Monday, April 30, 2012

The Aerotrain

GM’s “Dream Train”:

The Aerotrain

Written by Toby Roan     

By the mid-Fifties, passenger rail in the United States was a mess. The public’s increased use of automobiles and stiff competition from airlines and bus service had sent medium-distance passenger revenues into a tailspin. Despite huge investments in improved equipment and facilities, the railroad industry was losing about $700 million a year on passenger service. There was simply no way they could charge the fares necessary to put them back in the black. It was time to rethink the passenger train. 

The plan was to develop a stylish, comfortable, high-speed train (top speed: 100 miles per hour) with low fares to lure passengers back onto the tracks. And with this new train being lightweight and fuel-efficient, the railroads should be able to return to profitable passenger service. 

General Motors was approached to create such a train. And its Electro-Motive Division came back with the Aerotrain. One of its chief designers was Charles “Chuck” Jordan. An MIT graduate brought to General Motors by Harley Earl in 1948, Jordan was responsible for Chevrolet’s Cameo Carrier pickup in 1954, would be the primary designer of the 1958 Corvette, and would be named Cadillac’s Chief of Design in 1959. 

A futuristic blending of Fifties highway and railway technology (with maybe a little Buck Rogers thrown in for good measure), the Aerotrain fits right in with the GM concept cars of the period. In particular, the 1951 Buick LeSabre (a swanky concept car that became Harley Earl’s daily driver) seems to have been a big influence on the styling of the Aerotrain, which featured a wraparound windshield and multiple headlights. 
Called the LWT-12, for “light weight 1,200 horsepower,” each Aerotrain was powered by a single GM 1,200-horsepower Diesel electric propulsion unit. Thanks to its light weight and low center of gravity, it was felt that 1,200 was enough horsepower. It wasn’t. Compared to other trains, it was pitifully underpowered. But the reduction in weight and horsepower meant that the Aerotrain used only 1.3 gallons of fuel per mile at top speed.  
Each of the Aerotrain’s 10 passenger cars was basically a modified bus body from GM’s Motor Coach Division. The observation car even had what appear to be taillights and fins, looking much like a Chevy Nomad station wagon. Two of the 40-passenger non-articulated cars weighed less than one standard 80-passenger car. Headroom was drastically cut and aluminum replaced steel whenever possible. It all sat on a steel underframe, with single-axle trucks and an air suspension system very similar to what was found on GM buses. Unfortunately, what made for a nice, comfortable bus ride would not have the same success on rails. 

GM’s ads promised “an entirely new concept of speed, comfort, safety and economy.” New York Central’s copywriters weren’t as restrained in their ads for the “dream train,” calling it “a fast, lightweight new train that can revolutionize rail travel, increase employment, and strengthen our national defense.” The hype worked. People were eager to experience the Aerotrain, and they got their first glimpse at the GM Powerama in 1955. 

Two Aerotrain prototypes were built. One went to Pennsylvania Railroad; the second became New York Central’s “Great Lakes Aerotrain,” providing nonstop service between Chicago and Detroit. A third LWT-12 was built to pull another attempt at a lightweight passenger train, Rock Island’s Talgo “Jet Rocket.” 

Rear car.  Looked like the back end of a 1950s station wagon.

Side view of the 4 wheeled coach at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. Image by Jim O'Connor
click image to view full size

It didn’t take long for the trouble to start. It quickly became apparent that the Aerotrains were underpowered and prone to mechanical problems. Passengers missed the spacious comfort of standard streamlined trains, finding the downsized Aerotrain “buses” confining. And with the shortened wheelbase and air suspension, the ride was terrible at anything close to top speed. After only a year or so, Pennsy and New York Central returned their Aerotrains to GM. Thanks, but no thanks. 

A complete Aerotrain can be seen at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. Image by Jim O'Connor
click image to view full size

National Railroad Museum, Green Bay. Photo by Thomas Bloomquist

Next up was Union Pacific, whose “City Of Las Vegas” Aerotrain made the run between L.A. and Las Vegas loaded with gamblers. It needed a helper to surmount Cajon Pass.  

Before long, both Aerotrain prototypes were sold to the Rock Island Line. (They’d also end up with that third LWT-12 built for the Talgo.) Condemned to commuter service, where it was felt the slower speeds would ensure a smoother ride, the Aerotrains tooled around the Chicago suburbs until being retired in 1966. After only 10 years, the train of the future had come to the end of the road.  

Today, you can pay your respects to the Aerotrains at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay (read article), Wisconsin (they have Number 2) and the Museum Of Transportation in St. Louis. The MOT has an engineless LWT-12 and two cars, which are currently undergoing cosmetic restoration (thanks to a hefty donation from the Gateway Division NMRA).


Written by Toby Roan     

National Railroad Museum, Green Bay photo by Thomas Bloomquist 
Some images by Jim O'Connor

Read more about this train design. Car of the  The Aerotrain

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