Out of Steam: Dieselization and American Railroads, 1920-1960

by Jeffrey W. Schramm
Out of Steam: Dieselization and American Railroads, 1920-1960
ISBN 0982131372
  • Author:
    Jeffrey W. Schramm
  • Title:
    Out of Steam: Dieselization and American Railroads, 1920-1960
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Out of Steam examines how and why American railroads embraced the diesel locomotive and abandoned the steam locomotive that had been the heart and soul of the industry for over a hundred years. It looks at the development of the diesel locomotive, how and why individual railroads decided to adopt the diesel and how the new form of motive power changed railroad operations, business practices, and communities. Railroads generally dieselized to control costs, especially labor costs, but different railroads adopted very different strategies for doing so. Some were prompted to try diesels by government legislation in the 1920s while others were excited by the public relations and marketing benefits of streamlined diesels in the 1930s. Still others were attracted to the potential differences in performance that diesels offered in the 1940s. Despite complete dieselization by 1960, the industry declined for the next twenty years.

American railroads underwent huge changes from 1920 to 1960 as the country faced boom, bust, war, and boom again. Dieselization was a major event in the history of a vital American industry. While others have looked at dieselization, no scholarly book to date has looked at the operational side of the equation and how individual railroads actually decided to acquire and use diesels. To make the analysis easier and more coherent, the book looks at various railroads following a geographic pattern, East, West, and South, that corresponded with the regulatory regions at the time. A range of various factors in the dieselization process are identified, ranging from the cost of fuel to government anti-smoke regulation to competition with other railroads to the character and experiences of top management.

Dieselization was not a foregone conclusion. Technological alternatives to dieselization such as main line electrification and turbine locomotives were viable. Yet they were not successful due largely to non-technical factors. The social and cultural consequences of the change in motive power were far-reaching. Rail labor on trains and in shops suffered from the use of the diesel although the locomotive fireman remained on the job for a generation after the last fires were extinguished.

About the Author: Jeff Schramm is an associate professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

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