Cost to build an 1880s-style locomotive from scratch in 2012

This article made me wonder about how much it would cost, and how hard it would be to build a fully-functioning steam locomotive, from scratch, these days.

“Fully functioning, from scratch”? I’ll go out on a limb here… He doesn’t have the budget.

His best hope is to dress up whatever existing rolling stock he can rent.

Well, a 7.5" gauge live steam engine (a ride-on model) is easily $25k to build. Those are typically 1/12 to 1/8 scale.

Given modern day boiler and emissions standards, it’ll never happen. Most full-sized steam engines running today get by as being grandfathered from the regulations.

I doubt they’re trying to make a fully functional 1880s locomotive, just something that looks like one. Those locomotives were originally made using pretty basic technology, and lots of labor. So the modern costs are just a few tons of steel, and lots of man-hours. Probably much less cost than modern locomotives. But in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, it would fall in the “Are you out of your mind?” zone on the chart.

Okay, forget about the guy making it (or a replica) for the movie. I’m curious what it would cost to make a fully-functioning, full-sized locomotive. Take an existing example and copy every part exactly, I don’t care. It should be able to be plopped on some existing track (assume it’s made to fit the modern American RR gauge) and pull cars around. It should look like your classic American steam locomotive. Like this.

I am quoting a response to a repeat of your query I posted on a railroad related board I hang out on.

For reference, Strasborg #89 is a 2-6-0, which would be a light, general purpose steamer. A 4-6-2, AKA a Pacific, is a larger engine generally used in passenger service. The numbers for the classification come from counting the wheels: #89 has 2 wheels in the pilot truck, 6 drivers, and 0 in the trailing truck.

More SWAGs to come as they are posted elsewhere.

China was building steam locomotives right up until the turn of the century. Though I believe they were more of an early 20th Century design than a late 19th.
RJ Corman and a few other small railroads have purchased used examples and moved them to operations in the US. I haven’t found any purchase price information though.

One of the problems with trying to re-make old technology is that no one knows how to make it anymore, all the little shortcuts and practical applications are out of the knowledge pool. I know it sounds counterintuitive but the actual building of a steam locomotive is an incredible technical feat, sure it was relatively easy 100 years ago but back then there were thousands of workers and designers that did this every day. Even now there is a back and forth with designers and builders on almost any large project, designers design something that is critical but impossible build/install and the builders point this out and often suggest/implement a solution. To build a steam locomotive you have to re-learn the applied materials science, large steam engine tech and all the practical tech that went into building these things. Of course there are many resources to help and surviving examples as well, plus a much better understanding of engineering now versus then, plus we still use some steam tech but by and large you have to start over and that will cost a lot of money


My first impression reading the OP is that the type of locomotive was one of those old wood burners using the two wobble type steam pistons on the big drive wheels. I don’t think it would be that hard to make one. The steam system was an open cycle, most trains didn’t have a closed system. I think steam was often vented into the chimney to increase draft. They used simple bearings (what the hell were those called, Babcott, or Babbett or something). I don’t know if there was a large boiler tank or a nest of pipes, but it couldn’t have been that complicated of a system. I’d think with modern steel available in any shape, modern machining tools, and welding, you could make a replica locomotive easily. It would be expensive because of the labor, but it wouldn’t be a serious engineering challenge. Making an exact replica might be tougher, requiring lots of cast pieces, using more cast iron than steel, and more riveting. But a basic working model could probably be made for $2 million. That would give you at least 10 man years of skilled labor, and cover the engineering and material costs. That is assuming you already have a reasonable facility to build something like that in.

Now by 1880, steam locomotives may have advanced well beyond that point, with complicated steam systems, and much higher pulling capacity. But I think a smaller, simpler engine couldn’t have been all that difficult with the available technology at the time.

Not knowing that much about the subject, I may also be way off base here.

The Austin Steam Train Association operated a steam locomotive for several years before they discovered a crack in the boiler saddle. They decided to disassemble the entire thing and rebuild it from the wheels up. Here is a link (PDF) to the ongoing saga. Turns out there are still shops around the country that know how to do these things.

I wasn’t trying to say the task was impossible or even super difficult. I was trying to say because of the loss of practical knowledge, the task is made much more difficult and expensive. In most manufacturing there are little “tricks”, processes and orders of operation that reduce cost and time to completion. Look at it this way, in 1880 at the locomotive plant there were 10 guys who had a collective 200 years of steam locomotive building experience, if you had a problem in construction, say a persistent leak in a steam line that reduces the operating pressure, you can use the 10 guys to figure out A what is wrong and B what to do, because they have practical hands on experience. Today you don’t have that resource available, so you have to systematically go through the whole system trying different solutions until you get it right. Or if this works better, hand a Google engineer a data set on punch cards, they can deal with it, but its going to take a lot more work than it would for someone who used punch cards every day.


I know that the Flying Scotsman was bought and restored for a cost of around £5 million to get her into “as new” condition. To do it from scratch as a bespoke item? probably double it at least.
I’ve no idea how much a TGV power car costs but I can’t imagine a steam locomotive being any less.

Having actually now read the OP article I feel duty-bound to say “what? huh?”

What real benefit can you get from a brand new train? I understand the expense of such as Peter Jackson constructing a lot of bespoke items for TLOTR. He was constructing a world, a mythology. Something that never existed. But $250 million? for “The Lone Ranger”? Bugger me.

I think I’d rather see that money spent on *just *building new steam trains.

If you were building an exact duplicate, using period materials and techniques, yeah, that could be a big problem. But I think steam leaks would be a non-issue with modern welding, joints, and valve seals. That’s why I think some level of replica would be easy. But doing it just the way they did could be a nightmare.

Here is one that was built from scratch, but to an old design. Its worth noting that far from being harder to manufacture, better understanding of engineering has allowed the builders to iron out a number of problems with the original.

At least one full-sized & fully operational steam locomotive has been completed within the last couple of years…the Leviathan, (actually 1860’s style, not 1880’s). The owner did much of the work himself with the help of volunteers and has never published the final cost, but knowledgeable sources have estimated it at around $2 million.

A heritage railroad with which I’ve had a long time involvement has made tentative plans to build an operating replica of this locomotive. It is obviously newer (ca. 1920), larger and more complex than the 1880’s model suggested in the OP and hence more expensive to build. Estimates from the Strasburg Railroad Shops in Pennsylvania - one of only a tiny handful of shops capable of undertaking such work - came in at around $5 million.

FWIW, there are around 150 vintage steam locomotives currently in operation in the U.S. I know of at least three shops that have the capability and expertise to do major rebuilds or scratch builds on these units. There are one or two in Britain as well, and probably elsewhere.

I am pleased to see that there are still shops that are capable of this type of work. I love old machines and hate to see things fall by the wayside because they are old. I grew up working in a machine shop that used multi spindle screw machines from the 20’s and 30’s. I still love the smell of machine oil.


One consideration. Even if you use ole style construction techniques you can still make life a bit easier and things a bit safer. Don’t strive for fuel efficiency, water efficiency, significant pulling capacity or high rates of speed. Lower pressures, temps etc. Or in other words, you can still use the technology of the times, just don’t push the limits but instead make it as low as you can stand it.

That is one ugly locomotive.

Yeah, well, ugly is in the eye…etc. etc. To an aficionado it’s a thing of beauty.

As it happens, the original was unique in several important ways, and has quite a lot of historical value.