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C&O's M-1 Steam Turbine Locomotive

Last revised: February 2, 2024

By: Adam Burns

Chesapeake & Ohio's M-1 steam turbine locomotives were the embodiment of daring and visionary engineering that emerged during steam era's zenith in an attempt to provide one final, competitive edge against the diesel.

These locomotives were similar to diesels in that an electric traction motor was used to provide power.  However, instead of a diesel engine, turbines were utilized.  A few railroads experimented with the concept, one of which was the C&O.  

The C&O, Norfolk & Western, and Baldwin Locomotive Works all spent a great deal of money in research and development on this concept. 

Interestingly, the C&O's application was somewhat unique; it intended to use these locomotives in high-speed passenger service via a new streamliner known as The Chessie.  Alas, the train never made it into service and the M-1's were never reliable. 

Due to numerous mechanical problems they were scrapped just three years following their completion.  Nevertheless, it is truly fascinating to ponder what may have become of steam turbines had the design proven a success. 

Photos

5008381u5785903759038.jpgOne of Chesapeake & Ohio's M-1 steam turbine's, #500, is seen here in May, 1948. The locomotive, along with two others, was built to handle the railroad's postwar streamliner, "The Chessie," which ultimately never entered service.

Development

The late 1940s were a transition period for American railways, moving from steam power to diesel.  Following the introduction of Electro-Motive's revolutionary FT diesel-electric in 1939 it was clear this motive power was the future. 

However, some railroads still believed strongly in steam power including the C&O and Norfolk & Western.   These two lines derived a large percentage of their freight revenues from the movement of southern Appalachian coal; as a result they maintained a strong allegiance to steam through the 1950s.

They also maintained a steady and near limitless supply of cheap fuel. Around the time of World War II the steam turbine was born and appeared as if it might challenge the diesel. Baldwin was a major proponent of the concept, backed financially by railroads like the N&W and C&O.

The first to test the concept was Union Pacific in 1938, using a streamlined pair for passenger service, followed by the Pennsylvania in 1944. Then, just after the war, the C&O jumped on the bandwagon.

The M-1s were unique, and at the time, revolutionary.  Under the new leadership of Robert Young since 1942, who believed fervently in high quality and efficient passenger service, the C&O wished to use steam turbines on a new service between Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati, Ohio.  

The train, named The Chessie, was lauded by Young as the most luxurious all-coach service in the country.  To further enhance its appeal, and keep in accordance with the C&O's coal roots, Young felt steam turbine locomotives should power The Chessie.

Specifications

The C&O, working with the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Westinghouse, and General Electric outshopped what was known as the Class M-1 in 1947.  

The locomotive, given #500, carried a 2-C1+2-C1-B wheel arrangement.  Or, using the Whyte Notation was a 4-8-0-4-8-4.

The locomotive was 106 feet long, weighed 428 tons (856,000 pounds), and boasted 6,000 horsepower.  It was an impressive and imposing machine featuring a shrouded, streamlined carbody with a pleasing livery of grey, Federal Yellow, and deep blue. 

Following #500, two more would arrive in 1948 and given #501 and #502. According to Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s book, "Chesapeake & Ohio Railway:  A Concise History And Fact Book," the Class M-1's functioned by employing a standard boiler, fed by coal, to power electrified traction motors on the axles thus propelling the locomotive forward.  

In essence the M-1 was a combination of steam and diesel locomotive using a boiler and traction motors but lacking a diesel engine.   Departing from traditional steam designs, the M-1's boiler was situated to the rear while a coal tender, streamlined as part of the entire locomotive, was located ahead of the cab.

Visually, the M-1s were distinctive. They were perhaps the most streamlined steam locomotives ever built, featuring a sleek and aerodynamic design characteristic of the 'streamline moderne' style of the 1940s. This was not merely aesthetic; it was - to an extent - also intended to reduce drag at high speeds.

Mechanical Issues

Unfortunately, the design was also mechanically complex.  During initial tests in 1947 the #500 experienced a variety of problems.  Part of the issue was the turbines themselves which, while practical in marine applications, could not tolerate the jarring action - and heavy beating - experienced in standard service on a railroad.  There was also the problem of dirt, dust, and other particles fouling equipment, including the traction motors.  

Despite claims by its builders the M-1 would require less maintenance via fewer moving parts and greater fuel savings, the C&O was unable to operate the locomotives from Washington to Cincinnati without mechanical issues.

In 1948 the railroad promoted the new Chessie by parading an exhibition train, led by an M-1, around the entire C&O system.  This public relations endeavor allowed folks to tour the equipment during stops at various towns and cities. 

Unfortunately, the train never entered service despite millions spent on the new locomotives and cars.   Young had wanted The Chessie running by 1946 but a large backlog of postwar orders delayed the cars from arriving for two years at which point declining ridership forced the C&O to end the concept. 


Legacy

Ultimately, much of the large order C&O had placed with Pullman was either sold or used for the railroad's other services.  The unsuccessful M-1's continued to run for a few years and were eventually sent back to Baldwin.  They were finally scrapped in 1950.  

Although the M-1s did not deliver on their promised operational efficiency, they remain a significant chapter in American railway history, representing a step towards technological advancement and innovation. The locomotives continue to generate interest and spur conversations among railway aficionados. 

Sources

  • Dixon, Thomas W. Chesapeake And Ohio Railway:  A Concise History And Fact Book.  Clifton Forge:  Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, 2012.
  • Dixon, Thomas W. Chesapeake & Ohio Passenger Service:  1847-1971.  Clifton Forge:  Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, 2013.
  • Morrison, Tom. American Steam Locomotive In The Twentieth Century. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019.
  • Schafer, Mike and Welsh, Joe. Streamliners, History of a Railroad Icon. St. Paul: MBI Publishing, 2003.
  • Simpson, Walter. Steam Locomotive Energy Story, The.  New York: American University Presses, 2021.
  • Solomon, Brian.  Streamliners:  Locomotives And Trains In The Age Of Speed And Style. Minneapolis:  Voyageur Press, 2015.

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