Man with a mission

by

Jonathan Glancey, photo The Guardian

Johnathan Glancey is a man with a mission. As The Guardian’s architecture and design correspondent, he writes well and intelligently (the two are not the same) in the paper about modern architecture and classic design. His interview with Daniel Libeskind in 2004 was a seminal piece. He maintains an arts blog for the Guardian where he has written about subjects as diverse as the RAF’s Lightning fighter and the future of Battersea Power Station. He is an honorary fellow of The Royal Institute of British Architects. You might think that Jonathan’s vehicle of the future is the mag-lev personal transport pod flying over the city on a thread of steel. It’s not. Johnathan Glancey is a man with steam in his soul.

His April 2003 article in the Guardian about Wolsztyn is the most atmospheric piece of writing to ever appear in print about the locomotive depot and the people who go there to try their hand at the Wolsztyn Experience.

Three-thirty in the morning. Minus 20C. Packed ice. Insistent snow. A Siberian wind scythes across frozen lakes, birch woods, the frosted onion domes of baroque churches and the cobbled streets of Wolsztyn, a low-lying Polish town set on the great Prussian plain between Poznan and the German border.

This is not most people’s idea of a good start to the day, particularly a holiday. But, what if they were awoken by the sharp whistle and compelling bark of a mainline steam locomotive, and, as they pulled on boots, hat and gloves, they knew that in less than an hour’s time, they would be hard at work on the footplate of that black-and-green engine taking the first yawning commuters to work 50 miles and 15 stations down the line across rural Poland? What then?

Anyone with any sense would take off that hat, those gloves and boots and go straight back to bed. Not, though, if you have steam in the soul. For steam enthusiasts, Wolsztyn is a kind of paradise. Even at 3.30am on a frozen morning. Here, the last scheduled mainline European steam trains, passenger and freight, fan out through forests to Poznan, Zbaszynek and Leszno.

(Click here to read the whole article.)

But there’s more to Jonathan than just steam nostalgia and slightly hazy geography (‘Prussian plain’ in Wielkopolska!). He is one of a tiny group of engineers and visionaries who believes that the steam engine still has a future. In today’s Guardian Jonathan writes,

In 1946 Paul Kiefer, chief mechanical engineer of the New York Central Railroad, set his latest steam locomotive, the potent, coal-burning 6,700hp Niagara class 4-8-4, against General Motors’ brand new diesel-electrics. The Niagara could generate more power than three of the latest diesel-electrics coupled together. It could run the wheels off them while accelerating passenger trains as long as 30 modern British InterCity carriages with the alacrity of an electric.

The detailed report that followed revealed total annual running costs of $350,095 for Kiefer’s finest and $359,478 for a twin-set of 4,000hp GM diesels capable of maintaining existing NYC schedules. As the construction cost of the diesels was nearly 50% higher than that of a Niagara, you might have thought that steam would have continued to rule the railroad roost.

Not a chance, even though the tests were conducted with oil as cheap as chips in today’s terms. If, in fact, the NYC management had been forced to buy oil at the equivalent of today’s prices, the Niagara would have won the day effortlessly. Or, would it? I don’t think so, no matter how you looked at, or cooked, the figures. The problem facing inspired steam engineers like Kiefer and his contemporary, André Chapelon of France’s SNCF – whose latest locomotive, 242 A1, was outperforming existing electric locomotives, was, as much as anything else, one of image.

Steam seemed old-fashioned, dirty and labour-intensive. It didn’t have to be, but that was the perception encouraged by General Motors, the oil lobby and a new generation of fervently modernising railway managers.

(Click here to read the whole article.)

Eccentric? Impractical. Uneconomic? Not necessarily so. The 5AT project is a plan by a group of engineers to build a totally new steam locomotive, designed incorporating the latest developments in steam locomotive technology, for hauling main line steam charter and luxury trains. With a 70% increase in thermal efficiency over “classic” steam, and a maximum design speed of 125 mph (200 kph) its performance could amply demonstrate what could have been achieved had steam locomotive development been fully exploited in the 20th Century. Jonathan wrote about the project when it was given its first public airing in October 2003.

This week Alan Fozard of the 5AT Group presented technical and business plans for this new generation 4-6-0 steam locomotive at the first World Steam and Tourist Train Congress at Brienz, Switzerland. Delegates were shown designs for a machine that will transform the way passengers and railway management alike see the steam locomotive.

The 5AT will resemble a conventional Stephensonian steam locomotive, yet it will be neither smoky nor grimy. Yes, it will produce that familiar rhythmic beat, those plumes of white steam; its piston rods will race in and out of visible cylinders, and its tall disc wheels will be driven by a form of reciprocating motion invented by the Belgian engineer Egide Walschaerts in 1844.

Otherwise, it will be a very different machine, 100% more efficient than the finest steam locomotives of the 1950s when technical development of this much loved form of motive power hit the buffers. Only a small lineage of impassioned engineers in France (Andre Chapelon 1892-1978), Argentina (Livio Dante Porta, 1922-2003), and their disciples, David Wardale, Roger Waller and Phil Girdlestone in Europe, today continue the pursuit of modern steam.

(Click here to read the whole article.)

With oil prices bouncing around $US135 a barrel a modern, low maintenance, high efficiency, steam engine becomes an interesting proposition. With the help of Jonathan, the small band of engineers who believed that steam engine design was capable of much further improvement – Andre Chapelon, Livio Porta and their successors, David Wardale, Roger Waller and Phil Girdlestone – may well one day be proved right.

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3 Responses to “Man with a mission”

  1. Neohagrid Says:

    “Onion domes” in Wielkopolska? I was beginning to doubt that Jonathan had ever been to Wolsztyn. But having checked he is absolutely right.

  2. korschtal Says:

    Hmm… I’m not convinced that it’ll be long-term viable. The carbon footprint would be pretty awful: Wouldn’t it make more sense to have more electrification?

  3. Phil Says:

    Why would the carbon footprint be worse than oil power ? If you can find a way to run it on pellets it light even be possible to run the loco on something other than coal. There are plenty of incinerators around that provide heat and generate electricty. Would this be worse than rubbish Polish brown coal used nowadays ?

    Electrification is good but it requires politicians with the ability to look beyond next week – in the UK all ours are pisspoor incompetants who hate public trasport so I wouldn’t hold out any hope in this area. On the other hand if a locomotive were available “off the shelf” then there is a chance that one of the operating companies might have a go.

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