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The Improbable Story of the 184 MPH Jet Train 195

Posted by samzenpus
from the have-jet-will-travel dept.
MatthewVD writes Almost half a century ago, New York Central Railroad engineer Don Wetzel and his team bolted two J47-19 jet engines, throttled up the engines and tore down a length of track from Butler, Indiana to Stryker, Ohio at almost 184 mph. Today, the M-497 still holds the record for America's fastest train. This is the story of how it happened.
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The Improbable Story of the 184 MPH Jet Train

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  • Re:Nice site (Score:5, Informative)

    by waddgodd (34934) on Thursday July 17, 2014 @01:05AM (#47472679) Homepage Journal

    You realize the J47 is a GE jet? Of course they're going to have a "look what cool stuff has been done with our crap" story or five. It's prolly the only place you can find that story told in a semi-reliable fashion anymore.

  • Re:A Century Ago (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 17, 2014 @01:17AM (#47472707)

    It turns out that the US have a much better freight rail system than Europe. This is main reason that rail travel is slow in the US.

  • Re:And? (Score:5, Informative)

    by jonbryce (703250) on Thursday July 17, 2014 @01:51AM (#47472795) Homepage

    The Eurostar between London and Paris / Brussels does 300km/h (186 mph), and that is a normal scheduled service. It isn't even the fastest scheduled service in France.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 17, 2014 @03:26AM (#47473041)

    Sorry, false. European trains have crumple zones, too. They're the areas near the doors, above the axles. You'll generally sit between those areas, not above the axles. This is especially true in high-speed trains where those areas are reserved for luggage etc.

    As for "numerous controls", the EU rail safety system (ERTMS) is not exactly a resounding success. Over time, over budget, and as a result many countries still use their national, outdated 60's-era train control systems. Passing red signs happens in about 1E-6 of red signs, which is definitely an issue with todays crowded rail systems. High-speed rail is less susceptible though because it's newly built without level crossings.

  • Track-train dynamics (Score:5, Informative)

    by Animats (122034) on Thursday July 17, 2014 @03:40AM (#47473093) Homepage

    That jet-powered locomotive was neverintended as a useful means of propulsion. It was just to test track-train dynamics at higher speed. Not much was done with the info, since Amtrak wasn't into high speed rail.

    The next big advances in high speed rail were Japan's Tokaido line and San Francisco's BART, both around 1970. The original Tokaido trains had conventional wheel arrangements, and required a very good and very high maintenance roadbed. The SF BART system had the first trains with an active suspension, with each car body supported on a triangle of three air bags controlled by electronic controls. This allowed a higher body height at higher speed, allowing more wheel travel and a softer suspension. Also, all wheels were powered, as is normal in transit operations.

    The French TGV brought both of those ideas together - high speed plus active suspension with more suspension travel, with all wheels powered. This allowed high speed trains without excessive track wear. (That's a big problem with high speed rail. A French test in 1955 reached 331 km/h, but damaged the track seriously in only one run. There were serious doubts for years whether steel wheel on steel rail could ever go that fast in routine operation.)

    As with cars, there's been more than enough power to go fast for decades. Wheel and suspension issues are what limit speed.

  • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Thursday July 17, 2014 @03:50AM (#47473119) Journal

    And then Amtrak took over all passenger rail-travel, and has never shown a profit since

    Neither has the interstate system. And AMTRACK has to compete with that *massively* subsized road system.

  • by squiggleslash (241428) on Thursday July 17, 2014 @06:46AM (#47473475) Homepage Journal

    I think pretty much everyone accepts the government killed passenger rail. It's not just what you mention, but also state support for suburbanization and the running down of Urban areas, including effective bans on Urban redevelopment (well meant but poorly thought out "parking mandates" effectively made it prohibitively expensive to redevelop land in cities), leading to the flight out of cities to areas where car ownership was mandatory.

    As far as Amtrak losing money on food service, despite it becoming a right-wing meme that this true, it's dubious at best. Amtrak doesn't charge enough for food to cover the costs of providing it, but that's normal, both commercial services - even pre-1950s when most passenger services were profitable - and government provided services generally don't expect to make their money from charges for food.

    What makes food service profitable is that passengers ride the train that otherwise wouldn't. Tell Amtrak to discontinue food service, and it would destroy ridership on their already poorly performing long distance services. The subsidy needed to continue operating them would skyrocket, and would be immensely high per-passenger.

    This wouldn't even be an argument but for some stupid politics in the 1980s, where Congress started to micromanage the service and decided, despite the fact no commercial railroad would dream of doing such a thing, to demand Amtrak make food service "pay" for itself out of food service charges, rather than be paid for in part through ticket revenue.

    So why is Amtrak unprofitable?

    Amtrak's actually pretty profitable in one area, the NEC, which is where they control their tracks and were able to build a redundant (that is, a train covering stops already covered by other trains) service that people actually wanted to use, and charge commercial rates for it.

    The big problem is outside of that area, it has much less flexibility. It runs very slow (average 40mph) trains that are slow because they stop every 20-30 minutes. Why do they stop every 20-30 minutes?

    Want to know? Specifically, why does the SIlver Star stop in both Orlando and Winter Park which are both part of the same metro area?

    Answer: because Orlando gives them Corrine Brown's vote when funding comes up in Congress, and Winter Park gets them a (semi-reluctant, he's having to avoid attacks of being a RINO from a strong Tea Party movement) John Mica's vote. And likewise there's a train in, I don't know, the North West that stops every twenty minutes to get votes there too. And each vote crosses over. The votes in the North West are for both the Empire Builder and the Silver Star, you can't vote for one without the other. Brown and Mica's votes are, again, for the Silver Star and the Empire Builder.

    Ludicrous? Yes. But we don't have a Congress based upon people deciding the "right" thing to do for the country, we have one based upon people deciding the popular thing for their constituents.

    Given enough capital funding, Amtrak could probably do to the rest of the country what it's done to the North East, but it'll never get that funding, because what it needs to do is something that'd involve dropping stops, and thus dropping supporters. The good news is that private railroads are finally taking an interest, and there are projects in both Florida and Texas right now - active, in the process of getting regulatory approval, by companies who own or will own the tracks - to start building what people want to use, not what Congress makes possible.

    I'm not blaming Amtrak for this state of affairs. I'm blaming Congress, and by extension, us voters.

  • by Virtucon (127420) on Thursday July 17, 2014 @09:44AM (#47474271)

    You know it amazes me to still here this from folks. I'll let you in on a little secret. The reason Amtrak was formed was because the Penn Central was bleeding money and they had the Northeast Corridor (NEC). Since a lot of Congressmen and Senators actually rode the train into DC this could be a problem if the Penn curtailed or discontinued service. Of course it couldn't because it had a long standing agreements with the government to provide passenger service. As a matter of fact all of the huge land tracks that were granted to railroads in this country included little hooks for passenger rail service. Sure, the railroads from post WWII were losing money on passenger service because people were buying cars and the feds were sponsoring airports and the national highway system. But instead of letting the railroads drop unprofitable lines, the government pushed them to continue their agreements. The government regulated Railroads and some thing airlines are the most regulated, think again. The CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) covering Railroads is extensive and still in force even in a deregulation climate. Some of the passenger services became shadows such as running an RCD (Rail Car Diesel) as a train for example instead of a multi-car train. The point is the government has been involved in Railroads in this country for a very long time. Republican or Democratic administrations, it doesn't matter hell the PRR received a $77m [wikipedia.org] loan for electrification from the new deal which was a chunk of change back then. For comparison the Hoover dam only cost $46m during the same era. [wikipedia.org]

    So in the late 60s the Penn Central now with more absorbed Railroads consolidated and more miles of track and debt tied on started losing money, so much so that it filed for bankruptcy in 1970. This sent a shock wave up and down the east coast. Backroom deals were being hashed because a Federal Bankruptcy judge would allow the Penn Central to abandon less profitable passenger service, even if they had contracts and deals to provide it. What would the east coast people do and more importantly how would the Senators and Congressman who'd become accustomed to getting to / from DC quickly do? So a backroom deal was done and Amtrak was created but when other Railroads heard about the deal they said "hey, no fair" and lobbied their Congressmen and Senators and that's why boys and girls all interstate passenger rail service went to Amtrak as part of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 [wikipedia.org] Of course the NEC was untouched but most of the country lost passenger service. At that point the Feds were 100% in the Railroad business and because it was set up as a for profit corporation under the DOT that meant that nobody in Amtrak could ever do anything like drop or add routes without bureaucrats or congressional approval. That's not a company, that's a federal service and more importantly Amtrak is the Federal Governments toy railroad with special earmarks having been placed in front if it all along the way to add or improve service. That's all politics and Amtrak could be viable if it was allowed to drop everything but the NEC but that's not going to happen and really, think about this: Amtrak's total budget request for 2014 was $2.6 billion. [wikipedia.org] Considering how much money we put into horseshit in this country that's not a lot of money but if you want Amtrak to be a independent corporation, which it isn't, it has to have an independent board who aren't appointed by the DOT and it has to be given enough funding to stretch into profitability and also, regrettably it needs to abandon routes that don't make financial sense.

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