Can the gas turbine-electric locomotive make a comeback?

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There is an old saying that goes like this: "What goes around comes around".  This adage could very well apply to the reintroduction of the gas turbine-electric locomotive (GT-EL) in the USA driven by and fueled by the new abundant supply of shale natural gas brought about by fracking. 

The GT-EL was first introduced by General Electric (GE) and the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) over 60 years ago through the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) but faded out of existence after a short 15 years of service.

The application was only partially successful and considered by many to be a loser.  However, this first GT-EL by GE/ALCO gave birth to the heavy duty (HD) type of machine in the US to parallel the early development of the HD gas turbine and GT-EL in Switzerland by Brown Boveri. 

Conditions are now most favorable for this proven, powerful and clean burning train hauling machine to make a comeback and become a winner. Railroad trains can haul heavy equipment long distances at low costs, loads that simply cannot be moved any other way. Today, almost all freight and passenger trains are powered by the diesel- electric locomotive (D-EL).

This article gives untold details about the history of the US GT-EL, its development, its use and its failure in America; and presents how its resurrection and re-introduction could make it a huge success in the near future.

Tom Sawyer’s GT book     


Before WW II, there was a young mechanical engineer by the name of R. Tom Sawyer who worked for ALCO in Schenectady, N.Y.  His father was chief engineer for this company at that time. Tom was a diesel-electric equipment engineer. A few years later he founded the ASME Gas Turbine Division (to become IGTI), a spin-off of the ASME Diesel Engine Division, and later co-founded

The Gas Turbine International Magazine

, which later became

The Turbomachinery International Magazine


Tom became very interested in the new gas turbine and gathered together all the information he could on this new machine whereupon he wrote a book titled, The Modern Gas Turbine. It was published in 1945 by Prentice-Hall, Inc., NYC.  This book is still used today as a historical document and for reference.

Tom devoted a long chapter in his book about the D-EL and covered the new Swiss GT-EL in detail. He reported that the first GT-EL incorporated a 2200 HP GT and entered tests in the fall of 1941. It was later placed on the Swiss Federal Railway during WW II.  The GT drove a DC generator and four traction motors. The GT was built by Brown Boveri. The unit applied a regenerative cycle with an efficiency of 18 percent which was not competitive with the diesel's 40 percent. Moreover, WW II intervened and therefore further development of the GT-EL by the Swiss was delayed. The unit ran for a number of years with little maintenance.

According to Tom Sawyer, GE became interested in the GT to power locomotives as early as 1937 when Glenn Warren, head of the GE Steam Turbine Division, started preliminary work on a gas turbine for the GT-EL. No doubt Tom, living in Schenectady, met with such engineers as Glenn Warren, Allen Howard and Bruce Buckland from time to time, discussing the GT with them for locomotive possibilities. This supposition is probably true because of the close ties between GE and ALCO and his father's connections dealing with joint ventures with GE. Tom included a GE layout conceptual drawing of a GT driven locomotive based on the new aircraft GT and what the Swiss had done.

GE starts HD gas turbine design

GE took note of the new Swiss GT-EL and thought that the first GE industrial GT should be built for a GT-EL. At the close of WW II, GE actively jumped into designing an industrial GT for the GT-EL. GE assigned Bruce Buckland at this time to head up the design of the first HD GT in Schenectady. It was to be rated at 4500 HP. Buckland had designed the first axial flow compressor turbo prop GT in Schenectady and had Alan Howard and William R. Travis working for him. Howard followed Buckland and stayed in Schenectady while Travis moved to Lynn where the development of the GE TG-100 (T-31) was continued there.

The GE TG-100 (T-31) design was completed on December 23, 1941 and the engine first ran in Schenectady on May 15, 1943. A number of design features of the TG-100 were used by Buckland and Howard in designing the first 4500 HP single shaft HDGT: the 14 stage 6:1 CR axial flow compressor, the combustor system including the fuel nozzles, crossfire tubes, combustor cans and transition ducts, and the Timken steel turbine rims welded to ferrotic steel hubs, and the hydro-electric fuel regulator.

In his next article, the author discusses how the UPRR, GE and ALCO got together on the first 4500 HP GT locomotive, and some of the new turbines designed by GE after the first design was only partially successful as a locomotive driver.


(This article is the first part of a series by the author.)

Ivan G. Rice was past chairman of the South Texas Section of ASME (1974 - 75), past chairman of the ASME Gas Turbine Division (now IGTI) (1975 - 76). A Life Fellow Member of ASME and Life Member of NSPE/TSPE, he has authored many articles and ASME papers on gas turbines, inter-cooling, reheat, HRSGs, steam cooling and steam injection.