Steam Locomotive Classes

Whyte Notation and Names of Locomotive Classes

Steam locomotives are classified by their wheel configurations. On steam locomotives, the wheels that are driven by the steam engine are appropriately called drivers. Locomotives may also have sets of non-powered pilot wheels before and/or after the drivers.

Steam locomotives are classified using a system called Whyte notation, developed by Frederick Methvan Whyte and in use since the early 20th century. In Whyte notation 2-8-4 means that the locomotive has two pilot wheels in front of eight...MORE driving wheels, followed by four more trailing wheels. Note that this is very different than the AAR Wheel Arrangement Notation used in classifying diesel and electric locomotives.

Classes were frequently given names. For example, a 2-8-4 locomotive was known as a Berkshire. The Polar Express was pulled by a Berkshire locomotive. Below are lists of steam locomotive class names, listed by their wheel configurations. Wheel arrangements not listed were mostly less common types and their class names were usually alphanumeric codes which could vary from railroad to railroad. That is, if they were even used by more than one railroad.

  • 01 of 05

    Single Axle Lead Pilot Truck Classes

    Pacific
    Reading and Northern Pacific No. 425 leads an excursion through the beautiful Lehigh Gorge. Although not a true USRA light Pacific, the locomotive is similar in design. ©2013 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    These steam locomotives had two leading wheels on one axle. Often, they were in a leading truck.

    • 2-2-2 (8-foot drivers): Great Western
    • 2-2-2 (7-foot drivers): Star or Firefly
    • 2-4-0: Hawthorn or Victoria
    • 2-4-2: Columbia
    • 2-6-0: Mogul
    • 2-6-2: Prairie
    • 2-8-0: Consolidation
    • 2-8-2: Mikado or Calumet (changed to MacArthur after the attack on Pearl Harbor)
    • 2-8-4: Berkshire (Kanawha on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad)
    • 2-10-0: Decapod
    • 2-10-2: Santa Fe
    • 2-10-4: Texas
    • 2-12-0: Centipede
  • 02 of 05

    Two Axle Lead Pilot Truck Classes

    York 4-4-0
    The "York" recalls the era when President Lincoln rode the Northern Central's rails to deliver "a little speech" in Gettysburg. The beautiful locomotive was completed in 2013 - 150 years later. ©2013 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    These classes of steam locomotives had four leading wheels. This provided the stability needed for high-speed operation.

    • 4-2-0: Jervis
    • 4-2-2: Iron Duke/Rover
    • 4-4-0: American
    • 4-4-2: Atlantic
    • 4-6-0: Ten Wheel
    • 4-6-2: Pacific or St. Paul
    • 4-6-4: Hudson or Baltic
    • 4-8-0: Twelve Wheel
    • 4-8-2: Mountain
    • 4-8-4: Class names listed separately below
    • 4-10-0: Mastodon
    • 4-10-2: Southern Pacific (named for the primary railroad to use them)
    • 4-12-2: Union Pacific (named for the only railroad to use them)
  • 03 of 05

    4-8-4 Locomotive Class Names

    N&W 611
    Norfolk and Western 611. ©2015 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    On the Union Pacific, among other railroads, 4-8-4 locomotives were the Northern class. Railroads in the Southern states wouldn't call a locomotive on their roster a Northern. This resulted in many alternative names for 4-8-4 locomotives.

    • Northern: Union Pacific and various other railroads
    • Big Apple: Central of Georgia RR
    • Confederation: Canadian National Railway
    • Confederation: Grand Trunk Western RR
    • Dixie: Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway
    • General, Governor, or Statesman: Richmond,...MORE Fredericksburg & Potomac RR
    • Greenbrier: Chesapeake & Ohio Railway
    • GS, Golden State, or General Service: Southern Pacific RR
    • Niagara: New York Central RR
    • Niagara: Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico
    • Pocono: Delaware, Lackawanna & Western RR
    • Potomac: Western Maryland Railway
    • Western: Denver & Rio Grande Western RR
    • Wyoming: Lehigh Valley RR
  • 04 of 05

    Duplex Steam Locomotives

    Duplex locomotives had two engines and two sets of drivers on a single rigid frame.

    • 6-4-4-6: Pennsylvania (the only one made was owned by PRR)
    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Articulated Steam Locomotives

    2-4-4-2
    A G Gauge 2-4-4-2 Mallet shows a typical look for these lighter articulateds used on many logging railroads. ©2014 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Articulated locomotives had multiple engines and sets of drivers that could move independently of each other.

    • 2-6-6-6: Allegheny (C&O) or Blue Ridge (Virginian Railway)
    • 2-8-8-0: Bull Moose
    • 2-8-8-2: Y Class (Norfolk & Western)
    • 2-8-8-4: Yellowstone
    • 2-10-10-2: Virginian
    • 4-6-6-4: Challenger
    • 4-8-8-4: Big Boy
    • 2-8-8-8-0: Triplex (1 made)
    • 2-8-8-8-2: Triplex (3 made)
    • 2-8-8-8-4: Triplex (1 made)

    Edited by Ryan Kunkle