British vs American Steam Locomotive

British vs American Steam Locomotive

Daniel Franchetti, 8th Grade Contributor

Although American standard gauge and British standard gauge are identical, the first American trains were made in and transported from Britain, but the train developed very differently over time. Today, tens of thousands of services run daily in Britain against the few hundred daily services run in America. However, I want to discuss the design on steam locomotives, and the reasons I enjoy British locomotives more. 

First off, Britain suffered from an overcrowding of railways. This prompted Parliament to pass the Railway Acts of 1921 that grouped all railways into four main companies; London and North Eastern Railway, Great Western Railway, London, Midland, and Scottish Railway, and Southern Railway. They will be referred as the LNER, GWR, LMS, and SR. These are the companies that had control over all Britain’s railways during the steam age. America was a different story as there were many companies, but since the nation was larger, there wasn’t as much of a problem. 

The focus of this article is to highlight the physical difference more so than how the companies were run, who they were, the regulations, and the history. Steam locomotives in Britain have the distinct feature of having a buffer and chain coupler, lamp irons, and buffers. American locomotives have a Janney, or knuckle, coupler, cow catcher at the front, a high focus light at the front, and a bell. Some British locomotives had cowcatchers and bells, but this only applies to trams. The difference is very noticeable. The Flying Scotsman is a prime example of the differences between locomotive types. When it came to America on tour, it was given mandatory modifications for American railroads. In the picture below, the left is the American form and the right is British. 

Another difference, that I overlook, is that the vehicles that carry freight are called vans and trucks in Britain and in America, cars. Guards and the brake vans are called conductors and cabooses in America. These terms are interchangeable, except brake van and caboose. A brake van is usually in a dull color with a flat roof. A caboose is usually painted a bright color with a raised observation area in the middle. I prefer the British terms, as guard and break van use the minimal number of syllables and slide off the tongue. However, this is more or less irrelevant as it is understood either way. 

Physical differences aside, I prefer the British terms and locomotives. I grew up learning them and hearing them. The one thing I hate about American locomotives are the copy paste design of 4-4-0. They all look the same and are referenced as “the American type”. Granted there are 4-4-0s in Britain, but the designs are all have noticeable differences between the types due to the many companies. However, any steam locomotive will be better to me than a diesel, electric, or maglev. Regardless, steam locomotives will always be the best type of engine to me. Hopefully this article helps you to understand the differences between the locomotives I’ll be writing about.