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Railway Electrification: In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time

1637 words - 7 pages

The Baltimore & Ohio railroad (B&O) was the first railroad to electrify part of its tracks, doing so in 1895 (Lecture Notes, 2/19/14). The electric locomotive was faster and cheaper than the steam locomotive, and produced no smoke (Lecture Notes, 2/19/14). This opened up the gates for electric locomotives to replace steam engines on their own tracks. Still, only a few American railroads electrified their lines between 1900 and 1950. Many American railroads failed to electrify their railroads due to the high initial cost and economic conditions, the lack of standardized electrical systems used for the railways, and corporate resistance (Bezilla, 42-47).
Electric traction had numerous advantages over steam railroads. One major advantage was electric locomotive’s ability to pull heavier loads than steam locomotives (Bezilla, 30-31). One statement from electrical manufacturers’ stated that an electric locomotive could pull from five times its own weight on a 2% grade, whereas a steam locomotive on the same grade could only pull two times its own weight (Bezilla, 31). In addition to this, the electric motors could sustain higher currents for a short time in order to increase horsepower dramatically; steam engines had no analogous feature (Bezilla, 31). These factors combined allowed for electric locomotives to accelerate more rapidly, even while pulling more weight, than steam locomotives (Bezilla, 31). The electric motor also had less moving parts and thus needed less maintenance than complex steam engines (Bezilla, 31). For example, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s electric locomotives in 1940 were typically running 90% of the time, but the steam locomotives that the electric ones replaced had only ran 69% of the time (Bezilla, 32). The electric locomotive did not emit smoke, had better fuel economy, and could conquer steeper grades easier than the steam locomotive (Bezilla, 32-33). However, electrification only succeeded in areas where there was heavy commuter traffic with no space for extra tracks, in long tunnels, on steep inclines, and where smoke pollution was a major problem, with few exceptions (Bezilla, 37). Overall, electrified railroads held many advantages over their steam counterparts. So then, why did electrification largely fail?
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to railroads seeking to electrify was the hefty initial cost of the electric locomotive itself and its required infrastructure. Electric motors required planning and constructing complex systems to deliver electricity to the locomotive via overhead lines (pantograph) or a third rail (Lecture Notes, 3/19/14). Since steam railroads were not initially designed to have clearance for overhead lines, the terrain and/or structures (ex. bridges) would need to be altered to fit the new power delivery system (Lecture Notes, 3/19/14). Additionally Railways typically had to upgrade tracks, signal systems and other parts of the railway in order to sustain the higher speeds electric locomotives...

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