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Rio Grande 2-8-8-2 Locomotives

Published: February 11, 2024

By: Adam Burns

The 2-8-8-2 was a Mallet-type steam locomotive used extensively by the Denver and Rio Grande Western. The numbers 2-8-8-2 refer to the wheel arrangement, which included two leading wheels, eight driving wheels, another set of eight driving wheels, and two trailing wheels.

This type of engine was most often operated in heavy drag service - and was particularly effective in mountainous terrain - where its high tractive effort and drawbar horsepower was well-suited in such environments.  It was a perfect fit in the Rio Grande's rugged territory where main line grades commonly reached between 2-3%.

The 2-8-8-2s, which the railroad would eventually roster in four different classes, served it well for more than four decades.  The final examples were not retired until the 1950s.

Photos

91804912351421y51j906909789.jpgRio Grande 2-8-8-2 #3615; northbound near Castle Rock, Colorado in 1954. Robert LeMassena photo. American-Rails.com collection.

Acquisition

The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) was renowned for its 2-8-8-2 Mallet steam engines. This distinctive class was the epitome of power, efficiency, and innovation in the world of steam locomotives during the 20th century.

In his book, "Rio Grande Railroad," author James Griffin notes the story of these impressive engines begins with the company's efforts to improve operational efficiency along the stiff grades of its main line over Tennessee Pass (Colorado) and Soldier Summit (Utah).

As trains became increasingly heavier the railroad needed to eliminate double-heading and acquired eight early 2-6-6-2s in 1909.  Four years later, in 1913, the company picked up sixteen even more powerful 2-8-8-2s from Alco's Schenectady Works. 

According to the railroad they hoped these new behemoths could replace two Consolidations in helper service, thereby lowering operational costs. 

Moving onto specifics, the Rio Grande's 2-8-8-2s were characterized predominantly by two features: articulated construction and locomotive power.

The articulated construction was based on Anatole Mallet's design.  The Mallet was essentially two engines housed under one frame whereby the rear set of drivers - or "engine" - was fixed on a rigid frame while the lead set swiveled to negotiate curves.

The advantage, of course, was greater levels of adhesion and horsepower.  The Mallet was a compound articulated design; the high pressure steam was fed into the rear set of cylinders while the "spent" lead set captured the "wasted" low-pressure steam.

This cooler, lower-pressure steam required larger cylinders to maintain the same power, which gave the locomotives a somewhat cartoonish appearance.  For its time, the Mallet offered improved efficiency and greater power, requiring less fuel and roughly half the water of a traditional engine.

Many railroads, particularly in mountainous regions, found the Mallet very beneficial in heavy drag service.  In terms of power, the 2-8-8-2s were in a league of their own. Fueled by coal, their boiler was enormous and the fireboxes sufficiently large to generate high levels of steam pressure.

The initial L-95's (sometimes referenced as L-96) provided tractive efforts of over 95,000 pounds with the total engine and tender weight topping out at 605,000 pounds. 

They earned their impressive reputations primarily due to their unmatched ability for effective mountaineering while hauling heavy freights.   While the engines could be unstable at higher speeds they were predominantely only utilized in slow drag service on the Rio Grande.

Specifications

L-95/L-96

Class
L-95/L-96
Railroad
Rio Grande
Wheel Arrangement
2-8-8-2
Builder
American Locomotive Company - Schenectady Works
Road Numbers
1060-1075/3400-3415 (renumbered in 1924)
Completion Date
1913
Engine Wheelbase
56' 8 1/32"
Tender Wheelbase
-
Overall Wheelbase
-
Cylinders: Diameter & Stroke (High Pressure)
26" x 32"
Cylinders: Diameter & Stroke (Low Pressure)
40" x 32"
Valve Gear
Walschaert
Weight on Drivers
394,000 Lbs
Axle Loading
50,000 Lbs
Engine Weight
458,000 Lbs
Tender Weight
147,400 Lbs
Total Engine and Tender Weight
605,400 Lbs
Tender Capacity
9,000 Gallons/15 Tons (Coal)
Diameter of Drivers
57 Inches
Steam Pressure
200 psi
Tractive Effort
96,000 Lbs
Factor of Adhesion
4.34
Evaporative Heating Surface (square feet)
5170
Grate Area (square feet)

L-107

Class
L-107
Railroad
Rio Grande
Wheel Arrangement
2-8-8-2
Builder
American Locomotive Company - Richmond Works
Road Numbers
3500-3509
Completion Date
1923
Engine Wheelbase
58' 0"
Tender Wheelbase
-
Overall Wheelbase
94' 6"
Cylinders: Diameter & Stroke (High Pressure)
25" x 32"
Cylinders: Diameter & Stroke (Low Pressure)
39" x 32"
Valve Gear
Walschaert
Weight on Drivers
481,000 Lbs
Axle Loading
61,401 Lbs
Engine Weight
534,001 Lbs
Tender Weight
210,001 Lbs
Total Engine and Tender Weight
744,002 Lbs
Tender Capacity
12,012 Gallons/16 Tons (Coal)
Diameter of Drivers
57 Inches
Steam Pressure
240 psi
Tractive Effort
107,000 Lbs
Factor of Adhesion
4.74
Evaporative Heating Surface (square feet)
6147
Grate Area (square feet)

L-131

Class
L-131
Railroad
Rio Grande
Wheel Arrangement
2-8-8-2
Builder
American Locomotive Company - Brooks Works
Road Numbers
3600-3609
Completion Date
1927
Engine Wheelbase
62' 9 31/32"
Tender Wheelbase
-
Overall Wheelbase
108' 0"
Cylinders: Diameter & Stroke (High Pressure)
26" x 32"
Valve Gear
Walschaert
Weight on Drivers
559,500 Lbs
Axle Loading
71,000 Lbs
Engine Weight
649,000 Lbs
Tender Weight
343,000 Lbs
Total Engine and Tender Weight
992,000 Lbs
Tender Capacity
18,000 Gallons/30 Tons (Coal)
Diameter of Drivers
63 Inches
Steam Pressure
240 psi
Tractive Effort
131,000 Lbs
Factor of Adhesion
3.99
Evaporative Heating Surface (square feet)
7265
Grate Area (square feet)

L-132

Class
L-131
Railroad
Rio Grande
Wheel Arrangement
2-8-8-2
Builder
American Locomotive Company - Schenectady Works
Road Numbers
3610-3619
Completion Date
1930
Engine Wheelbase
62' 9 31/32"
Tender Wheelbase
-
Overall Wheelbase
108' 0"
Cylinders: Diameter & Stroke (High Pressure)
26" x 32"
Valve Gear
Walschaert
Weight on Drivers
572,000 Lbs
Axle Loading
73,800 Lbs
Engine Weight
665,000 Lbs
Tender Weight
343,500 Lbs
Total Engine and Tender Weight
1,008,500 Lbs
Tender Capacity
18,000 Gallons/30 Tons (Coal)
Diameter of Drivers
63 Inches
Steam Pressure
240 psi
Tractive Effort
132,000 Lbs
Factor of Adhesion
4.08
Evaporative Heating Surface (square feet)
8014
Grate Area (square feet)

As the Rio Grande's fortunes improved through the 1920s the railroad continue to acquire additional 2-8-8-2 designs; in 1923 it picked up ten Class L-107 compounds from Alco's Richmond Works and followed with ten more from Alco's Brooks Works in 1927, listed as Class L-131.

Mr. Griffin goes on to point out that the 131's, at the time of their delivery, were the most powerful steam locomotives in the world, offering tractive efforts of 131,000 pounds.

The 131's were also the Rio Grande's first to use simple steam expansion as the railroad moved on from the more complex - and maintenance intensive - compound Mallet designs. 

It final batch, listed as Class L-132, came in 1930 from Schenectady.  Interestingly, it is said the Rio Grande's classified these big articulateds by their peak tractive effort rating.

In an odd twist, perhaps as a means of differientiating the two groups, since the tractive efforts were in the 131,000 range, the Rio Grande rounded down with its first group (L-131) but rounded up with the second (L-132).

Operations

The big 2-8-8-2s tended to operate where the railroad needed them most, on the stiff grades of Soldier Summit and Tennessee Pass.  When originally delivered the L-95s worked the Salt Lake Division - where grade's on Soldier Summit reached as high as 3.97%. 

All of the big engines could also be found out on the main line, generally in service on Tennessee Pass.  Interestingly, the big steamers were not generally well-liked by crews.  They tended to be heavy smokers, which made breathing extremely difficult in the tunnels. Nevertheless, most remained in service beyond World War II.

Legacy

Unfortunately, none of these impressive machines survived the scrappers torch.  They tended to enter retirement in order of acquistion.

  • The L-95s (except for #3412, retired in October, 1944) remained in service through World War II.  The remaining were retired between February, 1950-May, 1952.
  • The L-107s were retired between 1947-1951.
  • The L-131s were dropped between October, 1955 and October, 1956 as newly arriving diesels entered the property.
  • The L-132s were retired at around the same period as the earlier 131s.

The Rio Grande's 2-8-8-2s, with their compelling mix of power, innovation, and challenges, embody a significant chapter in the history of American railroads.

From their service to their eventual retirement, they serve as robust symbols of the grit and determination it took to conquer the mountainous western American landscapes, transforming them into the heartland of a pioneering nation.

Sources

  • Griffin, James R. Rio Grande Railroad.  St. Paul: Voyageur Press, 2003.
  • Heimburger, Donald J.  Rio Grande Steam Locomotives: Standard Gauge. River Forest: Heimburger House Publishing Company, 1981.
  • Morrison, Tom. American Steam Locomotive In The Twentieth Century. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019.
  • Simpson, Walter. Steam Locomotive Energy Story, The.  New York: American University Presses, 2021.

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