TIFFS: Steam engines; you know those fire-eating, smoke-belching contraptions

Number four in the Transport-in-a-Fine-Fix Series.

I am one of transportation’s biggest advocates or one of its biggest critics; it could go either way.

320px-WilliamsDepot_WilliamsAZ[1]With this – the fourth installment in the Transport-in-a-Fine-Fix Series – I may be opening a can of worms, that is, if I haven’t done so already. Since I have committed to doing this series, it is my obligation to disclose without hesitation or reservation what I feel needs to be conveyed, and to do otherwise would border on the hypocritical. So, without further ado, here goes.

Beginning at the beginning

If you don’t already know I am a huge train buff. I believe I have a pretty good grasp of ferro-equinology (the study of the iron horse). And I know a thing or two about its history in the United States. In fact, I was born and raised in the American city where common-carrier railroading all began – Baltimore, Maryland. I have been to many museums showcasing transportation including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The reason I mention museums here at all has to do with their doing a bang-up job detailing history and among those transportation museums can be included.

And, related to this, history is where this story begins.

All steamed up

Regardless of time of origin, steam-engine power not only survives, but thrives today. That’s right, thrives.

Steam engines, not just being limited to railway locomotives, are known to provide power in dredging, mining and waterway navigation (e.g., paddle-wheel steamboats), according to Michael Del Vecchio.1 At least two other applications, agriculture (tractors, combines and the like) and land excavating, can be added to that list, too. Incidentally, and also according to Del Vecchio, Thomas Newcomen who, in 1705, filed for a steam-engine-design patent, is believed to be the first person to do so.2

And where I’m going with this exactly, is this:

Being steam power is in use to a considerable degree around the world, still, the key is finding more environmentally-friendly and efficient ways to produce steam. One tourist railroad – the Grand Canyon Railway – has done just that in at least one of its locomotives.

In “CATS: Grand Canyon Railway a ‘Lean, Clean and Green’ machine,” I wrote:

“In an NPS [National Park Service] ‘Grand Canyon News Release’ dated Feb. 21, 2012, emphasized is ‘The Lean, Clean and Green Award recognizes NPS teams or partners for outstanding achievements in building or fleet energy efficiency, or renewable energy development and deployment.’ I chose to focus on this particular news release because the recipient of that award then, you might agree, might not be thought of first as far as earning such awards go – the award itself going to the Grand Canyon Railway (GCR).”

Added to this I wrote: “According to information presented in the news release, the received GCR honor was in recognition of a program to convert a 90-year-old steam locomotive that once was powered by coal to run on a renewable fuel – waste vegetable oil (WVO). …”

But here is the kicker: “The NPS further stated, ‘Use of the locomotive significantly reduces GCR’s environmental footprint. Each round-trip journey to the park uses approximately 1,320 gallons of WVO which not only prevents the oil from entering the waste stream, but reduces GCR’s diesel fuel consumption by about 1,100 gallons per trip. Because WVO burns much more cleanly than diesel, the WVO locomotive assists the Grand Canyon community in reaching their Climate Friendly Goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions,’” I further elaborated.

Enough said.


  1. Michael Del Vecchio, “Iron Horses: The Illustrated History of the Tracks and Trains of North America,” “The History of Steam Railways in America: In The Beginning,” 2000, pp. 8-9.
  2. Ibid. p. 8.

– Alan Kandel