In the mid-1960s, New York Central Railroad engineer Don Wetzel was exploring ways to make trains run safer, cheaper, but most importantly faster. And, clearly, the most logical means of accomplishing all three of these objectives was to strap a pair of US Air Force surplus jet engines to the roof of a prototype high-speed locomotive, creating the world’s fastest self-propelled train. Wait, what?
Built in 1966 by the New York Central Railroad corporation, the M-497 Black Beetle experimental jet-powered locomotive was the first, but surprisingly not the last, of its kind. The Black Beetle utilized an existing Budd Rail Diesel Car (RDC-3) with an added, streamlined front cowling covering the RDC-3’s conventionally blunted nose, and a pair of second-hand General Electric J47-19 jet engines, which had previously been employed as boosters for the Convair B-36 intercontinental bomber, that Wetzel had acquired from the USAF.
At $US5000 for the pair, “They were the cheapest 5000 horsepower engines we could find, “Wetzel recently explained to GE Reports. “They were also the most reliable.” What’s more, Wetzel explained, “The engines could be easily adapted to burn diesel as opposed to jet fuel” making them ideal for use in both the Black Beetle and Wetzel’s previously patented railroad snow blower (below).
As for the design of the RDC-3 itself, Wetzel told GE Reports:
My wife is a commercial artist and she did the streamlining design. The original design had the jet engines on the rear end of the car, but we changed it to the forward end. She said that the car looked a lot better with the engines on the front. There’s an old pilot legend that if an aeroplane looks good, it usually flies good. We felt that if the jet train looked good, it would run good.
Boy, did it ever! The Black Beetle ran a series of time trials over existing tracks running between Butler, Indiana and Stryker, Ohio. This long, straight, and level stretch of railway provided an ideal testing area for the jet train. During its trial runs, the Black Beetle hit an astounding 183.681 mph, which still stands as the high speed record for self-propelled light rail in the United States.
In fact, the M-497 had a slightly higher top speed. Per Wetzel:
On my second run our speed reached 196 mph (315km/h) and we were decelerating when we went through the timing traps. They told me that they wanted the train to run through at 180 mph (290km/h). Everybody thought that it was quite funny that we set a world record while decelerating. We were going 183.35 mph when got through the gate.
Despite the record setting run, the idea of a turbojet train never really took off. While the New York Central Railroad garnered a huge cache of technical data on high-speed rail travel and the resulting track wear and the Soviets quickly fielded their own version, at the time, the project was seen more as a publicity stunt rather than earnest research. Once the trial runs had been completed, the Black Beetle’s jets were removed and the locomotive was returned to normal service.
Though the RDC-3 itself was eventually scrapped in 1984, its jets live on as snow-blower engines and the historic run has been enshrined in this awesome LEGO-fied GIF from Aleksander Stein.