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At Full Speed

It was in the early 1930s when a Savoia-Marchetti aircraft beat the worldwide air speed record at over 700 kilometers/hour, whereas, on the ground, Malcolm Campbell achieved the fabulous milestone of 400 kilometers/hour. Everywhere there were engineers dreaming of speed and aerodynamics and working hard for getting them, including, naturally, the designers of locomotives. The challenge posed by the new Diesel engines, which "put wings" to the Flying Hamburger, or to the Burlington Zephyr in United States, encouraged the paladins of steam as well. This is how the British started an ambitious plan for upgrading the old locomotives, renovating them with the purpose of gradually shortening the duration of travels. Large aerodynamical Pacific, towing rosaries of wagons made of lightweight stainless steel, obstreperously headed toward the northern routes. London-Newcastle in four hours, London-Edinburgh in six hours, etc... Later, Nigel Gresley introduced his new series of partially aerodynamical A4 locomotives fitted with a Kylchap double exhaust, and the 3rd July 1938 he presented to the press of the whole world his Mallard locomotive, which towed a dynamometrical car, beating the former steam speed record when exceeding 200 kilometers/hour. The former holder of the record had been the German Borsig, who had been experimenting with wheels which were covered by an aerodynamical bodywork whose sides extended down almost to the ground. During the trials the speed reached 200 kilometers/hour, but the system could not be commercialized, because the bearings were prone to overheating and the maintenance was too difficult.

Mallard steam locomotive

In 1935, for inaugurating the super-fast Hiawatha train which covered the Chicago-Minneapolis line, the Milwaukee Road company designed a completely new model: an articulated convoy formed by seven stainless steel units, towed by a true aerodynamical mastodon, an Atlantic locomotive especially built for express service. She was the largest machine of this kind ever produced, and she fulfilled the intended schedules of 165 kilometers/hour with such a rigor that supplementary units were soon added to this luxury express service, without detriment to its speed or to its other qualities.

Due to a commission from the New York Central company, industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss modernized his prestigious 20th Century Limited, a train which after the remodelation appeared streamlined from the enlarged nose of its powerful Hudson 4-6-4 locomotive to its last wagon. The locomotive and the tender, which weighed 260 tonnes, were in charge of towing that train of 1000 tonnes in weight at a speed of 130 kilometers/hour.

The 1930s saw as well the development of steam-turbine locomotives; the earliest of them were fitted with condensers which, being as cumbersome as those used in ships, were later removed.

Fast steam locomotives

Steam locomotive mechanical stoker
It was humanly impossible that a stoker shoveled the coal at a pace fast enough to feed machines as huge as the K4s of 4000 horsepower, so all of the large American locomotives were equipped with mechanical stokers, which essentially consisted of a series of Archimedes' screws or endless screws, which carried the coal from a storage chamber located upon the tender to an inclined surface from where it slided down into the firebox.

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