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GM’s “Dream Train”:
Written by Toby
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
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
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
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
Railroad Museum, Green Bay photo by Thomas Bloomquist
Some images by Jim O'Connor
Read more about this train design.
Car of the
Century.com The Aerotrain