Column: Energy and Ecology
Steam good alternative for
high-speed rail link
reprinted from Red Deer Advocate (Evan Bedford) April 20, 2011
"The commonly held view that the steam locomotive was replaced
because it was slow is incorrect. Many of today's diesel and even
electrically operated services are not appreciably faster than steam
was 50 or more years ago." - Colin Garratt
In fact, way back in 1938, a Pacific Mallard achieved the world
record for a steam train of 203 km/h. The record still stands.
When diesel trains phased out steam many years ago, the main reasons
were related to the environment (coal put out a lot of smoke that
urban areas already had enough of), constant maintenance of the
steam boilers, and labour costs (steam locomotives required a driver
as well as someone to shovel coal into the firebox).
Over the years, however, advances were made to overcome the problems
associated with steam.
This generally took the form of retrofitting existing locomotives.
Livio Dante Porta was an Argentine steam locomotive engineer, who
was instrumental in doubling the efficiency of old steam engines for
the Argentine railway system.
Later on, David Wardale did the same in South Africa.
Now, Wardale is at the head of a movement to go past mere
retrofitting and into more efficient designs of steam engines (just
like a house, greater efficiencies can be obtained by building from
the ground up, instead of simply retrofitting).
Wardale has designated the 5AT Advanced Technology Steam Locomotive
www.5at.co.uk for more info) using off-the-shelf
The 5AT will, like the Mallard, be capable of 200 km/h, but it will
also have much reduced fuel and water consumption, as well as much
lower maintenance costs.
And call me crazy, but I think that the 5AT would be a very good
candidate for the proposed high-speed rail link between Edmonton,
Red Deer and Calgary.
It would certainly be cheaper than the 330 km/h "greenfield
electric" option currently being considered ($3.4 billion for
initial capital costs mentioned in the 2004 Van Horne Institute
The two main advantages that steam has over either diesel or
electric lies with its simplicity and its resiliency. Steam engines
are inherently simple, so they can be repaired more easily with
cheaper parts made closer to home.
And steam engines can run on any type of fuel, since all you have to
do is to heat up a boiler.
Wardale has designed the 5AT to run on either diesel fuel or coal,
but with fairly simple changes, it could theoretically run on
anything from natural gas to hydrogen to bio-fuels to wood-chips.
And they can run on any track, unlike the greenfield electric, which
requires an additional $1.2 billion cost just for the custom track
alignments and the attached electrification infrastructure.
Oh, and there's a third advantage: they look and sound very, very
cool. Just search for "fast steam locomotive" on YouTube, and you'll
see what I mean. And that's good for tourism.
Ask anyone associated with the Alberta Prairie Railway, running from
Stettler to Big Valley.
As for Red Deer's railway tourism potential, just go to
www.forthjunction.com and click on "big and bold".
Admittedly, the greenfield electric option would also be very cool.
However, in the very near future, when fossil fuels will be a lot
more expensive, we will be much less concerned with speed (that is,
getting from Calgary to Edmonton in 80 minutes), and a lot more
concerned with cost, efficiency and effectiveness.
Farmers are already ahead of us on this point.
That's why a group of them recently chipped in $5 million to buy a
used diesel locomotive and 80 km of abandoned CN rail line between
Camrose and Alliance. They know the cheapest way to haul grain.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those of us who think
that there's nothing wrong with Alberta that a six-lane highway
won't cure. To them, I would say that when gasoline prices get to $2
or $3 a litre, we won't have to worry about congestion any more. And
that's where the inherent efficiencies of rail come in.
We need to invest in long-term efficiencies, not short-term
expediencies. And if it comes in the form of a big old gal with
exposed piston rods, six-foot diameter wheels, and a haunting
whistle that a diesel engine just can't match, then I'm all for it.
Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments,
questions and suggestions to
firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the
Energy and Ecology website at
News articles related to high speed rail
(Forth Junction supports the concept of a future rapid passenger
rail service connecting major destinations as efficient and enviro-friendly
but is not directly advocating for any specific high speed rail
News article: Talk of high-speed rail line
picking up steam?
News article: City touting high-speed rail
stop at downtown station
(Red Deer Advocate Jan.2013)
News article: Fast-tracking bullet train a
ticket to nowhere (Red Deer Advocate Dec.2011)
News article: Business officials laud rail
proposals (Red Deer Advocate Apr.2011)
News article: Chamber pressing high-speed rail
(Red Deer Advocate Jan.2011)
Editorial: Train's future needs path
(Red Deer Advocate Nov.2010)
News article: Project creates issues for rural
(Red Deer Advocate Nov.2010)
Editorial: High speed rail back on
(Red Deer Advocate July 2010)
News article: Rail plan returns
(Red Deer Advocate July 2010)
News article: Get moving on high-speed rail
(Red Deer Advocate June 2010)
News article: Rural groups want high-speed
(Red Deer Advocate March 2010)
News article: Political will lags behind train debate
(Red Deer Advocate Oct.2009)
article: Province offers update on high speed rail
(Red Deer Express July 2009)
article: Company pushes for high speed rail
(Red Deer Express April 2008)
News article: Rail group projects service in
five years (Red Deer Advocate
Rise and Fall of Passenger Rail in the C&E Corridor