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CSR project aims to create a high-speed, carbon-neutral steam-powered locomotive


May 24, 2012

Locomotive 3463, the 75 year-old test bed locomotive for CSR's Project 130

Locomotive 3463, the 75 year-old test bed locomotive for CSR's Project 130

You might think that a coal-burning locomotive built in 1937 had nothing left to offer the modern rail industry, short of being a nice museum piece. In the case of Locomotive 3463, however, that appears to be far from true – now in the hands of engineers from the Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR), it is set to become the world’s first carbon-neutral higher-speed locomotive. It won’t be electric, however. Instead, it will run on steam generated by the burning of biocoal.

CSR is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) and the nonprofit Sustainable Rail International (SRI). The group’s current CSR Project 130 has one goal – to create “the world’s cleanest, most powerful passenger locomotive, proving the viability of solid biofuel and modern steam locomotive technology.” The “130” in the name comes from the fact that part of the project will involve an attempt at breaking the world record for steam locomotive speed, by pushing the very-overhauled locomotive to at least 130 mph (209 km/h).

Locomotive 3463 was donated to CSR by the Great Overland Station Museum in Topeka, Kansas, in November of last year. While it originally ran on plain old mined-from-the-earth coal, it will be adapted to burn biocoal – a biomass-derived solid fuel with an energy density and handling properties similar to those of coal, but that contains no heavy metals, and produces less ash, smoke and volatile off-gases. Additionally, it’s carbon neutral, meaning that it releases no more carbon when being burned than was originally absorbed by the plants that it’s made from.

CSR’s early research suggests that the test locomotive will be cheaper to fuel and maintain than regular diesel-electric models, while also offering quicker acceleration and better horsepower output at higher speeds ... and, of course, it will run cleaner. If the demonstration project is successful, however, trains could be merely a starting point for biocoal-fueled steam power.

“Once perfected, creating the world’s first carbon-neutral locomotive will be just the beginning for this technology which, we hope, will later be used for combined heat and power energy in the developing world as well as reducing the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels,” said IonE’s Rod Larkins.

Sources: University of Minnesota, Coalition for Sustainable Rail

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

May be better to create a LPG version as well. The US is flush with gas at the moment.



This is innovation, technology and history all rolled into one winning idea. Bring back the glory of steam engines... There are so many affcionados of Steam engines and now we have an excuse to bring some back, with a clear conscience. Never mind the detailed mathematics. This is a great comeback excuse for the steam engine. May we have a few more around the world. Not too many. Cant wait to travel on one of these.


I have a few observations. Firstly by definition all coal is bio-coal. Secondly it won't be carbon neutral. Carbon neutral means taking out of the atmosphere as much carbon as you put in. It does not mean putting in as much as the original biomass took out.


L1ma you're right about LPG which exists in huge quantities for a fraction of the cost of "biocoal". It could even make this neat, creative idea a success. Who wouldn't want to see these great locomotives live again?

But since LPG is neither trendy nor cool - and worse, our parents used it - this inspired project will end up in the Eco-dustbin with the rest of the "carbon neutral" punchlines.

Todd Dunning

Carbon neutral ?? Does that include all the energy it takes to produce the biocoal in the first place? What a joke


Wood burning steam engines would also be "carbon neutral."

It doesn't mean they wouldn't create pollution.

William Lanteigne

aerodynamic as a sheet of 4x8 sheet of plywood

Bill Bennett

caught my eye - in those days all the working parts were outside, with a plain box on the inside. These days all the working parts are inside, plain box outside!

@Bill Bennett - ever tried dropping it sideways? goes like a bullet until it turns against the airflow!


I would love to see this idea come to being. Steam locomotives are living machines.

Alan Halfhill

LPG would mean a tank car instead of a coal car. Maybe not as easy to refuel, since it requires swaping out a car vs. dumping some coal from a hopper (hooking up a hose would take forever). But I bet a tanker would carry more energy than a coal bin. And a small auxillary tank could hold enough fuel so that the engine could shuttle around and swap cars. Slap a smooth skin on that bad boy and it just might be a winner.

Bruce H. Anderson

This isn't a new initiative- it parallels a similar effort being made by steam enthusiasts in the UK. Check out http://www.5at.co.uk/.

I wish them all the best- however, I have doubts as to the practicality of the concept. Firstly, the single cab layout of a steam train is unlikely to meet modern Health and Safety standards (yes I know that old steam engines are used both on preserved lines and, in the UK, on the main lines under special conditions). Open steam engine cabs lack even the most basic comforts, let alone crash-worthiness.

The vast majority of mainline tendered steam engines are designed to operate rapidly in only one direction. Because steam engines are no longer used except for special trains for enthusiasts, the infrastructure is usually lacking to turn the engine around (railway triangles or turntables). There are not usually water towers to replenish the considerable amount of water needed (not insurmountable of course).

To get round these issues, once this one-off modified elderly engine has provided 'proof of concept', I suggest designing a completely new type of bi-directional locomotive. Because fuelling could be carried out automatically, with no need for a fireman manually shovelling coal into the firebox, what I would suggest would be a Garratt type articulated locomotive with a diesel-type enclosed cab, with heating, windscreens, air conditioning, and with controls and communication systems similar to those fitted to diesel or electric locomotives. I would suggest using either LPG or bio-diesel rather than coal, which would be carried (along with a considerable supply of water) . There would be an auxilliary small engine (or two) to provide Head End Power (needed to operate coach lighting, heating, and air con, etc, therefore capable of working with modern rolling stock). And it would also need to employ a traction control system to avoid track damage (steam engines are much more prone to wheelslip and thus require very skilled driving otherwise). There would also need to be automated pre-heating (with fail safe systems) in order to avoid excessive preparation time. I'd suggest using the auxilliary diesel engine(s) for shunting or positioning moves- eg it could be driven from the depot to the station on the auxilliary whilst it is not yet fully ready to steam.

Emissions would need to be very clean indeed to silence the many 'nay-sayers' who will inevitably scoff at the return of steam, but I think it could actually be viable- I certainly hope so!


Oops- meant to say a diesel-type cab at either end of the tenders (on a Garratt, the boiler is in between the tenders).


I think this is more of a design/concept study.

As some pointed out, if it were moved to mass usage, the appearance and features would be likely to change on account of the processes of modernization, aside from the propulsion system.

Aerodynamics don't matter at low speeds and 130mph should not be hard to reach for with the locomotive only pulling fuel- especially only enough for a speed run.

However, it isn't going to be doing anywhere near 130mph with a real load, especially with passengers.

Speaking of which, I'd think that would be it's best application- as a non-stop passenger  express train, between the major cities.

Maybe FedEx would help sponsor and commemorate their original hub expansion plan. They could have exclusive freight usage.


I enjoyed the article and the concept.

I'm sure this was sheer delight for the "Steampunk" crowd!

Next up- the revival of the great Mississippi steamboats!

I've studied this and the Loco is a poor choice other than breaking a speed record. This kind of steam engine isn't eff at all at about 5%. Even on biomass that's just a waste. Now gasify the biomass to run a gas turbine which exhaust powers a steam engine whose exhaust powers a low temp Rankine engine all at constant speed to alternators just like a diesel electric that either run the motors or charnge batteries as needed. That system is about 60% eff or 12x's the article's example. Present diesel/electrics are about 30% eff in train service.

ICE cars are usually 7% eff because they run 95% of the time inefficently or not even moving. My EV's can go 70mph on the power an ICE needs just to idle show just why they don't do well.

I like steam/Rankine engines but that are best run at a steady rate if you want eff from them. I see the biggest market for them as 2kw solar thermal generators for home electric, heating, hot water with most any fuel as back up. A nice, efff uniflow would work fine. One could run off a home heating system and maybe save enough to pay for the home/building heating fuel. jerryd

Bio coal emits no more carbon than the plant absorbed? So, does that mean traditional coal emits MORE carbon than the plant absorbed? Coal CREATES carbon? This just one more example of the "green movement" as just another marketing scam and has NOTHING to do with being better stewards of Starship Earth.


When it comes to steam powered vehicles the name to google is Abner Doble. Enter his name in google patents search field too. And check out the Wikipedia articles of Abner Doble and also Doble Steam Car. And of course Jay Leno has TWO of these ultra rare cars, and has done a Popular Mechanics article on them.

Dave B13

Given the electrification of the railroads, and the amount of nuclear generated electricity in France "it is set to become the world’s first carbon-neutral higher-speed locomotive" sounds foolish.

The passing of steam locomotives was more to misuse than technological inferiority. I would love to see them get back on the rails burning compressed charcoal or high purity coke. But the carbon-neutral nonsense puts me off.


For those of you who have the misfortune of being too young to have experienced the Steam Era, allow me to say a few things: First, may I suggest that you buy, beg, borrow (or otherwise acquire) a hard cover copy of O. Winston Link's "the Last Steam Railroad in America", published by Arbradale, ISBN #0-8109-8201-3. I would compare Link (in this instance) to be the photographic equivalent of the Saturday Evening Post's Norman Rockwell. He captures the essence of steam railroading in a way few, if any, ever have. I, at 71 years of age, was fortunate to have traveled across country (from Rhode Island to california and back) by rail twice. First to California in about 1942 or 43, then back to R.I. in 1945 (I remember "VJ Day" celebrated being in Chicago), and then back to California in 1946 and back in late '46/early '47. During that time, it was the early transition period between steam and diesel and I have vivid memories of both. Yes, the working parts were "on the outside", as one commenter noted, and a fascination to impressionable small boys everywhere. If you spend the tiniest amount of trouble in research, you'll discover, both in Link's book and elsewhere, that several of the envisioned "problems" noted here were solved around 75 years ago. "Streamlining" of passenger locomotives, current concerns of exhaust inhalation (via the "Cab Forward" locomotives of the Southern Pacific - designed to keep the engine crew [engineer and fireman] alive while passing through long tunnels and snow sheds, which, to this day, are still in existence) over the Sierra Nevada's for just one example. If you're especially observant, you'll notice that the heaviest locomotives were for freight, not passenger carry. (Therein lies the distinction of purpose mentioned in the article.) Take a few moments to go back in time, if you dare, to a time when men and machines were actually a part of one another. A time when "An Honest Day's Work" actually meant something. A time when "Americans were willing to do the work" and not the opposite.

Myron J. Poltroonian

It would be great to see a new generation of steam locomotives. The reason that steam power was replaced on the railroads was simply economics. Conventional steam locomotives required far more service per ton mile than diesel-electric or pure electric engines. The classic steam locomotive was a non-condensing machine with low thermal efficiency that consumed large quantities of fuel and water. I spent quite a number of years working on steam locomotives and truly miss them despite the hard, dirty, heavy, and hot work involved. The real value of this project is that it might result in steam being looked at in a modern way. Steam provides a very cost efficient way of capturing and moving thermal energy into devices that can use that energy to do work. After all, a modern nuclear generating plant uses steam generated from the heat of a nuclear fission reaction to drive a steam turbine coupled to a generator. All the talk about carbon neutral is just an eco-buzz phrase. The advantage of fuels such as biocoal is that they use a biological mechanism to capture solar energy and atmospheric carbon dioxide. Burning them releases the energy in the form of heat and returns the captured carbon to the atmosphere to be recycled. This is an example of a long solar cycle using a renewable fuel as opposed to a photovoltaic cell that converts light into electricity directly. If we are really concerned about global heating we must move toward greater thermal efficiency. When we look at something like a nuclear generating plant we may think that it doesn't generate any emissions but it does. The primary emission is waste heat. We don't notice it because the heat is removed by cooling water that is either returned to a large body of water or injected high into the atmosphere by cooling towers. Along with that heat very large amounts of water are evaporated. Any guesses on what the most abundant greenhouse gas is? The answer is WATER VAPOR!

Dr. Gizmo

Well... they should start from scratch. It needs a Caprotti valve gear, belpaire firebox, all welded boiler, roller bearings on all the axles, other parts will have to improved with modern metals and alloys. This engine, will be a one trick pony if it's just built for speed. Streamlining adds weight, that weight can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Bad thing, because it needs more steam to get moving, which means more fuel. Good thing because of tractive effort which means it can go fast and slip less.

Michael Fischer

To the complainers;

This is a concept project to see if something can be done. It may work or it may not work. At least these people are trying something to find out if it will or not.

If you don’t like the idea, then get off our tired rear ends and get to doing something about it or use another idea that might work better. Don’t just sit there and complain.


Or somebody really smart will figure out that once we have enough renewable energy on line we could simply use a 100% pollution free electric locomotive. Why anybody in their right mind would want to try and reinvent a steam locomotive defies logic. Especially with this crock about it only putting out the same amount of carbon held in the fuel....the clue here is "held in the fuel"....yeah until some genius burns it. Unbelievable !

Rod Williams
Unless steam technology has undergone a great deal of evolution and improvement in modern days, I would rather apreciate a train, well, kind of a biocoal steam/electric hybrid locomotive. But the biocoal must necessarily be extracted from trees previously planted just for such a purpose; otherwise the inovation would inevitably lead to more deforestation, mainly here in Brazil, and that in turn would lead to more global warming. Valter Martins da Silva

I'm late to the discussion but I have to comment because of the absurdity of the RECIPROCATING steam locomotive being brought back. For starters the thermal efficiencies of the RECIPROCATING steamer is horrendous. If you're going to the trouble to reinvent the steam-producing locomotive then at least reinvent it to use traction motors which are infinitely superior to the reciprocating steamer. But the most important factor is why in the world would you go back to having thousands of "little power plants" "floating around" like with the existing diesel-electric locomotives? If with whatever burnable, be it oil or coal or gas or biowhatever, at least burn it in a centralized power plant where the produced energy goes to power industries, business, homes, people, AND, of course, traction motive power. You add in that the pure electrical is far-and-above the most thermal efficient of the forms of motive power that the savings from operations of pure electric motive power pays for the infrastructure of rail electrification very quickly!

Archie Leach
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