5at Train

The 5AT Group - Steaming Ahead with Advanced Technology

Enhancing Performance -- Improving Reliability -- Reducing Costs -- Controlling Emissions

Fuels and Environmental Considerations relating to Steam Traction

Note - the subject of locomotive fuels is also covered in the FAQ and Resource sections of this website, with minor duplication of content.

One obvious advantage that steam offers is its ability to burn almost any combustible fuel, including renewable fuels like wood.  This advantage was strongly advocated by Porta who presented a paper on the subject to a railway conference in Mexico in 1987 (available in a 4MB PDF download), and subsequently designed a small 800 hp "compound" expansion locomotive (the LVM800) specifically designed to burn bio-mass (see Martyn Bane's website for comprehensive details.)
Wood-fuel is a form of renewable energy and wood-burning locomotives were  of course, once commonplace, particularly in the 19th Century US.  A later experiment in developing a biomass-burning locomotive is however less well-known, and took the form of the "Bulleid's Turf Burner" that was developed by Oliver Bulleid in the 1950s to operate on CIE, Ireland's national rail system.  The prototype incorporated many features from Bulleid on his ill-fated Leader project but none of its failings, and as a result the Turf Burner could claim to have been successful in that it performed largely up to expectations and demonstrated several innovative ideas that could have been developed further.  By then, however, CIE had committed to a program of dieselization and the project went no further.

Brian McCammon of the 5AT group has written several papers on steam loco fuels and emissions including one titled "Review of Carbon Neutral Fuels with Potential for Use in Modern Steam Locomotives" which outlines the advantages and disadvantages of a wide range of potential fuel types, concluding that compressed woodchip is probably the  greenest and most viable bio-fuel for steam locomotive use.

Both Jamie Keyte and Chris Newman contributed papers to the Oct 2009 issue of the New Zealand Solar Action Bulletin on "Sustainable Railways" (guest edited by Brian McCammon) describing possible roles for steam in a "sustainable" rail system, and comparing the cost of wood-fuelled steam operation with both electric and diesel in 2009, projected out to 2029.  The full bulletin can be downloaded from this site (click here) as can Jamie's paper.   Chris Newman wrote two papers, one titled "Could there be a place for Steam Traction for Rail Transport in a 'Sustainable Energy' World?" and the other titled "Considerations relating to costs of 'Sustainable' Railway Traction Options".

It may be noted that Newman concluded that whilst modern steam traction does not appear to be competitive with diesel in a 2009 Western world commercial environment, that given a substantial rise in oil prices (as can be expected as fossil fuels become depleted) modern steam could easily become competitive on lightly trafficked rural railways.  Taking for example a conservative scenario where bio-diesel price is twice that of fossil diesel in 2009, and where wood pellet prices is only 50% higher, the ownership cost of steam traction becomes similar to that of diesel.

Note: in another paper titled "Feasibility of Steam Traction of Coal Transportation in Developing Countries" (published in the proceedings of the CORE2008 Conference on Railway Engineering held in Perth, Western Australia in 2008), Newman demonstrated that even at 2009 prices, steam traction can be highly competitive with both diesel and electric traction in developing countries with low labour costs.