• Speeding with steam

  • Discussion relating to the NYC and subsidiaries, up to 1968. Visit the NYCS Historical Society for more information.
Discussion relating to the NYC and subsidiaries, up to 1968. Visit the NYCS Historical Society for more information.

Moderator: Otto Vondrak

  by Allen Hazen
There are persistent rumours that PRR enginemen attained very high speeds -- well over 100mph -- with trains puled by T1 steam locomotives. (Speeds which would surely have earned the engineer a suspension if not outright firing under railroad rules... which is probably why we only have rumours.) I have never seen any reference to extreme highspead runs on the New York Central with J or S class steam locomotives. Is this just because I don't have my ear to the ground in the right place, or was the Central perhaps better at instilling in its engine crews the importance of strict adherence to operating rules, including speed limits?
A Hudson WAS once operated with a driving wheel speed (rpm) corresponding to a speed well over 100mph, but this was a stationary test of driving wheel balancing, done with the locomotive anchored in place on greased track. But it does show that the locomotive was physically capable of such speeds.
  by Allen Hazen
(The test: 1938, with a brand-new J3a. At qn equivalent sped of something over 160mph, wheel lift was observed, but none was seen at a driver revolution rate equivalent to 135mph. Which suggests to me that on good track a Hudson could probably have been operated safely at speeds up to about 130mph. Source: the New York Central Hudson fascicle (#2) in the old "Loco Profiles" series.)
  by R Paul Carey
My considered belief is that, it's VERY unlikely that the excess speeds to the degree you describe, were attempted on the NYC with these classes of locomotives.

Most (if not all) were equipped with the Locomotive Valve Pilot systems, which included a pen graph speed recorder in the cab. Those tapes were routinely removed and sent to Buffalo for review. The recorder was locked.

The S Class engines exemplified the "pinnacle" of steam technology on the NYC and were very highly regarded for their performance - including the ability to recover lost time.

I remember one account by a certain Hudson Division Engineer who explained to me that, on a few occasions anticipating a "need" to recover time and, using a wad of chewing gum he would pack the lock on the recorder then freeze it in place with a piece of dry ice from the diner.

Notwithstanding the accounts of extreme excess speed (over 100 mph) on PRR west of Crestline, my personal observation since the 1960s had generally been that Operating management on the PRR was more consistently strict in their rules training and enforcement than NYC, where the principal emphasis had been on customer service and "on-time" performance. It's an axiom of management that one can elicit the behavior they are known to overlook.

I have no doubt that some S (and J) class engines on the NYC have exceeded 100 mph in some places.

My reason for saying so is bolstered by other - more contemporaneous - accounts relating to the UAC Turbo Train and the quiet admission of a few individuals who have since discretely admitted membership in the "Buck and a Quarter Club". The UAC Turbos were officially limited to 100 mph at the time.

I hope this is responsive to your question.
  by BR&P
It's an axiom of management that one can elicit the behavior they are known to overlook.
One does not have to look very far these days to see the veracity of that statement. :(

The railroad was rife with situations which resulted in rules violations which were often covered up. For every tall tale which didn't really happen, there is probably an equal number which were covered up. Just yesterday at the monthly retiree's brunch, I was thinking how many stories being told were of events which shouldn't (or even "couldn't") have happened, but did. Entire books - no, entire LIBRARIES - could be filled with such anecdotes.

I will agree with Paul - it's unlikely such speeds were a routine or regular occurrence, but almost certain that they did at times.
  by Allen Hazen
BR&P and R Paul Carey--
Thanks for your replies! Interesting that RPC thinks PRR "was more consistently strict in their rules training and enforcement" than NYC -- I had assumed, with (I realize) no specific evidence, the opposite.
On the other hand, perhaps having speed recorders integral with the Valve Pilot systems meant that management didn't HAVR to emphasize the rules about speed: an intelligent engineman, after hearing "Speed limits are in your employees' time table, and speed recorder records of the speeds you operate at are reviewed in the office in Buffalo" once, might not have to be reminded very often!
One story from the diesel era. Amtrak's National Limited (back in the 1970s) had notoriously bad time-keeping, and when it was finally cut the engineer on the last eastbound run decided to show that he COULD get it to Harrisburgh on time... by grossly exceeding the speed limits. And was given, I think, a thirty day suspension.