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Are there any countries in which steam engines have a regular purpose, or are still dominant on the railway? When did they officially fade out of use in the western world? In Australia at least, they are being privately looked into again to make a comeback. Is this the case anywhere else? It's several questions, I know, but mainly anything related to the title.

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The last place on Earth where steam engines are regularly used is China's hinterland, but even there, they have not been dominant since the late 90s and have been very rapidly declining in number since the mid-00s. But then again, how is that a history question? – Olivier Mar 15 '14 at 10:45
Most “electric” railways sill get a lot of their power from stationary stream engines, we call them “power stations” these days. – Ian Ringrose Mar 17 '14 at 17:57
up vote 21 down vote accepted

There are plenty of industrial uses for steam engines, mostly for generating electricity. Any coal-fueled power station is a steam engine, or more likely a set of them. The only big change in technology is that converting the steam's expansion energy to kinetic energy is now done using a steam turbine and not a piston engine.

Since the question specifically mentions railways, I suppose the mobile/transportation uses are the intended focus. There are still some steam locomotives around, run by enthusiasts and mostly for tourists. There are some in England, India and China that I know of, and probably some others as well.

For more practical uses, there are naval vessels which are steam powered. In this case, of course, they also use steam turbines rather than piston engines. Also, and I suppose this is a big change, they create the heat for the steam not by burning coal but by nuclear fission. At heart, any nuclear-powered ship is running on steam.

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As of 2014 China still use steam locomotives for some industrial operations. Also in Bosnia and Herzegovina some steam locomotives are still used for industrial purposes. – S Vilcans Mar 18 '14 at 10:09

Nuclear power stations are steam engines, they just use a different source of energy to generate the steam from what you're probably thinking of.
So yes, steam engines are in widespread use around the planet.

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Steam Engine:

A steam engine is a heat engine that performs mechanical work using steam as its working fluid.

Unless you are specifically referring to steam railway locomotives, a particular application of the steam engine, then yes steam engines are widely used as the most common worldwide means of producing electric power. The particular class of steam engine most commonly used in this configuration is the steam turbine.

Modern re-invention of the steam railway locomotive is most likely to be considering advanced steam technologies. Use as a replacement for the internal combustion engine for automotive use has also been researched in the recent past.

Research into applications for modern steam engines seems to have been motivated by a fear of drastically higher gasoline and diesel prices for internal combustion and diesel engines. With the recent worldwide supply of shale-oil and shale-gas expected to glut the market for several decades, I expect research into non-stationary steam engines to abate.

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Thanks, Pieter. Yes I did mean engines in general, but part of the question was I was particularly wanting to know what happened with the trains. And I do believe this is a history question, as the steam engine is an archaic form of engineering quite uncommonly seen in modern times except in historical demonstrations. – Duncan Mar 16 '14 at 5:38

To my knowledge, there is one single cylinder steam engine at the Hook Norton Brewery in England, still working for it's living, and there are several Steam Boats around, such as the Paddle Wheeler Hjejlen in Denmark, and the SS Skjelskoer built in 1915, both are Coal Fired. In Australia there are several Steam Driven Paddle Boats on the Murray River. Most of these are Wood Burners.

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The cog railway in NH still uses some steam locomotives to travel back and forth to the summit of Mt Washington. Most have been replaced, but there is still one coal fired locomotive a day that makes the trip

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