Pushing Boundaries

Northern 4-8-4

That ominous presence is the Canadian National Railway’s 6213 steam locomotive. In use with the railway from 1942 to 1959, it covered over a million miles pulling passengers and freight across the continent. It represents the pinnacle of steam locomotive design — the Northern type locomotive.

With the explosion in demand for rail travel in the 1920s, railroads began searching for a locomotive that could carry more, carry it further, and carry it faster. At the time, the big locomotives were limited to about 20 cars. In 1927, the American Locomotive Company modified a locomotive with a 4-8-2 arrangement — a truck with 4 lead wheels, 8 drive wheels, and a truck with 2 trailing wheels — into a 4-8-4 configuration with a larger firebox. The 4 lead, or “pony”, and 8 drive wheel configuration had already proven to be an efficient means of guiding and driving the locomotive. Extending the trailing truck to accommodate a larger firebox was the next evolution, and proved to be the ultimate in steam locomotive design.

That locomotive that American Locomotive Company modified was for the Northern Pacific railroad. The configuration was dubbed the “Northern Pacific” and shortened to Northern. Over the next three decades, more than 1,126 Northern-type locomotives were built and operated by 36 different railroads. Many of the southern and other regional US railroads took exception to the “Northern” designation and renamed them everything from the “Dixies” to the “Poconos”. In Canada, they were known as “Confederations” and designated as U-2 and U-4 class locomotives.

The Northerns were limited only by the amount of tractive force they could transmit to the rails. By the time the railroads had found ways around this limitation, diesel-electric locomotives were coming out that could produce much more tractive force with about the same overall weight and more efficiently. With freight being the most profitable business for the railroads, they couldn’t get rid of their Northerns fast enough. By the early 1960s, the Northerns and all other main-line steam locomotives were put out to pasture, effectively ending the Age of Steam.

[Image Credit: engineerd™]

  • CaptianNemo2001

    A 4-8-8-4 will out do 2 diesel-electric locomotives working together.

  • Dean Bigglesworth

    Steam locomotives are fascinating. Steam powered anything is fascinating actually, even a steam powered banana would be cool. Much cooler than a diesel powered banana, anyway.

  • mike england

    Why could you not have a diesel steam-powered banana?
    Or even a nuclear steam-powered battle ship, aircraft carrier, or submarine?
    Wait, we DO have steam powered aircraft carriers and submarines; the nuclear power is just a better way to heat the water.
    I'm not a mechanical engineer like some of you guys must be, so let me know if I am wrong, but isn't steam power just a way to transfer energy? The power comes from the coal, or wood, or nowadays the reactor core.

    • CaptianNemo2001

      Correct on "the nuclear power is just a better way to heat the water. ". However, longterm wise, using bunkerfuel or wood is better when you intend to have the vessel still running after more then 20-25 years of service. Since the reactors need to be refueled every 20-25 years depending upon the design and power load usage of the reactor.

  • So steam was used to directly power the drivetrain in a steam locomotive, whereas diesel locomotives use the diesels to power generators that supply the drivetrain.

    A nuclear powerplant uses the heat from the nuclear fission to power boilers that generate steam to power turbines that generate electricity.

    Has anyone, for a lark, coupled a coal/wood burning boiler to a steam turbine electric generator to drive traction motors on a locomotive?

    • CaptianNemo2001

      They have geared pistons directly to wheels and they have geared a steam turbine directly to the wheels but I do not recall a turbo-electric design… Likely because it would be heavy and complex. But it could have been made. I'll dig into it for you if you like. Its like the guys who made the geared diesel locomotive to compete with the diesel-electric. It worked but it was a royal pain to maintain and use. iirc.

      A nuclear powerplant uses the heat from the nuclear fission AND then transfers that heat from one closed loop to another which then drives turbines which produce electricity. The only boiler is really the reactor vessel itself.

      • I'm also picturing one of The Professor's steampunk 'Shutdown' images featuring the 'Ugly Romeo' nuclear sub resting on some ridiculous number of trucks and drive wheels on a 20' gauge track, nothing but water tanks in tow.

  • CaptianNemo2001

    And there in lies the great plus to the diesels… operating costs.

  • Handsome locomotives indeed.. I'm still partial to the 4-6-4 Hudsons. The pride of the Water Level Route and holder of the land speed record on two different continents, they definitely didn't have the pulling power and versatility of the Northerns, but they excelled on relatively flat land. The Hudsons were immortalized by Lionel Electric Toy Trains and given art deco flare on the NYC System by Henry Dreyfus.

    I'd love to have a model Northern or Hudson.. For now I'll just have to stick with my 2-8-4 Berkshire.

    • CaptianNemo2001

      I got a Lionel 4-6-4 Hudson sitting in the box on the shelf. Its the crazy Keepsake Ornament one. It sits in the box and never hangs on the tree.

  • Its no secret a lot of steamers were more powerful than their diesel counterparts. Trains Magazine did a great piece on the Pennsy S2 Turbine wherein they compared it stat for stat with a top of the line EMD E-Unit. The S2 put more power to the rails than a string of three A-B-A E's.

    Big difference was in operating and maintenance cost, where the diesels handily beat the steamer. You can think of it in terms of this. The mighty Ford Tempo might have displaced its big block V8 toting muscle car ancestors, but not because it was more powerful (it wasn't), but it was just easier and cheaper to own. Better on the skin, nicer to the touch.

    • CaptianNemo2001

      Steam could make a comeback and deliver equal or better fuel efficiency AT operating speed. But its like tuning and building a drag car for the track in that its all designed to work best, usually, within a narrow band of speed, power, and range. where as the diesels do have the advantage of a wider range of operating conditions where they are generally more efficient then the steam locomotive.

      Its not that diesels are better at the optimum of operating conditions vs the steam locomotive. Its that they are more efficient getting to and maintaining their optimum operating conditions then a steam locomotive. Although by steam locomotive we are talking about 1940's tech here. Which even then was a maintenance money pit.

      Going all out and using the best knowledge known from the last 60 years it is possible to make something powered by steam out do a diesel in nearly if not all areas. Its just generally complex, and while not expensive it is time consuming to engineer the entire thing as a system. Also most of what you would need to build that system is not some thing you can go pick up off the shelf or look into a Rolodex and find a company that has the ability to make what you need. Its all very specialized, but then it always has been.

      Range is less of an issue if properly taken into account. IE route planning, water tanker and condensers and return lines for the exhaust. Creative fuel use would also help.