Locomotives and Trains


A locomotive is that part of the railway train that provides the pulling power. The earliest locomotives were powered by steam, and the term ‘locomotive engine’ was first used in the early 19th century to distinguish them from stationary steam engines, which were already common. Steam engines are still in use in some countries in South America, in parts of India and in China, as well as on local tourist railways all over Europe.

However on national railways today, locomotives are more likely to be powered by diesel engines or by electricity from overhead cables. The fastest train in the world is the Shanghai Maglev in China, with a maximum operational speed of 430km/hr. The fastest European train is the AVG Italo, an Italian inter-city train with a maximum operational speed of 360km/hr.

In the UK, the place to see the National Collection of 280 historic locomotives is the National Railway Museum in York, in the north of England. Around 100 of them are on display at any one time, with the rest being on loan to other museums or tourist/heritage railways. One of the first ever locomotives, ‘Stephenson’s Rocket’, has not survived, but the museum at York has a replica. While it is true that steam engines are the most popular exhibits, the museum documents the history of diesel and electric locomotives too.

In the exciting days of steam at least, the traditional answer when a small boy was asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was: “A train driver.” The job may have seemed more glamorous than it really was because of the stories and films featuring locomotives and their crew. In cowboy films the locomotive was usually a ‘Pioneer’, the iconic steam engine that operated in the Old West of America from the late 1800s, including on the Denver and Rio Grande Railway. This was the ‘six wheeler’ with the bulbous funnel and a “cow catcher” on the front to clear obstacles off the track; the train that, in films at least, was always being attacked by robbers or “red indians” on horseback.

The much more gentle series of stories by the Reverend Awdry, featuring Thomas the Tank Engine and other locomotives who could talk to each other about their adventures introduced generations of children to steam locomotives. In the UK at least Thomas the Tank engine weekends are hugely popular and provide an important source of income for heritage steam railways.

Today the three most important locomotive builders in the world are Siemens Mobility with its subsidiary companies, Bombardier Transportation and GE Transportation. Trains built by these international companies are found in every part of the world. General Electric is the leading manufacturer in the US, and there are smaller rolling stock companies in Russia, Japan and China.

In Switzerland the main power source for railways is electricity, and many of SBB’s locomotives are Traxx class built by Bombardier. However, as in other countries, many Swiss passenger trains don’t have locomotives as such, but are powered by EMUs (Electric Multiple Units) where the passenger carriages themselves have electric motors, and the driver is accommodated in the front one. In Switzerland these are typically built by Siemens, Bombardier or Stadler Rail AG. EMUs tend to be quieter than locomotive-hauled trains. Because of Switzerland’s history of electrification, relatively few diesel locomotives operate on Swiss railways. The most popular railway in Switzerland is the Rhätische Bahn, a narrow gauge network offering spectacular views of the alps.

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