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Gleaming engines, moving pistons and connecting rods and a swinging crankshaft - possibly the major attraction of paddle steamers but always at risk as operators struggle to run these ships sustainably. Not just expensive to operate, the capital required to replace major parts, in particular the boiler, the real Achilles Heel of paddle steamers, can be extremely difficult to raise. With increasing restrictions on the use of fossil fuels adding to an uncertain future, how can such vessels and their magnificent machinery best be preserved ?

COST REDUCTION AND CLEAN ENERGY : An innovative solution for the retention and reactivation of vessels at risk

The beautiful paddler Italie, originally built in 1908, evokes a real "Belle Epoque" feel at the tourist hotspot of Montreux in Switzerland

People cannot fail to be impressed watching the arrival and departure of Italie or to see the lovely and often spectacular shores of Lake Geneva from her decks and comfortable enclosed saloons.  She and her sister ship Vevey (of 1907) are highly-successful survivors and the multi-purpose vessels in the Lake Geneva fleet. They are usually in service all year round and are easy to fire up for winter cruises whether it be lunch and dinner cruises or just to give ever-changing views of the snow-covered hillsides enclosing the lake. Their success can be ascribed to their low operating costs.

Italie and Vevey's fuel consumption is approximately one third of that of their paddler fleet-mates and total operating costs around 40 % lower  

In their Annual Report and Accounts, the Compagnie General de Navigation sur le Lac Leman (now known as Groupe CGN SA) publish the operating costs of the ships in their fleet. They show the total variable costs and of which, fuel, in Swiss Francs per kilometre sailed. In the 2019 report, the figures were as follows for Italie and Vevey and for their four steam-powered paddle steamers.

Vevey        33.7  of which   5.5    ( 7.6 litres of fuel per kilometre)
Italie          34.2  of which   5.0    ( 7.0 l/km)

La Suisse   53.2  of which  15.2   (20.3 l/km)
Simplon     56.3  of which  17.1   (22.6 l/km)
Montreux   57.8  of which  20.9   (27.4 l/km)
Savoie       53.6  of which  12.4   (16.4 l/km)

The cost saving in direct operating costs across a season of average 25,000 kilometres per vessel compared with the next most economical vessel is approximately CHF 475,000 which equates to around 385,000 with an annual saving of over 200,000 litres of fuel.

How is this possible ?  
In the mid 1950s, considerable investment was needed in the two elderly ships. No new paddle steamers had been built in Switzerland for 25 years. Replacement by more modern vessels appeared a distinct possibility as new technologies had opened the way to considerably lower operating costs. However, pioneering work on Lake Geneva had already seen two paddle steamers successfully converted to electric propulsion. The same treatment was chosen for Italie and Vevey and was later applied to two further paddle steamers giving each a new lease of life without which they would not have survived into the modern era of heritage preservation.

As the price of survival, Vevey and Italie had their gleaming engine parts removed and destroyed. That would be almost unthinkable now. Paddle Steamer engines are regarded as of considerable historical and educational value, are popular tourist attractions and objects of emotional attachment for a large band of enthusiast supporters. Operators must consider how their vessels can successfully sail on long into the future without sacrificing the visible engines which are the unique selling point of the ships 

Paddle Steamers face two main challenges :  Financing major repairs followed by operating in a financially sustainable way with a much reduced carbon footprint.

Paddle Steamers operators will face a tough decision and a massive financial hurdle when boiler installations become life-expired or unrepairable. Preservation groups hoping to return laid-up paddlers to operational service face the same issues.
The unexpected withdrawal of the Clyde's paddle steamer Waverley prior to the 2019 season resulted from the discovery of unrepairable damage, manifesting after only twenty years of boiler service. Waverley's problem required an immediate public appeal to raise in excess of 2 million and she was saved only by a major intervention by the Scottish Government. With steam power possibly unsustainable financially without major subsidy, there will be at risk of damaging the business case for any new investment. Carbon emission legislation could be tightened further making boilers unviable. The expected reduction in marine engineers qualified to maintain their engines adds to the uncertainty facing steam ships.

Boilers are the major weakness of Paddle Steamers  

New boilers will allow Waverley to sail again, but her fuel, marine gas oil, is a pollutant subject to strict legislatory controls and the new plant is not expected to yield significant improvements in fuel consumption. Revenue is still not expected to cover her operational costs, with her future always likely to be balanced on a financial knife-edge. She is not alone.

Converting water into steam to expand and push pistons and ultimately turn wheels represents the simple principle behind the first mechanical engines. Despite continuous refinement it remains a relatively inefficient use of fuel and boilers are a major weak point in steam propulsion set up. They are simple in theory, but require close monitoring, maintenance and inspection not least because of the potentially critical safety consequences of any malfunction of the boiler itself or associated high-pressure steam equipment.

Waverley's expensive problem was not the first time that this relatively new boiler installation had caused trouble. Re-tubing had been undertaken and in latter years, boiler control issues led to the loss of numerous sailing days and the associated revenue. These issues had not compromised passenger safety, but had led to passengers being stranded aboard for several hours with the associated problems of their being returned to their point of departure. Other paddle steamers have had issues with their boilers requiring expensive rectification and lost business. The risk of such incidents is that lasting damage is also done to the vessel and operating company's reputation.

Electric drives are quiet and smooth and can be powered by the cheapest and cleanest fuels available

Electrically-powered engines are compact, clean and quiet with fewer moving parts and potentially simpler and cheaper maintenance than a steam engine -
a major benefit when it would appear that there is rapidly diminishing availability of qualified steam engineers. 

Diesels, as fitted to Vevey and Italie, remain the simplest solution to on-board power generation, but the future for diesel would appear to be limited by environmental concerns and restrictive legislation. Batteries are now an increasingly feasible way of storing and supplying electricity and recharging can be achieved in a potentially carbon-free way. Should a plug-in electricity supply be available, the need for an on-board generator can be reduced or eliminated. On-board hydrogen fuel cells are a likely future route to electricity generation or battery top-up.
Solar cells provide a further option for battery top-up.  

An innovative alternative is needed when deciding whether to invest in a new boiler

The case for electricity is compelling,  but could 
the historical machinery be kept in situ and moving as well  ?

Drive shafts are turned through direct coupling to an electric motor or through chain or belt drive if necessary. A turning crankshaft could pull the visible machinery rather than being turned by it. The moving parts would no longer be critical elements of the power train, but still be in motion to provide the visual spectacle for intrigued passengers and to demonstrate for educational purposes the movement of the original engine. The principle of turning a crankshaft by an electric has been demonstrated in a static environment, being used on the paddle steamer Lincoln Castle during her period of preservation at Grimsby and by a number of museums exhibiting steam engines (such as the Bolton Steam Museum).

Steam itself is not visible to the passenger. Removing steam need not change the engine room gallery experience. There will still be a requirement for the retained moving parts to be lubricated and there could still be the aroma of warm oil.

Rapid technological advances will surely see ever increasing power to weight and volume ratios for electric drives and batteries allowing the retention of most of the visually representative parts of any paddle steamer's engine without damaging the ship's performance.  Much weight would be saved through not carrying a boiler (two in the case of Waverley), the water required to produce the steam and much of the complicated machinery associated with steam generation (condenser, pumps etc).

Fewer engineering crew would be required as the engine would be controlled directly from the bridge. As the retained moving parts do not form part of the power train they will not be operationally or safety-ctitical, require little more than cosmetic maintenance and not be subject to vigorous external inspection and certification.


Vevey, seen at Yvoire in 2000 with Italie approaching behind, is relatively inexpensive to operate and maintain. She has a high degree of reliability, provides an excellent "Belle Epoque" experience for her passengers and is a tremendous sight for those just looking on as she arrives. Vevey's operators saw no benefit in retaining obsolete machinery in the forward-looking 1950s, but times have changed. Paddle steamer operators faced with the high expense of a boiler have a new option which ticks the financial, environmental and heritage boxes

Notes on vessels Vevey and Italie

Length of ship overall :  66 metres
Displacement tonnage (empty) : 300-312
Passenger Capacity  :  560, of which 194 seated inside the ship
Twin Electric Motors  :  515 KW (Vevey) and 540 KW (Italie) -  700 HP (Vevey) and 735 HP (Italie)

Traditional Paddle Steamer engines are already being turned by electricity

Pilatus Engines 2001-1.jpg

Above; The engines of Lake Lucerne paddle steamer Pilatus were saved for display in the Swiss National Transport Museum (the Verkehrshaus) in Lucerne. They and one of Pilatus' original paddle wheels are able to be turned by electricity. For obvious reasons they are turned slowly but are capable of turning at the necessary rate for use within a vessel hull with a suitably uprated power input.

Above : The Mississippi-style side wheeler Molly Brown (1992) at Disneyland Paris is operated as a diesel-electric paddler but also has a replica beam engine aboard. The engine, traditional on paddle steamers in eastern USA even if not for vessels on the Mississippi river basin, is powered by electricity and moves to give those on board a close representation of the experience of steamboating. 

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