When people think of steam locomotives they undoubtedly think about the traditional looking “choo-choo” trains with the big funnel in the front, the barrel shaped boiler in the middle, the engineer’s cab in the back and loads of smoke and steam heading into the air. While those were certainly the most popular design for the span of many decades, there was another less popular and far more complex version of locomotive that used steam as well. We should start by saying that not all of the steam turbine locomotives were failures. There were some that went into service and stayed there a good long time, primarily in Europe. These two units that GE built were lemons though. A bridge a bit too far to cross in 1938 but one that we admire the company for not only dreaming up but also putting into practice if only for a couple of short years.
Before we get into these locomotives specifically the steam turbine locos had one major shortcoming against their piston driven brethren and that was low end power. When the thing got put to speed with a load the turbine trains were VASTLY more efficient than the traditional piston steam engine locomotives. The piston engines pretty much crushed the turbines when it came to actually getting a load moving. That was with the older design where the steam was actually doing the physical work of getting the engine moving. As you’ll soon see, such was not the case with these bad boys.
Back to the GE locomotives. Basically the idea here was really simple but wildly complex to actually get working in 1938. A high efficiency boiler would send steam through a quartet of turbines that would in turn spin massive generators that would actually provide the motive power for the train. This thing was a hybrid! The generator sent the power to four driving motors that would actually send the thing down the tracks. These engines actually used regenerative braking as well. When the engine was slowed the motors would turn into generators and send power back into the system. Wait until you see the guy working on the massive water cooler resistor that was part of the system.
The problem with these engines was not power or speed, they made 2,500hp and they could run 125 mph on flat ground. It was reliability. They broke down frequently and caused more problems than they were worth to the Union Pacific Railroad. They were returned to GE in 1941 and used sparingly during the war effort before being scrapped before the end of WWII. We love innovations and ideas like this. We’ll call the GE steam turbine locomotives glorious failures because there’s still a lot of win chocked into these suckers!