste) was pioneered in Sweden during the 1980's. Such a concept could be used in a locomotive.

  • A water recirculating system, similar to that used in South Africa, with modifications proposed by ACE .... including an onboard water purifier, could reduce need for frequent water tank refills, while reducing the need for boiler washes to once annually. A closed water/steam system could also raise thermal efficiency.

The combustion system could be modified to as to enable chemical fuels and solvents to be burnt ..... such solvents and chemicals could destroy an internal combustion piston engine, but would be effective in a steam locomotive. Various types of biomass and combustible waste may also be considered as potential fuel. 


There is much opposition to coal combustion in the USA. Modern combustion technology could alleviate many of the traditional coal burning problems, including the exhaust emissions problem. The componentry to build a modern steam turbine steam locomotive exists at the present day, as does the experience and expertise to make such a locomotive competitive as well as cost effective.

Harry Valentine, Transportation Researcher.

Rob Dickinson