NKP 765 on a photo run at Ithaca, Michigan July 25, 2009.

(Drew Jacksich from San Jose, CA, The Republic of California, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)



Under the Whyte notation, a 2-8-4 is a steam locomotive that has two unpowered leading wheels, followed by eight coupled and powered driving wheels, and four trailing wheels. This locomotive type is most often referred to as a Berkshire, though the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway used the name Kanawha for their 2-8-4s. In Europe, this wheel arrangement was mostly seen in mainline passenger express locomotives and, in certain countries, in tank locomotives.


A diagram of the 2-8-4 wheel arrangement. Front of locomotive is on left.

(Gwernol, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



In the United States of America, the 2-8-4 wheel arrangement was a further development of the enormously successful 2-8-2 Mikado. It resulted from the requirement for a freight locomotive with even greater steam heating capacity. To produce more steam, a solution was to increase the size of the locomotive's firebox, though the 2-8-2 wheel arrangement, with its single axle trailing truck, limited the permissible increased axle loading from a larger firebox. The most practical solution was to add a second trailing axle to spread the increased weight of a larger firebox.

The first American 2-8-4s were built for the Boston and Albany Railroad in 1925 by Lima Locomotive Works. The railroad's route across the Berkshire mountains was a substantial test for the new locomotives and, as a result, the name Berkshire was adopted for the locomotive type.


LIMA builder's photo of the Erie 2-8-4 3325 on August 31, 1927.

(Altona, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)



United States

Locomotives of a 2-8-4 wheel arrangement were used mainly for hauling fast express freight trains on heavy freight service. They often replaced older 2-8-2 Mikados where more power and speed was required.

Six years after the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway experimented with the first 2-10-4, the first 2-8-4s were built for the Boston & Albany (B&A) by Lima Locomotive Works in 1925. The railroad's route over the Berkshires was a substantial test for the new locomotives, but the type proved its worth, outpacing the 2-8-2 Mikados already in use there. This mountain range lent its name to the locomotive type, though the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway would settle on the name Kanawha for their 2-8-4s. Buoyed by the success of the demonstrations on the B&A, Lima and ALCO both sold a few hundred of the new locomotive type.

The Berkshire type's big boost came in 1934, when the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (Nickel Plate Road or NKP) received its first 2-8-4s, built to a new design from the Advisory Mechanical Committee (AMC) of the Van Sweringen empire. Under the Van Sweringen umbrella were the Nickel Plate Road, Erie Railroad, Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and Pere Marquette Railway. The AMC's design, based on the Chesapeake and Ohio’s AMC 2-10-4s (which themselves had been based on the Erie Railroad’s own series of 2-8-4s) generated 64,100 pounds-force (285 kN) of tractive effort and became the standard design basis for many subsequent Berkshires. The Erie Railroad would come to purchase the largest number of 2-8-4s (though not to the AMC’s design) in the United States, rostering 105. Many later Berkshires differed from their predecessors in their use of greater diameter driving wheels, which assisted greatly in attaining the higher speeds originally sought with the type’s development.

Lima's last steam locomotive was also the last American 2-8-4, the NKP's No. 779 of 1949. Some 700 2-8-4s were built for American service, constituting 2% of the steam fleet prior to dieselization and delivering 5% of the nation's freight ton-miles. Coincidentally, ALCO’s last steam locomotives were also Berkshires, built in 1948 for the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, and towards the end of their short service lives they were transferred to the parent company, the New York Central Railroad.

As one of the first large scale users of the type (ultimately rostering 112 locomotives through its own purchases and the acquisition of nearly identical locomotives secondhand from the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad), the NKP became synonymous with the Berkshire locomotive type. One of this class, Nickel Plate Road No. 765, is preserved in operating condition and is operated occasionally from its New Haven, Indiana home. Nickel Plate Road No. 779 is preserved as a static display in Lincoln Park in Lima, Ohio.

Many larger American railroads rostered Berkshires. To see a table listing data on the American locomotives as they were built go here: 2-8-4.


Chesapeake & Ohio Railway K4 Class Kanawha 2-8-4 No. 2736 at the Green Bay Railroad Museum in August of 1970.

One of 90 built by ALCO and LIMA in 1943-47. All had cast steel beds and roller bearings on all axles while the last 5 also had all welded boilers.

(Hugh Llewelyn, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)



The Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo Railway (TH&B) was the only Canadian Railway to operate 2-8-4 Berkshires. Only two locomotives were ordered from the Montreal Locomotive Works (MLW) in 1927, works numbers 67573 and 67574. They were the last new steam locomotives to be ordered by the TH&B and were allocated road numbers 201 and 202. They were fitted with Coffin feedwater heaters and duplex stokers, and had a working order weight of 128 tons.

After being equipped with Automatic Train Control (ATC) in 1929, they were the only TH&B freight locomotives which were allowed to run on New York Central’s tracks, on the Welland-Buffalo line. Due to dieselization, both were withdrawn from service in June 1953. Both locomotives 201 and 202 were scrapped in late 1953.


A general view of the 105 foot long Erie turntable at Salamanca, New York. Erie Berkshire No. 3399 is in rotation, 1947.

(Altona, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Berkshires in fiction

In the motion picture The Polar Express, the "know-it-all" boy identifies the train's locomotive as a Baldwin 2-8-4 built in 1931, although the actual prototype for the film's locomotive was the Pere Marquette no. 1225, a Berkshire built by the Lima Locomotive Works in 1941.

In the Transformers television series, motion picture and toy line, the Decepticon triple changer Astrotrain is modeled on a JNR Class D62 2-8-4 locomotive which all of them did not survive the cutters torch and were ultimately scrapped in 1966 and none were saved for posperity.

Locomon in the motion picture Digimon: Runaway Locomon is a 2-8-4 type locomotive.


A LIMA A-1 trailing truck, the type used on their 2-8-4 locomotives.

(Scanned by Didier Duforest, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)



Equivalent classifications
UIC class: 1′D2′
French class: 142
Turkish class: 47
Swiss class: 4/7
Russian class: 1-4-2
First known tank engine version
First use: 1893
Country: Australia
Locomotive: WAGR K class
Railway: Western Australian Government Railways
Designer: Neilson and Company
Builder: Neilson and Company
Evolved from: 2-8-2T
Benefits Larger fireboxes and coal bunkers
First known tender engine version
First use: 1925
Country: United States of America
Locomotive: B&A class A1
Railway: Boston and Albany Railroad
Designer: Lima Locomotive Works
Builder: Lima Locomotive Works
Evolved from: 2-8-2
Benefits: Larger firebox than 2-8-2