Home » General Motors Tried To Invent The Train Of The Future And Ended Up With A Gorgeous, Spectacular Failure

General Motors Tried To Invent The Train Of The Future And Ended Up With A Gorgeous, Spectacular Failure

Aerotrain Future 1956 Ts
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Americans in the 1950s got to enjoy an era with unparalleled advancements in technology. They could take to the skies in safer airliners, glide down an expansive highway network in a stylish car, or look cool on a capable motorcycle. This was bad news for the old-school way of getting around, the train. General Motors, a dominator in both locomotives and buses, proposed a solution. The GM Aerotrain was supposed to make trains sexy and more attractive than driving or flying but ended up being so bad at its job that not even GM wants you to know about it today.

Seeing a General Motors Aerotrain today is a special delight. Just two full trainsets were ever built and when they were finally retired they didn’t end up in the hands of General Motors, but two different train museums here in the Midwest. The Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Missouri has an unpowered locomotive and two passenger cars while the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin has the other locomotive and two more cars.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

I recently made the pilgrimage to the National Railroad Museum, where the worn Aerotrain stands tall as an example of GM’s inventive engineering gone wrong. But why did this streamlined train of the future fail? A lot of it comes down to the fact that this train was really just an over-complicated bus affixed to rails.

Setting The Stage

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GM via James Vaughan

The GM Aerotrain wasn’t just any passenger train, but one that was supposed to save an industry.

As the National Railroad Museum explains in its exhibits, rail travel experienced a spike during World War II. There had been a decline in rail transportation since the Great Depression, but the outbreak of the war brought both goods and people back to the rails. This revival would be short-lived as rail traffic began plummeting after the war.

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Unfortunately, trains were becoming old news. Americans wanting the freedom to travel how they wanted just hopped in their cars and drove down America’s rapidly expanding highway network. Those who needed to get to a destination quickly booked flights aboard ever more advanced aircraft. Buses were also a popular solution for intercity travel. Even worse for trains was the fact that the Jet Age was right around the corner.

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The American public began to see passenger train travel as slow and decidedly un-sexy.

This spelled bad news for the railroads, which reached out to General Motors for help. By the 1950s, the General had grown to become a dominator in locomotives. Its innovations in diesel-electric technology produced the iconic E- and F- units that thundered their way across America. The National Park Service summarizes how General Motors changed railroad history:

In 1930, General Motors Corporation, principally an automobile manufacturer, acquired the Electro Motive Corporation and the Winton Engine Company, the latter an established producer of diesel engines, and from this merger came a much smaller, much lighter diesel engine capable of producing many horsepower. This advanced diesel engine powered the Chevrolet exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Ralph Budd of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad saw it there and decided to use this type of engine for his railroad’s Pioneer Zephyr, a prototype of lightweight, stainless steel, streamlined fast passenger trains.

On May 26, 1934, the sleek, silver Pioneer Zephyr set off on the return from a trip to Denver to run 1,015.4 miles to Chicago in 13 hours, 4 minutes and 58 seconds, an average speed of 76.61 miles per hour, though in fact the three-car articulated train exceeded 100 miles per hour during the trip. About the same time, the Union Pacific fielded the similar but bright yellow City of Salina, while in 1935 the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe purchased from Electro-Motive Corporation a pair of diesels to power the Super Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles. Thus the 1930s ushered in not only the era of the streamlined “lightweight” passenger train, but the era of diesel- electric motive power for passenger trains as well.

Progress Rail

In March 1935, General Motors Corporation began construction of a huge plant for erection of diesel electric locomotives at La Grange, Illinois, where the company would have the capability of building the locomotive carbody on a cast underframe. The locomotives would employ General Electric motors. The first La Grange product proved to be a 600-horsepower diesel-electric switcher with a cab at one end and exposed running boards on each side. It would more or less serve as a model for the most popular switch-engines for more than a decade. In 1937, an enlarged La Grange plant turned out the first E-Units, streamlined passenger locomotives with built-in cab and running boards along each side of the engines concealed in the carbody, a design that came to be called the “covered wagon” type, because cab and engine were totally enclosed. In 1939, Electro-Motive built the first similarly streamlined Model FT freight locomotive, consisting of an “A” unit with cab, and a “B” unit without, coupled together. Two such pair could be operated together as an “A-B-B-A” combination of four locomotives, all relying on a single crew in a single control cab.

General Motors was so good at this locomotive thing that in the 1950s it practically controlled locomotive production. In 1953, the General Motors Electro-Motive Division held an incredible 73 percent of America’s locomotive market. In second place, and it is a distant second place, was the American Locomotive Company and its tiny 15 percent of the market.

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Progress Rail

Railroads attempted to stop the bleeding by making their trains more attractive. But this didn’t work. As Popular Mechanics wrote in 1955, the railroads were losing about $700 million a year in passenger rail, which was very nearly what they made back in freight. The railroads wanted something revolutionary, a train that was cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, more comfortable to ride, faster, and got people to take the train again.

If anyone was going to make a train like this, the railroads thought it was going to be the king.

The Aerotrain

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General Motors wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity like this and got to work to make a train that would lure Americans from cars and planes and back into trains.

Reportedly, the idea to produce a streamliner came in 1954 from General Motors Vice President of Styling Harley Earl. However, the Aerotrain would be designed by the GM Styling Section under the leadership of Charles M. Jordan, Chief Designer for GM’s special projects. Jordan wasn’t a locomotive designer, but one with automotive talents. His design for the Aerotrain incorporated automotive elements to create a sleek and striking profile.

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Sketches from the design team eventually resulted in a one-eighth-scale model, which the National Railroad Museum has on display.

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When you look at the model you can clearly see the car design influences of the day. The locomotive sported headlights and a “grille” like a car as well as a very carlike wraparound windshield and cab. For a fun fact about this model, it’s made out of steel, aluminum, leather, and plaster. The full model featured all 10 cars and it was designed to look exactly like the real deal.

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The car design influences continued elsewhere from the use of contrasting colors to the tailfins observed on the trailing observation car. The Aerotrain looked like the day’s cars blended together with a rocket.

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In 1955, General Motors began teasing its new train in magazines. Readers of publications like Look were told that this new shiny train could exceed speeds of 100 mph and connect New York City to Chicago in just 10.5 hours. Train Y, as GM called it in the magazine, was advertised to be able to storm down the Northeast Corridor traveling between Boston and New York City in just 2.5 hours.

The Electro-Motive Division was set on providing the train the railroads wanted, but parent General Motors imposed one more requirement. The train had to do everything the railroads wanted while using as many existing parts as possible. The idea here was that General Motors would build a train so cheap and so capable that the railroads would feel obligated to buy hundreds of examples.

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According to Popular Mechanics, General Motors seriously believed it could get train fares as low on a per-seat basis as a bus fare or driving a car. In hindsight, beating buses was probably a strange goal considering GM dominated the bus market at the time.

How would GM do this? While the Aerotrain looked fresh and new, the bones came from existing products. GM Coordinator of New Products W. H. Harvey said: “Maybe we need to simplify our thinking. What we want, basically, is a new concept of a bus on rails. That’s been tried before, I know, and without much success. But no one has ever tried a train of buses on rails. Why don’t we try mounting bus bodies on rail trucks, and pull the whole thing with a lightweight locomotive designed specifically for this train?”

Basically Just A Rail Bus

Rock Island Railroad Rock Island
L.L. Cook Company

This question quickly became a reality. General Motors was already building lightweight aluminum bus bodies for its GMC Truck And Coach Division. The General sent inspectors over to the bus division and concluded that they could take bus bodies, put them on the rails, and make something innovative without spending a ton of money.

The Aerotrain sports bus bodies, but they aren’t exactly just buses with their engines and driver compartments removed. General Motors took its basic bus body design, widened it by 18 inches, and mounted the aluminum structure to a generic undercarriage. The spaces where the engine and the driver compartment would be were removed and lavatories were fastened in their place.

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Otherwise, the ten coaches per train were very much just bus bodies sitting on rail trucks. The bus design is obvious from the fact that GM retained its signature bus windows to the baggage compartment. Oh yeah, General Motors loved using rubber hinges for bus baggage doors back then and since these were literally modified bus bodies, the Aerotrain has bus baggage compartments with the same frustrating rubber hinges that my own RTS-06 bus has.

Using bus bodies for the cars did come with some benefits. Their floors sat just 43 to 45 inches off of the ground, offering a far lower center of gravity than the 55 inch floors of a standard coach car.

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Popular Mechanics

The all-aluminum, 40-foot bus bodies were also 50 percent lighter than the standard coach car. General Motors also employed its bus air suspension technology in hopes of providing a smooth ride.

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Inside, the bus bodies were filled with 20 double seats with a recline function. While General Motors was focused on cutting the costs of buying and operating a passenger train, the idea was also to get people out of buses and planes, so the interior was made to be luxurious for its day.

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How obsessed was GM in creating a train out of existing parts? The company pinched its Frigidaire division to build the train’s air-conditioners and other appliances. GM’s aggressive cost-cutting was evident in the acquisition costs. GM quoted the typical streamliner train as costing about $2,200 per seat. The bus-on-rails Aerotrain? It would cost just $1,000 per seat, almost on par with a bus.

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General Motors was so confident in the design of the bus cars that it said it even revolutionized the train car overhaul process. Typically, passenger cars go into shops, where they’re torn apart bolt by bolt and seat by seat and refreshed for several more years of service. GM said this process typically cost $35,000 to $50,000 per coach in 1955 dollars. But the Aerotrain coaches were so cheap that GM said the railroad wouldn’t need to refurbish them. Instead, GM said the railroad would just scrap the whole body and lower a new body onto the undercarriage, no refurbishment needed.

The Locomotive

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Pulling these bus train cars was another parts-bin special. The locomotive on the front did have a novel steel body and cab, but what was underneath was nothing special. The locomotives on the front of the two Aerotrain consists were the EMD LWT12. The prime mover under the metal is an EMD 567C, a 111.6-liter V12 roots-blown diesel engine good for 1,200 HP.

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GM’s logic here was that this locomotive was pulling half of the weight of the typical passenger train, so it just needed to be about half of the typical locomotive. A typical diesel-electric locomotive in 1955 weighed 320,000 pounds. The EMD LWT12 weighed just 175,000 pounds. The typical passenger train was also pulled by bigger locomotives that made around 2,400 HP. But again, GM felt that the Aerotrain could achieve better performance with half of the power.

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To put this into perspective, GM essentially powered the Aerotrain by a modified EMD SW1200 switcher locomotive, something you’d see moving cars around a yard, not blasting down the rails at 100 mph.

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According to Popular Mechanics, General Motors spent a million dollars per consist to build the two trains. However, GM expected to get the per unit price down to $400,000 to $500,000 by the time production started. Two of the EMD LWT12 locomotives were built for the prototype Aerotrains while a third was built for the Rock Island Jet Rocket train between Chicago and Peoria.

Terrible In Practice

The Aerotrain was a solid idea on paper, but things began falling apart as soon as they were put into service in 1956.

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One unit went to the New York Central Railroad, where it operated on a route between Cleveland and Chicago. The second unit went to the Pennsylvania Railroad, where it stormed down the rails between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and New York City. That year, the two demonstrator trains performed runs for Chicago & North Western, Great Northern, Illinois Central, Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific to see how the railroads and the public would like them. Both units were returned to General Motors that year, then they were sent out west to run on the Union Pacific Railway and the Santa Fe.

Unfortunately, problems started cropping up almost immediately. Let’s start with that locomotive. While the base EMD SW1200 switcher it was based on was capable of hitting 100 mph, the Aerotrain struggled to get near its advertised top speed. General Motors also promised that the locomotive would be easy and cheap to repair, but the sleek body actually made repairs harder than a typical locomotive.

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Then there was the power, or the lack of it, anyway. In the Midwest and East, the train had trouble hitting its top speed, but still reliably completed routes much faster than other diesel-electric trains of the day. For example, an Aerotrain raced from Chicago to Detroit 40 minutes faster than a regular train could do the same job.

However, power became a big issue out west where they faced real hills. The Aerotrain didn’t have enough power to pull itself up grades, so Sante Fe and Union Pacific had to lash the Aerotrain up to standard locomotives to get them through ranges. This problem alone erased any advantage the Aerotrain could have brought to the West.

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Union Pacific’s use of the Aerotrain would be extreme. Its Aerotrain was named the City of Las Vegas and it ran the Crap-Shooters’ Special, a train that departed Los Angeles at 9 am and arrived in Las Vegas at 4 pm. The train had to go fast to meet that schedule.

Unfortunately, this isn’t where the train’s problems ended. Railroads and passengers alike discovered that the bus-based air suspension system wasn’t up to the task of rail duty. As the National Railroad Museum says, the air suspension bellows often failed above 60 mph, leading to passengers receiving a violently harsh ride, if not minor injuries. General Motors didn’t have a fix aside from just replacing the blown bellows just so they could blow later.

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Popular Mechanics

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All of these downsides piled up and the demonstrator railroads quickly issued their votes of no. The Aerotrain was supposed to save passenger rail, but railroads didn’t want them and passengers didn’t want to ride in them.

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The Aerotrains were returned to General Motors once again, where they found an unlikely savior of the Rock Island. As luck would have it, Rock Island never went faster than 60 mph anyway, so the horrible suspension problems weren’t a huge deal. Rock Island nabbed the two demonstrator Aerotrains and started operating them around Chicagoland. However, by 1966 even the Rock Island had enough of the Aerotrain.

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The trains were retired and instead of ending up in GM’s heritage fleet somewhere, what’s left of them are instead preserved by two museums.

There were people who doubted the Aerotrain from the start. Remember that General Motors was experienced in building locomotives, not entire train operations. Those who actually ran trains cautioned that the Aerotrain might not solve any problem at all. Planes were still faster, cars still offered more freedom, and buses were still cheaper. So, the only people still taking the train were going to be rich people who didn’t want to drive or get somewhere as fast as possible.

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Sadly, those people would end up being correct. The Aerotrain failed to revolutionize passenger train travel. Americans continued to drive their cars and fly in planes. It’s a shame because General Motors had a good concept. However, General Motors had to do what it was known best for and cut costs until the resulting product couldn’t even perform.

If you want to see the Aerotrains, pay a visit to either the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Missouri, or the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. No matter which one you visit, you’re going to love taking a look at these pieces of history.

(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)

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Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
9 hours ago

Pretty cool to see these aero trains in person. I cannot recommend the national museum of transportation in St. Louis enough. The locomotives are clearly the main attraction with the mentioned aero train, Big Boy #4006 and various others, but they also have a nice collection of cars as well. They even have a Chrysler turbine car and a whole section of lesser known cars made in St. Louis way back when. Definitely worth the trip!

Vb9594
Vb9594
18 hours ago

I started to skim this article and then stopped myself. It became evident how comprehensive it was and it deserved a full read.

Holy moley is this well done. Mercedes, you make my Autopian membership fee worth it.

And that train…may not have worked well but damn is she nice to look at!

Bram Oude Elberink
Bram Oude Elberink
20 hours ago

The rear of the train has remarkable resemblance with the rear of the Citroen DS Break. https://www.gallery-aaldering.com/wp-content/uploads/gallery/28015376/28015376-2.jpg

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