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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 368-369

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Book Review

Dropping the Fire: The Decline and Fall of the Steam Locomotive

Dropping the Fire: The Decline and Fall of the Steam Locomotive. By Philip Atkins. Clophill, Beds.: Irwell, 1999. Pp. vi+106. £14.95.

Pacific. 4-8-4. Nigel Gresley. Andre Chapelon. If you have no idea what I am talking about, skip to another review. If, however, you know that Pacific and 4-8-4 both describe wheel arrangements of steam locomotives and that Gresley and Chapelon were locomotive designers, then you may be interested in this book. In 1950, the world's railroads were overwhelmingly steam powered. Today, steam exists in regular service only in a few widely scattered places. How this occurred is the subject of Philip Atkins's Dropping the Fire.

Following a brief introduction, one chapter details worldwide locomotive production figures, average and record mileage, and ages. Photos, charts, and tables illustrate and clarify the many points made in the text, both here and throughout the book. After the statistics, the book divides into short chapters arranged geographically. North America merits four chapters. The first is a general overview of twentieth-century steam locomotive development. Atkins, in text and tables, explains the "superpower" concept that dominated the final few decades of steam locomotive construction. Chapter 3 examines two of the last large North American passenger locomotives built, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Duplex 4-4-4-4 and the New York Central's Niagara 4-8-4. Both types represented the state of the art in steam locomotive design in the mid-1940s, and both types were out of service by the mid-1950s. Atkins correctly calls them the high point of American steam locomotive design.

The Norfolk and Western Railroad is the subject of the next chapter. This railroad was notable for its continued reliance on coal-burning steam locomotives until the late 1950s, well after most other North American railroads had abandoned steam power. Atkins views the Norfolk and Western as the global high point for steam locomotive operation, an opinion that is entirely justified. A final chapter on North America looks at dieselization. Atkins correctly attributes much of management's desire to switch to diesel-electrics to the rising price of coal but goes a bit too far in blaming United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis for the death of steam.

Next, Atkins addresses the final decades of steam development and operation in Europe, with separate chapters devoted to Great Britain, Germany, Russia and the Soviet bloc, France, and the rest of Europe, including Belgium, Spain, and Ireland. He is highly critical of British Rail's crash dieselization program and laments the passing of steam traction from the isle on which it originated. He also points to several missed opportunities, especially in France, to construct larger, more efficient, and therefore more economical locomotives.

Leaving Europe, Atkins discusses steam in its last strongholds: Africa, [End Page 366] Australia, India, and China. In those places steam hung on because of one or more of the following: cheap coal, low labor costs, inherent mechanical simplicity. China has the distinction of being the last place on earth where one can see steam locomotives in daily operation and not on tourist lines.

A short chapter on the locomotive-building industry and a chapter on experiments and proposals for modern steam round out the book. The chapter on experiments is especially interesting, for it shows how engineers and designers tried to overcome the inherent low thermal efficiency of the steam locomotive through evolutionary upgrades or revolutionary new designs.

Make no mistake, this is a book by a steam locomotive enthusiast for steam locomotive enthusiasts. No deep analysis or theory here. For those seeking insights into the why of steam locomotive decline rather than just the how, all that can be found here are a few tantalizing nuggets. That said, there is much to recommend about this work for both railfan and scholar. Atkins's conclusions are essentially correct, if understated. The book bogs down in...


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