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Technology Idle

The Improbable Story of the 184 MPH Jet Train 195

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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  • ....there were electric trams in New York. Then, a major US corporation named GMC lobbied to have them shut down and replaced with fossil-fueled rubber tired buses.

    The result is the situation we enjoy today. Not a random act of destiny, but more an act of corporate greed, irresponsibility and old fashioned govt. graft. Welcome to America.
    • Re:A Century Ago (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Thursday July 17, 2014 @12:48AM (#47472645)

      Keep in mind, the majority of the negatives you're attributing to malice weren't even a concern to the majority of scientists at the time.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      This. Fast trains are not rocket science...unless you live in the US of A. Here it is a Jetson's fantasy future world to have trains that can get you from point A to B faster than a car.

      In the rest of the world, meh, not so much. Been there, done that.

      Hate to break it you America, but our shit does stink. We're headed toward 3rd world status, all for the want of motivation.

      I'll get modded to negative infinity pretty soon by the folks who can't face the truth, but America needs to get off its ass and get mov
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        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.

        • by stomv ( 80392 )

          That, and the insistence of running freight, commuter rail, and long distance passenger rail on the same set of tracks.

          • That, and the insistence of having Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas and a whole Imperial crapload of miles between the population centers. (Sorry, Denver, you don't really count.)

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Europeans laugh when Americans think 100 years is a long time.

        Americans laugh when Europeans think 100 miles is a long distance.

        Any trip in America much longer than one tank of gas you're most likely better off flying, because if you're going that far you're probably going a LONG ways, and jets are faster than any train will ever be. America, unlike Europe, simple lacks a sufficient number of destinations beyond casual driving distance but close enough for trains to still beat planes because they don't have

        • Re:A Century Ago (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Sique ( 173459 ) on Thursday July 17, 2014 @05:08AM (#47473279) Homepage
          Jets might be faster for the actual distance, but considering the whole time of travel, they aren't really faster. Boarding a train takes 5 mins. boarding a plane with all the security checks takes 1 hour. In this 55 mins, a bullet train of 150 mph goes 100 miles (and that's including acceleration). And then you have to go to the airport, while the train station is downtown, this takes another 1 hrs to get there, and 1 hrs to go from the airport downtown at your destination. In this time, the train has covered another 200 miles. Yes, the plane may take for the 400 mls flight only 1 hour, but the whole trip takes you 4 hrs, and in this time, the train makes it also to the destination.
          • I had a flight from my local airport to Dallas/FtWorth which is about 750 miles. My boarding time was 8:46am with the flight taking off at 9:11am, scheduled.

            It takes 30 minutes for me to drive to the airport, though I live on the opposite side of the city from where it's located. I arrived at the airport at 8:43am. Printed my boarding passes off, there, at 8:45am. I was in and through the TSA checkpoint by 8:49am. I was on the plane by 8:53am (10 minutes to board my plane). We were in the air by 9:07am for

            • I don't know what airline you are on, but if you arrived at 8:43 for a 9:07 flight on most airlines, they would not let you on the plane. Policy is that you must be at the boarding area 30 minutes prior to takeoff. Many of them won't even let you check in and get your boarding pass, let alone attempt to make it through security.
            • I'd say you are lucky and possibly have a really good Federal Security Director at your airport. I regularly spend a half hour in the TSA line and have spent over an hour multiple times in different cities. Though to be fair I've also gotten through in 5 minutes, and the time isn't necessarily predictable. If you need to check a bag that can add 5 minutes to an hour, plus the 20 minutes in advance that you should be at the gate and the fact that airlines and the TSA aren't generally sympathetic if you are r
        • I routinely have to travel from Dayton Oh to Knob Noster Mo. It is an 8 hour drive, Flying into their regional airport which is an hour away takes about 7 hours and I have been stranded there because even though I had a reservation there were no cars to be rented. The other option is going to Kansas City which has a 90 minute drive on the end of it and takes 7.5 hours all together. Flying through the southwest it's even worse as small regional airports can be over an hour away and larger airports over two h
          • And don't forget about those without cars, so it's either Greyhound (on an equivalent), trains, or airlines for long distances.
        • by Megol ( 3135005 )

          I'm European and don't think 100 miles is an especially long distance. To visit my sister I have to travel >300 miles. Car is okay, flight is also okay (but transfer to/from airports take a lot of time) but taking the high speed train is fast, comfortable and inexpensive. Even counting the transfer to the nearest train station the train is the fastest way to travel. And while doing that using Internet on the notebook computer (plugged into an AC jack) and relaxing in the comfortable chair

      • You're right.

        OK France is much smaller than the USA, but it's still pretty big, and the TGV trains have been a huge success, attracting travellers away from air and road. With zero fatalities since its inception.
        And of course, runs on cheap, low-carbon electricty generated by France's nuclear power stations...
        So fast, safe and green. What more do you want?

        http://www.thetransportpolitic... []

      • The majority of passenger trips in the US are either less than 50 miles, or more than a thousand, with almost nothing in between. At the short end, the flexibility of car travel beats the cost reduction of rail; at the long end, the speed of air travel beats rail.

        The only exception to this is the BosWash area [], where -- guess what? -- Amtrak is able to provide profitable rail service. It's not motivation that keeps the US from having good passenger rail service, it's geography.

    • Look at LA's transit history. Or watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Of course, in reality the Judge Dooms of this world won.
    • That's a nice story you have there. The reality is a little more complex than an attractive conspiracy theory. []
  • Yes, I know, I know. The crazy Libertarian talk. But that is, what happened [] — a combination of government regulating the cost of tickets, while imposing heavy taxes and building highways, where automobiles — both passenger and goods-carrying — could travel for less and less.

    And then Amtrak took over all passenger rail-travel, and has never shown a profit since — losing money on the most idiotic things [] — while, demanding the passengers "carry identification at all times" []...

    • 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.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      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

    • The long-distance railroads in the U.S. were built by giving away land stolen from other peoples. Not just land to build the lines on, but a checkerboard of land for miles on both sides of the track, land that the railroads could sell to recoup their capital.

      Many of these railroads were later bought out by John D. Rockefeller so that he could kill his competitors in the oil business by making it unprofitable for anyone else to transport petroleum.

      Subsidy and monopoly are the parents of American railroads. O

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

      Contrast with Japan. Their nationalized railway network was privatized decades ago, and along with the other private railways it is heavily regulated. Yet it is still a massive success, investing vast amounts of money in infrastructure and upgrades.

      Regulation isn't the problem, stupidity is.

    • 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 [] 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. []

      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 [] 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. [] 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.

      • by mi ( 197448 )

        The reason Amtrak was formed was because the Penn Central was bleeding

        Yep. The classic case [] of:

        • If it moves, tax it
        • if it keeps moving — regulate it
        • When it stops moving — subsidize it.

        Seems like you are confirming what I said, even though you begin with a rhetorical disbelief of hearing it again...

        • It's not rhetoric when it's fact. Railroads have a very poor history when it comes to dealing fairly with the public and there was a real threat based upon facts and incidents that led to the regulations but if the people believe that the huge tracts of land that were granted to the industry didn't come with strings, then they're sadly mistaken. Hence they were probably more unfairly regulated and tasked with mandates including mandatory passenger service. It was for the public good and for fostering gro

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

      Passenger rail has never been a profitable business in the US.

    • by ogdenk ( 712300 )

      — while, demanding the passengers "carry identification at all times" []...

      Yeah.... if I want to deal with TSA Gestapo bullshit, I'll just fly. The cost is comparable to flying if you buy a soda or two on the train. And you get there slower.

      If taking the rails were less hassle, the trains were better maintained and slightly faster, I'd choose them every time for domestic travel over flying.

      The TSA is KILLING commercial mass transit IMHO.

  • And? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ledow ( 319597 ) on Thursday July 17, 2014 @12:53AM (#47472661) Homepage

    So in 1966 it took two jet engines to reach 184mph.

    Whereas in 1938 it took only a quite ordinary, in-service steam train to get to 125mph.

    Does anyone think that, by comparison, the jet-engine thing isn't really that impressive?

    • by Belial6 ( 794905 )
      That's how I feel about my 2012 Prius getting 42 MPG while my 1992 Geo Metro got 52 MPG.
      • by cdrudge ( 68377 )

        It's strange [] how your Metro is nearly 10MPG higher then it's rated economy, while your Prius is 10MPG lower than it's. Plus I also bet your Metro didn't get anywhere near 52MPG city driving where your Prius is designed for it's best economy due to regenerative braking.

    • Wind resistance follows a square law. It is impressive to get 47% more speed.

      • by Andy_R ( 114137 )

        The frontal area to mass ratio of a train is tiny compared to almost every other form of transport, so that's less of a problem.

        The limiting factor with trains is usually the track, for really high speeds you need to almost completely smooth out the bends and flatten the hills, the impressive part of the jet train is that it went so fast on a track designed for much, much lower speeds.

    • 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.

    • A Bugatti Veyron has a 8L W6 quad-turbo 1000HP engine and goes 400kph.
      My old subaru wagon had a 2L twin turbo 280HP engine with a top speed of 270kph.

      That's only about 47% faster too.
      Not really that impressive!


    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      Further to my post:

      The Mallard was steam-powered. It had 157.7kN of tractive effort. That's force (thrust) before rolling resistance.

      Each one of those jets has 23kN of thrust before resistance. So two of them is still less than half of the Mallard EVEN IF you assume that half it's total energy is wasted trying to push the wheels at that speed.

      And this had been 30 years earlier. Within only months of being built, and then going on to retirement as a normal train in 1963. This train had done it, casually

      • by Alioth ( 221270 )

        The thing is the jet train - now I appreciate the effort and it is pretty cool - wasn't a train at all, it was just a light locomotive. The Mallard record was done with a train. It wasn't just a light loco, there were other vehicles coupled to the Mallard when it did the 125mph run.

    • Nah. There's a lot of crap spoken about the NYC Jet train thing. One presumption, which has more to do with smarty-pants hindsight, is that it was a prototype for a serious train, that NYC actually planned to run high speed trains like that. But that's not the case.

      NYC added jets to some unused rolling stock because it was a _quick_ _cheap_ way to get a train to go fast. They wanted a train to go fast because they were studying how high speed trains would interact with the track. Would it be possible to

    • In the late 1800's, Dr. Emmett Brown and Marty McFly got a train up to just over 88mph before it careened off the end of a bridge still being constructed. No rockets were used in that endeavor. Just carefully staged fuel pellets. I watched a documentary on this a long time ago.

  • Americans bring jet engines on their 180mph trains. Conclusion: Americans are so much more bad ass than Europeans. Now get off the track that runs through my lawn, you socialist hippie.

  • That says something about the state of train travel in the US. That ain't nothing to be proud of: there are trains in Europe and Japan that have been running regular services at higher speeds for a long time.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 17, 2014 @02:02AM (#47472821)

    Meanwhile, the Japanese Shinkansen (Bullet Train) started regular commercial service a full two years earlier in 1964. Shinkansen now routinely exceed 200mph, although the first ones (Series 0) ran at 137mph.

    For those that have never used the Shinkansen, they are truly awesome. They leave and arrive to the scheduled minute. There is no TSA bullshit, so you can arrive at the station a few minutes before departure. There's loads of leg room. For any journey less than around 3-4 hours there is no point thinking about air travel.

    Amusingly, the Shinkansen actually makes Japanese domestic airports more efficient as well. After all, the more crap a traveller has to deal with at the airport, the more likely they are to take the train. Thus, there is no TSA bullshit at Japanese domestic airports and you can arrive 10 minutes before your flight and easily make boarding.

  • Your fastest train of all time doesn't even make the top 10 current passenger trains normal running speed.

  • 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 Alioth ( 221270 )

      You miss out one innovation - Talgo rolling stock. The company by that name in the Basque country (Spain) developed a lightweight, low CofG articulated train that could efficiently run at high speeds (Talgo is an anacronym - Tren Articulado Ligero Goicoechea Oriol - Lightweight Articulated Train by Golcechea Oriol). The current Talgo designed high speed units run up to 320km/h (just over 190 mph) and have an entirely passive tilting mechanism. The wheelsets are connected via the roof of each vehicle so the

  • The LIMRV hit 188 in 1972 and 256 in 1974.

    This Budd gizmo isn't even close.

  • Try that today and there would be not only bureaucrats in your way but bureaucratic engineers who would complain about the metal in the tracks, the wheels, the bearings, everything.

    I find that so little of human accomplishment today is real, it tends to be more accountants and PR people who have a long checklist having to explain why their product is better. Elon Musk must make these kinds of people weep; by saying what he is going to do in plain English and then doing it. He doesn't have to explain why

User hostile.