Steam Turbine

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich


The steam turbine locomotive was a variant of the steam locomotive and hailed at the time of its development as not only extremely efficient and powerful (which it was) but also that it could compete with the diesel locomotive in becoming the railroad industry's primary main line locomotive. However, while powerful the design was only efficient at very high speeds and was a maintenance headache for the few railroads which did test them. In all just the Union Pacific, Pennsylvania Railroad, Norfolk & Western, New York Central, Great Northern, and Chesapeake & Ohio ultimately tested designs of the steam turbine locomotive, which lasted just a few years on each railroad. By 1958 the N&W had scrapped its "Jawn Henry" design and the steam turbine was relegated to history. Today, no examples of this unique design are known to exist.

One of the Chesapeake & Ohio's massive Class M-1 steam turbines, #502, is seen here in Cincinnati on July 2, 1949.


The steam turbine locomotive was developed in the late 1930s as a means to compete with the diesel. By this point EMD had successfully demonstrated the usefulness of its E and F series diesel locomotives and the steam turbine seemed to be the last hope of retaining that means of propulsion in main line railroading. In a comparison to steam locomotives only the steam turbine was meant to be more efficient while requiring less maintenance due to fewer moving parts.  This was because the design did not have large driving wheels, side rods, or pistons like a standard reciprocating steam locomotive. Instead, its running gear was much more similar to a diesel locomotive using traction motors and trucks to house the wheels (except for the PRR's model which did use a more conventional steam locomotive wheel arrangement).

The steam turbine had plenty of advantages but unfortunately had just as many disadvantages. Aside from having fewer moving parts the design did not have to contend with the difficult task of being properly balanced. Likewise, the locomotive did not suffer from wheel slippage when attempting to start from a dead stop.  However, the design was only efficient at very high speeds, usually over 75 mph and at slow speeds used massive amounts of fuel (coal) and water. Additionally, the turbine an only be operated in one direction requiring an additional unit to be operated in reserve. Finally, the design proved to be a maintenance nightmare as the unclean environment in which railroads operated was simply not suited for a turbine.

The first steam turbine locomotive design was built by General Electric in 1938 and tested on the Union Pacific. The two test models carried an electric locomotive-like 2-C+C-2 wheel arrangement. To give you an idea of what this means, in the case of a 1-D-1 wheel arrangement; the “1” refers to one unpowered axle located on each end of the locomotive and the “D” refers to four powered axles whereby “A” equals one powered axled, “B” equals two powered axles, “C” equals three powered axles, and so on. While at first these classifications look tricky they are actually quite simple once you know what they mean and stand for.

They were the only two steam turbine locomotive design to feature condensers and apparently worked relatively well. In any event, they were only used on the Union Pacific for about six months and were later sent to both the New York Central and Great Northern. The GN used them throughout 1943 and returned them to GE needing new wheels. They remained sidelined at GE and were eventually scrapped.  A year later, in 1944 the Pennsylvania Railroad unveiled their steam locomotive turbine design the Class S2, #6200, developed by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. It featured a traditional steam locomotive wheel setup in the 6-8-6 arrangement.

A Norfolk & Western publicity photo featuring "Jawn Henry" #2300 next to the "Powhatan Arrow" led by 4-8-4 #605 (J Class).

The model could produce an astounding 6,900 horsepower with a starting tractive effort of 70,500 pounds. However, it consumed large amounts of fuel and water and low speeds and proved to be uneconomical. The PRR would eventually scrap the #6200 by 1949.  A year after the PRR first began testing its Class S2 the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway unveiled its Class M-1 in 1945, developed by both Baldwin and Westinghouse. This design carried a unique albeit odd 2-C1+2-C1-B wheel arrangement and was streamlined for premier passenger service across Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio. It was capable of producing 6,000 horsepower and the C&O eventually would come to own three, #500 through #502.

The steam turbine locomotive weighed an incredible 428 tons making it very hard on the track. Once again, this design proved to be quite troublesome, constantly breaking down due to water leaking on to the locomotives' traction motors and coal dust clogging the front motors. By the summer of 1948 the C&O had scrapped all three of its steam turbines.  Finally, in 1954 the Norfolk & Western Railway tested its "Jawn Henry" design, #2300, named after the famous African American worker who defeated a steam drill. This design featured a C-C-C-C wheel arrangement and could produce nearly 5,000 horsepower. Like nearly all of the designs it was quite heavy at 409 tons but produced the highest tractive effort at 175,000 pounds. Even as the master of steam technology, the N&W could not work out all of the problems that cropped up with its steam turbine locomotive. Within four years of its debut the "Jawn Henry" was scrapped by the railroad.  

Chesapeake & Ohio's M-1 Steam Turbines

During the end of steam's reign a new technology arose which attempted to provide one final, competitive edge against the diesel; steam turbines.   These locomotives were somewhat similar to diesels in that an electric traction motor was used to provide power although instead of a diesel engine, turbines were used.  A few railroads experimented with the concept, one of which was the Chesapeake & Ohio.  Interestingly, the C&O's application was somewhat unique; it intended to use the turbines 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; numerous mechanical problems saw them scrapped only a few years after being built.

One of Chesapeake & Ohio's M-1 steam turbines, #500, is seen here on display at the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948. Intended to handle the never-launched streamliner "Chessie" all three turbines proved problematic and were scrapped in 1950. Author's collection.

Following the introduction of Electro-Motive's revolutionary FT diesel-electric locomotive in 1939 it was clear the 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.  Around the time of World War II the steam turbine was born and appeared as if it might challenge the diesel. The first to test the technology 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.  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 boasted 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.

The C&O, working alongside 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 (using the Whyte Notation this would be a 4-8-0-4-8-4), 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, 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 worked 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 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 which more or less sat in the middle of the entire contraption.  

In any event, the design was mechanically complex and 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 actions and heavy beating experienced during 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 that the M-1 would require less maintenance via fewer moving parts and greater fuel savings the C&O was never able to operate the locomotives all the way from Washington to Cincinnati without some sort of mechanical troubles. In 1948 the M-1's promoted the new Chessie by parading an exhibition train around the entire C&O system, allowing folks to tour the equipment during stops at various towns and cities.  Unfortunately, the train never ran despite all of the cars and locomotives being purchased and readied for service.  


One 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.

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 steeply declining ridership essentially forced the C&O to end the idea.  The cars later went to operate on the regional Pere Marquettes for a few years while the unsuccessful M-1's continued to run on other trains during 1948.  The three units were eventually sent back to Baldwin and scrapped in 1950.  Perhaps the failure of the M-1's and the Chessie was all of the best.  While the C&O was struggling to get the train in service rival Baltimore & Ohio launched a new streamliner along the same corridor during January of 1947 known as the Cincinnatian.  It featured a stunningly beautiful streamlined 4-6-2 Pacific with matching equipment in a deep blue, silver,and white livery.  Alas, the market was so sparsely populated the train saw little success and the B&O soon shifted the train to a Cincinnati - Detroit routing where it saw much higher ridership.

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