• Ian Sutton

Three Decades

Updated: Mar 18

Transition from steam to diesel for U.S. railroads took three decades

The goal ‘Net Zero by 2050’ calls for a total transformation of society’s industrial infrastructure in just three decades. Yet it took three decades to restructure just one industry during the 20th century.

The following chart, which is taken from the November 2018 issue of the Oil & Gas Journal, shows how long it took for the railroad industry in the United States to switch from steam to diesel-electric motive power.

Transition from steam to diesel for U.S. railroads took three decades

Diesel and diesel-electric locomotives are attractive economically when compared to steam locomotives, largely because they require much less downtime for routine maintenance and cleaning. The chart shows that the diesel locomotives were put into use around the year 1925. Yet it was not until 1937 that diesel locomotives were commercialized. After that, diesel locomotives steadily replaced their steam counterparts. But, even by the year 1955, that replacement was not complete. (The chart shows that the total number of locomotives of both types fell from nearly 70,000 to 35,000. This is presumably because the power of the individual motive power units, both steam and diesel, steadily increased.) Most other aspects of railroad technology and operations such as the track, the freight cars, the signaling systems, and even the Union contracts did not have to change at all. Yet this relatively modest change took decades to implement. If it takes 30 years to transform a single industry, the challenge to do with transforming our entire industrial infrastructure in the same amount of time can only be described as being formidable.

Steam engine replaced by diesel

Credit: Unsplash

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