What is the Oldest Operating Steam Engine?

When you think of something built to last, antique steam locomotives are near the top of the list. Made with expert craftsmanship and quality materials, many historic locomotives are still operational, even after more than 100 years of service. 

Which leads us to the question, what is the oldest operating steam engine? We’re going to find the answer and explain why we’re passionate about steam engines and steam engine history. 

Picture of the “Puffing Billy” steam engine taken in the Science Museum (London). Creative Commons License.

Puffing Billy

While it doesn’t look like the typical steam locomotive, Puffing Billy actually holds the title of the world’s oldest surviving steam locomotive. Amazingly, it can still run under its own steam for short demonstration runs at the Science Museum in London. 

Built between 1813 and 1814 for Christopher Blackett, the owner of Wylam Colliery near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it was designed with a practical purpose in mind. This innovative machine, featuring a 0-4-0 wheel arrangement, replaced horses for hauling coal wagons from the mines to the docks.

Interestingly, Puffing Billy is not the only historic locomotive from this era. Built around the same time, the Wylam Dilly is on display at the National Museum of Scotland. There was a debate among historians that the Wylam Dilly was the oldest steam engine still in existence. However, records and engineering plans have shown that Puffing Billy is the older of the two. 

While the Wylam Dilly is no longer operational, it serves as a valuable reminder of early railway history alongside Puffing Billy.

“John Bull” locomotive, National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. Creative Commons License.

Camden and Amboy Railroad Stevens or the John Bull Locomotive

The John Bull steam locomotive boasts a rich and fascinating history. Built in 1831 by Robert Stephenson and Company in New Castle, England, it initially crossed the Atlantic Ocean in pieces to begin its service in the United States after being assembled by a young steamboat mechanic named Isaac Dripps.

The Camden and Amboy Railroad, which was the first railroad in New Jersey, acquired the John Bull. For 35 years, it hauled both passengers and cargo between the two most populous cities of the era—Philadelphia and New York City. The locomotive’s design featured a 0-4-0 wheel arrangement, which was common for early steam locomotives.

In 1884, the Smithsonian Institution recognized the John Bull’s historical significance and purchased it as the museum’s first major industrial exhibit. In 1981, it became the world’s oldest operational steam locomotive after the Smithsonian successfully ran it under its own steam to celebrate its 150th birthday. 

Fairy Queen Locomotive. Creative Commons License.

East Indian Railway No. 22 Fairy Queen

The steam locomotive that holds the title of the oldest locomotive still in regular service is the East Indian Railway No. 22, The Fairy Queen. It was built in 1855 by Kitson, Hewitson, and Thompson in Leeds, England. This historic steam engine has a 2-2-2 wheel arrangement, which provides more stability than earlier models.

The Fairy Queen’s history is quite interesting. After serving for several decades, it was placed on display around 1909 and remained a static exhibit for several decades. Thankfully, its importance was recognized in 1972 when it was designated a national treasure by the Indian Government. The Fairy Queen had a complete overhaul in 1996/1997 for service as a luxury train.

Today, the Fairy Queen is still operational, primarily hauling passengers on scenic rides between Delhi and Alwar. This special train journey offers a unique opportunity to experience firsthand a piece of history.

An image of Strasburg Rail Road No. 475 locomotive

Oldest Operating Steam Engine at Strasburg

In trying to find the answer to what’s the oldest operating steam engine, that got us thinking— what’s the oldest operating one at Strasburg Rail Road? Looking at our fleet of locomotives, the Norfolk and Western No. 475 is the oldest. 

Norfolk and Western No. 475

A survivor of the steam age, the No. 475 boasts an impressive history. Built in 1906 by the renowned Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, it features a classic 4-8-0 wheel arrangement, a design that served workhorses of the rails for many years. This locomotive holds the distinction of being the only one of its kind still operating in North America.

The No. 475 arrived at Strasburg Rail Road in July 1991 and has become a staple at the railroad. Its legacy extends even further, having graced the silver screen in the movie Thomas and the Magic Railroad. This locomotive continues to be a valuable piece of history and we’re proud to have it in Strasburg. 

Why Strasburg Rail Road Mechanical Shop Cares

We think history is forever and will always be here. The Great Pyramids are an example of that. However, if you’re not careful history can slip away and be lost forever.

That’s where we come in. One of our main values at The Mechanical Shop at Strasburg Rail Road is to preserve railway heritage and vintage locomotives. It’s something that our team passionately believes in and we do our best every day to make sure we protect the past.

We also look at the present and future of steam engines and what we can do. Our services cover both the repair and maintenance of both antique steam locomotives and newer engines. We can handle:

If you have a project and you’re not sure where to begin, we offer consulting services to help you get back on track. 

Quality, integrity, and safety are at the core of everything we do. You can rest assured that when we commit to a project, it’ll get done right the first time with the best solutions.

Ready to take the next step with your steam locomotive project? Contact our expert team to help save your piece of history.