Would the phrase "Full Steam Ahead" be appropriate to use in reference to trains? I know there where plenty of steam powered trains, but I thought it was a nautical term. Would it have been used by the Engineer (Assuming that is the name for the chief train operator.)?

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    I'll note that the physics of a steam engine don't change from being put on rails instead of water: if you give the engine full steam, it'll go at maximum power. Now, whether "full steam ahead" was used in train jargon, or just in ship jargon, is a different matter.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 15:57
  • @Martha: That is basically what I was asking. I'd certainly imagine that for any given steam powered device Full Steam Ahead would have the similar implications, but I feel that if the pilot has full control of the "power" setting for the vehicle the need for the Jargon would be negligible.
    – aslum
    Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 17:52
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    So you're saying this is a history question, rather than an English question? <evil grin> (I'm just kidding: history of usage is on-topic, as far as I'm aware.)
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 17:58
  • I'd say it's more a matter of semantics. Of course that doesn't preclude the history of usage from being relevant.
    – aslum
    Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 18:16

4 Answers 4


From the entry in TheFreeDictionary.com:

full steam ahead with all possible energy and enthusiasm full speed ahead The real estate market has heated up, and building is going full steam ahead.

Usage notes: sometimes used in the form it's full steam ahead: It's full steam ahead for Internet service providers today.

Etymology: based on the literal use of full steam in ships, which makes them go at their top speed

So figuratively speaking, you could apply this to anything you like. No rule is broken if you use it metaphorically about things other than ships.


You could use it metaphorically, or you could use the phrase full speed ahead which is more generic and according to google books, both pre-dates full steam ahead and is in more common use.

In answer to the other part of your question, I believe historically, the order would be given by the person in command of the bridge and then transferred by a sort of mechanical telegraph system to an engineer.

speed vs. steam

  • Sorry just noticed you were more interested in trains. I don't know about that but I guess it was more of a team effort between a fireman and driver. Whereas on a ship, this would be a fixed order passed down to the engineer.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented May 31, 2011 at 23:54

"Full steam ahead." would apply strictly to locomotives. The reason is that the engineers in the cab are essentially "driving" the train by operating the engine throttle as well as controlling how much fuel is being fed into the boiler and thus how much steam is being produced. They observe operational conditions and that is what dictates their actions.

Conversely, the world of a traditional steam ship is drastically different. The "drivers" are on the bridge and control the vessel via an Engine Order Telegraph (EOT). This transmits speed requirements to the engine room whereby the engineers open or close the throttle(s) and adjust the output of the boiler accordingly. The EOT orders are in terms of "Slow" and then thirds and "Ahead" "Astern" (navy ships are slightly different). So typical AHEAD orders would be Ahead Slow, Ahead 1/3, Ahead 2/3 and finally ahead full. This is translated in the engine room into a throttle setting and boiler burner setup to yield a set number of propeller shaft RPM. There are charts in both locations which show RPM vs. speed. Thus, there is no reason for someone on the bridge of a ship to use the word steam, it would be full speed ahead.

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    Hello, Snipe. It's customary to give supporting references in answers on ELU. The one I've found, from Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary, says that the expression originated on steamships. Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 19:26
  • To Edwin's point, do you have any evidence that the phrase is actually used for locomotives? And only for older steam locomotives or also for modern diesel and electric?
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 22:00

"Full Steam Ahead" appears to be the only caption that is allowed for newspaper pictures of any steam locomotive hauled train, moving off! Due to the relatively tiny area of contact of the driving wheels on the rail, the resulting spectacular wheel slip would probably wreck the valve gear! Game over, huge bill! It is only the skill and long learning of the driver controlling the steam regulator that makes it possible.

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    This appears to be more of a gripe about inaccurate newspaper captions than an answer to the actual question. Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 16:37
  • Yes, I think you are correct. Pictures of steam trains are always popular in papers. The consistant use of this awful expression really make my "drivers" slip. Thanks.
    – Alan Every
    Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 22:05

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