Railroad Locomotives | From Steam to Mag-Lev

CPRR locomotive “Antelope” | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

The first passenger locomotive to reach Truckee was a wood burner called Antelope. It was driven by four large wheels with four small pilot wheels in the front. This type of locomotive was called an “American Standard.In 1968, when Antelope arrived, the technology of steam locomotives was well developed. 

Dozens of special events are planned as part of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad; details in the Event Calendar  

This locomotive used fire box with hot smoke moving through an array of pipes located inside a waterfilled boiler. The steam was then run through a set of chambers and valves that caused a rod attached to the drive wheels to move back and forth. The concept was widely used and was the high tech of the 19th Century. 

Initially, locomotives used wood or coal for fuel. Railroads in the Sierra used wood from the abundant forests. When oil was discovered in California, the locomotives changed to that fuel. In other parts of the United States, steam locomotives used the available coal. 

The system of transferring steam pressure to turning wheels was complex and required a great deal of maintenance. Steam engines were only out of the shop and available for use about 35 percent of the time. In contrast, the diesels were available approximately 95 percent of the time. When these lowermaintenance diesels became widely available in the 1960s, the railroads quickly replaced the steam engines. 

Because diesels have far fewer moving parts they are easier to maintain. A diesel locomotive consists of an oil-fueled diesel engine that powers a generator. Alternating current electricity from the generator is converted to direct current and that turns the electric motors connected directly to the locomotive’s axles. This is similar to a hybrid automobile.  

In the United States today, diesels are the principle locomotive power for both freight and passenger trains. There are some allelectric locomotives used in urban areas, but the system of poles and cantilevers or third rails are not economic in expanses of the American West. 

Conditions are quite different in the densely populated areas of Europe, Japan and China. Highspeed trains powered by electric and magnetic-levitation — called mag-lev are found in abundance. In fact, China has more highspeed trains than the rest of the world combined. While U.S. highspeed trains rarely reach 150 mph, trains in China, Japan and Europe are capable of more than 300 mph. 

The disappointing Los Angeles to San Francisco highspeed train project is an example of how far the U.S. is behind the rest of the world. The first Fresno to Merced section is in trouble. The project is late and far above budget. It will probably be canceled. 

That is not to say that innovators in this country are asleep. Testing is going on in Nevada on a highspeed train project that looks promising. This Hyperloop project has the involvement of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and a Dubai sheik. Hyperloop uses a 1,600-foot test track north of Las Vegas. It consists of meg-lev track in a tube evacuated of most of the air. The trains are expected to have speeds of more than 750 mph. 

Hyperloop. | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

The first commercial application is planned to run from Dubai to Abu Dhabi by 2021. A second installation is planned in India. If this is successful, mag-lev routes are planned throughout the United States. This would include a Las Vegas to Reno line. 

By Jerry Blackwill 

For a list of summer activities that celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit goldspike.org or Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration on Facebook. 

 Jerry Blackwill is president of the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and board member of the Truckee HistoryRailroad Museum.