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Overstating The Case For A 2-8-0

August 17, 2010

The Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad was the last steam powered common carrier in the United States. In the latter steam era of the CO&E, the railroad’s power was a 1940 Canadian built 2-8-0 that had come south after spending her first career hauling bauxite on Quebec’s Roberval & Saguenay.

#17 on the R&S in 1943

CO&E president Hugh Crane always said that #17 was the equivalent of a pair of GP38’s for the railroad’s purposes. That is probably true, as the railroad’s operations involved switching and moving short trains at a top speed of around twenty miles per hour over an eight mile railroad. Two geeps would have been overkill in that situation, and #17 was more than enough locomotive for the job.

That said, the nitpicker in me just has to take a look at the claim in a little more detail; was Crab Orchard & Egyptian #17 really worth a pair of GP38 diesels?

As much as I love you ol’ girl, I think not.

Any comparison has to start with an explanation of the difference between steam and diesel power; while they do the same work, they are essentially apples and oranges in how they go about doing the job.

The two measures in the amount of pulling power a locomotive can generate are tractive effort and horsepower. Tractive effort is simply the amount of pulling force the locomotive can exert, and horsepower is more a measure of how much work the locomotive can do. With steam locomotives, tractive effort is constant while horsepower varies. With diesels, the opposite is true.

A GP38 diesel is a two thousand horsepower machine, and two in tandem would result in four thousand combined horsepower. Tractive effort for a pair of ‘38’s starts at its maximum and drops as speed increases. A steam locomotive generates more horsepower as speed increases, until the boiler reaches its maximum output and the horsepower begins to drop. On modern high speed freight locomotives, horsepower peaked at around 40 miles-per-hour. Passenger locomotives peaked higher.

The first thing we have to take into consideration into a comparison between #17 and a pair of GP38’s is that #17 was not a high speed machine. She had 57 inch drivers, and the rule of thumb was that the maximum speed of a locomotive was the same as the driver diameter. With #17, 40 miles-per-hour would have been in the upper range of the locomotive’s operating speed.

Any 2-8-0 type locomotive, and #17 was no exception, was never designed with a high capacity boiler. The position of the firebox over the rear pair of drivers limited both the grate area and the furnace volume; both of which limited the steaming capacity of the boiler. Such a boiler was not capable of high sustained horsepower.

By the time #17 entered service on the CO&E, her capacity had been further limited. The locomotive was hand fired on the line, and the stoker she came with was never rebuilt and partially discarded. This was not an issue on the CO&E, where there was a lot of switching and slow running that hardly taxed a human fireman. In addition, both the locomotive’s feedwater heater and superheater were removed. These further limited the locomotive’s potential power, but again neither were an issue for the CO&E’s use of the locomotive.

The end result was that #17, while still a very capable machine for use on an eight mile short line, was a considerably less powerful locomotive than she had been on the Roberval & Saguenay.

On the other hand, a single GP38 diesel has enough power to pinch hit on an Amtrak train and keep four cars and a dead locomotive moving between 60 and 70 miles-per hour. A single unit would take a while to work up to that speed, but would be able to maintain it. Two units would accelerate a lot more quickly. #17 by contrast, would have never been able to approach such a feat.

When we think of a steam locomotive that would be able to produce four thousand horsepower, we are getting into the likes of the Nickel Plate Road’s famed Berkshires, which had a large firebox, a high capacity boiler, and the running gear to put that power to good use. Check out a video of restored 765 clipping off mile after mile at 60 miles-per-hour with a twenty-plus car excursion if you want an example of a high horsepower steam locomotive in action.

So with all apologies to Mr. Crane, while #17 may have been worth a pair of geeps to the CO&E, as much as I hate to say it I would have to give the prize to the pair of diesels.

#17 in Marion, Illinois, circa 1980


Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010 9:36 am

    Thanks for sharing these facts and photos.

  2. August 17, 2010 12:06 pm

    I never heard of them before. I just looked it up – they ran steam until 1986 wow.

    One wonders if the increased maintenance made it really worth it for a steam engine. Was Mr Crane just trying to justify his own desire to run steam or did it really make financial sense?

    • August 17, 2010 12:49 pm

      The folk lore is that the owner wanted to run steam.

    • August 17, 2010 2:31 pm

      The CO&E started out as a touist line, and took over freight service when the ICG decided to abandon the line.

      When the line began hauling freight they had two steam locomotives, #17 was still to be restored and a 2-4-2 was active. The owners knew how to maintain steam, and it made financial sense to stay with what they had and knew.

      They switched to diesels in September, 1986, when the cost of staying with steam became greater than going with diesels (which were being purchased for an acquired second line anyway).

  3. September 7, 2010 11:23 pm

    Hullo again!

    As I commented in another place, it depends on the 2-8-0. There was this “unbearably cute” 1935 round-domed fleet of Beyer-Peacock 2-8-0s in Peru that hauled ore trains at fifteen thousand feet:

    Between TE and the different kinds of indicated, boiler and drawbar horsepower, you can just plain rip & tear out your hair! To me it is rather an actual matter of average train tonnages on record as really and regularly hauled. These CRP 2-8-0s was only around #250,000. So, if they drew proportionately to say an Allegheny or Y6b, and taking into account the steeper grades (4 percent) at fifteen thousand feet they ruled, then there is even an argument to be made that these steam locomotives were the “mightiest” (comparatively) little engines that /ever/ did, at least in all mineral train steam locomotive history.

    Does anyone know what the weight-range was on CRP ore drags, that’s the big question on this one now, I guess?

    (If you are the enemy of false comparisons I imagine you won’t care so much, either, for the really just as silly persiflage & BS as this insoluble & probably brainless haggle over the “greatest” or “best” or otherwise indefinable & ineffable steam locomotive…I have a real swelled head, myself, on the subject of the Y6bs and 2-6-6-6s, myself, but also would be delighted (!) to own a Q2 AND coal mine or two, to run through it!)

  4. Isabel McCurdy permalink
    December 2, 2010 4:31 pm

    Hi Mary Rae:

    I am very much interested in 2-8-0 #17.
    Where did you get these photos and do you have more?


    • December 6, 2010 4:37 pm

      I only took a few sub-par photos of this locomotive with a Kodak Disc camera (remember those?) on my 11th birthday in 1983.

      The photos here actually appeared in print. The color shot appeared on the cover of Railfan & Railroad in 1980, and the black and white in Model Railroad Craftsman in 1986 (ironically connected with a “yesterday’s trains today” feature that was published a month or so after #17’s last run).

      I do have literally hundreds of photos in my collection of this line I took in more recent years, and have been digitizing the railroad’s photo archives (I’m not at liberty to part with those, however).

      Look up a photographer named George Redmond on and at He has posted a good number of his photos of #17 and #5 in service on the C.O.& E.


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