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Rail Transportation Division History

The Rail Transportation Division is one of the oldest and most active of ASME's 36 Divisions. It is one of the original eight Division founded in 1920 as the Railroad Division promoting application of the art, science and practice of mechanical and multidisciplinary engineering and allied sciences to railroading. It later became the Rail Transportation Division (RTD) to reflect its broad focus on rail rapid transit as well as conventional intercity freight and passenger railroading around the globe.

Through over nine decades, the Rail Transportation Division and its members have been at the forefront of technological developments that have shaped railroading--the development of super power steam locomotives and their eclipse by the diesel-electrics; experiments with turbine and other new locomotive types; the first streamlined passenger trains of the 30's; the MetroLiners and TurboTrains of the 60's; and the more recent high speed trains; the development of larger, heavier freight cars, unit bulk commodity trains, intermodal trains, and the solutions to technological problems they have brought.

As the world becomes more conscious of the value of railroads in the dawning era of energy efficiency and high cost, interest in the Rail Transportation Division is growing. The Division encourages technical research and development to improve safety and productivity of railroad operations and equipment designs, publishes technical papers dealing with this work, and provides a forum where railroad mechanical engineers can exchange ideas and discuss common problems and their solutions. Two technical conferences annually are designed for this purpose.

Visit the RTD home page.


History of the RTD

By Charles M. Smith

I was recently reviewing some Transactions of the ASME from the late 1920's and noted the following: Among the names associated with the Progress in Railway Mechanical Engineering report at that time were:

  • C.E. Barba, Mechanical Engineer, Boston & Maine R.R.
  • William Elmer, Special Engineer, Pennsylvania R.R.
  • J.B. Ennis, Vice President-Engineering, American Locomotive Co.
  • T.C. McBride, Consulting Engineer, Worthington Pump & Machinery Co.
  • R.S. McConnell, Chief Engineer, Baldwin Locomotive Works
  • H.B. Oatley, Vice President, Superheater Co.
  • C.B. Peck, Managing Editor, Railway Mechanical Engineer
  • Marion B. Richardson, Associate Editor, Railway Age and Railway Mechanical Engineer
  • G.W. Rink, Mechanical Engineer, Central Railroad of New Jersey
  • A.F. Steubing, Chief Engineer, Bradford Corporation
  • Lewis K. Sillcox, General Superintendent of Motive Power, The Milwaukee Road
  • Elliott Sumner, Superintendent of Motive Power (New York), Pennsylvania Railroad
  • A.G. Trumbull, Chief Mechanical Engineer, Erie Railroad.

The relative standing of the railroad industry at that time is shown in a tally of employment dated August 1927. Railroad employment (211 companies reporting) was 1,796,194. This was greater than the total of the next three categories reporting - Iron and Steel, 648,701; Textiles, 602,623; and Automotive, 479,826. At that time there was no source separating the number of engineers employed in industry. For the railroad industry the Interstate Commerce Commission reported 56,074 positions where a mechanical engineering education would be of service. These were not necessarily filled by engineers.

ASME paper RR-50-2, December 1927, prepared by the Sub-Committee on Professional Service of our Division said: "Generally speaking, the mechanical department is usually subordinated to the transportation department. It seems to lack class-consciousness and in this respect is quite different from the engineering department. The mechanical department is in charge of the design of cars and locomotives, and of their maintenance in good order. No less than 25 percent of all railway operating expenses and from one-half to two-thirds of the expenditures for capital improvements come under the jurisdiction of this department. This shows that the job of the mechanical department officer is one of importance and great responsibilities and requires a man capable of exercising mature judgment."

The paper went on to state that the average length of experience for a chief mechanical officer to achieve that position was 22.8 years. In 1927 the median earnings of mechanical engineers employed by railroads, up to and including the position of chief mechanical officer, leveled off at $6,600 after 30 years of service. The median earnings of mechanical engineers employed by railway supply companies was $7,500 after 30 years of service, and this was typical of industry as a whole. However, for these two categories the median curve did not level off at thirty years.

Of 27 papers presented in this period, it is not surprising to note that 15 concerned basic research and improvements to the steam locomotive. No papers specifically related to internal-combustion locomotives, but two concerned rail motorcars, and work in that field would ultimately lead to the diesel-electric locomotive. Three of the papers related to basic metallurgy and its application to railroad equipment. Three additional papers related to railroad signaling, a field which this division appears to have abdicated and left to others.

One of the most significant papers was RR-52-9, Research Relating to the Action of 4-Wheel Freight Car Trucks, by T.H. Symington of the Symington Co. The study of the 4-wheel, 3-piece freight car truck continues to this day, and improvements in its design continue. Among his comments:

  1. Manufacturing tolerances permit quite a difference in the lengths of side frames, and the practice will soon become general of mating side frames in the same truck as now holds in mating wheels on the same axle.

  2. A study of the A.R.A. spring plank has led to the theoretical conclusion that it performs no important function. (Twenty years later it disappeared in new designs.)

  3. Cast steel side frames and bolsters have been vastly improved in design in the past few years. The ideal ultimate standards will have essential strength, minimum weight, and maximum wearing surfaces to insure long service life.

  4. Research into truck spring performance was ongoing at the time Mr. Symington's paper was authored, and he was not prepared to discuss the findings.

I hope that you have found this discussion of the work of our predecessors' activities interesting.