"Diesel is for unbelieversA sub-trope of Anachronism Stew. The cultural snapshot we have of locomotives, especially as portrayed in children's literature, seems frozen in time. The protagonists may eat modern junk food, watch TV and do their homework on a computer, but when the time comes to take the train to visit Aunt Tilly, suddenly it's 1900 all over again, complete with steam engine, caboose, coal car, coal tender, dining car, and engineers wearing blue coveralls and funny hats. This trope was more general until about the early 1980s. Movies and TV shows might still portray steam trains in exotic foreign locales or on preserved heritage lines, but as the 20th century wound down, Steam Never Dies retreated to children's literature and cartoons, where it seems permanently entrenched. Within the examples, expect plenty of Just Train Wrong and a general ignorance of how steam actually works in the first place; many works of fiction will treat steam engines like an internal combustion engine by a different name and ignore the finer points of their operation and the infrastructure that they require. Not to be confused with Steam Punk, though some of the artistic sentiment may overlap. Compare Excessive Steam Syndrome. Also has nothing to do with the Digital Distribution service.
Electricity is wrong
Steam has got the power that will pull us along."
Electricity is wrong
Steam has got the power that will pull us along."
— Starlight Express, "Light at the End of the Tunnel"
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- Steam locomotives are widely used in Sunnyville Stories. Rusty and his family even arrive in the titular town on a steam train.
- The hard-core belief of Professor Steamhead on Ninja High School. To show how hardcore he is, his rival on the Mad Scientist field is a man who supports solar energy. However, it's not so much Professor Steamhead acknowledges no other energy sources as that he does use and consider them - as degenerate (in the mathematical rather than moral sense) forms of steam power. Likewise he considers all fields of scientific study other than "Steamology" to be necessary prerequisites to the serious understanding of steam.
- In the Flying Northman chapters of the crossover fic Event Horizon: Storm of Magic, the [[Mega Corp. Company) builds a rail line served by the eponymous steam train, since diesel is too expensive to set up for now, they don't want to share their fusion powered trains and maglevs, and because of the Rule of Cool.
Films — Animation
- The Iron Giant: The freight train that plows into the Giant is powered by a steam locomotive that resembles both a New York Central "Dreyfuss" steam locomotive and a Norfolk & Western J Class steam locomotive. There were no steam locomotives operating mainline freight trains in Maine in 1957, especially not from those railroads, so its also Just Train Wrong.
Films — Live-Action
- Our Miss Brooks: At the start of the film, when Miss Brooks arrives in Madison, she's seen disembarking from a passenger train drawn by a steam locomotive. Very much truth in film, as the fifties were the twilight of the steam age in North America.
- The Red Triangle Circus Gang ride a steam train through Gotham City in Batman Returns, in keeping with the "mix-and-match" time frame of the Batman films and Tim Burton's films in general.
- Justified in Atlas Shrugged Part II. Taggart Rails keeps a steam engine handy, expecting to run into troubles with the more-modern trains they have. Especially when Obstructive Bureaucrats a-plenty make it harder and harder for the trains to run at all, in a greedy power grab. This is after a gross mismanagement of other resources has led to a need to pay the bills that requires energy taxes on virtually every form a transportation other than the rails. Which results in gas going up to $42 a gallon and crippling the road system.
- Made worse by the fact that John Galt begins abducting / recruiting / whatever all the bright minds that the government had been extorting, forcing said government officials to showcase their incompetence even further with no bright minds to shift the blame to when something goes wrong.
- Seen in Muppets Most Wanted, when the Muppet gang travels on their world tour on a special train that is pulled by an old run-down steam locomotive driven by Beauregard. It's also played with; the train particularly sticks out like a sore thumb when it's seen next to other modern trains in the film.
- Played With in Thomas the Tank Engine of all places. The books began being written back when steam locomotives were the standard. Over time, as diesel locomotive technology improved and spread, it becomes increasingly common to see more recurring diesel characters as well as hear more and more news about steam engines being scrapped and replaced in favor of diesels. It is actually brought up that diesels are much cheaper and easier to run than steamers, as well as having superior performance. By the time of the later stories, except for Sit Topham Hatt's railway on the island of Sodor, it seems that diesel is very far along in the process of superseding steam, and that the only reasons for Thomas and friends to not be replaced is purely for sentimental value, as well as for them being really famous engines. It is said that Reverend Awdry himself detested Britain's Steam-to-diesel era, partially due to his opinions on how ineffeciently it was done and partially because he grew up around steam engines, so it makes sense that in his world, the Steam-to-Diesel conversion never caught on in Sodor. It is later established that one branch line is entirely electrified because it was built to assist construction of a hydroelectric dam.
- Many locomotives in the Richard Scarry books are of the steam variety: diesels are also used in conjunction with the steam engines, in such books as The Best Word Book Ever and What Do People Do All Day? In most cases, they are all fashioned off European locomotives.
- Harry Potter: The Hogwarts Express, in two senses: not only is the train anachronistic, it's preserved in a world that generally does not use mechanized technology. Word of God, via tie-in site Pottermore, explains that the Express was adopted for reasons of secrecy, as a train carrying a load of students is a lot easier to conceal or at least pass off as non-magical than having them all on broomsticks or some other fantastic contrivance. The steam train was already a bit outdated when it was put into use, but was used partly because wizards are always behind the times with Muggle technology, and also because, being outdated and not in use, it was a lot easier to steal.
- As already mentioned, The Berenstain Bears invokes this trope.
- The cover art for China Miéville 's Railsea features several steam trains, although most of the trains important to the plot are stated to be diesel powered.
- Lampshaded, justified and visually subverted in Alastair Reynolds' novel Chasm City (part of the Revelation Space Series). Chasm City on the planet Yellowstone is connected with its outlying spaceport via a train powered by a steam locomotive, but the train's appearance and furnishings are decidedly aerodynamic, hi-tech and modern. The bullet-shaped steam locomotives only came into service because a nanotech plague devastated the city years ago, rendering a lot of sensitive electronics and electric-based equipment aboard the original types too risky to use. The steam itself is not produced by burning fuel, but is mined from the titular chasm of the planet, which vents it in large quantities, along with organic gases.
- In Harry Harrison's Planet Story, an admiral who just happens to be a railfan specifically orders a spaceport built on the opposite side of the continent from the mine just to have an excuse to play with trains. His personal toy is a gold plated full scale replica of a Union Pacific Big Boy, the largest steam engine ever built. It's actually nuclear powered (Harrison describes it as powerful enough "to pull a battleship sideways across a mudflat") but it does produce enough steam to blow the whistle.
- In Harrison's alternate universe A Trans Atlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! Great Britain is the only country to have discovered atomic power. Naturally, they use it solely to power one steam locomotive.
- Lampshaded and justified by the Woolfonts & Chickmarsh Railway in the Village Tales series. Which was cunningly begun as a heritage steam railway, community-owned, and then microfranchised into an indispensable link in the national network (although with traffic limitations so as not to disturb the villages), to the great profit of the said villages.
- justified in Jerry Jay Carroll's Inhuman Beings; The aliens can detect and disrupt any high-tech machinery. A steam locomotive carrying a manually-triggered nuke, though...
- Petticoat Junction: The show featured the wood burning Hooterville Cannonball running on the mostly forgotten branch line between Hooterville and Pixley. Lampshaded by the fact villainous railroad Vice President Homer Bedloe is frequently attempting to scrap the locomotive and shut down the line.
- The wood burning Hooterville Cannonball makes a few appearances on Green Acres as well.
- Sesame Street typically played this straight with non-subway trains until recent years, with the "Elmo's World" segment about transportation featuring modern diesel trains. The only other time a more modern train was depicted was in the original 1972 version of "Everybody Sleeps", when a freight train thunders past a sleeping person at a railroad station (to be precise, it is powered by a GE E44 electric locomotive.)
- Murder, She Wrote: In "Another Killing in Cork", Jessica is shown travelling through modern-day Ireland on a steam train.
- Starlight Express famously ends with all the diesel and electric trains promising to convert to steam.
- The giant model trains running around the planets in "Toy Time Galaxy" (and the tiny model train hidden among one of those planets) in Super Mario Galaxy are clearly pulled by steam locomotives.
- The trains in Sim City 3000 are pulled by steam locomotives, regardless of how technologically advanced the rest of the city is.
- Sim City 4 had three different trains: a freight and passenger train which were pulled by modern diesel locomotives and another freight train pulled by a locomotive that resembles "The General".
- Chuffy the train in Banjo-Tooie, which is owned, operated, and powered by Old King Coal, a sentient lump of coal that lives in its boiler (and is an expy of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
- Thomas the Tank Engine is probably the first thing that pops into many people's minds when the words "Steam Train" are mentioned.
- The books were first written when steam power was the norm, and the steam locomotive characters remain because they're the stars of the series. Although the Fat Controller made an announcement that Sodor would be enforcing this trope when steam ended on British Railways, elsewhere, steam did indeed fall out of favor. Much Ascended Fridge Horror ensued.
- The TV series started as an adaptation of the books, and hence kept the same characters. Currently, it's permanently around 1960, when steam was still in use.
- In fact, Diesel's main goal is to try to get the Fat Controller to replace his steam engines with diesels.
- Steam is also alive and well on Chuggington.
- The trope is present in DuckTales. The most incongruous example was in the episode Armstrong, where Gyro's newly invented robot saves Scrooge's gold train (pulled by a steam locomotive) from a rockslide. The episode later features such modern technology as automatic garage door openers, computers and satellites!
- Peppa Pig, "The Train Ride" episode.
- The train in WordWorld is a large blue steam locomotive shaped like the word "TRAIN" that is for some reason fuelled by letters, couldn't decide whether it should have a 2-2-2 or a 4-2-0 wheel arrangement, and no one is driving it!
- A strange variation on The Simpsons, where there have often been modern diesel locomotives with steam whistles!
- They even use older diesel models that haven't been used on modern railroads since the 1960's in modern settings. Usually it's an EMD E or F Unit lookalike.
- This was played straight in the episode "Dumbbell Indemnity," most likely so they could work in a parody of "Hot Shot Eastbound."
- The title Dinosaur Train is a green steam locomotive shaped like a Triceratops head that's powered by coal, a fossil fuel.
- Trains in My Little Pony are typically steam trains. My Little Pony Tales features 90s computers and steam trains side-by-side.
- The circus train that eventually crashes in The Rugrats Movie is pulled by a steam engine, despite obvious late 1990s technologies and references occurring throughout the film. Additionally, the train in the main Rugrats episode "Murmur on the Ornery Express" has a steam locomotive, though this may have been deliberate, as it was meant to be a scenic train ride to a historic "Old Country"-style town (which also adds to the murder-mystery feel of the episode.)
- Averted in The Raccoons where the main transportation system is a rail system using contemporary diesel locomotives, although Sneer Industries does have an unused service track with an old steam locomotive.
- Also averted in Rocko's Modern Life; the only time steam locomotives are seen are on old trains (like in movies, or Ed's campaign train in "Ed Good, Rocko Bad", but all the other times, the railroad system uses modern diesel locomotives (such as in "Manic Mechanic" and "Driving Mrs. Wolfe.")
- Hey Arnold! had a train that commuted steel mill workers to and from the city and was powered by an old Great Northern 4-8-4.
- Astrotrain, of Transformers Generation One, is a triple changer, with his altmodes being a Class D51 steam locomotive or a shuttle orbiter. The former was retired in 1975, a decade before the character debuted. Later comics have him switching to a modern diesel-electric train, or continuing to maintain the steam engine altmode well into the aughts. Being a giant space robot powered by Energon and capable of flight, Astrotrain presumably considers these differences to be semantics.
- In the early seasons of South Park, the trains were 19th century steam trains◊ later seasons however have shown more current equipment.
- The warning sign for a level crossing without gates or barriers is a steam locomotive in many countries.
- There is a vaguely sensible reason for this: modern trains don't really have any kind of profile that makes for an obvious symbol.
- Deliberately averted in Germany: when the symbols on all traffic signs where simplified in 1992 the outdated steam locomotive had to go and was replaced by an electric multiple unit coming at you.
- Some rolling stock would probably count: Wooden livestock cars used to transport animals were retired in the 1970s. The advent of automatic continuous-brake systems made cabooses (known more descriptively as "brake vans" elsewhere) largely obsolete, but they hung on until the early 1980s when the last unbraked freight wagons were retired. In North America they also housed the train's workmen, now such trains only need just two or three people to run them. The last car on such a train nowadays is equipped with a flashing taillight (called a FRED, EOT or ETD) attached to the rear coupler.
- And the handpump cars: they are now replaced with special trucks that can run on rails (a sort of modern-day Galloping Goose).
- It was well into the turn of the millennium before the last 1950s-era British Rail Mk 1 coaches and the diesel and electric multiple units based on them were finally put out to pasture. Many of these coaches were originally built with heating systems designed to draw on steam from the locomotive's boiler, which resulted in the decidedly Schizo Tech practice of building steam boilers into diesel locomotives to heat the coaches in winter, and it wasn't until well into the 1970s that the last of the passenger locomotive stock was converted to electric heating. It might well have been even later were it not for the Alleged Boilers - all the different designs, made by different manufacturers, were equally unreliable, and accounted for more failures than all the other parts of the locomotives put together (and some of them were pretty bad). Some steam heat locomotives (reassigned to freight duties), and coaching stock with dual heating (steam and electric), remained in service for another decade or more.
- Russian and Soviet trains used one (wood-fired) boiler per passenger car for decades, to allow the car to suit any type of locomotive. Many passenger cars still carry an on-board boiler, or samovar, to facilitate the re-hydration of packaged foods and tea.
- In Real Life, one can find the occasional steam train still (or again) in operation even in well developed countries, such as a tourist attraction or a museum piece. Or sometimes they temporarily de-mothball a steam locomotive kept in reserve in case of emergency and roll it to and fro, to keep the bearings from decay.
- This is especially true in the UK, where a combination of Dr Beeching closing down a large number of railway lines and Barry scrapyard (which was one of the main locations steam engines were sent to be scrapped) being willing to wait while preservation societies got together the money to buy engines, means that there is a large number of steam run preservation lines across the country that run steam engines as a tourist attraction. Most of them have more than one working steam locomotive.
- During one particularly bad British winter in 2009, hundreds of passengers found themselves stranded after the weather disabled the electrics on modern trains. Enter the newbuild steam locomotive Tornado which could run quite happily without electricity.
- In some places in the United States of America there are several companies or freight lines reviving steam power for a cheaper alternative to diesel/electric freight trains, in some cases they run off burning natural gas or are filled with preheated steam to run off until the steam eventually cools - this often happens near power plants or huge factories - but it doesn't appear to be dead just yet.
- of particular note in the USA is The Strasburg Railroad, an actual operating short line that uses only restored and preserved steam engines.
- While steam locomotive operations in Denmark ended in the late 60's and early 70's, both the Danish national railway company, DSB, and various preservations societies have preserved and continue to run. And as late as 2000, two steam locomotives were polished up and carried the coffin of Queen Ingrid from Copenhagen to Roskilde, where she was to be buried next to her husband, King Frederik IX. The King himself had been a Rail Enthusiast, and when he died in 1972, his funeral train had been headed by a pair of DSB Class E steam engines per his own request.
- Long Runner boiler manufacturer Babcock and Wilcox has just released the 41st edition of "Steam: Its Generation and Use", the longest continuously published engineering text of its kind in the world, the first edition of which came out in 1875. Of course, how the steam is being generated and what it is being used for would be completely unrecognizable to people just a hundred years ago. (B&W now makes boilers for nuclear applications, as well as more traditional fossil-fuel ones.)
- The Purdue University's sports team, the Boilermakers, has a steam locomotive on their team logo. This is a reference to the origins of the nickname: in the early days of college football, Purdue is rumored to have cheated by paying workers at the local locomotive works (and others) to play for them. Purdue insists that the nickname derives from its days as a heavy-lifting engineering school, but even then, the link to steam power (what do you think they were engineering in the 1890s?) stands.
- The Hancock Air Whistle was a product that enabled diesel or electric locomotives to retain the steam locomotive "sound" despite lacking the steam to drive the old style whistles. The few railroads that made use of the whistle were concerned motorists might not realize a more modern horn was a railroad warning device and/or persons living near the tracks might complain about the new horn sound.
- The A1 Tornado is a modern British steam locomotive built by railroad fans. Based on the now-extinct Peppercorn A1 steam locomotives of the late 1940's, it's fully up to specifications for running on modern railroads.
- And in a move that would make the Reverend Awdry proud, it rescued stranded passengers after a snowstorm disabled the third rail powering commuter trains operating out of London Victoria Station in 2009.
- In Russia, some steam locomotives and maintenance infrastructure for them is still kept mothballed for use in case of wartime power/oil shortages.
- The UK kept building new steam locomotives well into the 1960s while most of Europe was going over to diesel or electric locomotives, mostly out of economic necessity. Oil had to be expensively shipped in from overseas, and overhead electrification required a huge up-front investment that was completely off the table in the early days of British Rail; what hadn't been wrecked by German bombs had been run ragged supporting the war effort. But what Britain did have was plenty of coal.
- Some Youtube Rail Enthusiasts have informally campaigned for Mike Rowe to visit a heritage railway and clean out a steam engine. In other words, to show part of the reason why steam died out.
- Many countries have steam specials, which are special trains pulled by a steam engines on main lines as a special event.
- The idea of reintroducing steam locomotives, built to modern standards using modern technology, is occasionally talked about as a solution to steadily increasing oil prices. However, most people proposing these reintroductions forget or neglect to take into account that no matter how efficient the engine itself is, steam-powered engines require twice the amount of infrastructure - they have to be supplied with water and fuel. The supposed cost-effectiveness is negated, especially in arid regions where water is in very short supply. Electrification is generally agreed upon to be the better solution.
- They also forget a couple of other important points. One, that the steam engine depended on the availability of large numbers of people willing to do dirty jobs for little money, and they aren't around any more. Two, that the thermal efficiency was appalling, and not susceptible of improvement. Innumerable devices to improve efficiency were tried, but the invariable result was that the efficiency gain was small, while the maintenance requirements increased enormously, and it just wasn't worth it; the same would still apply to any new-design locomotive. In effect, not only does Steam Never Die, but The Rocket never died - the failure of any change to that basic design meant that even the latest and most advanced steam locomotives were still recognizably just The Rocket writ large.
- There is another aspect: While coal is indeed more plentiful than liquid fuels and coal cannot be used for internal propulsion engines (Rudolf Diesel initially intended his engine for coal dust - neither he nor any of his successors could get it to work), however, Coal can be converted into liquid fuel via the Fischer Tropsch process which has been known since the 1920s. While its energy efficiency is atrocious, it is still more than made up for by the better fuel efficiency of internal combustion compared to steam. Indeed, many countries that for one reason or another had no access to oil used exactly this process, be it Apartheid South Africa, Nazis with Gnarly Weapons or East Germany, though the latter also kept using steam engines almost until the very end.
- On the other hand, steam still has its uses at sea, where water is in abundance. Those big supertankers shifting vast volumes of liquefied natural gas? They use steam engines fuelled by burning some of their cargo to get around.
- Interestingly, many modern trains, especially passenger trains, are propelled, indirectly, by steam power. Electric trains, after all, are propelled by electricity, almost all of which is generated by boiling water to drive steam turbines. So many of the most modern locomotives are powered by steam, it's just that the steam engine is located inside a power plant many miles away.
- And most if not all nuclear powerplant is steam-driving reactor.
- Steam turbines are what remain common in electrical power generation and on large ships. Large steam turbines can be very efficient but they work best running at one fixed speed. That's perfect for an electrical generator, and a ship can use gears or fancier turbines to allow a choice of a few propeller speeds (or use a generator, electricity, and a motor). But direct propulsion of locomotive wheels requires varying speed, and so steam turbine locomotives were rarely successful.
- Several steam locomotives have served for an exceptionally long time before retirement, which has helped keep them preserved and operating into the 21st century.
- The Hungarian State Railways 424 class served from 1924 until all steam engines were retired in 1984. Their sheer simplicity kept them around long after other steamers had become too expensive to keep around.
- The New South Wales Z19 class served from 1877, when New South Wales was a pre-Federation colony, to the end of steam in 1972, five years short of a century of service.
- Union Pacific No. 844 was never officially retired since it entered service in 1944, a unique achievement for a locomotive on a Class I railroad. It even outlasted the diesels meant to replace it!
- UP is also (as of 2014) in the process of restoring "Big Boy" 4-8-8-4 #4014 to operation in time for the 150th anniversary of the first North American trans-continental railroad line.
- Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) 4-6-0 'Camelbacks' served from 1901 until 1954, a pretty solid fifty years.
- Perhaps the ultimate examples, Cass Scenic Railroad Shay #5, delivered in 1901. It's been climbing Cass Mountain for more than a century, first hauling logs and now tourists. The Mount Washington Cog Railway has some steam locomotives that have been in service even longer.
- German class 52, known as the war locomotive. While Deutsche Bundesbahn in West Germany retired them ten years after the Second World War, these simple and durable engines seen good use well into the 1980s in East Germany's Deutsche Reichsbahn and Polish PKP (as class Ty2). The latter operated them even in early 2000s. And Russian Railways still keep some of them (class TE - captured locomotive) in case of war.
- As late as 2014 they could be found working on a short line serving a coal mine in Bosnia. They used to run the trains the full distance on the mainline, but now leave the (lighter ) wagons in a yard for collection by the state railway. Other mines in the area used USATC 0-6-0T engines from the allied side of the war, some locally built.
- North Queensland cane field tramways were still using steam until the late 1970s, due to reliability issues with the earlier diesels introduced in 1972, which had the crews back on steam for half the year. They had truly lived their life by then, in one case up until at least 1980. Some of these locomotives were built as battlefield locomotives during the First World War.
- Invoked in amusement parks, which typically have a train that takes visitors on a tour of either the park, a small section of it, or a small section of scenery. The train is almost invariably pulled by an electric, diesel or gasoline engine designed to look like a steam engine (often complete with a coal bin full of painted wooden coal).
- Tweetsie Railroad in Boone, North Carolina, not only uses two authentic steam engines (one from The Edwardian Era and the other from The '40s), but they also use actual coal fuel. It helps that the park is located in Central Appalachia, a region of the United States known for coal mining.
- Except in the case of Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, where both theme parks run actual preserved locomotives on their in-park tracks, though they have been converted and no longer run on coal.
- Busch Gardens in Williamsburg Virginia also uses real steam locomotives: they're modern narrow-gauge replicas of real European locomotives and run on oil instead of coal.
- The Gold Coast, Queensland theme park Dreamworld, until recently, had its monorail system supplemented by narrow-gauge steam locomotives form the Queensland cane fields, converted to gas firing and equipped with silly Wild West accessories in a similar manner to the Mantua Fat Boy model trains, such as huge pilots and funnel-shaped spark-arresting exhausts.
- Many countries still have some steam engines in working condition in reserve, for emergencies. In case of a natural disaster or war the electric grid might be off, oil might be in short supply, but in an emergency you can still chop down a few trees and get water from a nearby river.
- Sweden has only just recently dragged its last "strategic reserve" locomotive from its shed, and sold it to a preservation society.
- Developing countries have been known to doggedly keep steam going for decades beyond developed countries, such as some African countries during the 1970s oil crisis noting that their infrastructure needed significant upgrading to provide the technology base to provide for diesels, the combined cost sending them back to designing new steam power for some time.
- Queensland Railways, which still owns most of the Ipswich Railway Workshops that are not held by the Queensland Museum, use the space to maintain a respectable fleet of heritage rollingstock, known as Heritage Fleet; this includes old style railmotors, steam locos including a Beyer-Garratt articulated locomotive, and plenty of heritage stock for them to pull, as well as some items for other preservation groups, including the Mary Valley railway's locomotives, Sunsteam's Savannahlander railmotor, and the Queensland Museums' A 7 V Sturmpanzerwagen, Mephisto.
- China probably takes the cake for "shortest time between last steam and first high speed train". Steam trains last ran in regular revenue service along main lines in December 2005. The Shanghai Maglev opened in 2004 (making that time negative two years) and in 2008 the first high speed line opened allowing steel wheel on steel rail trains to run at up to 350 km/h. Just three years after steam "died". And some steam locomotives are still in service as tourist attractions.
- The Wikivoyage article on the topic appropriately titled "steam" gives a few more examples