The bigger horse

Locomotives: Power and Efficiency

Everybody loves locomotives and who hasn’t waved to the engineer as the engines pass? We thrill to the the deep rumble, the sheer power that moves all those cars so far and so easily. People in generations past had the same thrill as the steamers rolled by, whistles blowing for the crossing and big, heavy side rods pushing those huge wheels. There’s something exciting about people driving machines that big and that powerful moving that fast.

Steam Locomotives – A bigger, faster, more powerful horse

The first railway locomotives used the power of steam pressure to drive the engine. A fire at the rear of the boiler heated water to boiling point and the resulting steam was fed into the big cylinders at the front. This turned the big driving wheels and the exhaust steam from the cylinders made the rhythmic chuffing out the smokestack. They were immensely powerful and they drove trains across the country up into the late 1950s when they were replaced by diesels.

Our Countess of Dufferin is an authentic Baldwin 4-4-0 American standard steam locomotive built in 1872 for the Northern Pacific. She was sold to track construction contractor Joseph Whitehead who was commissioned by the fledgeling Canadian Pacific Railway to build track on the prairies.

She arrived in Winnipeg by barge in 1877 and began by building the Pembina Branch to Minnesota so they could import the rails, ties and other hardware to the St. Boniface on the Red River.

Diesel Locomotives – Flexibility and efficiency

Canadian National number 1900 is our diesel locomotive and one of the early diesels in Canada. It’s a GMD-1, a model built specially for the Canadian National during 1958 – 1960. It did both freight and passenger service and it had a steam generator to heat the passenger coaches. Its last years were spent working in Winnipeg where it often shunted passenger cars into the depot.

Diesels solved four big problems caused by steamers:

  • They required a lot less maintenance and fewer people were required to keep a fleet of diesels operating.
  • They were easier to operate.
  • They didn’t need the huge amounts of water that the steamers did. Water is not always easy to get on the Canadian prairies during the winter.
  • They had better thermal efficiency, they produced a lot more work for the amount of fuel they got.

The diesels were here to stay and the steam locomotives were gone within 12 years. This also meant a huge rebuilding of the shops and maintenance facilities. The old steam fitters and boiler makers gave way to the diesel mechanics and electrical technicians. The engine shops were completely rebuilt in what may have been the biggest industrial retooling of the 20th Century.

“Thus ended what the romantics term the wonderful era of the steam locomotive. But to anyone who tried to keep the beasts operating through cold weather, bad weather and mechanical failures in dust storms, there was no glamour.”

Norris R “Buck” Crump
President of Canadian Pacific 1955-1964

In a diesel locomotive, the engine actually drives an electric generator and the current is fed to traction motors over the axles. This replaces the transmission you have in your car. Diesel locomotives can also be connected in groups of two or more with only one crew and, these days you often see locomotives in the middle of the train. This distributes the force and puts an air compressor in the middle of the train to refill the brake lines faster.

Electrics – specialized applications

Our electric locomotive came from Flin Flon, Manitoba where it worked the mine and smelter. It ran on 550 volts drawn from an overhead wire by the pantograph on top that ran traction motors over the axles. The large wooden spool on top of the engine held an extension cord for working short distances off the grid. Electric motors produce no emissions so they’re often used in industries such as mines and smelters.