The 1960s were a wild time to be a traveler. Jet aviation made the world feel a bit smaller by making far off lands accessible in less time. But on the ground, people still got around in slow cars and trains. Japan’s Shinkansen proved that rail service could be made fast, and America wanted in. One answer to the call of high-speed rail was the UAC TurboTrain. This passenger train tilted in curves and was powered by gas turbines meant for aircraft. Yet, just seven were built and the trains were in service for barely over a decade.
In 1964, Japan showed that in a world of jet travel, trains could still be relevant. The first-generation of Shinkansen trains operated on the Tōkaidō high-speed line going as fast as 130 mph. The “bullet train” caught the attention of not just railfans and commuters, but of companies and governments.
As the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration notes, the government began looking into high-speed rail right around the launch of the Shinkansen. A year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 into law. In the signing of the Act, President Johnson remarked:
In recent decades, we have achieved technological miracles in our transportation. But there is one great exception.
We have airplanes which fly three times faster than sound. We have television cameras that are orbiting Mars. But we have the same tired and inadequate mass transportation between our towns and cities that we had 30 years ago.
The Act initially authorized $90 million for demonstrations and studies of high-speed ground transportation. The Northeast Corridor Demonstration Project. As reported by the Chicago Tribune in 1967, the project was meant to show that a high-speed train could convince passengers to take a train to commute between Washington D.C. and New York City rather than drive or fly. This would reduce crowding on highways and in airports. A win for everyone.
The United Aircraft Corporation entered the Northeast Corridor Demonstration Project with what it called the TurboTrain. This train would not be powered by electricity, but by a gas turbine. And it could achieve faster speeds than a Shinkansen thanks to an aerodynamic shape and technology that allowed the train to tilt through curves.
Design of the TurboTrain was initially assigned to the Corporate Systems Center of UAC before being passed to Sikorsky Aircraft, another UAC division. An archived brochure for the train details not only the technology involved, but what engineers had to overcome. Japan’s Shinkansen (and later, France’s TGV) run on tracks specifically for high-speed rail applications. They enjoy long, swooping curves, no grade crossings, no freight traffic, and trains go through obstacles rather than around them.
Unfortunately, trains in the Northeast Corridor Demonstration Project had to work with older infrastructure. But as Sikorsky noted in the brochure, a typical train under the influence of centrifugal force in a curve leans outward. That’s fine, normally, but too fast and you risk both comfort and safety.
Since the TurboTrain would be all about speed, UAC decided that it would tilt into the curves. To do this, UAC purchased the patents to a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway study. C&O was developing an articulated train in the 1950s.
These train cars shared a common bogie (truck) instead of each car having two bogies each. The cars sat on A-arms and the forces in a curve would cause the cars to naturally lean into the curve. Air springs were there to smooth out the leaning motions. The body was made of aluminum.
The dome that the UAC trains would become known for was also a C&O creation.
Sikorsky noted that by allowing the forces to be down low, the TurboTrain was able to round curves 30 to 40 percent faster than a conventional train. The company compared the experience to that of when an airplane banks in a turn.
The trains had a distinctive look, too. On the ends of all TurboTrains were rounded power cars. Power cars housed passengers, the crew, and the gas turbines. The crew sat up high and passengers riding in the power cars were able to view what the crew was doing through glass windows.
Common bogies between the cars meant that each trainset was semi-permanent. Since the cars were essentially mated to one another it wasn’t a quick task to swap cars like in a conventional train. Thus, each trainset had power cars on each end. When the train needed to change directions, the crew would just move to the other power car.
This promotional video further explains how the suspension works:
And that power came from an interesting powerplant. Power came from Pratt & Whitney Canada (then a UAC subsidiary) ST6 turboshaft engines. It’s a development of the PT6, a turboprop engine found in numerous aircraft with examples like the Cessna 208 Caravan and the Beechcraft King Air.
Whereas these engines would drive a propeller on a plane, here they’re driving a gearbox, which drives the train’s wheels.
In this application, each ST6 is fed from diesel fuel and is rated at 400 horsepower. The power cars could hold multiple engines. One of the engines of a consist provided head-end power, or electrical power to the train and passenger cars. Sikorsky claimed that a TurboTrain with seven cars and 2,000 horsepower (five ST6 engines) would carry enough passengers to take 150 cars off of the road.
Weirdly, the company keeps with the horsepower figure and says that the train would take 30,000 horsepower off of the road, or about 200 horses per car. It’s unclear how Sikorsky arrived at that figure.
Either way, these trains were fast. On December 20, 1967 a TurboTrain reached 170.8 mph during acceptance testing on a high-speed test track on Penn Central’s mainline. UAC’s creation not only beat the competing Metroliner project, but blasted past the speeds of what the Shinkansen could do back then.
The TurboTrain was put into service in both the United States and Canada in 1968. Units for Canada were built by the Montreal Locomotive Works and initially run by Canadian National Railway. In the States, they were built at the Pullman Works in Chicago and initially operated by the New Haven Railroad. Check out this video on the train!
There are more of these wild videos, like this one that shows the TurboTrain taking off like a spaceship:
As Spacing Magazine writes, riders were treated to a luxurious experience not unlike that of airliner concepts of the day. Riders sat in recliners, walked on carpet, and enjoyed an atmosphere with soft lighting and even draperies. The trains even featured meal service. Seatbacks had folding tables and travelers would put their luggage into an overhead compartment, too.
Unfortunately, these trains would not see those speeds in service. instead, as Canadian news site the Walrus wrote, they would instead travel at a more leisurely 95 mph. And speeds would really only be the start of the train’s issues. In fact, a TurboTrain was involved in an accident only an hour into Canadian service.
As the Walrus reported, the driver of a meat truck tried to beat the TurboTrain across a grade crossing. They failed, and the train reportedly sliced through the truck like butter. Thankfully, the driver survived, but the crash highlighted a difference between American high-speed rail and the Japanese system that inspired it. As Spacing Magazine reported, that crash and the existence of 300 grade crossings meant that those slower speeds were actually mandated.
The Walrus explained further problems. These trains were run on the same rails used by other trains, so they had to slow for tight curves and they still had to worry about car drivers trying to beat the crossings. As I said before, Japan got around this issue by making sure that its Shinkansen didn’t have grade crossings and that the trains enjoyed long, gentle curves.
The site also noted that at the speeds achieved during testing, a TurboTrain could get from Toronto to Montreal would have taken two hours. That–after factoring in the entire process of getting to and from an airport to fly–made it faster than flying and way faster than driving. However, at the actual speeds that the train went, it took four hours, or only an hour faster than a car.
But it got even worse, from Spacing Magazine:
The brakes seized in winter and the exhaust from the engines in the forward locomotive spat soot over the windows. A Turbo caught fire in Toronto in 1970 and frequent technical glitches triggered several prolonged hiatuses, the longest of which took the trains out of service for several years.
It would reportedly take until 1974 for Canadian National and UAC to iron out these issues. By then, TurboTrain operations in the States moved to Penn Central Railroad then to Amtrak. The issues weren’t limited to Canada, either. In 1976, Amtrak sidelined its two prototype trainsets and one trainset that it bought from Canadian National. The reason cited for this? As the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper wrote, an Amtrak spokesman called the trains maintenance nightmares. And with a next generation of train cars on the way, Amtrak decided enough was enough.
Back in Canada, the remaining trainsets continued to run, but with better reliability. As Toronto Star news reported, the trains were on time 97 percent of the time and had a 98.6 percent availability.
Still, the trains were hampered by more roadblocks. As Spacing Magazine notes, not only did the trains have to slow down for grade crossings but freight trains also took priority on the lines. That only further erased the proposed time savings from the TurboTrain. Via Rail took over operations from Canadian National in 1978 and ran the trains until 1982. Then, even Canada called it quits. TurboTrains were replaced with conventional diesel-powered trains.
The TurboTrain isn’t the only application of turbines for a train. You can find turbine power in trainsets throughout history, and even Amtrak had another, slower turbine train with the Turboliner. You may hear more about these in the future!
Today, you won’t find a UAC TurboTrain anywhere. Just seven trainsets were built and all met the scrapper. They now only exist in riders’ memories, the internet, and scale models.