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Monday Train Blogging: Design Dictators

by DoDo Thu Jan 26th, 2006 at 05:02:35 AM EST

In the car industry, companies design cars and consumers buy the ones they like. In the railway industry today, the relatively minor difference is that the industry designs according to orders, which set basic performance requirements. But it was not so from the latter part of the 19th century (consolidation into regional or even national networks) until the end of the steam age.

Then, railways' all-powerful chief designers determined the design and use of locomotives more than the factories – their decisions had effect even well beyond the railways. I will introduce four of these design dictators from three countries, show an example of their work, and tell a bit of WWII history.

I'll begin in France – let me introduce you to the greatest steam locomotive designer ever, André Chapelon aka "Mr. Shorty" (right).

Chapelon was chief designer of the Parlis–Orléans railway. He knew everything about both the theory (mechanics, thermo-, aero- and fluid dynamics, even economics) and practise of steam locomotives, and knew like no other how to combine various parts organically. His speciality was upgrading: take a normal locomotive, add a cylinder there, move a wheel here, bend a pipe over there – and voilà, a machine 50% more powerful yet consuming 25% less!

Find out about Chapelon's greatest achievement and fall below the fold.

Back from the front page

Unlike most of his European colleagues, he was also willing to travel to the USA to study developments, and merged the best from both sides into something rivalling the efficiency of diesels and electrics of his time – culminating in 242 A.1 (finished 1946), probably the best express steam locomotive ever (only rivalled by other works of Chapelon). Three cylinders powered its four driven wheelsets with up to 6,600 HP in tests – more than twice the power of same-sized European locomotives, and even exceeding most of the much bigger American ones of the same wheel arrangement!1

Chapelon's misfortune was the post-WWII consolidation of railways into state company SNCF: he lost out in the struggle for leadership. Rivals from other railways had bad experience with compounds2 – and against the positive opinion of every technician, decided to scrap even former P.O. compounds. But Chapelon later returned from early retirement: his genius and knowledge was needed to solve unstable running problems in the high-speed development that led to the TGV.

Austria: Gölsdorf

Karl Gölsdorf was chief designer of Austria's state railways (kkStB) until his death in the middle of WWI. He contributed to some of the key changes from the 19th to the 20th century (many coupled axles, high-placed boilers), but he his famous for oddities – his speciality was to take familiar designs, turn them upside down, and still make them work.

For example, the kkStB class 310. In the early 20th century, the 2'C1' wheel arrangement (US: 4-6-2 or "Pacific"; a bogie with two running wheelsets for stable running, followed by three coupled driven axles, followed by another running wheelset to support an enlarged firebox) became the new standard for express locomotives. But on weak Austrian rails, one back wheelset was not enough to support a new heavy firebox, while short turntables didn't allow extra wheels. So Gölsdorf just mirrored the arrangement – and made the world's only 1'C2' work!

Preserved kkStB 310.23 with nostalgic train "Le Majestic" in Budapest West (introduced last week)

Germany: Wagner

When Bismarck unified Germany, the various Länder retained significant autonomies, guarded anxiously (and seen by others as backward provincialism). So for example each 'nationalised' its own state railways. Only after WWI was Deutsche Reichsbahn (= German Imperial Railway) formed. To end the chaos of hundreds of locomotive types, a grand programme to build Einheitsloks (='unified locomotive types') was started.

The man entrusted with the job was Prussian designer Richard-Paul Wagner. Unlike Gölsdorf, he was a man for well-refined standard designs. He made sure that a lot of parts of different locomotives can be easily exchanged during repairs, he insisted on well-tested technology, designed superb wheelsets, and efficient long boilers. The dominance of his work among surviving European museum locomotives attest to the longevity of his designs.

However, Wagner was a dogmatic who refused new ideas from outside or from underlings. Beyond the use of bad or expensive materials and the non-use of welding, his greatest crime was not adopting a US development that made boilers of the same size more powerful, and suitable for less-than-top-quality coal: the combustion chamber3. Thus when he built two prototypes (the series 06) of a locomotive with the same wheel arrangement as Chapelon's later masterpiece, they were less than half as powerful.

The most easily distinguishable difference between Wagner's and Witte's design style: the smoke deflectors. Left: Wagner's classic 2'C1' express locomotive 01 118; right: the last-built German steamer 23 105. Both images by Christian Splittgerber, from RailFanEurope

Germany: Witte

The apprentice to usurp Wagner was called Friedrich Witte. But he did so in dark times.

Hitler, being a fan of motorisation, originally had not much time for railways, and foresaw highways and tanks to solve problems of logistics when conquering Europe. But practice on the Eastern Front forced re-thinking. In early 1942, Albert Speer was entrusted with reshuffling all aspects of war production, and he chose Witte rather than Wagner as his contact. Wagner resigned later that year, and Witte became DR's chief designer.

Witte, too, knew everything about locomotives and had good economics in mind, but unlike Chapelon, he was a minimalist. This fit the 1942 situation perfectly – starting from a type for which he already got through with his boiler design ideas (series 50), he 'bared' it of Wagner's expensive stuff, and rare metal parts, resulting in the locomotive type built in the largest numbers in the world: the Kriegslok (=war locomotive) series 52.

Witte's work may have prolonged the Nazi defeat and the end of the Holocaust by a year – a, let's just say, rather doubtful feat. From what I read, he never expressed political views, but he was not blind and was more than a mere bureaucrat4, he must have been a cynical careerist: he found ways to branch off funding for his non-war-relevant research, and sensing the times to come, made sure that all 'worthy' locomotive types were stationed in the future US/UK occupation zones.

After the war, Witte (right on photo above), like so many other sullied engineers kept by the powers-that-be, got his chance to realise his visions. However, due to post-war quality problems and some bad choices in devices, his own types proved shorter-lived than Wagner's (and even some older Prussian types) with his upgrades, and he too was overtaken by the rise of electric traction.

  1. In this category, the most powerful steam locomotive ever measured was a Pennsylvania Railroad class Q-2 (a giant 2'BC2' Duplex), with 7,987 HP. According to Chapelon's own calculations, if a Q-2 had been modified according to his ideas, that could have been raised to 18,000 HP...
  2. In compound locomotives, steam from the boiler goes through two cylinders before reaching the chimney. This gives a higher efficiency, but makes maintenance costlier and leads to problems in certain conditions.
  3. In older steamers, coal burns in the firebox (just before the driver's cabin), then the hot fumes go forward through tubes, heating water/steam by heat conduction across the tubes' walls. The combustion chamber is a big empty space added before shortened tubes, which not only allows more perfect burning but also more efficient radiation heating of the water/steam channelled around its walls.
  4. I'm referring to Hannah Arendt's often misunderstood observations on the "banality of evil". They weren't a reformulation of the "I was ordered to do so" excuse, they meant that Eichmann was not an unfathomable evil genius but a rather mediocre man who merely followed the bureaucrat's moral – "excel at the task given to you" – without any other moral.

Previous Monday Train Bloggings:

  1. (Premiere/ modern Austrian trains & locos)
  2. Adventure
  3. Fast Steam
  4. Heavy Haul
  5. Forgotten Colorado
  6. The Hardest Job
  7. Blowback
  8. Highest Speed
  9. New England Autumn
  10. Trainwreck
  11. Bigger Than Big Boy
  12. Tunnels
  13. Failed Designs
  14. Demarcations
  15. Crazed Designs
  16. Trains In The Arts
  17. Railway Cathedrals

This proved much more work than I imagined (most of my Sunday)....and long, tough I skipped a lot of what I planned... but I hope it is an interesting read.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jan 23rd, 2006 at 07:44:20 AM EST
by the power of steam - the noise, the scent, the look and the majesty of steam locomotives - I enjoy your nostalgic and informative pieces very much.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Jan 23rd, 2006 at 11:16:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As always, fascinating...

I wonder if in the world of today technology individual still have  such an effect on the output.
Chief Engineer Boeing vs. Airbus?
Toyota vs. GM?
Samsung vs. Sony?

Or it's only a legend, and the conditions in which you loc-designers operated were more important (economics, quality of the surrounding engineers...)

La répartie est dans l'escalier. Elle revient de suite.

by lacordaire on Mon Jan 23rd, 2006 at 11:40:35 AM EST
I believe that there are still people like this active in technology businesses.

For example, the software for one complex, expensive computer system I'm familiar with was almost entirely written by one person. He disappeared for a few months and came back with the core code for the product. In another example, I know of a microwave component company with an entire product line that depends on the mathematical analysis performed by a single person.

A well-known example at Microsoft is Dave Cutler, who wrote much of the most essential code for Windows NT. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_NT There is some debate about this in the public sphere, but if you hunt down the VMS source code you will find his name on many of the modules--modules that were carried almost verbatim over to Microsoft...

by asdf on Mon Jan 23rd, 2006 at 07:41:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
lacordaire, yeah, I really couldn't think of any later example of such influential or radical designers. (But asdf gave examples.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jan 24th, 2006 at 02:22:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
André Citroën
Eugène Freyssinet (concrete)
Marcel Boiteux (EDF)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 24th, 2006 at 04:08:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Mr Chapelon is a hero.

I had never heard of him.

Because he made only incremental (but vital) improvements to an existing technology. Do we have an obsession with innovation, to the detriment of getting it right?

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Jan 23rd, 2006 at 01:58:46 PM EST
Good point, tough to Chapelon's credit, I note he invented a more efficient chimney, the KylChap system (tho', further developing Finnish engineer Kylala's invention, it's in the name!), and authored a unified theory of the dynamics of locomotives running on wheels.

Oh, and he is my hero too! :-)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Jan 23rd, 2006 at 02:44:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
.....an unsung heroes and heroines department is what we need.

When I read that Madonna has been voted as the' best mother in the world' , I wonder which planet I am on. If the category was "Least destructive mother from a limited number of female public-eye, egocentric, power-hungry, nanny-employing, elitists' then maybe Madaonna might make the top 5.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Jan 23rd, 2006 at 03:17:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]

The KylChap work was a large part of the base for the acheivement (not so real, but quite celebrated none the less) of a local hero here in Doncaster.

Sir Nigel Gresley is most famous for the Mallard, which holds a (dubious) speed record, but certainly deserves an award for beauty in my mind...

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Jan 24th, 2006 at 01:37:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think Sir Nigel Gresley can be praised as another great design dictator without limitation, and the dubious part of the Mallard's record was not his fault! (BTW, ironically, the Mallard's German rival was Wagner's greatest success, even tough it contained all his bad ideas, which didn't hinder Gresley. But Gresley was most probably limited by the smaller cross section of British railways.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jan 24th, 2006 at 02:50:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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