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How long could a US Class I railroad have survived if it never dieselized?

Apparently about 1960. The Virginian was the last Class 1 to stop running steam and it did so in 1957. Since it hauled coal, the fuel costs were low and it was able to hang on longer. They even tried to come up with some other designs for steam, most notable the Jawn Henry steam turbine, which was a bit of a flop.

Steam is wonderful. It's a magnificent machine, that almost seems like a living and breathing creature. They are among the most amazing machines that man has ever created.

They are also extremely inefficient and maintenance intensive. They essentially get less "miles per gallon" of fuel, and they require far more time in the shop to keep them running. The reasons railroads switched over was simple, diesels cost less to run and less to maintain.

You may recall that steam lasted until very recently in China, in fact there may be a few places left running it still, I'm not sure. Why is that? Well, again, they were close to ready supplies of coal, and labor in China is very cheap.

It all boils down to economics.
That would depend on how much steam locomotive technology might have improved. Labor/maintenance costs and low thermodynamic efficiency worked against steam; as fast as it might have improved, diesel-electric improved much faster. As it was, the railroad industry struggled mightily to remain competitive.

Even diesel may eventually lose to electrification and nuclear energy.



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That would depend on how much steam locomotive technology might have improved.

I did a lot of research on that in my younger years. As far as I can tell Lima Superpower was pretty much the state of the art and about as good as it got. They did try some other options, steam turbine driving the wheels (PRR T-1, really poor traction at low speed, very "slippery") and the steam turbine electric (N&W Jawn Henry, just too complicated.)

As much as I love steam, it's about as practical as driving a classic car compared to a Prius. As you mentioned, the Law of Thermodynamics wins every time.

If you're dead set on powering trains with steam (why?), then here's how you do it. 1) Build a steam plant to generate electricity. 2) Hang overhead catenary 3) Buy electric locomotives. The steam plant's economy of scale and efficiency will beat any portable boiler system that has ever been designed, and when you get down to it, that's what a steam locomotive is.

Bill Anderson

Well-Known Member
UP #4014 and #4015 made the last revenue runs of Big Boys over Sherman Hill on July 20 & 21, 1959. I don't know if steam was used anywhere else on the UP system after that. The Duluth, Missabi, & Iron Range used their Yellowstone steam engines on ore runs into 1960. In the cases of both the UP and DM&IR, the last use of steam was short runs in a rather limited geographic area, no doubt due to concerns for maintenance and fuel supplies.

While steam engine are labor intensive, they are relatively low tech (think blacksmith and pipefitter level technology) compared to modern diesels. They were used on some logging and mining short lines in the US into the early-mid 60's. Steam engines may still make sense for countries with nearby coal reserves, low labor costs, and limited access to high technology.

When one thinks of "steam" engines, coal-fired boilers come to mind. One area where diesel engines lost out to steam power is submarines, where the steam generator is powered by a nuclear reactor.


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Staff member
Bill, you are correct about the UP and the DM&IR, and you're also correct that they were both hold outs in limited locations. There's always some debate over who was the last to switch to diesel but generally speaking the Virginian is often cited at the last hold out for large scale steam operation. In any case, the dates all line up about the same, and by 1960 steam was gone from Class 1 mainlines for all practical purposes. The fact that so many independent entities switched over at about the same time tells you that there was pretty universal agreement than diesel was the way of the future.
The disruptive technology was the internal combustion engine (and to a slightly lesser degree, the gas turbine). It made a real revolution in transportation: low maintenance, affordable, compact power that, with a greatly expanded highway system, made personal transportation possible for most people and more flexible shipping and distribtion of many commodities and goods. The railroads >had< to modernize to survive; they largely abandoned passenger service and focused on bulk commodities. Same thing for steam ships.


Active Member
I understand/know why railroads dieselized; again how long could a US Class 1 railroad have survived if it did not convert to diesel motive power?
Railroads went to all-diesel in about fifteen years, following WWII's interruption. Essentially without exception. Pretty darn fast when you think about the necessary capital expenditure. I dare say any major road that did not see the obvious would have fallen behind during the 50s and failing by the 60s. More than a few did anyway, when you consider all of the fallen flags--it was a tough era.

Unless steam locomotive technology somehow advanced considerably, I can't see a competitive scenario in the US where any major railroad would have remained with steam technology.

Maybe the question should be how steam locomotives could have been modernized to remain competitive with diesel. Given the thermodynamics involved, that's a very tough challenge. Another question is why electrics didn't dominate in North America, given their even greater advantages. I think the issue there was again economics; the tremendous capital costs of electrification prevented private companies from taking that route--and they were tempted.

It might take another 50 years, but I think electrification even in North America will prevail.


The other part of the diesel equation is the ability to add horsepower without adding another crew. I think it would be extremely difficult to automate the the operation of the steamers. It actually might be easier in the 21st century with servo valves and computers to regulate the fire and the throttle. The economics of railroads with diesels and without I am sure would show up on the ledger sheets in order.

Bill Anderson

Well-Known Member
Railroads are not run by railfans but by businessmen. Converting to diesels cost $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$. If a class I railroad could have continued to be run at a profit with steam engines, management would have done so. With 1959-60 being the sunset for mainline steam, I think it is fair to say that a class I railroad would probably have not remained in business very long after 1960 had it not converted to diesels.
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