The Red Devil and Other Tales from the Age of Steam

An established classic that should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the development of steam traction.




The Red Devil and Other Tales of the Age of Steam by David Wardale has deservedly become a “classic” since its first publication in 1998. The book was originally published by Wardale himself, who produced a total of 2600 copies, 1000 in the first printing, 600 in the second and 1000 in the third.  A fourth print run of 500 copies produced by Camden Miniature Steam in 2013 was sold out by early 2014.  A further 50 0 copies were printed in 2017 all of which were sold by 2020.  Since then second-hand prices for the book have risen again to exorbitant levels once again

The book’s 500 pages document Wardale’s career in steam from early 1974, when as a young engineer he first set foot in South Africa, through his brief involvement with the ACE3000 project in the USA, to his three years at the Datong Locomotive Works in China, which he left, disillusioned, in early 1989.

The book is both a technical and a personal diary. It abounds with detailed technical records of every aspect of Wardale’s work, most particularly relating to the developmental work that he undertook in South Africa where almost single-handedly (and sometimes in defiance of the railway authorities) he produced two major rebuilds from the existing locomotive fleet, starting with some modest improvements to 19D 4-8-2 No. 2644 which turned the worst performing locomotive in the depot to the star performer, and concluding with his masterpiece, Class 26 4-8-4 No. 3450 officially named “Ing. L.D. Porta after the great engineer of that name, but more usually referred to by its pseudonym “The Red Devil“.

For anyone interested in gaining or expanding a technical understanding of the steam locomotive (both its limitations and potentialities), this book is amongst the most comprehensive that has ever been written on the subject. Those with a less technical bent may feel daunted by the wealth of tables, graphs and diagrams, however even if they skip over the details, they will still find the book full of delightful anecdotes as well as interesting operating statistics and cost/performance comparisons between different forms of traction. Wardale may have devoted his career to the development of steam traction and in the pursuit of its continued operation, but he is not blind to the advantages that diesel and electric traction offer. He does however clearly demonstrate that steam was prematurely axed and that it should have had an ongoing role to play in situations where its strengths prevailed – for instance on some of South Africa’s freight lines in proximity to that country’s vast coal mining areas.

The Red Devil was little more than a cost-limited rebuild of a 1950s “old steam” design, carried out with limited resources. Yet the improvement in its performance might in another context have been described as “electrifying”. The book tabulates and graphically represents every aspect of the astonishing performance improvements that were achieved along with the problems that were encountered.

David Wardale is not just a gifted engineer, but a gifted writer and story-teller as well. His book may be heavy reading for many, but the effort is more than fully rewarded by the opportunity he provides to learn some of the engineering realities of steam technology, and by sharing the excitements and disappointments of his pursuit of perfection in steam.

For anyone who is interested in steam locomotive technology, this book provides a “foundation course” in the principles of Modern Steam as developed and expounded by Dante Porta.