50th anniversary of American jet-powered railcar

FIFTY years ago on July 23, 1966, one of the most bizarre trains to be devised was tested in the USA and attained a new North American speed record.

The New York Central System (NYC) tested a jet-powered railcar over a 68-mile section of line between Butler, Indiana and Air Line Junction (near Toledo), Ohio.

It was an experimental project that had the approval of NYC president Alfred E. Perlman, who gave the project an unlimited budget but the engineering team had just 30 days to complete the train and get it running.

The donor vehicle was a 1953-built Budd railcar, No. 497 which was fitted with a nose cone for streamlining.

Power for the train came from two General Electric jet engines that have been purchased for $5,000 from a government surplus supplier. Together the two engines could produce just over 10,000lbs of thrust.

These were roof-mounted at the front above the cab, rather than the rear, and the drive shafts of the conventional drive train were disconnected, the jet thrust being the only power to be used.

The train’s pilot/engineer was Don Wetzel, who on the second run of the train, touched 196mph, but was outside the official timing section.

Over the section, the jet-propelled railcar’s speed was confirmed as 183.85 mph, however, Wetzel believed that the railcar could surpass the French speed record of 202mph at that time.

Although deemed a success, jet-powered trains were never considered seriously for passenger use.

The timing of the tests and further development was not helped by the fact the NYC was preparing to merge with the Pennsylvania Railroad, who were planning to launch their own high speed service.

Railcar M497 was returned to its original state and carried on service with NYC, Penn Central and ended its days with Conrail who withdrew the car in 1977. It survived until 1984 when it was scrapped.

To mark the achievement, an historic plaque  for the ‘Flight M-497’ was unveiled at Bryan station, Ohio.

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