Saturday August 2, 2003
The steam railway locomotive still works hard for
a living across great tracts of China. It labours largely behind the scenes
in Poland - and in Cuba, Zimbabwe and other pockets of the developing world.
It climbs mountains, with tourists in tow, in Switzerland, the United States
And now it is making a cautious return. A new generation of low-emission, thermally efficient, low-maintenance steam locomotives is being developed concurrently in Britain, Japan, Switzerland and the US that will offer a romantic, and surprisingly efficient alternative at the margin of railway operations. That new steam is being developed at all is due largely to the inspirational career of the Argentinian locomotive engineer, Livio Dante Porta, who has died aged 81.
Porta came late to his calling. By the time he completed his technical studies in Buenos Aires in 1946, the classic mainline steam locomotive was in its final stage of development. On the New York Central, Paul Kiefer had just produced his mighty Niagara 4-8-4s, magnificent and brutally functional machines capable of running at 100mph on level track with 16-car trains on tight schedules between New York and Chicago, and clocking up 28,000 miles a month. Exhaustive tests proved them every bit as economical, and a great deal more powerful, than the latest diesels.
In France, Porta's friend and mentor, Andre Chapelon, had just created his masterpiece, 242 A1, the most efficient and powerful European steam locomotive of all. On trial in the late 1940s and early 50s, it embarrassed the electric lobby as it consistently beat the bravest new schedules, and with great economy.
But the diesel lobby, backed by the oil industry and politicians intimately connected with it, was to win the day worldwide. Electric traction, meanwhile, was attractive, efficient and clean, with the smooth flow of power from national grids coursing through its locomotives' motors at the turn of a driver's handle. If the cheap, simple and robust reciprocating steam locomotive still made sense in developing countries such as India and China well into the 1990s, and even beyond, there appeared to be no room for advanced technological development in steam railway traction.
This was the orthodoxy that Porta fought throughout a spirited life. He was to gain many disciples, such as David Wardale, Phil Girdlestone and Roger Waller, all working on the next generation of steam railway locomotives in various parts of the world today. He was working on a super-efficient new steam loco for the Cuban state railways, as well as a steam bus for Buenos Aires, at the time of his death.
Porta's great contribution to steam technology was what his disciples call his "holistic" method of design. A scientifically based steam locomotive had to be a machine that took into account not just its own, streamlined internal workings, but ecological, social and economic concerns, too.
Steam locomotive technology had made few real leaps between the pioneering work of Robert Stephenson, following in his father's tracks in England, and the quantum leap made by Andre Chapelon in France between 1930 and 1950. Chapelon adopted scientific methods that resulted in a generation of free-steaming locomotives that gave diesels and electrics more than a run for their money. His researches were not wasted: today's electric TGVs speed along in part thanks to his research into high speed riding characteristics.
Porta learned much from Chapelon, although his talents were largely channelled into making existing locomotives types more efficient than in building new machines. This must have been a frustration to so creative an engineer, but his good nature, curiosity and unflappability saw him working on railways as politically and technically disparate as those of southern Argentina, South Africa and Cuba.
His first design, in 1948, was the reconstruction of a metre-gauge Argentinian state railways' Pacific into the immensely efficient, streamlined 4-8-0 compound, "Argentina". From this first locomotive, he developed his gas producer combustion and Kylpor and Lempor exhaust systems; these burned fuel more effectively and increased the power, while reducing the energy consumption of locomotives out of all proportion to their age and size. A fleet of Argentinian 2-6-2 suburban tank engines given the Porta treatment in the early 1950s outperformed much larger 4-6-2 locos. But the diesel lobby was already dictating the agenda in Argentina.
Porta moved to Patagonia in 1957 as general manager of the Rio Turbio coal railway. There, he tuned up the railways' new Mitsubishi 2-10-2 locomotives so that they became one of the most efficient types of steam locomotive to run anywhere in the world. These continued in service until 1997.
In making life better for crews, service engineers and operators, no detail was ever small enough to avoid Porta's hands-on attention. A theoretician, and author of around 200 scientific and technical papers, Porta was as down to earth as the steam locomotive itself.
He returned from his southern sojourn to Buenos Aires in 1960 as head of thermodynamics at the Instituto Nacional de Tecnologica. In Britain, meanwhile, 74 0-6-0 tank locomotives of the National Coal Board were fitted with Porta improvements as part of modifications by the Hunslet Engine Company in the 1960s to reduce pollution. In 1980 he was invited to the US by American Coal Enterprises to work on the development of a new generation of heavy duty steam freight locomotives. The project was ultimately dropped. In 1999 he rebuilt a Cuban 2-8-0 to burn a variety of cheap fuels including left-over crushed sugar cane husks. Up until his death, Porta was working with Cuban engineers on a tank engine development of this locomotive that has promised to be one of the cheapest of all railway locomotives to run and maintain.
Most recently he had been advising both Sulzer in Switzerland, which is now considering orders for mainline steam locomotives, and the innovative British steam engineer, David Wardale, on the development of the latter's long awaited 125mph 5AT locomotive for mainline tourist services. Of Porta, Wardale says, "he continued to try wherever there was even half a chance to get steam moving again." Famous for sharing his knowledge freely, this genial, open and modest man made friends wherever he went and was the reviving steam lobby's first and foremost global ambassador.
A devoted family man, he was hard struck by the early death of one of his three sons from cancer and by the disappearance of his daughter, who was taken from her home at gunpoint during Argentina's "dirty wars" in the late 1970s. She was never found. He threw himself ever further into the research and development of that great survivor and most emotional of all man made devices, the steam railway locomotive. He is survived by his two sons and wife, Ana Marie.
· Livio Dante Porta, locomotive engineer, born March 21 1922; died June 10 2003