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In real life diesel locomotive production largely supplanted steam locomotive production in the 1940s and 1950s, and steam locomotives largely disappeared from mainline service in developed countries in the 1960s and 1970s.

How could this be changed so that steam locomotives stay in production into the late 1970s or early 1980s and remain in use into the 1990s?

The one thing is that diesel locomotives can't be completely removed, they still have to exist, just not be the primary type of locomotive in use.

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    $\begingroup$ Having research come earlier or later is always dependent on factors of culture, economics and the like. For example where the invention is already done, why would the USA, where trains featured heavily in their history and give feeling of pride, now have barely any trains at all? If it had a well connected network, it could be an incredible impulse to transport. Tracks there have been ripped out and are now seen as superfluous and wasteful. Despite most developed countries having a well established network, this one doesn't. Sometimes the answer is 'because humans do human things'. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Commented Jun 11 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ Looks like your story is about Homo Sapiens on planet Earth and the present is different from real life. When did the timeline of your story veer away from reality? In particular: before or after the internal combustion engine was invented? Before or after the Otto cycle was discovered? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ The Deustsche Reichsbahn (the state-owned railway operator of the German Democratic Republic) used steam locomotives well into the 1980s; their last steam locomotive was taken out of service in 1988. They were still (re)building steam locomotives in the the 1960s, for example the DR Class 52.80 and the DR Class 50. So the question is, what was different for the DR compared to other railway operators? Could it be the very cheap lignite? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 11 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane one reason that the US moved away from trains was the power of the train union. At one point, nearly everything was being moved by train and a strike by the train unions put much of that at risk. See nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/1946-railroad-strike The Interstate highway system which provided truck competition and the support for airports / airlines was a direct result of those strikes. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Jun 11 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ You have done research on differences between steam and diesels and why diesels overtook steam, yes? Then just need to suppose advancements to steam that tipped balance towards steam for just a little longer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11 at 18:43

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Have oil be much harder to find and thus diesel becomes more expensive initially. This will delay it to the degree that you want given that extraction technologies have to advance to the point where the oil itself becomes cheap enough to rival the steam.

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    $\begingroup$ Though a significant number of steam locomotives (at least in the USA) burned oil as their fuel source, so the author would need to be careful that in their world that steam locomotives typically burned some other material such as wood or coal, rather than oil. This was especially true in places were wood/coal were not easily attainable within a close distance of the needed fueling points where it was much easier to transport oil in large quantities. Also, oil was often used where sparks were a concern, as oil didn't (typically) produce sparks out of the smokestack. $\endgroup$
    – Milwrdfan
    Commented Jun 12 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ Instead of "harder to find" you could Invent a social reason why oil was unpopular, so tended to be avoided, at least for a period of time while the reason was still relevant to the culture. The advantage here is that "harder to find" is a physical change (with potentially other impacts) whereas a social change would more than likely be ephemeral. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 13 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ I think you'd have a bit of a snowball effect there if you're not careful - a lot of the early years of the industrial revolution were driven by oil availability. Maybe you could hand wave away some of that as 'not using enough to find the cost painful' vs. freight usage. But less oil means less gasoline and less plastics, so those too would be delayed. $\endgroup$
    – Sobrique
    Commented Jun 13 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Sobrique A lot of that early oil was derived from whales. But the early industrial revolution was driven by coal, wind, and waterpower much more than oil. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Jun 13 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ In your world, all oil deposits are under places where the rich and powerful live. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14 at 10:10
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Make railroad labor unions stronger.

One major impetus towards dieselization is that diesel engines are less work to operate than steam engines are. From Wikipedia:

Diesels also had fueling requirements fulfilled by tank cars on sidings, in contrast to the more frequent and complex fueling and watering infrastructure required for steam engines. Also, diesels use much less fuel and no manpower when idling, something steam locomotives often do. Diesels can be parked running for days unattended, whereas steam engines must be constantly tended to if not completely shut down. Bringing a steam engine boiler up to operating temperature is often regarded as both an art and science, requiring much training and experience. A diesel is much simpler to start and shut down. Diesels simply required significantly less time and labor to operate and maintain.

From the perspective of a railroad's management and stockholders, minimizing labor costs was seen as a good thing. However, from the perspective of someone who's already employed tending to steam engines, it's a threat to job security.

So, you could have labor unions be a major force delaying the steam-to-diesel transition. This could include:

  • A stronger economy with sustained low unemployment, giving workers a better negotiating position.
  • More effective union leadership and organization.
  • The election of politicians who pass strong pro-union policies, e.g.:
    • restrictions on strikebreaking
    • legal barriers to hiring non-union workers
  • A popular movie that romanticizes steam locomotives and the people who work on them, generating public sympathy for the anti-diesel cause.

Of course, this change (or anything similar that deliberately keeps the railroads inefficient) could backfire by encouraging businesses to switch to trucks or planes for their overland shipping needs.

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    $\begingroup$ This also works for coal miner's unions. In the UK, dropping demand for coal was a major issue for miners' strikes in 1972, major power cuts in 1974, and another strike in 1984. $\endgroup$
    – user71659
    Commented Jun 12 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ It should be noted that while diesel engines require smaller crews to operate, we didn't actually reduce the size of a train's crew in the US until the mid 1980s. We still had firemen on trains long after boiler stoking was no longer a thing. Stronger unions might have been able to stall implementation of diesels. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Jun 12 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ You have to be careful with this. The dockworkers unions were strong in Liverpool and they rejected the new containers, so all the shipping went to Felixtowe where they accepted the containers and the Liverpool docks died. Prior to nationalisation you just lose the companies that stick to steam and coal, those that accept diesel survive. The unions effectively became stronger with nationalisation because there was only one company which couldn't go under. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Jun 12 at 10:19
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    $\begingroup$ The railroad unions were strong enough already. The strength of the railroad unions and their strikes in 1946 are a major reason why the Interstate highway system was proposed and funded (along with funding airports). The federal government wanted to reduce their power over the economy. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Jun 12 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ strengthening the Unions to such extent would have plenty of other butterfly effects aside from steam-power use. Strong unions shift the whole capitalism vs socialism dynamic in a country or a region (in EITHER direction, as Unions were incompatible with true Socialism as well). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 13 at 7:11
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The Rise of the Cult of Thomas

Thomas the Tank engine was first published in 1946 - and since the release of it - countless generations of children have been entertained and enthralled by the stories of Thomas and his friends on the island of Sodor.

But what if instead of it being mere children's stories and being just a happy memory for many children in the English speaking world - that these stories grew into a quasi-religious cult, with far-reaching influence that venerated the steamies and abhorred the use of dirty diesels.

Fueled by these stories and romanticism of steam, each generation was rigidly indoctrinated into the cult of Thomas.

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    $\begingroup$ I: In the beginning, there was the word. II: and the word was: TOOT TOOT! $\endgroup$
    – user98816
    Commented Jun 11 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ See also: Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Mulligan_and_His_Steam_Shovel $\endgroup$
    – MJD
    Commented Jun 11 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ @user98816 thou shalt be really useful. Thou shalt not cause confusion and delay. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11 at 19:18
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How about an adoption of the Ljungström turbine engine for steam locomotives? This was more efficient. The turbine could not run backwards so you need a turntable or add a reversing gear. It had low torque when starting but then so did many conventional locomotives. It might be possible to add some form of planetary gearing that could add one or both features, but would lock at high speeds so there was no loss in efficiency.

From reading the history, it seems that these locomotives required more precision building than the piston engine. It was easier to mine more coal than to use the more complex engine.

Towards the end of World War II, oil was scarce. That would be the ideal place and time for some really unusual innovation to use coal instead of oil. For example, see the Lippisch_P.13a jet aircraft. That was never built, but some coal dust fuelled turbojet might have taken over where the propellor driven trains left off in the 1930's.

Rudolph Diesel's first engines ran on powdered coal. The allies tried using powdered coal in tank engines, but these proved unreliable - it was too easy for the powdered coal to form a solid plug. If they had overcome the problems making a carburettor that worked with powders, this may have happened. But people are still having trouble getting this to be reliable.

For the purposes of the story, have Ljungström turbine engines as the workhorse, have an experimental turbojet high-speed train that gave a vision for the future that turned out to be unsafe, and research on reciprocating engines using powdered coal. That might have given you an extra 20 years of coal and steam.

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    $\begingroup$ "low torque when starting" - that is a serious issue for a Loco, and NOT something that piston-powered steam engines suffer from at all. $\endgroup$
    – MikeB
    Commented Jun 12 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeB Steam locomotives also had low torque in the old days. This is why people used 'slip coaches' rather than stop the locomotive. The Ljungström turbine competed with the existing engines when starting, but they could not go backwards. They could have an electric motor for reversing at the terminus. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12 at 9:04
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Virtually every diesel locomotive out there is diesel-electric. Direct-drive diesel locomotives are rare, because it's hard to make a mechanical transmission that can handle the loads involved. This suggests an easy way to delay the introduction of diesel locomotives: make copper less common, perhaps by putting your world's major copper deposits under the polar ice caps or somewhere similarly inconvenient.

This will have additional effects, particularly on the electrical distribution system, so make sure you consider them if you want to go this route.

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    $\begingroup$ Making copper less common would alter the whole timeline of human technologies, starting from the bronze age. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jun 12 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ A considerable number of diesel locomotives in Germany are actually diesel-hydraulic. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Jun 12 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch, the alteration really only kicks in with the industrial age and its vast appetite for raw materials. At a rough estimate, a single generator at Grand Coulee Dam requires the same amount of copper as the entire Athenian army that fought at Marathon. (Historically, the limiting factor on bronze production was the availability of tin.) $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 12 at 8:04
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I suspect that WWII played a crucial role in switching the economic balance in favor of diesel engines, and if you delay it, you can also delay the switch from steam to diesel.

The war caused a massive increase in the production of oil derived fuels, for all the engines used in the war theaters (tanks, planes, vehicles), production which has as a result also the production of more diesel.

Considering that steam locomotives to be performing need to have a good quality coal (there are cases in history where a train could not clear some passes due to the combination of poor weather conditions and low quality coal), having an available supply of an alternative fuel is a sure incentive for switching engine type.

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect WW one played a crucial role in switching the economic balance from coal to oil, the military balance from ground and sea supremacy to air supremacy and the political balance from the British to the American Empire. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ All these switches are keys to the switch from external to internal combustion engine. Once they are effected, there is no way to delay WW two by 20-30yrs. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ @FrançoisJurain Between the wars, coal-fired trucks were common in the UK. The Foden truck business was build on coal-powered trucks. There were coal-powered cars that could start from cold in 20 minutes. It was really WWII, and the need to supply US vehicles with fuel of a consistent quality that lead to petrol being widely available in the UK, and the death of coal powered vehicles. Random fact: the last steam-powered train ran on the London Underground in 1971. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ @RichardKirk my point exactly! Once the American Empire is the new political black, the bomber aircraft is the new strategic black and oil is the new industrial black, it is impossible to delay WWII by 20-30yrs. It is irrelevant how well coal power strives in the UK, because the UK no longer plays the tune to which the Concert of the World dances. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ In other words, to delay the switch from external to internal combustion engine by 20-30yrs as required by the OP, you need to start rewriting history before WWI, not after. Otherwise, all your story will get you is readers scratching their heads in disbelief of your delayed WWII. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11 at 20:02
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Well, for a simple answer, perhaps you could delay the development of efficient oil mining techniques. For one, fractional oil distillation can have it's development delayed as to result in coal being the only available efficient fuel source? This way there's no diesel to use, and therefore no diesel vehicles

However, do note that removing diesel also suggests that no other petroleum product is available, be sure to account for them otherwise the audience will be scratching their head about this.

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Mildly insane idea: have the "small modular reactor" technology actually work earlier. You will also need a slightly larger rail gauge to accommodate them. Then you can have the reactor boil water directly for your steam engine.

Since the reactor runs 24/7, and does not require coal-steam's lengthy warmup, you can run much more services with them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nuclear locomotives solve one of the big drawbacks of steam (the incessant effort to remove soot deposits from the engine), but do nothing about the other two: the maintenance needs of the steam system, and mechanical balance issues limiting the top speed. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 12 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ This is not a crazy idea, and was certainly considered during the atomic hype era when everything could conceivably be nuclear powered. See e. g. this 1954 study: babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015020157130&seq=5 $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 13 at 9:36
  • $\begingroup$ Refueling water is going to be the biggest issue, to prevent the reactor from melting your engine. Of course, you can store extra water in the now defunct coal tank. You can actually slow down the decay with separation rods, allowing for night rest/maintenance. Start inserting those rods early enough, and just roll into the workshop on inertia and remaining boiler heat. Having them run 24/7 is going to wear parts down A LOT. $\endgroup$
    – vinzzz001
    Commented Jun 13 at 12:53
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Assuming you want other technological development outside railways to stay constant, here are a few options I can think of:

  • Railways have low capital funds for a wholesale replacement, and don't undergo a wave of line closures (or perhaps have already undergone said closures before diesel became viable, say they got less support after WWII). British Rail's last steam locomotive was built in 1960, and then during the 60s there were a whole wave of line closures, which ultimately allowed the last engine to be withdrawn from mainline service in 1968. While getting rid of steam did save them money, it required a combination of this reduced service that needed operating and a decently-funded capital programme of diesel locomotive construction to make it happen. Take away one or both of these and you suddenly are forced to spend more in the long run on keeping steam locomotives going, since you simply don't have the money to build diesel ones. It's worth pointing out that countries with few line closures generally kept steam much later; it's not impossible to find countries, albeit normally less developed ones, that still had steam well into the 1980s.
  • Reduce access to oil. This one has already been covered by others. But it could have significant impacts on other parts of life.
  • Railways are considered a national priority and the government, fearing another war, wants to keep them as internally sustainable as possible. Railways featured heavily in the logistics of moving people and equipment around in WWII, and so it's possible the government, unlike actual governments of the 1960s, recognise them as being nationally important infrastructure. At the same time fearing another war they might be keen to keep them running using only internally available resources. Coal is readily available in the UK, but until the discovery of north sea oil, diesel was not. So if you don't mind this being country-specific, this is an option.
  • Early bad experiences and/or embarrassments make it politically charged. The Advanced Passenger Train was developed at great expense in the UK to be a tilting train and the future of long-distance intercity passenger travel in that country. However it was a massive failure, very overcomplicated with a lot of unproven technology, widely ridiculed by the press when it had its disastrous press launch, and ultimately quietly withdrawn after a few years. Despite tilting technology being very well-suited to the UK, this failure led to the UK never trying to build trains with it again (though some were designed for it to be retrofitted, this never happened), the patents sold off to Fiat in Italy, and it wasn't until several decades later that the UK bought tilting trains from Alstom (who had now acquired Fiat's rail division). All this to say, I can plausibly imagine a world where a lot of stock is put into expensive development of diesel locomotives, and they are all failures. For every English Electric building great diesel locomotives in the early 60s, there was a North British building absolute junk. But what if, by chance or poor choices, the English Electrics weren't there? What if the railways poured loads of money in the late 50s and early 60s into diesel locomotive development and came away with absolutely nothing to show for it? I can imagine this national embarrassment paving the way for electrification instead, but what if there's still no money forthcoming for that? In that case I can imagine it leading to steam continuing several decades after it would have finished in other countries.
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  • $\begingroup$ Sort of like fusion power in the U.S. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12 at 16:11
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For steam engines to remain the dominant power source for railroads, a number of technological changes would have to be made. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dieselisation lists a number of advantages that diesel engines had. These all could have been overcome with technological advantages to steam including vapor capture to reduce the water requirements. Overcoming these technological challenges would change the visual and sound impressions of a steam locomotive.

To allow such huge technological changes to steam propulsion, the human systems would need to be modified. The unions would need to be willing to accept the job changes. The investors would need to be willing to allow that much investment to flow into new technologies, new repair shops, and not accept the hype that diesel will fix everything.

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The switch from steam to diesel locomotives could be delayed 20-30 years by maintaining low fuel costs, improving steam engine technology, subsidizing steam locomotive maintenance, and limiting technological advancements in diesel engines.

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Re-create the German Democratic Republic

While they used steam locomotives alongside Diesel-powered ones. They nevertheless used steam probably the longest.

Their last steam engine was taken out of service in 1988. The German Wikipedia is more rich in details though.

If you give your hypothetical country rich resources in coal, and make oil imports prohibitively expensive, then you have a case for steam locomotives.

You can deal with Electrification, or the absence of it, in a variety of ways. Among them are:

  • All the equipment was taken away at some point, as the Soviet Union did in East Germany.
  • All the tracks and surrounding infrastructure is based on steam, so there is not sufficient clearance for power lines. This is the case in many rural parts of the UK. There, you have plenty of rail lines, and the cost associated with electrification means not only all the electrical equipment but also a lot of new bridges.
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Bribe local officials to stir up resistance to the new technology and plant fears of job losses in the community. Stir up the workers to sabotage the factories where the new locomotives are constructed. Tie the backers of the diesel locomotives up in the courts with patent challenges and environmental litigation. Watch for any accidents or machine failures in the diesel locomotives and play them up in the press.

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How much impact to you want to the rest of your 'world' you're building?

Because the 'easy' answer is resource availability. Steam Trains need 'something that will burn', where diesel is a specific process to manufacture from crude oil.

So I'd offer as a solution that the composition of crude oil is different, such that the quantities - and thus availability. Looking at google, the ratio of a typical barrel is 45% gasoline, 29% diesel.

But you might then create a scenario where petroleum is used instead... but the characteristics of a petroleum engine are different, and not really suitable for 'heavy hauling' in quite the same way.

You could alter availability of fossil fuels more generally though - but oil being harder/rarer/more expensive would have a significant impact on a LOT of the economy from the late 1800s onwards. Could maybe look at the ratios of coal vs. oil too, and just have a world where coal is more commonplace. That doesn't entirely 'solve' the industrial revolution issue, but you can maybe keep most things 'on track' (sic) by letting them run on coal instead of oil, because oil is rare and valuable.

Or a more radical concept: How about nuclear power. You don't need full on fission reactors to get 'nuclear heaters'.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_generator

A very crude form of nuclear power would be ... using radioisotopes to heat water.

But of course, with some slightly worrying safety issues, which I think might be 'in theme' with a culture that thought using lead in cosmetics or gasoline despite knowing it was toxic... well, yeah.

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    $\begingroup$ Just have a few charismatic people campaign hard enough that the lead/radioactivity doesn't matter, and people will believe them regardless of common sense. $\endgroup$
    – vinzzz001
    Commented Jun 13 at 12:55
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Instead of mysteriously disappearing from a steamship in 1913, Rudolf Diesel is instead killed in an earlier accident during his experiments to develop a high-efficiency engine (which he was fortunate enough to survive in real reality).

The technology needed for the practical operation of diesel engines is not developed; this includes the metallurgy needed for the high pressures and compression ratios that are needed, preventing the practical use of compression ignition in engines.

Plentiful reserves of crude oil are instead taken up by oil-burning steam engines, which continue alongside their coal-powered brethren for a number of years.

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    $\begingroup$ If Diesel dies in early 1893 (before he realizes his isothermal motor is a dead end), it's likely that Köhler, Brayton, or Capitaine produces a Diesel-like engine a year or two later. Rudolf Diesel was not a "lone genius", he was one of many people working on similar ideas. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 12 at 8:28
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Energy

When we're trying to transition to diesel, there's a new unexpected demand for diesel, and until we can 2x oil production it's not possible to transition off.

For example, huge demand for cars, new industries like AI/crypto (if we're talking about an alternate universe).

Diesel-like fuel is used for aircraft and tanks, so consumer demand for vacation flights or a gas-hungry war.

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Keep the Ottoman Empire neutral in WW1.

In line with the OP and comments, I agree that the "switch" from steam to diesel in Real Life was determined by the timeline and outcome of WW2. In line with @RichardKirk's comments, I believe it was a strategic move in the etymological sense: a move dictated by the necessities of preparing for war in the context of 1945-50 Europe; all other factors (environmental, economic) only subordinate.

I also believe no plausible plot device can delay WW2 by 20-30yrs as suggested by the OP: the timeline & outcome of WW1 being as in RL, WW2 must ensue exactly 20yrs after the Versailles treaty, regardless of which precise moustached psychopaths hit a stray bullet in-between. This is because the US would never regard a rearming Germany, ready to occupy Belgium, an existential threat to themselves; it was to the UK and to France, yet they were powerless to counter it w/out active US support in the League of Nations (more precisely, among the Big Four of the LoN). That the US would have their say about European affairs, via the LoN, was the price to pay for enlisting the US with the Entente in WW1.

Finally, the moves leading to WW1 and its RL outcome are themselves mostly forced: the only chaotic decision was how the Ottoman Empire picked sides. Had they but maintained a benevolent neutrality (to the Entente), the Central Empires were completely besieged and starved to death in ~2yrs, while in RL Russia was the one cut off from supplies by her allies.

So, my solution is this: when the Ottomans toured Europe in search of an alliance against Italy in 1912, instead of the meager offer they got in RL (turn into a German protectorate in all but name), have the Brits show some longsightedness: let them offer an honorable partnership to protect the neutrality of the Straits. This makes them the prime mover in the modernization of Turkey after the Balkans wars, instead of pushing her with disdain into the first consoling arms to open to her in 1914, which happened to be Germany's.

The changes in the political landscape after a 1914-16 WW1 are tremendous: no Soviet uprising in Russia, no US involvement whence no League of Nations, no Armenian genocide, no Balfour letter etc. The Concert of Europe returns, headed (unofficially) by the UK instead of Austria, with the US a mere guest star; the German Reich essentially returns to its clawless, post-1648 standing and safely without the Benelux.

Science, however, goes on as in RL: the timeline of nuclear fission is essentially unchanged, with the same effect on the timeline of strategic deterrence. This is the major novelty that prevents European diplomacy from returning to their familiar post-1816 shenanigans. Geopolitically, the world is quietly heading to an Orwellian tripolar dynamics, with the notable difference that the UK is a standard bearer of Eurasia instead of a mere bridgehead of Oceania in Europe.

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