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From Steam to Diesel

From Steam to Diesel: Managerial Customs and Organizational Capabilities in the Twentieth-Century American Locomotive Industry

Albert J. Churella
Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    From Steam to Diesel
    Book Description:

    This overview of the leading locomotive producers in the United States during the twentieth century shows how they responded to a radical technological change: the replacement of steam locomotives by diesels. The locomotive industry provides a valuable case study of business practices and dramatic shifts in innovation patterns, since two companies--General Motors and General Electric--that had no traditional ties to locomotive production demolished established steam locomotive manufacturers. Albert Churella uses many previously untapped sources to illustrate how producers responded to technological change, particularly between the 1920s and the 1960s. Companies discussed include the American Locomotive Company (ALCo), the Baldwin Locomotive Works, the Lima Locomotive Works, Fairbanks-Morse, the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, and General Electric.

    A comparative work of business history and the history of technology, the book is not a complete history of any locomotive builder, nor does it explore the origins of the diesel engine in great detail. What it does, and does superbly, is to demonstrate how managers addressed radical shifts in technology and production methods. Churella reveals that managerial culture and corporate organizational routines, more than technological competency per se, allowed some companies to succeed, yet constrained the actions of others. He details the shift from small-batch custom manufacturing techniques in the steam locomotive industry to mass-production methods in the diesel locomotive industry. He also explains that chance events and fortuitous technological linkages helped to shape competitive patterns in the locomotive industry.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2268-3
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-9)

    For more than a hundred years, from the 1830s through the 1940s, steam locomotives formed the main power source for railroads throughout the world. Beyond their duties as haulers of freight and passenger traffic, steam locomotives symbolized both the romance of the rails and the industrial might of the American economy.¹ For all of their undeniable power and majesty, however, steam locomotives were notoriously inefficient and costly to maintain. For all of their symbolic reference to American industry, steam locomotives remained customized, hand-built products in a nation that enthusiastically embraced mass production. Any form of motive power that could overcome...

  5. I Steam vs. Diesel: The Capabilities and Requirements of a Radically New Technology
    (pp. 10-22)

    Steam and diesel locomotives embodied vastly different technologies and, of even more concern to locomotive builders, these technological differences mandated radically different production and marketing techniques. In particular, even slight variations in operational requirements could require steam locomotive designs to be altered substantially. As a result, steam locomotive designs proliferated, and builders constructed steam locomotives in small batches, customized to suit the requirements of a particular railroad or operating district. Steam locomotives remained customized, purpose-built machines, and the necessity of tailoring locomotive designs to specific railroad requirements ensured that economies of scale were largely unobtainable and that customers would have...

  6. II Internal-Combustion Railcars: Springboard to Participation in the Diesel Locomotive Industry
    (pp. 23-36)

    The self-propelled railcar, rather than the large diesel locomotive, provided the first opportunity for the internal-combustion engine to prove itself in railroad service in the United States.¹ Railcars, similar in external appearance to conventional railroad passenger equipment, generally contained an engine compartment, a control stand, and passenger and baggage compartments. These units were entirely self-contained (unlike electric streetcars or interurbans) and so could operate even over remote, lightly traveled branch lines. Railroad interest in railcar technology occurred in two distinct phases: the first peaked shortly before World War I, and faded as more pressing wartime production and transportation needs took...

  7. III First-Mover Advantages and the Decentralized Corporation
    (pp. 37-57)

    The diesel locomotive industry came of age during the 1930s. By the end of the decade diesel switchers had conclusively demonstrated their superiority over their steam-powered counterparts, and improvements in diesel engine and electrical equipment technology had unleashed the potential for widespread mainline freight dieselization. Diesels replaced steam locomotives in three main stages. By 1935 most railroads had accepted the superiority of diesels over steam locomotives in yard switching service. Passenger service next felt the effects of dieselization, ensuring that diesels powered many luxury trains by the late 1930s. When the United States went to war in December 1941, railroads...

  8. IV ALCo and Baldwin: Established Companies, New Technologies
    (pp. 58-74)

    Two of the three established steam locomotive builders, ALCo and Baldwin, explored the possibilities of diesel locomotives during the 1920s. While GE and Westinghouse entered the diesel locomotive industry to take advantage of economies of scope in the electrical equipment industry, these steam locomotive companies did so in order to maintain the loyalty of their traditional railroad customers. This loyalty was as much a curse as a blessing, however, because it encouraged executives at ALCo and Baldwin to regard the diesel locomotive as adjunct technology, suitable primarily for complementing steam locomotive sales by filling a few specialized niche applications for...

  9. V Policy and Production during World War II
    (pp. 75-94)

    World War II temporarily stemmed the decline of the established steam locomotive producers but had little long-term impact on the structure of the diesel locomotive industry. As Europe and, later, the United States became embroiled in World War II, American railroads faced unprecedented traffic demands. Western lines in particular struggled to accommodate the massive movements of troops and materiel that accompanied the Pacific campaigns. The Santa Fe was especially anxious to obtain diesel locomotives for use on its arid southwestern routes. The rigorous wartime service that followed removed any lingering doubts in the minds of railroad executives about the superiority...

  10. VI Postwar Dieselization and Industry Shakeout
    (pp. 95-126)

    American railroads poured millions of dollars into improvements after World War II, and these investments included the purchase of thousands of new diesel locomotives. Substantial wartime profits allowed railroad executives to replace track, bridges, structures, cars, and locomotives that had been worn out by a decade of deferred maintenance during the depression and years of overuse during World War II. Capital improvements to American railroads, which totaled $563 million in 1945, soared to $1.3 billion in 1949. Investments in new locomotives increased from $128 million to $406 million during the same period. The years immediately after World War II thus...

  11. VII The Era of Oligopoly
    (pp. 127-145)

    With the cessation of diesel locomotive production at Baldwin, Lima, and Fairbanks-Morse, the industry assumed its current duopolistic structure. Duopoly emerged in the locomotive industry for several reasons. The small “feast-or-famine” market for locomotives, combined with the capital-intensive nature of locomotive production, ensured that a single large producer could satisfy railroad demand. A lone manufacturer would certainly run afoul of the U.S. Justice Department, a situation EMD experienced during the mid-1960s, and this precluded the existence of monopoly. Since railroads were hardly technological innovators in their own right during the postwar era, their executives believed that technological progress in the...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 146-154)

    As the American locomotive industry made the transition from steam to diesel locomotive production, companies rose and fell in response to the challenges created by that radical technological discontinuity. Corresponding changes in technologies, production methods, marketing services, and managerial cultures so thoroughly transformed the locomotive builders that the locomotive industry of 1970 bore scant resemblance to that of 1930. Company executives responded to new technologies while preserving the viability of their established product lines. Managers manipulated technological change to suit their own interests and those of their companies and their stockholders. Executives did not operate in a vacuum, however, for...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 155-200)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-212)
  15. Index
    (pp. 213-215)