Atomic Trains


Back in the early 1950s, nuclear power was very fashionable – much like electricity was 50 years earlier – and numerous ideas for its uses were produced. Some were mad, some were bad, and some just plain crazy – at least for land transport, since as we know, a variety of submarines and ships are powered by nuclear reactors. On land, aside from a crackpot idea dreamed up by Ford, for a family car with a nuclear reactor in the boot, the potential for ‘atomic trains’ was seriously investigated 70 years ago.

In fact, I was prompted to have another look into these ideas by a letter I received in 1990, which suggested that “…could render main line electrification unnecessary the development of a nuclear powered locomotive.”

In fact, the writer of the letter made these interesting points about its potential use:

“The nuclear-powered locomotive would combine the advantages of conserving fossil fuels with the use of simple trackside installations and would provide quite exceptional endurance without refuelling. The longer the network the greater would be the advantages, especially on those where a small number of train movements per day combined with high carrying capacity, whether passenger or goods, are involved. The East Coast line from London to Scotland would make an ideal test route, and countries like China, the USSR, Brazil, South Africa, etc would be natural customers.”

The problem perhaps at the end of the 1980s, was that people were so intimately wedded to their cars, and road transport, that rails and guided public transport – in the UK in particular – was rapidly facing extinction.
In the 1950s, there were no such inhibitions or potential constraints, and in 1954, a certain Dr Lyle Borst at the University of Utah proposed the 360 ton X-12 locomotive, carrying a nuclear reactor fuelled by Uranium-235, and designed by Babcock & Wilcox. Borst had contacted both the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and numerous railroad companies, with his seemingly far fetched proposal. A key feature of the proposition was its ability to run for months without refueling, and instead of the solid fuel elements, the reactor was intended to use uranyl-sulphate (U-235) and water solution. The type of reactor design was described as an Aqueous Homogeneous Reactor (AHR).

The practicalities of getting power to the rails in this example utilised what had become commonplace – an electric motor attached to the locomotive’s axles. I suppose they could have used either mechanical or hydraulic drives, but they were of course not the only country experimenting with nuclear technology, and the Soviet Union had a particularly striking looking design – that never was.
In Britain too, the ‘atomic age’ was beginning in the early 1950s, and in its issue for 1st August 1952, the “Eagle” comic had an artists impression of what a nuclear powered loco might look like on British Railways.

British Atomic Loco - Eagle 1952

Now, it is worth remembering that the major UK and US companies employed in electrical and mechanical engineering, wee also heavily involved in the design and construction of nuclear reactors – or as they were referred to ‘atomic piles’. This included the likes of Westinghouse, English Electric, Babcock and a number of others, including – of course – in the 1950s, the Soviet Union, where the state had evolved designs for just such a locomotive.

A decade earlier, during WW2, the German military were advancing plans to build nuclear powered submarines in the mid 1940s, and the use of nuclear power was put forward again in the early 1950s, for a nuclear powered locomotive. Some details of one such proposal are kept in the “Deutsches Museum” in Munich, whilst the illustration shows how it might have looked on the rail network of West Germany.

German Atomic Loco

Also in West Germany in the mid-1950s, Krauss-Maffei were considering building an approximately 35 m long nuclear locomotive; the design was closely related to the well-known V 200 diesel locomotive.

Perhaps though the Russian and American examples had advanced the furthest – driven mostly by the cold war. In the Russian example, it was considered that using nuclear powered trainbs as mobile missile launching pads would make it difficult to detect their positions, and require fewer locomotives than the equivalent diesel or steam hauled trains. Once again, the UK’s “Eagle” comic provided a spectacular illustration:
Nuclear reactors can of course be easily detected through their heat emissions, and they would have been just a more sophisticated – if dangerous – steam locomotive. The projected design looked very dramatic. In fact, I believe the illustration appeared in the British “Eagle” comic in the 1950s, and it shows their “atomic locomotive” pictured alongside an artist’s impression of the new “Deltic” diesel locomotive from English Electric.

Soviet Atomic Locomotive

The work in the USA continued up until the late 1950s, and Professor Borst’s design was even granted a patent by the US Patent Office – but despite the effort that had gone into the design of this unusual locomotive, it never came to life.

X-12 Patent DetailsSo, in all honesty, why, in the late 1980s and 1990s would the idea emerge again – the 1974 oil crisis had passed, and high-speed trains were becoming almost commonplace on every railway network around the world. Electrified lines were – indeed mostly still are – powered by electrical energy generated by a nuclear power station, and although other forms of energy and power generation had not been explored, it became just an uneconomic prospect.

My original letter writer had agreed that electrification was by far the most suitable, both economically and in efficiency of operating, for the short, high-density suburban traffic, but advocating a nuclear hauled locomotive for main line, long distance services. He made these two points:

“The nuclear-powered locomotive would combine the advantages of conserving fossil fuels with the use of simple trackside installations and would provide quite exceptional endurance without refuelling.”

“The East Coast line from London to Scotland would make an ideal test route, and countries like China, the USSR, Brazil, South Africa, etc would be natural customers.”

He then made the suggestion that Britain should see this as an unmissable export opportunity, noting that:

“…. Britain is in a very strong position to develop and sell nuclear railway technology. We have an advanced capability in nuclear power generation, …..”

At the time, there was much turmoil in the British railway industry, with closures, mergers, sales, and the ongoing privatisation activities, I feared this was never likely to go much further than it had 40 years earlier – and it didn’t. The use of hybrid power trains, hydrogen fuel cell powered locomotives and trains has since seen much more development, so the Atomic Train of the 1950s will remain just another engineering idea that will be consigned to Room 101 ….. probably.

A final example of the use of a train based nuclear reactor appeared in patent form in the USA in 2008, with a proposition from one William Gregory Taylor. This time, under US Patent US2009/0283007A1, the inventor claims for pairing an on-board reactor with magnetically levitated vehicles, to quote the abstract from the application:

“This device is a magnetically levitated (maglev) locomotive powered by an on board nuclear reactor. The locomotive carries a small portable nuclear reactor that heats a fluid to boiling, and passes it through electric turbine engines to produce electric power. The fluid/steam then recirculates through cooling radiators condensing it back to liquid before it passes back into the reactors again. The electric power is used to power and cool the onboard electromagnets, which oppose passive permanent magnets or magnetic coils in the roadbed. The onboard reactor is capable of providing greater electrical power than previously described maglev systems. This, in turn, provides greater power to the superconducting electro magnets, which translates into greater lift capacity and greater Speed.”

So maybe it’s not all over yet?

References & Useful Links



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