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Book Review: Camels and Cadillacs: A History of the South African Railways 25 Class Condensers and 25NC 4-8-4’s

Author Phil Girdlestone
Stenvalls Publishing - 2014
ISBN: 978-91-7266-185-1

Renowned steam locomotive mechanical engineer Phil Girdlestone, a contemporary of David Wardale, Nigel Day and Shaun McMahon, has written an outstanding history of the most advanced locomotives to operate over the 3'6" gauge South African Railways (SAR). The twin-class of 4-8-4 steam locomotives were unique in the rail industry worldwide – the Class 25 condensing locomotives, nicknamed "Camels" by crewmembers due to their prodigious water range, were the most successful condensing steam locomotives ever produced. Identical in nearly every measure except condensing equipment were the 25 NC ("non-condensing") locomotives, likewise nicknamed "Cadillacs" due to their exceptional ride quality.

cc coverGirdlestone provides a technical perspective on the locomotive classes only an engineer familiar with steam locomotive design, and these classes in particular, could account. The book is structured chronologically, beginning with a detailed history of 20th Century SAR locomotive development, up until the procurement, design, and production of the 4-8-4 locomotives. The construction of the classes, which took place between 1952 and 1955, included the provision of a total of 90 Class 25 Condensing and 50 Class 25NC locomotives.

The detailed look provided by Girdlestone outlines both the strengths and weaknesses of these classes of locomotives. The locomotives were unique in that they incorporated the most advanced of mechanical improvements available at the time, a melding of European locomotive design and manufacture (in the UK and Germany) and important U.S. components. A one-piece cast frame, cast water bottom tender, tender trucks and roller bearing side rods were furnished by U.S. firms General Steel Castings and Timken (side rods). Germany's Henschel manufactured the majority of the 25 NC locomotives and North British Locomotive Company produced all but one of the condensers.

For the inquisitive student of steam locomotive history, this pragmatic view of their development points out areas of improvement, details the struggles of getting locomotives commissioned and associated "trouble shooting," and outlines the nuances of condensing appurtenances and roller bearing side rods. High quality technical illustrations augment the text. The performance of both condensing and free exhausting locomotives is also compared.

Of specific interest to CSR is the penultimate chapter of the book, preceding a phenomenal color image gallery outlining the class, which discusses in brief detail the developments associated with 25 NC 3450, otherwise known as the "Red Devil."

The following quote stands out to the reviewer:

...the trials were undertaken on freight trains over the 70-mile-long electrified line to Witbank, which with its 1 in 50 [2%] ruling gradients in both directions was a severe testing ground.... By November 1981 it was considered that the tuning up had reached a point where comparative dynamometer car tests could be carried out between No. 3450 ["Red Devil"] and a standard 25NC No. 3438.... These tests were carried out mostly in the upper part of the locomotives respective power ranges and under these conditions No. 3450 gave very high coal and water savings. Up to 60% coal savings per drawbar hp was achieved compared with No. 3428, equating to a 150% increase in drawbar thermal efficiency, and additionally No. 3450 was capable of developing significantly higher power.

While under less strenuous passenger service savings were slightly lower, it was evident to SAR staff that the 25 NC and, specifically, the Red Devil, were the most economic locomotives operating on the railroad. A railroad Traction Committee was tasked: "to consider the relative costs of steam, diesel and electric traction... [found] that steam locomotives, particularly No. 3450, were the cheapest form of traction to operate between Kimberly and De Aar and, by implication, on other sections as well."

In an era when the majority of steam-related books often belong on coffee tables, it is nice to see something with a similar level of "meat" as The Red Devil and Other Tales from the Age of Steam.

More information about the book can be found on the Camden Miniature Steam Services Site.

Accounts of U.S. Travelers in Argentina


CSR will be releasing its next White Paper, The Development of Modern Steam 3: The "Rio Turbio Railway" and GPCS, to the public in the coming few weeks. In anticipation of that release, CSR is making available a section of the White Paper - an account of a trip by two U.S. railroad aficianados to Rio Turbio in March 1991.  The following is a brief essay and corresponding photographs provided to CSR by supporters Jim Hebson and Ben Anderson (shown on board the RFIRT below center). Their story depicts an adventure from a different time and place. Enjoy.


Personal Reflections on the Ferrocarril Industrial Rio Turbio

Ben Anderson and Jim Hebson

Upon arriving in Buenos Aires from the United States in March 1991 for an extended exploration of Ferrocarriles Argentinos, we learned that the Argentinian railroad workers had gone on strike, shutting down the entire system with little prospect of an early resolution. Stunned by this setback at the very beginning of our trip, we began to consider alternative railway subjects to explore.

During these deliberations, we recalled hearing about an obscure coal-hauling railroad known as the Ferrocarril Industrial Rio Turbio (the “FIRT”), which ran between the Argentinian port of Rio Gallegos (the capital of Santa Cruz, the southernmost province of Argentina) and the coal mines at Rio Turbio, near the border with Chile. Both the railroad and the mines were operated by Yacimientos Carboniferos Fiscales (“YCF”), the Argentine state coal company.

The special purpose, point-to-point railroad was totally isolated, far from the southernmost extreme of the integrated Argentinian system. We further recalled that the FIRT was a 2-1/2 foot (750 mm) gauge, 100% steam powered railroad featuring large 2-10-2 Santa Fe-type locomotives, certainly an exotic railroad in an exotic location.

The two of us speculated that because the FIRT, located in the southernmost part of Patagonia, was isolated from the Argentinian railroad system, its operation might not have been affected by the strike, but we needed to confirm that fact. We obtained the address of the YCF headquarters in Buenos Aires and set out to obtain whatever information we could.


Read more: Accounts of U.S. Travelers in Argentina

A 1938 Perspective on the 3460 Class

3460 newsroom

On this "throwback Thursday," enjoy a detailed article from the March 12, 1938 pages of Railway Age.  From the archives of a CSR Board Member comes this detailed look at the 3460-class of locomotives, of which 3463 is a member.  At the time, railroads tended to work with locomotive manufacturers to design locomotives to suit their needs, a uniqueness that was both beneficial in providing route-specific designs but detrimental in that it lead to a lack of standardization across companies and parts manufacuturers.

It is interesting to note the level of detail provided by the article, from detailing the camber of the driving axle springs to the specific type of staybolts employed.  It is worth highlighting that the designers were conscious of the potential need to change fuel types:

"The oil tank is integral with the water-tank structure. Conversion for coal can be made by removing the top of the oil tank over the coal space and substituting coal gates for the front oil-tank closure."

Read the entire article here or by clicking on the image above.

Locomotive Preservation Redefined

adaptive reuse web

The architectural concept of "Adaptive Reuse" has been used across the U.S. to preserve through modification countless structures of historic significance that otherwise would have been left neglected or razed to make room for new, more modern structures.  In the modification and testing of locomotive 3463 as part of Project 130, CSR will employ the same standards as those championed by historically-sensitive architecture firms.  

As outlined elsewhere on this website, CSR is pursuing the refinement of technologies that can lead to development of a new-build passenger steam locomotive. To develop those technologies, CSR has proposed a series of modifications to former A.T. & S.F. Railway steam locomotive 3463 to bring it up-to 21st century standards in power, maintenance and performance.  

As part of its tests, CSR will need to streamline the locomotive and, in a nod to history, it intends to use the streamlining of "sister locomotive" 3460 as the baseline.

Read more about Research and Preservation here.

New CSR Board Member: Dr. John Betak

The CSR team is pleased to announce John F. Betak, Ph.D. as the newest member of its Board of Directors.  Rounding out the qualifications of the other CSR board members, Dr. Betak brings an unparalleled level of experience in the field of transportation and technology research. 

Dr. Betak is a senior consultant with 40+ years of diversified, international experience in management, consulting, administration and research in corporations, non-profits and major North American universities.  John was an AVP at Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) where he developed/managed the corporate industrial development, plant rationalization and line sales, short line marketing, non-hazardous solid waste business group, real estate portfolio and Geographic Information System prior to his retirement in 1995.

John was part of the team that developed the plan that led to the restructuring of Conrail and its return to profitability. Key elements of that plan led to the passage of NERSA and a fundamental shift in the rail industry's ability to restructure their operations. It also led to the development of the modern short line and regional railroad industry.

In addition to extensive industry leadership, Dr. Betak has been involved heavily in railroad and industry risk resaerch at the University of Texas at Austin and at the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University. His insight into issues relating to all facets of the railroad and energy industries will be of specific importance as research in these fields continue to develop.

Porta's First Locomotive - "Argentina"

argentina previewCSR released today its newest White Paper in its series on the Development of Modern Steam: "Argentina - Porta's First Locomotive."

Porta had corresponded extensively with Andre Chapelon, the focus of CSR's last white paper, following his education as a Civil Engineer. At age 25, Porta was able to convince financiers to back the concept of modifying an antiquated 4-6-2 into a modern 4-8-0. Over the next three years (from 1947-1950), Porta completely rebuilt and modernized the locomotive, the results of which laid the foundation for developments he championed in the half-century to follow.

The story of Argentina shows the incredible drive of a young, very industrious engineer in successfully conceiving, coordinating, financing, designing, building and testing a very modern steam locomotive. Virtually every known thermodynamic improvement available at the time was applied in its construction. The locomotive set world records for thermal efficiency and power-to-weight ratio for steam locomotives.