Steam train pulling into station
Steamies and diesels

What Is the Difference Between Steam Trains and Diesel Trains?

What Is the Difference Between Steam Trains and Diesel Trains?

During the early 19th century, the first steam locomotives were built in England and were important to the Industrial Revolution. The first steam engines were used in factories to run machines, or in mines to pump out water. Ever since the 1800s, trains have been an important part of our daily lives, from commuter trains all over the world, to subways in New York City, to trolley cars in San Francisco, and even bullet trains in Japan that can go up to 200 miles per hour!

While there are several different types of trains designed for specific tasks, two of the most common kinds are steam trains and diesel trains. There are several important differences and uses for steam trains and diesel trains, ranging from how they are powered to how often they need repair.

Steam Trains

Steam trains have engines that burn fuel in their fireboxes, creating smoke that rises from the triangle-shaped stack at the front of the train. The heat in the firebox boils water to produce steam, which is fed into cylinders where it expands to drive the pistons (pistons help control the release of steam, and they move up and down within the cylinders of the train). The movement of the pistons turns the wheels with the help of a rod and a crank, which moves the train.

Richard Trevithick, a mining engineer, was one of the first people to use steam to power a moving locomotive, sparking a transportation revolution. The first American train was John Stevens’s Steam Wagon, built in 1825. It had a vertical boiler filled with hand-pumped water, and it ran on a small circular track. The first engine used for regular service in the USA was Tom Thumb on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

By 1840, the country had over 2,796 miles of track, more than could be found in all of Europe.

Make sure to download the Steam Train spread to learn key vocabulary terms about steamies!

Diesel Trains

As engine technology developed in the early 20th century, some engineers preferred locomotives that ran on diesel fuel. Diesel-engine trains entered service in large numbers from the 1930s onward. Diesel trains require less maintenance than steam locomotives, and they can be operated without extra crew members to stoke the boiler.

Diesel trains contain one or more large internal combustion engines that generate hauling power. This power is transferred to the wheels by different transmission systems. Locomotives using the diesel-mechanical system transfer the power directly to the wheels by means of shafts and cranks. The coupling rod transmits power from the engine to all three driving wheels on each side of the locomotive.

Many diesel trains have high visibility warning stripes that make sure people see them thundering down the railroad line! A driving wheel is over three feet in diameter on a BR Class 05 diesel train.

Download the Diesel Train spread to learn more about diesel trains, including vocabulary words and where things are on the train.

Learn even more about trains, along with cars, ships, and planes in the ultimate visual encyclopedia of things that go by road, rail, water, or sky: Cars, Trains, Ships, and Planes.

Diesel train on the tracks

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