Letter Re: Steam Locomotives in a Post-TEOTWAWKI World?

I’m a big fan of western movies and was thinking of how trains seem to dominate so many. These old steam locomotives are still running in many locations around the world so it got me to thinking. I’ve heard you discuss steam power before and I was wondering what you thought of a return to steam power for transportation in between settlements in the case of full societal collapse that may drive us back a century or more in technology. It seems we have a good supply of lumber in our forests as well as a good supply of coal (especially in places such as Utah) to power these trains. Could they be adapted to run on existing tracks? Do enough exist to be viable? Are they high maintenance? Can they still be produced? I had a friend whose father worked for the railroad in Kentucky/Virginia and he stated that the large steam locomotives were in fact more powerful than the diesel/electrics and that more than a few had been ‘rescued’ by old steam driven locomotives when they broke down. I do remember hearing that they needed overhauls more frequently but if we returned to that type of society that would certainly beat wagons for transporting goods, people etc.–Just a thought and wondered if you had given it any serious consideration. – Jason North Idaho

JWR Replies: I’m all for it, but sadly even with existing tracks and rolling stock, it takes a lot more than a supply of firewood or coal to operate and maintain a steam locomotive railroad. The main drawback to using steam engines post-TEOTWAWKI is the high maintenance required for their boilers, and their inevitable replacement. Currently, steam engine boilers are rebuilt or replaced as essentially custom pieces. And if you read any of the hobbyist web sites devoted to steam engine restoration, the boiler work is typically a key topic of discussion and the main focus of the groups’ fundraising efforts. It is one of the most cash intensive part of rolling stock restoration, since everything else is typically done with donated time and effort on the part of club members. Almost all of the old large-scale steam locomotive repair infrastructure in North America is sadly gone. There are very few companies that still do steam locomotive boiler work, and most of those are in China. They are few and far between here in North America.

Up until the 1940s, nearly every railroad company had their own “in-house” boiler shop. Nowadays you only see that in China. Ironically, the locomotive boiler companies still in business in the U.S. are now highly dependent on grid power to run most of their tools. (In the old days, they would have had a stationary steam engine to run everything in the repair/rebuild shop on belt drive. And in those days they also had traditional (non-electric) hoists that could lift 4,000+ pounds, and they did traditional riveting. Nowadays they use gas-fired rivet heaters, welding gasses, arc welders, et cetera.) So unless the old-fashioned shops could be re-created post-TEOTWAWKI, then we will see the old engines drop out of service, one by one, as their boilers wear out. I may sound pessimistic in all the forgoing, but I’m a realist. I have great faith in American ingenuity. But if the old-fashioned infrastructure no longer or exists, or if the little that does remain isolated in inner-city areas that might resemble Beirut after TSHTF, then perhaps my pessimism is justified. With time, ingenuity, raw materials and plenty of”sweat equity”, a working 19th century technology industrial infrastructure could be re-created from the ground up. (Starting, of course, with forges .)

For some background on steam locomotives and boiler rebuilding, see:
Midcontinent Railway Museum