The Diesel Revolution
It did more than make trains go faster—it swept away a rich, century-old way of life
It has become axiomatic that technology is a catalyst for social change. When one technology completely replaces another, it often displaces not only the old technology but a whole elaborate social structure that supported it. When gunpowder replaced the bow and arrow, or when the transistor supplanted the vacuum tube, the consequences extended far beyond the battlefield or the factory. Likewise, when diesel locomotives replaced steam engines in the middle of this century, a lot more was transformed than transportation itself.
The diesel locomotive revolutionized the way railroads performed their work, reconfigured the physical landscape, redefined the roles of workers in this most traditional of industries, and consigned to the realm of nostalgia an entire subculture rooted in that dominant symbol of nineteenth-century America, the steam locomotive. What is more remarkable is that this entire process took place in only about twenty years.
The diesel is an internal-combustion engine that converts liquid fuel into mechanical power with far greater efficiency and economy than a steam engine. Its German inventor, Rudolf Diesel, obtained his first patents and published his epochal book on the subject in 1893. The first commercial diesel engines were produced five years later in Germany and arrived in this country shortly thereafter. They were strictly for stationary service.
Adolphus Busch installed the first American-built diesel engine in his St. Louis brewery in 1898, and the use of diesel power spread rapidly. By 1910 German and British firms had developed diesel-powered submarines, and the first diesel-powered passenger liner appeared in 1921. The railroad industry was interested but was slow to grasp the potential value of the new technology.
The reasons are not hard to find. Railroads were the oldest, largest, and most traditional industry in the nation. They had an enormous capital investment in the steam locomotive and in the shop facilities, tools, and skilled labor force needed to maintain it. Many roads owned coal mines that provided cheap fuel. Furthermore, railroaders harbored a deep passion for steam that cannot be quantified. It was no accident that the engineer, the man at the throttle, stood atop the pecking order of railroad labor, or that no one reached this exalted post except after many years in the ranks.
But the rail industry was in the throes of far-reaching changes in the first decades of this century. Since the late 189Os profits had depended on carrying a high volume of traffic at low rates, which placed a steep premium on efficiency. The steam locomotive had been steadily improved, but by the 1920s it was fast approaching the limit of its inherent capacities.
After 1920 railroads also found themselves facing for the first time serious competition from other means of transport—automobiles, trucks, buses, airplanes, barges, and pipelines. So the industry needed desperately to improve efficiency, cut costs, and increase flexibility. Diesel power was the great hope. Developments in electric transmission had made it possible to adapt the constant-speed diesel engine to the variable-speed torque requirements of a locomotive, and strong, lightweight alloys were reducing the bulky engines to a size small enough for hauling trains. When the Depression intensified the economic pressures on railroads, many people familiar with the business foresaw the coming shift to diesel power. Few, however, could predict the wrenching social changes that would accompany it.
To understand the revolution that loomed on the horizon in the 1930s, one need only compare the capabilities of steam and diesel. The steam locomotive could not be easily started but first had to get up a head of steam. Even then its speed was difficult to regulate smoothly. Stopping was also difficult and wore out brake shoes quickly. A steam engine could run only a hundred miles or so without stopping for fuel and water. On grades it could not use full speed efficiently and often required helper engines. Heavy engines were hard on rails, especially on curves, and required costly maintenance. The shopwork on steam locomotives was intense, difficult, and timeconsuming. Most new parts had to be custom-made in the shop.
The diesel offered striking improvements in absolutely every area. It started and stopped on command and could maintain whatever speed was needed for peak efficiency. It required no stops for water and could run for five or six hundred miles between fuelings. Low axle loadings, uniform wheel torques, and freedom from “pounding” made diesels easier on rails and allowed them to take curves at higher speeds. On grades full power was available at any track speed, and engines could be doubled to increase power without the use of helpers. Many functions such as oiling, which had been done manually on steam power, could be performed automatically.
The diesel could handle heavier trains at higher average speeds. At terminals it turned around quickly, required far less servicing, and used standardized parts. It was less sensitive to weather and offered striking gains in fuel economy. Technical advances during the 1920s raised the thermal efficiency of steam locomotives—the portion of the energy in their fuel that they could make useful—from about 5 percent to 10 percent. Impressive as this achievement was, it paled before the 33 to 40 percent level of the diesel. “For all the romance that surrounds it,” wrote one authority, “the steam locomotive was a relatively primitive form of converter.”
There are three distinct types of locomotive service: switching, passenger, and freight. Each has its own special needs, and the diesel far outstripped the steam locomotive in every case. Switchers work in yards making up trains; they must be light, versatile, flexible, reliable, and economical. Predictably, the diesel made its first inroad as a switch engine, where its high traction at low speeds, fuel economy, easy maneuverability, low maintenance, and ability to remain constantly on line gave it an enormous edge over steam switchers.
Passenger service placed a premium on speed and required powerful engines capable of making long runs safely and rapidly. The elimination of stops for water and fuel improved schedules greatly by itself, but during the 1930s the diesel engine became part of a larger effort to lure the traveling public back to the railroads. Using lightweight alloys and new welding techniques, the Union Pacific and Burlington roads developed an entirely new type of passenger train: the legendary streamliner, which knocked an entire day off the schedule between Chicago and the Pacific Coast. After inaugural runs in 1934 the trains spread rapidly to other companies, thanks in part to the development by General Motors of a new two-cycle diesel engine. In this age of commercial aviation we tend to forget that the streamliner became the travel sensation of the pre-war years and was widely regarded as the wave of the future.
As larger diesels moved into passenger service, attention turned to the development of freight units. In February 1941 the Santa Fe garnered headlines by sending a giant 5,400-horsepower engine from Chicago to Los Angeles on the first main-line freight run made by a diesel-powered train. The voyage demonstrated the diesel’s superiority in unmistakable terms. Steam locomotives making this trip required no less than thirty-five stops for water and/or fuel and nine changes of engine. The monster diesel breezed the distance with only five stops.
Following a pause for World War II, the diesel revolution swept irresistibly forward after 1946. By the mid-1950s nearly all major railroads had replaced their main-line steam fleets with diesel power. In 1941 there were 41,911 steam locomotives and only 1,517 diesels in service of all kinds throughout the nation. Twenty years later there were 30,123 diesels and a mere 210 steam locomotives in service.
The speed with which this revolution occurred is remarkable given the capital involved, the demands on the decision-making process of railroad companies, the radical departure from tradition required, and the other farreaching changes set in motion by the conversion to diesels. This upheaval affected every aspect of railroading.
Diesels revamped the physical landscape of the modern railroad. Water and coaling stations vanished along with ash handling, water treatment and storage, boiler washing, and many helper-engine facilities. Ashes, cinders, soot, and smoke disappeared from roadways, terminals, and clothing. The roundhouse gave way to the passthrough facility. Shops became cleaner, more technical, and less cluttered; they also required less equipment and fewer people to maintain units that did not need custom-built parts.
The effect of the diesel on the labor force was even more drastic than on the landscape. To understand its impact, one must remember that railroaders inhabited a closed world of their own making. They shared traditions, practices, peculiarities, and even a language. Like all members of a closed society, they were prisoners of custom. The fraternity of true railroaders did not include everyone who worked for the railroads but only those in the operating, mechanical, and maintenance-of-way departments.
Decades of experience had forged the pattern of railroaders’ lives and honed their relationships into a pecking order that also served as an apprentice system. Engineers and conductors sat atop this order, their prerogatives protected by union agreements that, in the words of one writer, exceeded in size the French civil code. Firemen served as apprentice engineers and brakemen as fledgling conductors, making these trades together the big four of railway labor. Below them in rank were the dispatchers, who manipulated the trains and equipment like chess pieces. The shopmen occupied the next rungs, and below them were the maintenance-of-way crewmen.
The skills acquired by railroaders were guarded as jealously as the crafts of medieval guilds, and for railroaders, as for medieval craftsmen, job security mattered more than anything else. Their ranks tended to be tight and selfselecting, with newcomers coming from the families of veterans. A man could become an engineer or conductor only by starting at the bottom and serving his time in the ranks. Promotion was strictly by seniority, creating a hierarchy of age as well as of service.
The coming of the diesel revealed with ruthless clarity how completely the railroaders’ world was tied to steam power. Most engineers eyed it as an alien beast. “They missed the feel of the throttle,” observed one railroad man. “They were insecure.” Gradually, however, the enginemen came to like the cleaner, quieter, steadier ride. On passenger runs they soon discarded the traditional overalls in favor of suits or sport coats. The once-grimy engineer looked like another civilian at the office.
Shopmen reacted more vehemently. “I felt like I was a steam-engine expert,” said Frank Acord, who was a master mechanic when the diesels first arrived. “I knew my business, but I get up one morning and … I have to learn from scratch.” Acord spoke of Charlie Spicka, a shop superintendent for the Union Pacific Railroad who was “the greatest steam engine man that ever walked the earth.” The day Spicka saw the first diesels invade his domain, said Acord, “it was like they shot him.” Spicka glared at the alien creature and roared, “You’re not bringing those streetcars in my shop.”
When some of the shopmen refused to touch the diesels, officers like Acord had to tell them, “Either you’re gonna or you’re not going to be here.” It was not a happy task. Men who regarded themselves as craftsmen found their skills obsolete. Whereas the shops had built everything for steam power, they merely bought parts for diesels.
Experience soon produced a new saying in the shops: On a steam locomotive it took five minutes to find a problem and five hours to fix it; on a diesel it took five hours to find the problem and five minutes to fix it. The key was to keep the engines as clean as possible and set the timing right. The timing was done by the numbers; if you followed the book, you always got good results. But following the book was not the craftsman’s way.
In addition to restructuring the shop work force, the diesel put the design people out of the engine business. Boilermakers and steamfitters were rendered extinct, as was the entire water service. As the historian W. Fred Cottrell has noted, “The elimination of the water service wiped out some apprentice programs that used to produce … skilled labor indoctrinated in railroad union subculture.”
Firemen also became dinosaurs and would have been swept away by the wrecking ball of progress had they not taken refuge in the strength of their union. Their struggle to survive drew national attention to the railroads for thirty years and remains one of the most dismal sagas of labor history. Unfortunately, it did much to shape the tenor and tone of labor relations in the industry for four decades.
The power of the unions rested in the complex rules that governed their relations with management. A full day’s work had long before been defined as twelve hours or a hundred miles traveled, after which trainmen and enginemen had to be paid extra. The Adamson Act of 1916 reduced the twelve hours to eight but left the hundred miles intact. A passenger train might make a hundred miles in two hours, while a freight train took eight or more, so engineers coveted the passenger runs.
Obviously, the diesel rendered this rule even more obsolete than it had already become. If a train traveled 480 miles in eight hours, either the engineer must be paid for 4.8 days’ work or the crew must be changed four times during the run. The diesel eliminated many stops for water, fuel, inspections, oiling, and other needs, but companies ended up having to retain some of them for crew changes.
Not surprisingly, a bitter fight erupted over the extent of management’s right to change work rules. Nowhere did it take more revealing form than in the struggle of the firemen, which lasted from 1937 until well into the 1960s. The earliest precedent for engines running without firemen was not the diesel but gasoline-powered rail motorcars, which had run since the early 190Os. But in view of the small number of cars involved, the union had not made a fuss.
Once the streamliner made its debut, however, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen awoke to the danger and demanded that firemen be included with the crews even though they had no clear function. The first roads to confront this issue were the streamliner pioneers, the Union Pacific and the Burlington. Both reluctantly caved in to the demand for two main reasons: It affected so few trains at the time, and they feared that having only one man in the cab of such fast trains might make the public uneasy. When the carriers agreed in March 1937 to put a fireman on every diesel, the requirement covered only nine trains besides switchers.
This agreement marked the beginning of a disastrous cycle: The more the unions pressed for higher wages and shorter hours, the more productivity dropped, driving the carriers to seek new ways of cutting the work force through technological innovation. The unions countered by demanding new rules or preserving old ones that blunted the impact of the new technology. In effect they tried to protect job security at the expense of the efficiency so urgently needed if the industry was to survive. The result was a pattern of labor relations shaped by negativism and myopia.
The cycle took off with the agreement of 1937. Two years later the union launched a campaign for a second fireman on every diesel. The enginemen had already demanded a second engineer and had succeeded in preserving the eight-hours-or-a-hundred-miles rule. A presidential board rejected the firemen’s and engineers’ demands in May 1943, but four years later the firemen renewed their fight. When another board ruled against them, the firemen went out on strike.
Through the 1950s an endless seesaw of negotiations, punctuated by strikes and slowdowns, dogged the industry. In 1956 the carriers took the initiative by notifying the enginemen and firemen that in the future they would regard the use of firemen on diesels as optional. This unilateral move triggered a desperate seven-year battle that culminated in 1963 with victory for the railroads. Since the original 1937 agreement, four fact-finding boards and a presidential commission had studied the request for an extra fireman. All had found no need for one fireman on a diesel, let alone two.
After twenty-six years of struggle the Supreme Court in March 1963 upheld the carriers’ right to change the work rules. It took another year of legal battles to eliminate firemen and campaign against full-crew laws in five states. Still the union fought on, seeking reversal of the decisions as well as large wage hikes. As late as 1968 the Supreme Court sustained the right of states to enforce full-crew laws. Strikes and strife over everything from rules to wages to job protection stalked the industry’s relations with other unions as well.
Through the 1960s railroad labor relations bore an unhappy similarity to the growing Vietnam fiasco. It became a war of attrition costly to both sides and perpetuated by a Mad Hatter logic all its own. Neither side could find a way out of the old traps that had landed them there in the first place. Half a century of conflict had not produced a single constructive approach on either side for dealing with the real problems that threatened the very existence of railroaders.
Meanwhile, the number of employees declined as rapidly as profit margins in the industry. In 1920 the industry hit a peak of nearly 2.1 million employees; this number dipped below a million during the Depression and, after a wartime boom, continued its decline, down to 577,000 in 1970. Those who remained belonged to a new breed. The insular existence of the railroader had not survived the inroads of new technologies and techniques. The elite world of the engineer, for example, opened up to a wide variety of outsiders, including women, who would never have had a chance at such work under the old system.
In other areas, too, different and usually younger people invaded the onceexclusive domain of grizzled railroaders. The communications and computer revolutions forced carriers to import technicians from outside because no one on the railroad understood anything beyond the telegraph. Officers who had once held college graduates in contempt began to actively recruit them and to establish management-training programs so that old dogs might learn new tricks.
“The supreme law of the Republic of Technology,” wrote Daniel Boorstin,“is convergence, the tendency for everything to become more like everything else.” Certainly this homogenizing tendency can be seen in the diesel and the larger experience of the rail industry itself. By 1970 railroads had begun to resemble other sectors in their zeal for modernization and improved efficiency through the latest gadgetry. The world of railroaders both shrank and opened up to outsiders, thereby changing forever. While railroad people may still be a breed apart, they are now much more like workers in other fields than were their rough-and-ready predecessors.
Nostalgia being what it is, we tend to think first of the romance and individual flavor that were lost rather than recall how primitive or cumbersome the old ways often were. But like so many things, even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. The modern railroad, like the diesel, may be a duller, less colorful, more technical piece of goods, but it gets far more work done at far less cost than anything that came before it. If it didn’t, there might well be no railroads around today at all.