In for the long haul: Looking back, forward at locomotives in the Sierra |

In for the long haul: Looking back, forward at locomotives in the Sierra

Jerry Blackwill
Special to the Sierra Sun


To learn more on this topic, join a historical talk on the evolution of locomotive technologies on June 10. Jerry Blackwill of Truckee-Donner Railroad Society will be the featured speaker 6-8 p.m. for the Tahoe Silicon Mountain Monthly Speaker Series at Pizza on the Hill, 11509 Northwoods Blvd, Truckee.

For more information and a list of summer activities going on in Truckee to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad go to or the Facebook page: Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration.

The first passenger locomotive to reach Truckee was a wood burner called the Antelope.

It was driven by four large wheels with four small pilot wheels in the front. This type of locomotive was called an “American Standard.” In 1968, when the Antelope arrived the technology of steam locomotives was well developed.

This locomotive used fire box with hot smoke moving through an array of pipes located inside a water filled boiler. The steam was then run through a set of chambers and valves that caused a rod attached to the drive wheels to move back and forth. The concept was widely used and was the high tech of the 19th century.

Initially locomotives used wood or coal for fuel. Railroads in the Sierra used wood from the abundant forests. When oil was discovered in California, the locomotives changed to that fuel. In other parts of the United States, steam locomotives used the available coal.

The system of transferring steam pressure to turning wheels was complex and required a great deal of maintenance. Steam engines were only out of the shop and available for use about 35% of the time. In contrast, the diesels were available approximately 95% of the time. When these lower maintenance diesels became widely available in the 1960s, the railroads quickly replaced the steam engines.

Because diesels have far fewer moving parts they are easier to maintain. A diesel locomotive consists of an oil-fueled diesel engine that powers a generator. Alternating current electricity from the generator is converted to direct current and that turns the electric motors connected directly to the locomotive’s axles. This is similar to a hybrid automobile.

In the United States today, diesels are the principle locomotive power for both freight and passenger trains. There are some all-electric locomotives used in urban areas, but the system of poles and cantilevers or third rails are not economic in expanses of the American west.

Conditions are quite different in the densely populated areas of Europe, Japan, and China. Here, high speed trains powered by electric and magnetic-levitation (mag-lev) are found in abundance. In fact, China has more high speed trains than the rest of the world combined.

These nations are ahead of United States railroads in their use of high speed trains. While US high speed trains rarely reach 150 mph, trains in China, Japan, and Europe are capable of over 300 mph.

The disappointing Los Angeles to San Francisco high speed train project is an example of how far the U.S. is behind. The first Fresno to Merced section is in trouble. The project is late and far above budget. It will probably be canceled.

That is not to say that innovators in the United States are asleep. Testing is going on in Nevada on a high-speed train project that looks promising. This Hyperloop project has the involvement of Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and a Dubai sheik. Hyperloop uses a 1600 foot test track north of Las Vegas. It consists of meg-lev track in a tube evacuated of most of the air. The trains are expected to have speeds of over 750 mph.

The first commercial application is planned to run from Dubai to Abu Dhabi by 2021. A second installation is planned in India. If this is successful, mag-lev routes are planned throughout the United States. This would include a Las Vegas to Reno line.

Jerry Blackwill is president of the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and board member of the Truckee History – Railroad Museum.

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