Steam Versus Diesel

Though in the end it was no contest, the steam-versus-diesel debate raged heatedly for some 20 years, but never hotter than in the days immediately after World War II.

On steam's side was tradition-plus the fact that steam locomotives were much less expensive to build than diesels. There the economic edge ended, however, as diesels were far cheaper to operate. Fuel costs were less, for openers, but that was just the beginning. Typically, steam spent far too little time on the road and far too much in the shops and engine terminals being serviced and inspected.


New York Central tried to get a handle on this in the fall of 1946 by placing six of its Niagaras in a controlled test program, operating head-to-head with diesels between Chicago and Harmon. By fitting monthly boiler washes and daily inspection and repairs into brief turnarounds, the Central was able to get an impressive, diesel-competitive 27,221 miles per month out of the Niagaras.

But it was the Norfolk & Western that most effectively modernized its steam-servicing procedures, particularly at its mammoth Shaffers Crossing facility in Roanoke, Virginia. N&W stuck by its guns longer than any other United States railroad, believing that modern steam power, when creatively operated could overcome diesels' natural advantages. In the end, it couldn't.

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