It is long since you built a great cathedral; and how you would laugh at me if I proposed building a cathedral on the top of one of these hills of yours, to make it an Acropolis! But your railroad mounds, vaster than the walls of Babylon, your railroad stations, vaster than the temple of Ephesus, and innumerable; your chimneys, how much more mighty and costly than cathedral spires! your harbour-piers; your warehouses; your exchanges! — all these are built to your great Goddess of "Getting-on;" and she has formed, and will continue to form, your architecture, as long as you worship her; and it is quite vain to ask me to tell you how to build to her; you know far better than I. — John Ruskin, "Traffic"

Although the first locomotives used in the United States of America were imported from England, the fundamental approaches to design and construction in each country early began to diverge until they became, as George Bernard Shaw wittily remarked about another matter, "two nations separated by a common ocean and a common language." As the railway historian Michael Koch has pointed out,

the young country quickly established its own locomotive building industry suited to American operating condition. This is not to denigrate the contributions of British railway designers, engineers and master mechanics to the basic design of the locomotive, including the separate firebox, multiple boiler, direct connection to the wheels, blast pipe, and other features. American designers were to add improvements, of course, but these would be largely in the flexibility of the locomotive's running gear. [33-34]

Despite the fact that the “first truly American locomotive” was built in 1830, one year after the first British import arrived on American shores, “some 120 British locomotives were purchased by American railroads—about a quarter of the total number of locomotives in service in the United States during that period were of British provenance” (34). Soon, however, American manufacturers began exporting locomotives, first to Germany in 1837, Cuba and Austria in 1841. Perhaps most surprising, by 1840 the American locomotive builder William Norris “had supplied 17 locomotives to the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway in England” (36). Nonetheless, early American locomotives still depended to an important extent on England, for “English builders continued to supply the American market with components such as boiler plate, tires and forgings — a tribute to the superior quality of British metallurgy” (34).

At least half a dozen points distinguish the two countries' approaches to railroading:

Financing the transportation revolution

Put simply, in the U. K. “capital for development and expansion was readily available” (Koch 33). In the young Unites States of America it was not.

Railroad mounds, vaster than the walls of Babylon

Hand-dug excavation on the Scarborough and Whitby Railway, which saw completion in 1885.

Right: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's famous Saltash Bridge c. 1859.

[Click on images for larger pictures and additional information.]

The first great difference involved building the railroad itself — creating the right of way and laying tracks — and the second involved the motive power and cars that ran upon it. Following the leadership of Robert Stephenson, one of great figures in an age when engineers repeatedly proved themselves truly heroic figures, British railways strove to have trackage as close to absolutely level as possible, something particularly important in the earliest days of railways when locomotives had very little power and hence would have encountered great difficulty pulling cars up steep grades. The British emphasis upon a level right of way led directly to enormous investments of time and money to create railway cuts, giant embankments, bridges, and long tunnels, many of which remain in use, essentially unchanged, more than a century after they were constructed. These massive undertakings requiring hundreds of men often took years — the relatively minor Scarborough and Whitby Railway, for example, took thirteen years — were, as John Ruskin pointed out in "Traffic," the modern equivalents of the great medieval cathedrals: giant undertakings requiring great investment, ingenuity, and labor that represented the age that saw them built.

A train headed by Northern Pacific Railroad engine 398 on a wooden trestle near Dorsey, Idaho (USA). c. 1895.

Conditions differed greatly in the United States, in part because the distances to be spanned were vastly greater than in the United Kingdom. Americans therefore in general devoted far less time and energy to massive earth-moving projects and instead often made use of elaborate, often spindly wooden trestles, sharp curves, and steep grades, many of which were later upgraded or replaced by tunnels or elaborate bridges.

Who designed and built the locomotives?

British design, experimentation, and construction of the machines that pulled people and goods saw far more centralization than they did in the dispersed, decentralized, often chaotic American context:

Unlike British locomotive development, which depended upon the contributions of locomotive superintendents like Daniel Gooch1 and the output of railroad company shops like that of Swindon, American locomotive design was the product of a highly competitive group of independent domestic locomotive builders. In addition, high ocean freight rates and import duties made it difficult for British locomotive builders to compete in the vigorous American locomotive market. [Koch 34]

One result of such centralization appears in the fact that American locomotives occasionally proved more advanced than British ones, even when the key inovations actually appeared first in England. Koch offers three examples — (a) equalizing levers, (b) the truck, and (c) the bar frame: “Equalizing levers (which were first used by British locomotive builder Timothy Hackworth as early as 1827) provided two-point support by the four-coupled wheels.” Similarly, William Chapman patented the truck as early as 1812 and Edward Bury patented the bar frame in 1830. “Curiously, these devices were all used in America before they became accepted in the country of their origin, a delay British railway historians still deplore” (34).

Locomotives and rolling stock

Having taken this different route to laying track, American engineers found them forced to develop more sophisticated locomotives that could negotiate the inferior (or at leas more difficult) right of way. As a consequence, locomotives built in the United States early developed sets of leading wheels for locomotives that would make them less likely to derail, and because of the steeper grades, particularly out west, U. S. engineers created increasingly larger locomotives, eventually producing giant articulated locomotives, such as the Big Boy and Challenger used in the Rocky Mountains and California, that essentially consisted of two very large locomotives on a single frame. In contrast to these monster locomotives that could pull trains a mile in length, small quirky locomotives that look neither like any British or other American ones developed for specialist use: Shays, Heislers, and Climaxes were three kinds of geared locomotives used by mining and lumbering railroads whose tracks were both unusually steep and curving and often only temporary.

The Central Pacific's number 116, the White Eagle: locomotives with a 4-4-0 wheel arrangement known in the UK and the USA as the "American" were built from the 1850s well into the 1880s. Compare this locomotive to both McConnell's "Bloomer" Express Locomotive of 1851 below and to a London and Southwestern 1887 Jubilee Class locomotive.

The rolling stock differed on either side of the Atlantic, too: although British goods wagons, including hopper, tank, and freight cars, chiefly retained nineteenth-century short four-wheeled form well into the 1970s (and some are still in use), the four-wheeler died out in Americas well before the twentieth century. Again, relatively inferior trackage led to engineering innovation: Americans found themselves forced to develop swivelling wheel sets (freight trucks) that could better navigate curves and changing grades.

Braking Technology and Technique

A third difference involved systems of braking. The steep grades common on many American railroads made something like George Westinghouse's airbrakes necessary, but when he tried to sell his invention to British railways, which had far fewer steep inclines, they didn't see the need for them, with the result that British freight trains ran very inefficiently for most of the twentieth century: without airbrakes to slow trains descending an incline, British freight trains long used the following procedure: before a section of inclined track the engineer would bring the entire train to a complete halt, the brakeman would then manually set the brakes on a selected number of cars — say, every second or third — the train would then move down the incline, halt, the brakeman would then remove the brakes, and the train would continue on its way.

The Aesthetics of Locomotive Design

J. E. McConnell's "Bloomer" Express Locomotive (1851) — an example of mid-Victorian locomotive design.

From very early days, British-designed locomotives always looked far more smooth, elegant, even streamlined than their American counterparts for two reasons: first, well into the twentieth century, British locomotives placed the steam cylinders inside the frame whereas the American ones placed them outside, making them a key visual feature; by the 1930s most new British locomotives, even Sir Nigel Greseley's super-streamlined record-setting Mallard (1938), used the American arrangeemnt. Second, whereas American locomotives were covered with exposed piping, compressors, and various mechanical devices, British steam engines generally had all these things hidden under a smooth housing, which, furthermore, was often painted in bright colors — green, yellow, red, blue, or even lilac and bright white, as in the London and North Western Railways 1897 Diamond Jubilee celebration engine, the Queen Express! The equivalent to British locomotive aesthetics of the 1850s or '60s doesn't appear on U. S. railroads until the Raymond Lowey's Twentieth-Century Limited and his other Art Deco locomotives of the 1930s and '40s, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad's electrified green and gold GG1. Not surprisingly, those particularly interested in American railroading — historians, rail fans, and modelers — prefer the flamboyantly functionalist aesthetic found on American motive power.

What do you call it? Technical terms and vocabulary

Here follows a sampling of the different terms used by British railways and American railroads:

guard's vancaboose
goods wagonfreight car
engine driverengineer
sleeperrailroad tie
Baltic locomotive (ooOOOoo)Hudson locomotive (ooOOOoo)

Related Web Resources


Abdill, George B. This Was Railroading. New York: Bonanza Books, 1958.

Casserley, H. C. The Observer's Book of Railway Locomotives in Great Britain. rev. ed. London and New York: Frederick Warne & Co., 1957.

Kalla-Bishop, Peter. The Golden Years of Trains, 1830-1920. London: Phoebus, 1977; New York: Crescent Books, 1977.

Koch, Michael. Steam and Thunder in the Timber: Saga of the Forest Railroads. Denver: World Press, 1979.

Nock, O. S. The Pocket Encylopaedia of British Steam Locomotives. Illustrations by Clifford and Wendy Meadway. Poole: Blandford Press, 1964.

Snell, J. B. Early Railways. London: Octopus Books, 1972.

Snell's beautifully illustrated volume, which Weidenfeld and Nicholson first published in 1964, is a treasure trove of images of early railroading's history and pre-history and includes not only contemporary paintings and drawings but also photographs of restored equipment and models.

Solomon, Brian. American Steam Locomotive. Osceola, Wisconsin: MBI, 1998.

Like Snell's volume, Solomon's lavishly illustrated one contains many excellent photographs of restored equipment, recreations, and models.

Spence, Jeoffry. Victorian and Edwardian Railways from Old Photographs. London: B.T. Batsford, 1975.

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Last modified 4 February 2012