Building up some steam for the future

“The commonly held view that the steam locomotive was replaced because it was slow is incorrect. Many of today’s diesel and even electrically operated services are not appreciably faster than steam was 50 or more years ago”

“The commonly held view that the steam locomotive was replaced because it was slow is incorrect. Many of today’s diesel and even electrically operated services are not appreciably faster than steam was 50 or more years ago”

— Colin Garratt

In fact, way back in 1938, a Pacific Mallard achieved the world record for a steam train of 203 km/h (126 mph). The record still stands.

When diesel trains phased out steam many years ago, the main reasons were related to the environment (coal put out a lot of smoke that urban areas already had enough of), constant maintenance of the steam boilers, and labour costs (steam locomotives required a driver as well as someone to shovel coal into the firebox).

Over the years, however, advances were made to overcome the problems associated with steam. This generally took the form of retrofitting existing locomotives.

Livio Dante Porta was an Argentine steam locomotive engineer who was instrumental in doubling the efficiency of old steam engines for the Argentine railway system. Later on, David Wardale did the same in South Africa.

Now, Wardale is at the head of a movement to go past mere retrofitting and into more efficient designs of steam engines (just like a house, greater efficiencies can be obtained by building from the ground up, instead of simply retrofitting).

Wardale has designed the 5AT Advanced Technology Steam Locomotive (see for more info) using off-the-shelf technology. The 5AT will, like the Mallard, be capable of 200 km/h (cruising speed of 180 km/h), but it will also have much reduced fuel and water consumption, as well as much lower maintenance costs.

And call me crazy, but I think that the 5AT would be a very good candidate for the proposed high-speed rail link between Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary.

It would certainly be cheaper than the 330-km/h “greenfield electric” option currently being considered ($3.4 billion for initial capital costs mentioned in the 2004 Van Horne Institute Study).

The two main advantages that steam has over either diesel or electric lies with its simplicity and its resiliency.

Steam engines are inherently simple, so they can be repaired more easily with cheaper parts made closer to home. And steam engines can run on any type of fuel, since all you have to do is to heat up a boiler. Wardale has designed the 5AT to run on either diesel fuel or coal, but with fairly simple changes, it could theoretically run on anything from natural gas to hydrogen to bio-fuels to wood-chips.

And they can run on any track, unlike the greenfield electric, which requires an additional $1.2 billion cost just for the custom track alignments and the attached electrification infrastructure.

Oh, and there’s a third advantage: they look and sound very, very cool. Just search for “fast steam locomotive” on YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean.

And that’s good for tourism. Ask anyone associated with the Alberta Prairie Railway, running from Stettler to Big Valley. As for Red Deer’s railway tourism potential, just go to and click on “big and bold.”

Admittedly, the greenfield electric option would also be very cool. However, in the very near future, when fossil fuels will be a lot more expensive, we will be much less concerned with speed (i.e., getting from Calgary to Edmonton in 80 minutes), and a lot more concerned with cost, efficiency and effectiveness.

Farmers are already ahead of us on this point. That’s why a group of them recently chipped in $5 million to buy a used diesel locomotive and 80 km of abandoned CN rail line between Camrose and Alliance. They know the cheapest way to haul grain.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those of us who think that there’s nothing wrong with Alberta that a six-lane highway won’t cure. To them, I would say that when gasoline prices get to $2 or $3 a litre, we won’t have to worry about congestion any more.

And that’s where the inherent efficiencies of rail come in. We need to invest in long-term efficiencies, not short-term expediencies. And if it comes in the form of a big old gal with exposed piston rods, six-foot-diameter wheels, and a haunting whistle that a diesel engine just can’t match, then I’m all for it.

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to Visit the Energy and Ecology website at

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