The Decline of Steam

LarkinIf you have a little time before or after attending HealthTech 2002, I recommend visiting Baltimore’s B&O Railroad Museum, several blocks west of the convention center on Pratt Street. Inside of the 235-foot diameter brick roundhouse is a fascinating collection of locomotives and rolling stock representing 175 years of transportation technology, including the first diesel electric locomotive used in America.

Diesel is an interesting hybrid technology. The internal combustion diesel engine drives a generator or, more recently, an alternator, creating power for electric traction motors that provide the force that moves the train. Each motor can draw over 1,000 amps, and there’s a traction motor for every axle.

That’s a lot of juice.

Many people think diesel-electric used superior power to push steam locomotives off the rails. Not true. The real reason steam became a museum piece was cost of ownership. Steam packed more horsepower into a single locomotive, but diesels were cheaper to operate, easier to maintain, required fewer engineers and other technical staff, and fewer support facilities. The decline of steam wasn’t due to any fundamental advantage in diesel technology, it was due to many small technology management issues.

The Baltimore and Ohio tracked its costs as it switched from steam to diesel. Despite inflation, the B&O’s total fuel costs went from $23.6 million in 1945 to $21.2 million in 1957. The cost of water, an essential nutrient for steam locomotives, dropped from $954,000 in 1945 to $147,000 in 1960.

It required four freight diesels to match the 6,000 horsepower might of the steam locomotives used by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1947, but unlike steam locos, which have cabs loaded with valves, levers and cranks that must be operated by hand, the switches and relays controlling diesels-electric units can be operated from the lead engine, and one Pennsy crew of two handled all four units.

If you’ve ever worked on a sterilizer, then you know how much preventative maintenance is required to stay ahead of parts failures caused by the hot, corrosive vapor. Even on a small locomotive, the tools needed are enormous. Diesel uses electrical systems. Roundhouse technicians were forced to learn new skills, and many service jobs disappeared.

For the Pennsylvania Railroad, the shift to diesel and electric power was necessary. The fuel and maintenance costs for a steam freight locomotive in 1947, not factoring in diesel’s reduced labor requirement, were $2.37 per mile. The diesel set cost was $1.94 per mile. That difference allowed railroads to stave off competition from highways and airlines, at least for a few decades.

Does all this sound familiar? It should. The shift from steam to diesel took half a century; dramatic technology changes in healthcare require less than a decade. Each time there is wailing and gnashing of teeth in the biomed community. “We can’t fix that! Hospitals won’t need us anymore. We’ll all lose our jobs.”

That’s hogwash. The rapid pace of healthcare technology change guarantees our institutions will always need sound advice and a good hand with a screwdriver, whether that expertise comes from in-house departments, technology management contractors or skilled manufacturers’ representatives. The biomedical technician ranks continue to be our industry’s leading source of managers, and specialized education opportunities, such as HealthTech, are the best way to gather new skills.

Yes, change is constant in technology, in healthcare, and in publishing. After five years, I decided it’s time for a new hand on the 24×7 throttle. Change is needed to keep the viewpoints in this magazine fresh. Beginning with this issue, veteran editor Marie Marchese will be driving 24×7. Her curiosity and enthusiasm brings exciting new coverage of our dynamic and often unpredictable industry. As far as I’m concerned, 24×7 couldn’t be in better hands.

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