The International Steam Pages

Red Star Steam

The comment from Kurt Niederer concerning narrow gauge steam locomotives dates from November 2017.

This article first appeared on this website in December 2008 although it was written in 2004, by which time steam tours in the Ukraine had finished. Other changes will have occurred since.

The Soviet Union produced several standard steam classes but not a huge variety. Colin Boocock summarises the progression from medium to giant locomotives. 

It is a fact of history that Russia dominated the Soviet Union and that the communist system imposed strict standards across all its constituent countries and satellites. Thus a visitor to Ukraine or Kazakhstan could be forgiven for imagining himself or herself to be in Russia, so widespread were the common architecture and engineering of cities and transportation, and so similar were the difficult living standards endured by the majority of people. Low wages and salaries were balanced by low fares on public transport so usage of tramways and railways was high. Railways in particular were a major lifeline for movement of raw materials and finished goods as well as fuel and foodstuffs. At its recent peak the 5ft (1524mm) gauge system was the largest railway in the world in terms of route mileage (90,500 miles/144,900 km) and traffic carried (3,900 billion tonne-km freight and 415 billion passenger-km per year). Over 25,000 miles of main line were electrified and more than half of all traffic was electrically hauled. The longest main line stretched 5,900 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. The importance of this Trans-Siberian Railway cannot be overemphasised: there is still no through west-east road arterial road right across Siberia!
This article covers those principal steam locomotive classes that survived into the living memory of today’s older railway enthusiasts. Examples of most of these classes are fortunately conserved in preservation following their survival in the Soviet Union’s large strategic reserves. These reserves met the perceived need to defend the Union from imminent attack from the “West”. Large numbers of steam locomotives were prepared, oiled and ready to be steamed, all (it is said) facing west and able to take part in defending the motherland. They stayed there long after steam had been ousted from the main lines. Thankfully the perceived threat never became reality, but as a result many of the locomotives are available today for special tours and enthusiast charter trains in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states,

Early Soviet steam

Fortunately for the Soviets after the revolution, two large and useful designs of locomotive were already in service on former Russian railways, the SV class of passenger 2-6-2 and the E class 0-10-0 for freight. These were taken for development and onward mass construction.

The Soviet standard passenger type of the 1920s was developed to become the class SU 2-6-2, a somewhat slender, almost gangly design of basic simplicity and well able to be produced cheaply in large numbers. It is interesting to compare the design parameters of the Soviet SU with the dimensionally similar British LNER class V2 2-6-2, the latter’s attributes being shown here in brackets: weight in working order 86.7t (93t); grate area 4.67m2 (3.8m2); heating surface 188m2 (226m2); superheater surface 89m2 (63m2); cylinders two @ 575x700mm (three @ 470x660mm); driving wheels 1850mm (1880mm); tractive effort 118kN (133kN); power 1177kW (ca. 1200kW). Over 2680 examples of class SU were built between 1925 and 1951. They were the front line express engines until the mid-1930s when the much larger class FDP 2-8-4s began to appear and the SUs took over slightly less demanding duties.

Another basic type inherited from the pre-Soviet era was the E class 0-10-0. After an emergency delivery after the first world war from Sweden and Germany of 1200 examples of class E (bringing that class up to 2724 locomotives) the design was developed into the EU type for mass production in Soviet factories. From 1926 to 1932 about 2200 were built for Soviet Railways. Then from 1931 came the EM with higher boiler pressure with over 2750 being produced. From 1935 to 1936 came a series called ER that had a larger grate area and higher superheat and of which nearly 3000 entered service. The E series eventually totalled over 10,670 locomotives, by far the largest number of a single type ever to run in the world. In addition to all these were several series constructed for industry across the Union. These 0-10-0s proved useful in their later years as heavy shunting locomotives after they had been displaced from the heavier freight duties by 2-10-0s and 2-10-2s. Not surprisingly, several of the 0-10-0s survive today on stationary boiler duties and in the few remaining strategic reserves.

The ER dimensionally is a tough machine delivering 206kN tractive effort from two cylinders of 650x700mm through driving wheels of 1320mm diameter. The locomotive weighs a modest 86 tonnes which supports a grate area of 5.1m2. A E type 0-10-0 is well able to operate for very extended periods under steam.

Bigger things from the 1930s

The success of the E series led to development in 1934 of a 2-10-0 version carrying a bigger boiler. This was classified SO with versions for 17, 18 and 19 tonne axle loads. Thus the lighter version was known as class SO17 and the other two were later rebuilt to this type. The E series’ cylinders and coupled wheels were used but the firebox had a 6m2 grate area and later boilers were pressed at 15 atmospheres (the Es were at 12 or 14atm), giving a tractive effort as high as 223kN and a power rating of 1647kW. In appearance the SOs were tall and chunky machines but were clearly successful as over 4400 were built, as well as some for industrial use.

By the mid 1930s the SU 2-6-2s were clearly overstretched as express passenger locomotives. Something was needed that could handle much longer and faster trains. The Kolomna works produced six prototype 2-8-4 express engines from 1932, followed by 650 in a production series from Lugansk. These were known as the IS class (Iosif Stalin), later reclassified FDP when Stalin was no longer communist party flavour of the month. They were displaced by even larger steam locomotives and by modern traction from the 1950s and had all stopped active work by the early 1970s. Surprisingly, only one FDP survives today, standing on what must be the world’s biggest plinth for a locomotive, not far from the main railway station in Kiev, Ukraine. In addition to the passenger 2-8-4s, there were 3222 freight locomotives built in a 2-10-2 version with smaller wheels, classified FD20 and FD21, again based on their maximum axle load. Some of these were later regauged and exported to China

The second world war and after

The progress of the second world war reached a definitive point when the Soviet army succeeded in pushing back the German advance. In the wake of their retreat the Germans had left large numbers of Kriegslok 2-10-0 locomotives, about 2700 remaining in the Union after the war ended. Some of these were standard gauge and used in the Baltic and border republics, and the rest were broad gauge. Their output in terms of tractive effort and power was less than that of the later E series 0-10-0s and the Russians called them “captured E equivalents”, hence the classification TE. Another 2-10-0 type that was delivered in a hurry near the end of the second world war was the YeA and YeM series that came from ALCO and Baldwin in 1944 and 1945. They were based on the American-built class Ye (the Cyrillic alphabet has a single letter character for Ye that looks like the Roman ‘E’). These earlier 2-10-0s had appeared in Russia at the start of the first world war and the 1944-45 group were thus not particularly modern in concept. At 1540kW they were not as powerful as the SO17s, and their 204kN tractive effort was within the range of the standard 0-10-0s. Nonetheless 2117 locomotives were delivered. They met a significant need at the time and spent much of their working lives in Siberia and Kazakhstan.

To make up for the severe damage caused by the fighting in the war, the USSR needed more effective freight power. Between 1945 and 1955 a total of 4200 units of class L were delivered. The L was a large 2-10-0, no more powerful I have read than the SO17, but with its maximum speed raised from 75 to 90km/h. Coupled wheels were larger at 1500mm and the cylinders were 650x800mm to compensate. These were popular freight locomotives and survived into the strategic reserve era, joining hundreds of the E series in that important if static rôle. Another 522 were built from 1954 in a 2-10-2 version, class LV. The LVs were so much more powerful at 2267kW I would question the relatively modest power figure published for the L class. Boiler pressure, cylinders and coupled wheels were the same for both classes but the grate area and heating surfaces of the LV were greater, though not so great as to account for an increase in power of 37.5%.

The star of the post-war locomotive designs was undoubtedly the class P36 4-8-4 express passenger design. This not only looked right, it performed well and was a big step forward from the earlier passenger classes, well able to handle heavy express trains in the world’s largest country in terms of land mass. A total of 251 locomotives were built between the prototype in 1950 and the last one in 1956. The P36 weighed in at 133 tonnes excluding its twelve-wheeled tender. It had a grate area of 6.75 m2, heating surface 243m2, superheater surface 132 m2, boiler pressure 15 atmospheres, coupled wheels of 1850mm diameter and two (only) cylinders of 575x800mm. Thus its power output of 2265kW (3000bhp) was not far behind that of a British ‘Deltic’ diesel electric even if its maximum speed of 125km/h (78mph) was modest by comparison! The P36s had roller bearing axleboxes and mechanical stokers and in many ways reflected later American steam locomotive design practice. They worked the prestige expresses on the Moscow-Leningrad run as well as the Trans-Siberian and important routes to Ukraine and Belarus. Some are preserved in working order today.

Small engines

Not surprisingly because of the heavy trains endemic in the USSR, there was not much call for small tank engines, the E series of 0-10-0 tender locomotives doing most shunting work even at depots. Also, electrification of the suburban networks around major cities removed the need for modern steam suburban tank locomotives. The Soviet railways did inherit various groups of small shunting tanks most of which were replaced in the 1940s and 1950s. Very few small steam locomotives were purchased in the inter-war years though one survives today in working order. This is No. 2137, believed to have been supplied by Beyer Peacock in 1932. It is known as class b (Cyrillic soft sign).

A quantity of around 2200 0-6-0Ts classified 9P was delivered between 1936 and 1957, being the last type of steam locomotive to be built in the USSR. These were short-wheelbase locomotives designed for tight locations such as stores, workshops and docks areas. Apart from their smaller wheels, they were not unlike the USATC 0-6-0Ts that used to shunt in Southampton Dock in the UK.

Narrow gauge

Apart from a small kilometreage of 600mm gauge railways, most Soviet narrow gauge lines were of 750mm gauge. As might be expected, when it came to replacing the range of types inherited a selection of standard classes emerged, mostly of 0-8-0 tender configuration. Some were typical Czech (Skoda) or Polish (Chrzanow) designs. The German-built Gr type produced between 1949 and 1951 appears to have been the largest group numerically. A number of these survives today for tourist use on narrow gauge railways in the areas around the Carpathian mountains (Ukraine) and other areas where forestry work is or was undertaken. The fate of most narrow gauge engines has been scrapping, or exile to one or other of the many “children’s railways” in major cities.

Kurt Niederer comments:(8th November 2017)

"Typical Czech or Polish design" is not correct.

The most common design originated in the Russian type P24 from 1941. This became the most built narrow gauge steam locomotive family of the world, total production about 5000. 564 were built as war reparation in Finland 1948-52 (PT-4) plus 20 paid 1951-52 (Kf-4), 420 from Skoda 1949-51 (Kch-4), 234 from MAVAG (Hungary) 1950-54 (Kv-4), 790 from Chrzanow (Poland) 1950-57 (Kp-4), while the majority (appr. 2200-2400) was built at Wotinsk (Russia) 1948-59 (Vp-1, -2 and -4). About 620 of the same type were built for service in CS, HU, PL, China and North Korea. 

See: "From the iron to the bamboo curtain - a narrow gauge survivor" in Keith Chester "East European Narrow Gauge" Channel View Publications 1994 (pg. 95-116). and The quantity of the greater German-built Gr-type was only around 420, built 1947-56. "

Seeing USSR steam today

If, like me, you missed seeing the impressive Soviet broad gauge locomotives at work on the main lines, all is not lost! Several of the better-known railway touring companies offer trips to the former USSR area. Some operate traditional luxury sleeping car trains such as the Dzerelo train. Passengers can use their train as a hotel as they tour different regions. Several of these tour companies charter steam locomotives and are glad that so many survived in good working order as a result of having been kept in the strategic reserves. Destinations for such trains include Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Estonia. All the classes described in this article can be seen somewhere, though none is used as part of the commercially operating railway on which traffic has generally moved well beyond the scope of steam. The use of preserved locomotives is purely as an attraction to visitors and tourists. As the strategic reserves are disbanded and locomotives are scrapped (even stolen for scrap as happened in Ukraine!) the future for such trips may soon become finite. I suggest that readers who have not had the sight of a massive P36 in their viewfinders or who have not seen how an old class ER 0-10-0 can make a German Kriegslok look small should take steps to plan their next big holiday where they can experience the excitement of surviving Red Star steam.

Rob Dickinson