Category Archives: Rail

Pennsylvania Railroad 6-4-4-6 S1 Locomotive

By William Pearce

PRR S1 6100 top

The Pennsylvania Railroad S1 engine 6100 in February 1939, shortly after completion. The S1 was the longest and heaviest rigid frame reciprocating steam passenger locomotive ever built. Note the dual stacks protruding slightly above the engine’s streamlined claddin

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was founded in 1846 and headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the first half of the 20th century, PRR was the largest railroad by traffic and revenue in the United States. At one time, PRR was the largest publicly traded corporation in the world, with a budget larger than that of the U.S. government and a workforce of approximately 250,000 people.

In 1937, PRR sought to design a coal-burning steam locomotive that would pull heavy passenger trains for long runs at better than 60 mph (97 km/h). Accomplishing such tasks typically required the use of two engines pulling a single train (double-heading). PRR also hoped that the performance of the new engine would match that of the new electric locomotives just then coming into service. The new steam locomotive would serve as an experimental prototype for the railroad as it worked to modernize its fleet. The new locomotive was designated as the S1 class, and PRR collaborated with the American Locomotive Company, the Baldwin Locomotive Works, and the Lima Locomotive Works in designing and building the engine. The S1 was built in PRR’s Altoona Works in Altoona, Pennsylvania during 1938. The S1 was given the Altoona serial number 4341 and the PRR number 6100.

The PRR S1 was a unique duplex locomotive that utilized a 6-4-4-6 wheel arrangement. A six-wheel leading truck with 36 in (.91 m) wheels was positioned at the front of the engine. A set of four 84 in (2.13 m) drive wheels followed, trailed by another identical set of four drive wheels. A six-wheel trailing truck with 42 in (1.07 m) wheels was positioned at the rear of the engine. What made the S1 a duplex locomotive was its use of two separate pairs of cylinders mounted to a rigid frame. Each cylinder pair drove a set of four drive wheels. The two trucks and four pairs of drive wheels were mounted to a single-piece frame bed made of cast steel by General Steel Castings in St Louis, Missouri. The cylinders and their valve chests were integrally cast with the frame. The frame was 77 ft 9.5 in (23.7 m) long, weighed 97,620 lb (44,280 kg), and was the largest locomotive bed casting ever made. However, the use of a long rigid frame meant that the engine would not be able to operate on tracks with significant curves.

PRR S1 6100 construction

The S1 under construction with its large firebox and boiler being attached to the engine’s huge cast steel frame. While mostly concealed, the single-piece frame can be seen supporting the leading and trailing truck

With an overall length of 140 ft 2.5 in (42.7 m), the S1 was the longest rigid frame reciprocating steam passenger locomotive ever built, a fact that earned it the nickname The Big Engine. The S1 was made up of an 81 ft 1.75 in (24.7 m) long engine and a 59 ft .75 in (18.0 m) long tender that carried the locomotive’s coal and water. The engine weighed 608,170 lb (275,862 kg), and its weight was distributed with 135,100 lb (61,280 kg) on the leading truck, 191,630 lb (86,922 kg) on the trailing truck (326,730 lb / 148,202 kg total on the trucks), and 281,440 lb (127,659 kg) on the driving wheels. This distribution meant that less than half (46.28%) of the engine’s weight was on the driving wheels, a configuration that often led to wheel slip.

The tender was supported by two eight-wheel trucks with 36 in (.91 m) wheels. It carried 53,000 lb (24,040 kg) of coal in a front compartment and 24,230 gallons (91,720 L) of water in a rear compartment. When combined with the engine, the 451,840 lb (204,951 kg) tender gave the S1 a total weight of 1,060,010 lb (480,813 kg). The locomotive was 15 ft 6 in (4.7 m) tall and 10 ft 7 in (3.2 m) wide.

PRR S1 6100 NY Fair

The S1 atop its special display stand at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The stand enabled the engine to operate daily at up to 60 mph (97 km/h). Note that the tender is painted as “American Railroads.”

An HT type mechanical stoker auger transported coal from the tender to the engine’s firebox. The firebox was 198 in (5.03 m) long and 96 in (2.44 m) wide. Coal was burned in the firebox at around 2,000 °F (1,093 °C). Heat from the firebox flowed through the boiler via 219 tubes that were 2.25 in (57.2 mm) in diameter and 69 flues that were 5.5 in (139.7 mm) in diameter. Each of the tubes and flues was 22 ft (6.7 m) long. The 288 tubes and flues would stretch for 6,336 ft (1,931 m) if laid end to end. The boiler was made from approximately 1 in (254 mm) thick nickel steel. After passing through the tubes, the soot, embers, smoke, and heat from the burning coal flowed into a smokebox at the front of the engine and was subsequently vented into the atmosphere via dual vertical stacks. Spent steam from the cylinders was directed through the smokebox and helped create the draft that drew air into the firebox, through the tubes, and out the stacks. The stacks were approximately 21 in (533 mm) in diameter and protruded 4.875 in (124 mm) above the top of the engine.

The tubes, flues, and firebox of the S1 had a combined evaporative surface area of 5,661 sq ft (525.9 sq m). Heat radiating from these surfaces turned water in the boiler to steam and built up a working pressure of 300 psi (20.7 bar). With a temperature of over 420 °F (215 °C), the wet, saturated steam was collected from slots along the top of a pipe inside the boiler shell. The steam then flowed to the modified Type A superheater, which had a surface area of 2,085 sq ft (193.7 sq m). From the superheater, 69 small superheater elements (tubes) took the wet steam back into the flues. The steam inside the superheater elements was heated well above its saturation value and converted to dry, superheated steam. The superheater elements delivered the dry steam to the steam chamber in the superheater.

PRR S1 6100 Raymond Loewy

Raymond Lowey proudly poses with the S1 at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The engine is mounted on its display stand, and a roller can be seen under the front drive wheel.

The flow of steam in and out of each of the engine’s four cylinders was controlled by a Walschaerts valve gear. A 12 in (305 mm) diameter piston spool valve was mounted in a valve chest above each cylinder. The steam-distribution valve slid back and forth 7.5 inches (191 mm) to allow steam to enter one side of the double-acting cylinder while simultaneously opening the other side to exhaust the previous steam charge. The steam flowed from the center of the valve chest into the front of the cylinder and filled its 9,883 cu in (162 L) volume, pushing the 22 in (558.8 mm) diameter piston back 26 in (660.4 mm) to the rear of the cylinder. The valve then slid rearward to direct steam into the rear part of the cylinder and allow the front part of the cylinder to exhaust. Steam entering the rear part of the cylinder pushed the piston forward to its original position. The cylinder had a smaller return volume of approximately 9,321 cu in (153 L) on account of the 5.25 in (133 mm) diameter piston rod taking up some room. The piston rod extended straight back from the cylinder and was attached to the connecting rod via a crosshead. The connecting rod linked the piston rod to the rear driving wheel in the two-wheel set on each side of the engine. Here, the connecting rod was attached to the coupling rod, which connected the two driving-wheel sets together. The reciprocating parts for each of the four two-wheel driving sets weighed 1,010 lb (458 kg). To aid traction, sand could be deposited on the rails in front of all four front drive wheels and in front of the last pair of rear drive wheels. Two sand boxes were positioned on each side of the engine.

The S1 was designed to haul a 1,200-ton (1,089-t) passenger train at 100 mph (161 km/h). The engine developed around 6,500 indicated hp (4,847 kW) at 100 mph (161 km/h) and had a maximum tractive effort of some 76,400 lbf (339.8 kN) based on an 85% efficiency factor. Without any slip, each rotation of the drive wheels moved the engine 22 ft (6.7 m). At 100 mph (161 km/h), each drive wheel rotated 400 times a minute, and each double-acting piston made 800 strokes. This resulted in roughly 17,781 cu ft (503.5 cu m) of steam passing through the S1’s four cylinders every minute.

PRR S1 6100 Englewood snow

Early in its life, the S1 heads east from Englewood Union Station as the “Manhattan Limited.” The nameplate at the front of the engine says “Manhattan.” Note that all of the engine’s skirting and paneling is in place.

The S1 was encased in Art Deco-styled cladding designed by Raymond Loewy. The streamlined cladding consisted of aluminum panels that covered the boiler and extended to a bullet-shaped nose at the front of the engine. Skirt panels covered the lower part of the engine and partially concealed the running gear. The cladding was adorned with chrome handrails and trim accents. The S1’s low-profile stacks were concealed in a fairing atop the engine. Loewy had worked with PRR when he designed the streamlined cladding for the K4 engine 3768 in 1936. Additional K4 engines were streamlined, but not to the extent of 3768. Loewy’s S1 styling was a direct development of his work on engine 3768. It is often claimed that Loewy was awarded US patent 2,128,490 for his S1 design, but this patent was applied for on 17 July 1936 and actually details his work on the K4 engine 3768.

Completed on 31 January 1939, the S1 cost PRR approximately $669,780 USD to build, which is equivalent to $11,912,085 USD in 2018. After undergoing some initial testing, the S1 was showcased at the 1939 World’s Fair held at Flushing Meadows Corona Park on Long Island, New York from 30 April 1939 to 27 October 1940. The entire railroad display was sponsored by 27 railroads from the eastern United States. Still numbered as 6100, the S1 was branded “American Railroads” rather than the “Pennsylvania” it wore later in life. The S1 sat atop a special stand that enabled the locomotive to be operated at speed under its own power. In the stand, the engine’s drive wheels powered generators. Electricity created by the generators was used to power motors that turned the 12 wheels of the leading and trailing trucks and the 16 wheels on the tender. The drive system in the stand was configured so that all wheels turned at the same rpm. While the display was open during the 16-month fair, the S1 was operated daily from 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM at 60 mph (97 km/h). By the end of the fair, the S1 had traveled some 50,000 miles (81,467 km) without moving from the stand.

PRR S1 6100 NYC

The S1 moves east from Englewood Union Station as the “Trailblazer.” In service, the S1 began to lose some of its skirting and paneling, like the piece at the front of the engine. The panels were removed for access and often never replaced. A New York Central J-3a 4-6-4 Hudson occupies another track.

After the fair, the S1 was finally pressed into service for the PRR in December 1940. While the S1 made for an impressive sight on its special display stand, operating the engine on standard track presented some difficulties. The wide, long, and heavy rigid locomotive could not operate on tracks with tight turns or obstructions, which included most of PRR’s system. PRR sent the S1 to operate on a 283-mile (455-km) straight route of the main line from Chicago, Illinois to Crestline, Ohio. Special facilities were built in Crestline to house and maintain the S1. Even so, the locomotive occasionally derailed during turning operations on a special section of wye track.

In the early 1940s, the S1 was operated in profitable service pulling one of the longest passenger trains for PRR—a 2,000-ton (1,814-t) train consisting of 22 cars. The S1 was popular with crews because of its speed, power, and smooth ride. However, the majority of the S1’s weight rested on the leading and trailing trucks rather than on the engine’s eight drive wheels. Frequent wheel slip was an issue—the engineer needed to be careful opening the throttle, and the duplex engine arrangement made it difficult to quickly detect when the drive wheels were slipping. Wheel slip at speed would quickly damage drive components. Some of the S1’s aerodynamic skirting was removed to ease inspection and maintenance. The discarded skirting also allowed better access to the engine’s 350 grease fittings that needed daily servicing. On a standard 283-mile (455-km) run between Chicago and Crestline, the S1 consumed 48,000 lb (21,772 kg) of coal and 36,000 gallons (136,275 L) of water.

PRR S1 6100 no skirts

All of the skirting has been removed from the S1’s drive wheels and trailing truck. While the S1 proved to be quite capable of pulling passenger trains at high speeds, it was too big for most tracks and suffered from wheel slip.

In service, the S1 would regularly top 100 mph (161 km/h). On a test run with 12 loaded cars, Charlie Wappes, assistant road foreman of PRR’s Fort Wayne division, observed the S1’s speedometer needle pegged at the gauge’s 110 mph (177 km/h) maximum. Wappes pulled out his stopwatch and timed the train from the Wanatah, Indiana station to the Hanna, Indiana station. The S1 covered the 6.3-mile (10.1-km) distance in 170 seconds, a time that averages to 133.4 mph (214.7 km/h). Other second-hand reports indicate the S1 traveling over 140 mph (225 km/h) on multiple occasions, and an inconceivable top speed of 156 mph (251 km/h) was claimed on a run between Fort Wayne, Indiana to Chicago, Illinois. PRR was reportedly fined for this speed, as the track’s limit was 80 mph (129 km/h). The official (and still current) speed record for a steam locomotive was set by the British LNER (London and North Eastern Railway) Class A4 4468 Mallard at 125.88 mph (202.58 km/h) on 3 July 1938. While it seems possible that the S1 may have been able to break the record, the S1 never made any official speed record attempts, and there is no official documentation that corroborates these high-speed claims.

The S1 was purely an experimental engine, and its operation was very limited. The locomotive was too long for almost all railway turntables, and its long rigid frame could not take the curves into most railyards. But, the S1’s wheel slip trouble, caused by the majority of the engine’s weight resting on the trucks rather than the drive wheels, was perhaps the engine’s biggest issue. After just a few years of operation, the sole S1 was removed from service. Some sources indicate the S1’s last run was in December 1945, while other sources give the date as May 1946. Regardless, the impressive, powerful, and ultimately unsuccessful S1 engine 6100 was scrapped in 1949. However, some of the lessons learned from the S1 were applied to the last steam locomotives built by the PRR, the 4-4-4-4 engines of the T1 class.

PRR S1 6100 color

The S1 under power late in its life with all of its skirting removed. In addition, the trim is gone from the front of the engine, and the tender has been repainted without any striping. Note the separate cylinders connected to the drive wheels.

Loco Profile 24: Pennsylvania Duplexii by Brian Reed (June 1972)
Pennsy Power (I) by Alvin F. Staufer (1962)
“High-Capacity Locomotive for Fast Service” Railway Age Vol. 106, No. 25 (24 June 1939)
“Riding the Gargantua of the Rails” by Roderick M. Grant, Popular Mechanics (December 1941)

Schwerer Gustav firing test

Krupp 80 cm Kanone Schwerer Gustav (Dora) Railway Gun

By William Pearce

In the 1930s, France constructed the Maginot Line, which was a series of fortifications and obstacles intended to protect the country against invasion from the east (Germany). The Maginot Line was to serve as an impenetrable wall of defense. Naturally, when one country develops a new defensive technology, other countries rush to develop a way to defeat that technology.

Schwerer Gustav firing test

The Krupp 80 cm Kanone (E) Schwerer Gustav / Dora being readied for a test firing on 19 March 1943 at Rügenwalde, Germany. Albert Speer (right), Adolf Hitler (second from right), and a number of other officials observed the firing. Hitler referred to the impractical gun as “meine stählerne faust (my steel fist).”

After studying details of Maginot Line fortifications that were published in French newspapers, it became apparent to German Wehrmacht (combined armed forces) planners that they did not possess any weapon capable of penetrating the fortifications. In 1935, the Wehrmacht requested Friedrich Krupp AG (Krupp), a heavy industry conglomerate in Essen, Germany, to prepare ballistics reports for guns firing 27.6, 31.5, 33.5, and 39.4 in (70, 80, 85, and 100 cm) shells. The goal was to fire the gun outside of the enemy’s artillery range and be able to penetrate 23 ft (7 m) of reinforced concrete or 3 ft (1 m) of steel armor. The Krupp factory dutifully ran the calculations and supplied the requested information but took no further action.

In March 1936, Adolf Hitler visited the Krupp factory and asked Gustav Krupp (von Bohlen und Halbach), head of the Krupp organization, what type of weapon was needed to smash through the Maginot Line. Krupp, recalling the recent report, was able to answer Hitler’s question in some detail. Krupp explained that a 33.5 in (80 cm) railway gun could be constructed and would be able to defeat the Maginot Line. After Hitler’s visit, Krupp directed his design staff to begin the layout of such a weapon. Erich Müller was the head of the artillery development department at Krupp and began working on the gun’s design.

Schwerer Gustav cradle assymbly

Nicknamed Dora by its crew, the massive gun was broken down into 25 pieces and transported by rail to its firing location. Two gantry cranes were used to reassemble the gun. Here, the cradle is being positioned into the carrier. Note the three normal railroad tracks and the special track for the cranes.

In early 1937, Krupp met with Hitler and presented him with the design for the 33.5 in (80 cm) railway gun. Hitler approved of what he saw, and the German Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres) commissioned Krupp to build three guns under the designation 80 cm Kanone (E). However, the guns quickly became known as Schwerer Gustav (Heavy Gustav), named after Gustav Krupp. Hitler wanted the first gun to be ready by March 1940.

The Schwerer Gustav was an absolutely huge weapon. The rifled barrel consisted of two halves, with the rear half covered by a jacket. The complete barrel was 106 ft 7 in (32.48 m) long, and its rifling was .39 in (10 mm) deep. Attached to the rear of the barrel was the cradle and breechblock. Mounted to the cradle were four hydraulic recoil absorbers. Trunnions held the gun’s cradle in two huge carriers and enabled the barrel to be elevated from 0 to 65 degrees. Each carrier was supported by four railroad trucks: two in the front and two in the rear. Each of the eight trucks was made up of five axles, giving the Schwerer Gustav a total of 80 wheels that were carried on two parallel sets of railroad tracks. The gun used a diesel-powered generator to provide power to run its systems. The Schwerer Gustav was 155 ft 2 in (47.30 m) long, 23 ft 4 in (7.10 m) wide, and 38 ft 1 in (11.60 m) tall. The barrel, cradle, and breech weighed 881,848 lb (400,000 kg), and the complete gun weighed 2,976,237 lb (1,350,000 kg).

Schwerer Gustav assymbly tracks

This image gives a good view of the tracks needed to assemble the Schwerer Gustav. One pair of D 311 locomotives is positioned in front of the gun.

In addition to needing parallel tracks, the Schwerer Gustav required its track to be curved up to 15 degrees. The gun had no built-in ability to traverse, so horizontal aiming (azimuth) was accomplished by moving the entire gun along the curved track. Extra bracing was added to the inside rail of both tracks along the shooting curve. This bracing helped prevent the tracks from being damaged due to the gun’s recoil. A massive effort was needed to transport and set up the Schwerer Gustav for firing.

The gun was broken down and transported on 25 freight cars, which did not include crew or supplies. Near where the gun was to be deployed, a spur line was laid from the main rail line. Three parallel tracks were then laid where the Schwerer Gustav was to be assembled. Two of the tracks supported the gun, and the third track allowed for parts and equipment to be brought in. A single rail was laid on both sides of the three parallel tracks. These widespread rails were for two gantry cranes to take parts from the third track and move them in position to assemble the Schwerer Gustav. Two parallel tracks extended from the assembly point to the firing position of the Schwerer Gustav. Dirt was piled up high on both sides of the double track to protect the gun from attack and allow it to be covered by camouflage netting. It took around 250 men 54 hours to assemble the Schwerer Gustav, and it took weeks for 2,000 to 4,500 men to lay the needed tracks and prepare the gun’s firing position. In addition, two Flak (Flugabwehrkanone or air defense cannon) battalions were needed to protect the gun from an aerial assault.

Schwerer Gustav captured shell

Allied soldiers pose in front of a captured projectile (left) and an obturation case (right). The projectile had a ballistic nose cone made of aluminum.

Krupp built special diesel-electric locomotives to move the Schwerer Gustav into firing position and to transport supplies. These locomotives were designated D 311, and two were paired together to act as a single unit, for a total of four engines to move the gun. Each locomotive was powered by a 940 hp (700 kW) six-cylinder MAN diesel engine. The engine ran a generator that provided power to traction motors mounted on the locomotive’s bogies. Ammunition was delivered via the twin rails behind the Schwerer Gustav. Hoists on the back of the gun would lift the ammunition to the firing deck. The shell was hoisted up one side of the gun, and the powder bags and a brass obturation case were hoisted up the other side. A hydraulic ram loaded the shell into the breach, followed by the powder bags and the case. Once loaded, the gun was raised into firing position. It took 20 to 45 minutes to load the gun and prepare it for firing. Only 14 to 16 shots could be fired each day.

Two types of shells were fired from the Schwerer Gustav: armor piercing (AP) and high explosive (HE). The AP rounds were 11 ft 10 in (3.6 m) long and were fired with 4,630 lb (2,100 kg) of propellant. The AP round was made of chrome-nickel steel. It weighed 15,653 lb (7,100 kg) and carried 551 lb (250 kg) of explosives. The AP shell had a muzzle velocity of 2,362 fps (720 m/s) and a maximum range of 23.6 miles (38 km). At maximum range, the AP projectile reached an altitude of around 39,370 ft (12 km) and was in the air for two minutes. The HE ammunition was around 13 ft 9 in (4.2 m) long and was fired with 4,938 lb (2,240 kg) of propellant. The HE rounds weighed 10,582 lb (4,800 kg) and carried 1,543 lb (700 kg) of explosives. The HE shell had a muzzle velocity of 2,690 fps (820 m/s) and a maximum range of 29.2 miles (47 km). Upon impact, the HE projectile created a crater some 33 ft (10 m) wide and deep. The muzzle velocity for both the AP and HE shells was over twice the speed of sound, and both were fitted with an aluminum alloy ballistic nose cone. Spotter aircraft were used to direct the gun’s fire and assess the results.

Construction of the Schwerer Gustav started in the spring of 1937, but forging the huge and complex barrel resulted in serious delays. By 1939, Alfried Krupp (von Bohlen und Halbach) began to take over company leadership from his father, whose health had begun to fail. In late 1939, testing started on sample components, and the gun’s AP projectile was able to successfully penetrate 23 ft (7 m) of concrete or 3 ft (1 m) of steel. It was obvious that the Schwerer Gustav would not be ready by the March 1940 deadline Hitler had requested.

Schwerer Gustav hoists

Shells and propellant for the gun were delivered by rail and hoisted up to the firing deck. The shell is on the far side, and the case with powder bags is in front of it (to the right). It took 20 to 45 minutes to reload the gun and prepare it for firing.

In May 1940, Germany invaded Belgium and France. Since the Maginot Line ended at Belgium, rather than extending to the English Channel, Germany was able to simply go around the static fortifications and enter France. On 25 June 1940, France surrendered to Germany.

With the fall of France, the Schwerer Gustav was no longer needed, but discussions ensued regarding other fortifications that the gun could be used against. Many in the Wehrmacht felt the gun was impractical and not worth the resources its construction consumed, let alone the manpower needed to deploy the gun. However, the Schwerer Gustav had become one of Hitler’s personal projects, so its development continued. Alfried Krupp hosted Hitler for a test firing during the gun’s acceptance trials in early 1941 at Rügenwalde, Germany (now Darłowo, Poland). Further tests and development continued through 1941. Some sources indicate that 250 rounds were fired from the gun during its testing.

Schwerer Gustav firing position

The gun was positioned on a shooting curve to allow for horizontal aiming. Rectangular braces were positioned on both sides of the inner rails to protect the tracks from the forces of firing the gun.

On 8 January 1942, Schwere Artillerie-Abteilung (E) 672 (Heavy Artillery Division E 672) was established with 1,420 men and with Oberst (Colonel) Robert Böhm as its commander. The unit was formed to deploy the Schwerer Gustav. As the artillerymen worked on the gun, they called it “Dora,” and the nickname stuck. From that time on, the gun was typically referred to as Dora, rather than Schwerer Gustav. The different names led to some confusion regarding how many guns were built and when they were used. German sources typically indicate that Dora was a nickname from the artillerymen and that only one gun was ever deployed. However, many English sources state that Gustav and Dora were the first and second guns built and that the Dora gun was named in honor of Erich Müller’s wife.

In February 1942, the division was sent to Bakhchisaray in the Crimean Peninsula, then part of the Soviet Union. The gun was to be used on the port city of Sevastopol, 18.6 miles (30 km) southwest of Bakhchisaray. Sevastopol had been under siege by German forces since November 1941. Five separate trains were used to transport the gun, the division, ammunition, supplies, and workshops to the deployment site. The Schwerer Gustav arrived in early March. In May, German troops and civilian workers laid a 1.2 mile (2 km) long access track to the firing site, followed by parallel tracks .75 miles (1.2 km) long for gun assembly and deployment. Once the track was ready, assembly of the gun commenced.

On 5 June 1942, the Schwerer Gustav fired its first round at Sevastopol, and 13 additional shots followed that day. On 6 June, the Schwerer Gustav achieved the highpoint of its career. An ammunition magazine at White Cliff suffered a direct hit from the Schwerer Gustav. The magazine was buried 98 ft (30 m) under Severnaya Bay and had 33 ft (10 m) of concrete protection. The AP round passed though the water, ground, and concrete before detonating the magazine. At least one ship was also sunk after being damaged by blast waves from the impact of nearby shells.

Schwerer Gustav firing

The Schwerer Gustav could fire a 15,653 lb (7,100 kg) AP shell 23.6 miles (38 km) or a 10,582 lb (4,800 kg) HE shell 29.2 miles (47 km). A spotter aircraft directed fire and assessed the results.

The gun was used on three additional days before its ammunition was exhausted. The Schwerer Gustav fired a total of 48 shells at the city, and its barrel had become worn. Some sources claim that the barrel had a 300-round life and was the same one that had fired the 250 test rounds. Other sources state the barrel was new and should have been able to fire 100 shots before it became worn, but signs of wear were seen after as few as 15 shots. Regardless, the Schwerer Gustav’s barrel was replaced with a spare, and the original barrel was transported back to Germany for repairs. Of the 48 rounds fired, only 10 fell within 197 ft (60 m) of their target, with the most off-target shot landing 2,428 ft (740 m) from its intended point of impact. However, each huge shell caused massive damage all around its impact site.

A few weeks after Sevastopol fell on 4 July 1942, Gustav Krupp gave the first Schwerer Gustav to Hitler as a personal gift and a sign of his support and allegiance to the Third Reich. The Krupp company would only accept payment for subsequent guns. The Schwerer Gustav was moved and redeployed for a planned offensive against Leningrad, which was also under siege. The gun had been assembled and placed in firing position, but its planned use was cancelled. The Schwerer Gustav was disassembled and taken back to Rügenwalde.

The gun was overhauled, and an improved, lined barrel was fitted. A test firing on 19 March 1943 at Rügenwalde was attended by Hitler, Albert Speer, Alfried Krupp, and a number of other officials. Two shots were fired, with the second shell impacting 29.2 miles (47 km) away. The Schwerer Gustav was then disassembled and placed in storage near Chemnitz, Germany in September 1943. The gun remained there until 14 April 1945, when it was destroyed by German troops one day before US soldiers captured the area. Parts of the Schwerer Gustav were recovered by the Soviets and supposedly transported to Russia. The second Schwerer Gustav was reportedly completed but never deployed. In March 1945, it was moved from Rügenwalde to Grafenwöhr, Germany, where it was destroyed on 19 April 1945.

Schwerer Gustav shooting curve

While it was a powerful weapon, the Schwerer Gustav required a tremendous amount of resources for its construct and deployment. Its size and complexity severely limited where and when the gun could be deployed and also made it very susceptible to aerial attack.

Around November 1943, plans were initiated to use a cannon to shell Britain from across the English Channel. It was decided that the third Krupp 80 cm Kanone (E) would be built as the gun for this purpose. In order to send a shell 99 to 124 miles (160 to 200 km), a projectile 20.5 in (52 cm) in diameter and weighing 1,499 lb (680 kg) would be shot out of a barrel 157 ft (48 m) long. This gun was named Länger Gustav (Longer Gustav). The gun was damaged during a bombing raid while it was still under construction. Some components for the Länger Gustav were discovered at the Krupp factory in Essen by Allied troops in 1945.

In December 1942, Krupp proposed a self-propelled 80 cm Kanone (E) known as the Landkreuzer P. 1500 Monster. The P. 1500 used the same 31.5 in (80 cm) main gun as the Schwerer Gustav, but it also had two 5.9 in (15 cm) sFH 18.1 L/30 field guns and a number of 15 mm MG151/15 cannons. Powering the P. 1500 were four 2,170 hp (1,618 kW) nine-cylinder MAN M9V 40/46 diesel engines. The P. 1500 was 137 ft 10 in (42 m) long, 59 ft 1 in (18 m) wide, and 23 ft (7 m) tall. True to its name, the Monster weighed 3,306,930 lb (1,500,000 kg). Requiring a crew of over 100, the machine had an estimated top speed of 9.3 mph (15 km/h) and a range of 31 miles (50 km). The P. 1500 project was cancelled in 1943 by Albert Speer, the Minister for Armaments, before any serious work had been done.

After the war, Alfried Krupp and Erich Müller, the gun’s designer, were sentenced to 12 years in prison for crimes against humanity by participating in the plundering, devastation, and exploitation of occupied countries and by participating in the murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, and use for slave labor of German nationals, prisoners of war, and civilians who came under German control. Krupp was pardoned after three years, and Müller was released after four years.

Schwerer Gustav 1 destruction

The first Schwerer Gustav gun was destroyed by German troops on 14 April 1945 to prevent its capture by US forces. Some sources state that the gun was recovered by the Soviets. A US soldier poses in front of the gun’s cradle. The girders attached to the cradle were used for transporting and mounting the cradle to the rest of the gun. The circular pad behind the soldier is a trunnion mount.

While the Schwerer Gustav was mechanically a well-engineered weapon, its requirements for use made it very impractical and nearly useless. The Maginot Line was easily bypassed, rather than penetrated, calling into question why the Schwerer Gustav was needed in the first place. However, Hitler liked the gun and called it his “steel fist.” It was the type of grandiose weapon that Hitler felt displayed the technological superiority of the Third Reich.

No large pieces of the Schwerer Gustav guns remain. However, a number of inert projectiles and cases are preserved in various museums. After the war, the D 331 locomotives were redesignated V 188 and used to haul freight for the West German Railway (Deutsche Bundesbahn).

Schwerer Gustav 2 destruction

Germans destroyed part of the second Schwerer Gustav on 19 April 1945 to prevent its capture. A US soldier gives scale to the gun’s barrel. The second gun’s cradle, which was blown up, can be seen on the left.



Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 Big Boy Locomotive

By William Pearce

For some time, locomotives of the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) had struggled to climb the Wasatch mountains between Ogden, Utah and Green River, Wyoming. This 176-mile (283-km) stretch of track started out at 4,300 ft (1,310 m) above sea level in Ogden, climbed the Wasatch Range to 7,300 ft (2,225 m) at the Aspen Tunnel, and then dropped to 6,100 ft (1,859 m) at Green River. Occasionally, up to three helper engines were used to assist heavily loaded trains over the Wasatch mountains.


Union Pacific Big Boy 4012 hauling a load of freight through Green River, Wyoming in November 1941. This may have been the recently delivered engine’s first trip west. (Otto Perry image via Denver Public Library)

In 1940, UP was enjoying a period of expansion, and its president, William Jeffers, was interested in a new locomotive that could conquer the Wasatch Range pulling 3,600 tons (3,266 t) unassisted. At the same time, World War II was on the horizon, and the United Sates had begun to increase its production of war material. This put even more traffic on the heavily-traveled Oden-Green River route. Headed by Otto Jabelmann, UP’s Department of Research and Mechanical Standards (DoRMS) in Omaha, Nebraska calculated that 135,000 lbf (600.5 kN) of tractive effort was needed for the engine to achieve its design goal. DoRMS quickly designed the new, massive locomotive and worked closely with the American Locomotive Company (ALCO), the company that agreed to build the engine. The engines were assigned numbers in the 4000-class, and there were plans to name the new series “Wasatch.” However, a worker wrote “Big Boy” in chalk on the front of the first engine while it was being built, and the name stuck. With its tender, the Big Boy was one of the largest and heaviest steam locomotives ever built.

The Big Boy’s design was based closely on the UP’s 4-6-6-4 Challenger that went into service in 1936. However, the Big Boy was larger and heavier than the Challenger and necessitated that UP make many changes to the track between Ogden and Green River. Heavier rail was laid in many places, and curves were realigned and adjusted to maintain a constant curvature. At stations, larger turntables were installed to accommodate the Big Boy’s length. The Big Boy was essentially the largest thing that could normally operate on an existing standard gauge railroad.


The crew standing next to newly-completed Big Boy 4002 gives scale to every part of the engine: the cylinders, wheels, boiler, etc. The railing on the front of the -1 class engines was originally coolers for the air pump. The -2 class used a standard Wilson aftercooler, as the custom set up on the Class -1 would often crack. As the coolers failed on the -1 class, they were removed and replaced by Wilson units. (Union Pacific image)

The Big Boy utilized a 4-8-8-4 wheel arrangement and was the only locomotive to do so. At the front of the engine was a four-wheel leading truck that had 36 in (.91 m) wheels. This was followed by eight 68 in (1.73 m) drive wheels, with a single piston driving a set of four wheels on each side of the engine. Another set of eight drive wheels followed that were identical to the first. Finally, under the cab was a four-wheel trailing truck with 42 in (1.07 m) wheels. The leading truck and first eight drive wheels were attached to a separate frame than the second set of drive wheels and trailing truck. Between the two sets of drive wheels was a tongue and groove pivot point that allowed the front frame to articulate independently of the rear frame. Mounted to the rear frame was the boiler, firebox, and cab. The articulated locomotive was pioneered by Swiss engineer Anatole Mallet and could handle tighter curves than a standard rigid locomotive. In the case of a long locomotive like the Big Boy, articulation allowed the engine to operate on tracks with curves as sharp as 20 degrees.

ALCO built the Big Boys in Schenectady, New York, and two versions of the engine were made. Starting in 1941, 20 of the 4-8-8-4-1 class engines were made and numbered 4000–4019. In 1944, five of the 4-8-8-4-2 class engines were made and numbered 4020–4024. The difference between the two versions was mainly a different superheater that necessitated changes to the tubing arrangement in the boiler and increased water storage capacity in the tender. These changes were made for maintenance reasons and also due to material shortages during World War II. The first engine, 4000, was delivered to UP in Omaha on 5 September 1941.


The Big Boy’s firebox (left), boiler (middle), and smokebox (right) were all mounted as a single unit and can been seen here, ready to be lowered onto the engine’s frame. The steel that formed the boiler was 1.375 in (35 mm) thick. The two humps above the boiler are the sandboxes. Between the sandboxes is the steam dome, its exposed studs waiting for the cover plate. Exiting the lower part of the smokebox is a duct to feed steam from the superheater to the cylinders. (ALCO image)

All Big Boys were 132 ft 10 in (40.5 m) long and made up of an 85 ft 9.5 in (26.2 m) long engine and a 47 ft .5 in (14.3 m) long tender that carried the locomotive’s coal and water. The locomotive was 16 ft 2.5 in (4.9 m) tall, and its whistle was mounted horizontally so as to not increase the engine’s height. Various ladders and handholds were recessed into the engine and tender to keep the locomotive’s width at a maximum of 11 ft 6 in (3.5 m). The loaded weight of the -1 class was 762,000 lb (345,638 kg) for the engine and 427,500 lb (193,911 kg) for the tender, which gave a total weight of 1,189,500 lb (539,549 kg). The -2 class was heavier at 772,250 lb (350,276 kg) for the engine, 436,500 lb (197,993 kg) for the tender, and a total weight of 1,208,750 lb (548,280 kg). Each set of eight driving wheels supported 540,000 lb (244,940 kg) on the -1 class and 545,200 lb (247,299 kg) on the -2 class. The maximum weight permitted on each of the engine’s 12 axles was 67,800 lb (30,754 kg).

The centipede-style tender was supported by 14 wheels, each 42 in (1.07 m) tall. The first four wheels made up the leading truck, and the 10 trailing wheels were mounted directly to the tender. The tender originally carried 56,000 lb (25,401 kg) of coal in a front compartment. In the late 1940s, 10 in (254 mm) tall steel sideboards were added to the top of the coal compartment. The sideboards enabled an additional 8,000 lb (3,629 kg) of coal to be loaded, increasing the tender’s capacity to 64,000 lb (29,030 kg). A rear compartment held 24,000 gallons (90,850 L) of water for the -1 class and 25,000 gallons (94,635 L) of water for the -2 class. At full steam, a Big Boy engine would consume the tender’s coal and water supply in two hours, but a proper facility could replenish the coal and water in eight minutes.


This image of engine 4023’s tender helps illustrate why the type is known as a centipede tender. Visible on this side are the five wheels mounted to the tender and the two installed in the leading truck. The diagonal row of rivets indicates the partition between the water tank in the rear of the tender and the coal bunker in the front. Note the recessed ladder on the left and the 10 in (254 mm) sideboards atop the tender on the right. (Larry Pieniazek image via Wikimedia Commons)

A large, mechanical stoker auger transported coal from the supply in the tender to the engine’s firebox; no regular fireman could keep up with the Big Boy’s prodigious need for fuel. The firebox was 235 in (5.97 m) long and 96 in (2.44 m) wide and burned coal at around 2,000 °F (1,093 °C). Heat from the firebox flowed through the boiler via a series of tubes, each 22 ft (6.7 m) long. The -1 class engine had 259 tubes: 75 2.25 in (57.2 mm) tubes and 184 4.0 in (101.6 mm) flues. With its altered boiler, the -2 class engine had 285 tubes: 212 2.25 in (57.2 mm) tubes and 73 5.5 in (139.7 mm) flues. If laid end-to-end, the tubes and flues would stretch 5,698 feet (1,737 m) for the -1 class and 6,270 feet (1,911 m) for the -2 class. After passing through the tubes, the soot, embers, smoke, and heat from the burning coal flowed into a smokebox at the front of the engine and then out into the atmosphere via dual stacks. Spent steam from the cylinders was directed through the smokebox and helped create the draft that drew air into the firebox, through the tubes, and out the stacks.

The hot tubes, flues, and firebox provided the surface area to turn water in the boiler to steam. The -1 class had 5,889 sq ft (547.1 sq m) of evaporative surface area, and the -2 class had 5,755 sq ft (534.6 sq m). The water in the boiler was heated until 300 psi (20.7 bar) of steam had been generated. With a temperature of over 420 °F (215 °C), the wet, saturated steam was collected in a steam dome positioned above the boiler. The steam flowed from the dome to the saturated steam chamber in the superheater. Small superheater elements (tubes) took the wet steam back into the flues where it was heated well above its saturation value and converted to dry, superheated steam. The superheater elements delivered the dry steam to the superheated steam chamber in the superheater. Combined, the superheater elements stretched for over a mile (1.6 km). The -1 class had a Type E superheater with a surface area of 2,466 sq ft (299.1 sq m). The -2 class had a Type A superheater with a surface area of 2,043 sq ft (189.8 sq m). The Type A required less maintenance than the Type E and provided more than enough steam for the engine, and this is why the older Type A superheater was used. From the superheater, steam was piped to the Big Boy’s two sets of two cylinders.


The smokebox of engine 4014 as it undergoes restoration. The workers inside give some perspective to the immense size of the Big Boy. The large vertical ducts are the engine’s dual stacks. The large pipes behind the stacks and leading down the side of the smokebox take steam from the superheater to the cylinders. The vertical tubes are the superheater elements, and just beyond them are the horizontal tubes and flues that extend through the boiler to the firebox. (Union Pacific image via video screenshot)

The Walschaerts valve gear controlled the flow of steam in and out of the cylinders. A piston spool valve mounted in a valve chest above each cylinder slid back and forth. It directed steam from the center of the valve chest to enter one side of the double-acting cylinder while simultaneously opening the other side of the cylinder, expelling the previous steam charge. The steam flowed into the front of the cylinder and filled its 14,176 cu in (232 L) volume, pushing the 23.75 in (603.3 mm) diameter piston back 32 in (812.8 mm) to the rear end of the cylinder. The steam-distribution valve then slid rearward to open the front part of the cylinder, exhausting the spent steam to the smokebox. Simultaneously, fresh steam was directed into the rear part of the cylinder, pushing the piston back to its original position. Although the cylinder was uniform in size, the cylinder’s return volume was only 13,345 cu in (219 L) on account of the 5.75 in (146 mm) diameter, hollow piston rod taking up some room. The piston rod was attached to the connecting rod via a crosshead. The connecting rod extended back to the third driving wheel in the four-wheel set. Here, the connecting rod was attached to the coupling rod, which was connected to all four driving wheels. To aid traction, sand could be deposited on the rails in front of each drive wheel. The Big Boy had two sandboxes mounted on top of the boiler and each held 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) of sand.

The Big Boy was designed for a top speed of 80 mph (129 km/h), but its highest speed reported was a test at 72 mph (116 km/h). It is unlikely the engine was ever operated in service much beyond 50 mph (80 km/h). Of course, hauling the heaviest loads up the steepest grades reduced the engine’s speed to around 12 mph (19 km/h), the speed at which its tractive effort was at a maximum of some 135,375 lbf (602.2 kN). The 80 mph (129 km/h) speed design ensured that parts were built to withstand stresses well beyond what was needed to haul freight at 40 mph (64 km/h).


The front drive wheels on engine 4017. The black box on the right is the cylinder, with the piston rod extending out to the left. A crosshead joins the piston rod with the connecting rod. The connecting rod extends back and attaches to the third drive wheel, and a coupling rod connects all the drive wheels together. (National Railroad Museum image)

At 41 mph (66 km/h), the Big Boy produced some 6,290 hp (4,690 kW) at the drawbar, which would be around 7,157 hp (5,337 kW) produced at the cylinders. Without any slip, each rotation of the drive wheels moved the engine 17.8 ft (5.4 m). At 41 mph (66 km/h), each drive wheel rotated 202 times a minute, and each double-acting piston made 404 strokes. This resulted in roughly 12,869 cu ft (364.4 cu m) of steam passing through the Big Boy’s cylinders every minute.

Four seats were provided in the Big Boy’s cab, although the engine only required a crew of three: an Engineer, a Fireman, and a Brakeman. If needed, the cab could accommodate six occupants with two additional makeshift seats. Each of the 20 -1 class engines cost $265,174 in 1941, and each of the five -2 class engines cost $319,600 in 1944. The equivalent cost for each engine would be over $4,335,000 in 2016.


Smoke and steam billow out of Big Boy engine 4017 as it starts off from Rawlins, Wyoming. Even though it is a -1 class, the cooler has been removed from the railing on the front of the engine. (Stan Kistler image)

All Big Boy locomotives were pressed into service as soon as they could be delivered. Originally cleared to pull 3,200 tons (2,903 t) up the 1.14% grade between Ogden and Green River, the engines were eventually allowed to haul 4,450 tons (4,037 t) as experience was gained. On a .82% grade, the engines were cleared to haul 5,360 tons (4,863 t). Theoretically, the Big Boy could pull a train 5.5 miles (8.9 km) long on flat ground from a standing start. In practice, the engine routinely pulled over 100 cars.

During World War II, the Big Boys spent most of their time moving freight between Ogden and Green River. On a typical run from Oden to Evanston, Wyoming, with a stop in Echo, Utah, a Big Boy would take about four hours to cover the 76-mile (122-km), uphill route and climb some 2,500 ft (762 m). Engine 4016 made the trip in 3 hours and 50 minutes while hauling 71 cars, for a weight of 3,883 tons (3,523 t). The Big Boy consumed 74,700 lb (33,883 kg) of coal and 34,800 gallons (131,732 L) of water. This averages to 19,487 lb (8,839 kg) of coal and 9,078 gallons (34,364 L) of water used per hour, or 996 lb of coal and 464 gallons of water per mile (280 kg and 1,089 L per km). Under full steam, the Big Boy was said to consume 22,000 lb (9,979 kg) of coal and 12,000 gallons (45,425 L) of water per hour.


To expedite service, especially with heavy trains, even the Big Boy used helper engines or was doubleheaded. Here, engines 4013 and 4004 team up to doublehead a train over Sherman Hill on the way from Laramie to Cheyenne in August 1958. (Otto Perry image via Denver Public Library)

After World War II, Big Boys were occasionally used for trips to southern Utah and did make regular trips into Wyoming, going as far as Cheyenne, 483 miles (777 km) from Ogden. The Cheyenne trips required conquering the 1.55% grade up Sherman Hill and passing through the Hermosa Tunnel at around 8,000 ft (2,438 m). In the 1950s, their service expanded on occasion as far east as North Platte, Nebraska and as far south as Denver, Colorado. Although the engines were cleared for other routes, like Ogden to Los Angles, they never made the journey in regular service. The ever-increasing tonnage needing to move on the rails resulted in even the Big Boys using helper engines to speed up travel over the steep mountain passes. Rarely, two Big Boy engines would be linked to doublehead a train quickly over the mountain.

The Big Boy engines proved very reliable in service, but they did require a significant amount of maintenance. UP considered purchasing additional engines, and other railroads thought about buying Big Boys, but resources were somewhat limited during World War II. After the war, diesel locomotives were proving themselves as the prime mover of the future. Still, Big Boys soldiered on and were one of the last steam locomotives in regular service.


Well-worn engine 4021 hauls freight through Wyoming in June 1956. The Big Boys were one of the last steam engines in regular service. (Chris Zygmunt Collection image)

The last Big Boy was removed from revenue service on 2 July 1959. The engines were kept in storage until August 1961, when the first were retired. The last Big Boy was retired in July 1962. At the time of their retirement, each of the -1 class Big Boys had accumulated over 1,000,000 miles (1,610,000 km)—the equivalent of traveling from the Earth to the Moon and back twice. Engine 4006 had the most miles, at 1,064,625 (1,713,348 km). Each of the -2 class engines had traveled over 800,000 miles (1,290,000 km)—the equivalent of circling the Earth 32 times. At 855,163 miles (1,376,252 km), engine 4021 had the highest mileage of the -2 class. All total, the Big Boys accumulated 25,008,054 miles (40,246,574 km); this is about the distance from Earth to Venus when the planets are at their closest point.

Although the Big Boy was very impressive, there were other locomotives that were larger, heavier, and more powerful, but probably none that were all three. What makes the Big Boy unique is that even with its massive size and colossal power, it was in regular service for nearly 20 years—it was not an experimental train, and it was not limited to a small section of track. The Big Boy was also not a Mallet-type locomotive. Although it was articulated, the Big Boy was not a compound steam engine, which is the second hallmark of a true Mallet.

Seventeen of the Big Boy engines were scrapped, while the remaining eight were put on display in various museums. As of 2016, seven of the Big Boys are still on display. The remaining engine, 4014, was reacquired by UP in 2013 and underwent a five-year restoration at their facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The restoration included converting the engine from coal fired to oil fired and was completed in time for the 150th anniversary celebration of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Ogden, Utah. In May 2019, Big Boy 4014 once again took to the rails—a living tribute to ALCO, UP, the era of steam, and all the men and women who made it possible. 4014 will be used for special excursion service; its days as a workhorse ended some 50 years ago.


Big Boy 4014 sits in Cheyenne undergoing restoration. The cab has been removed, and the locomotive has been stripped down to the boiler. (Union Pacific image)

Big Boy by William W. Kratville (1972)
“Big Boy: On the Road to Restoration” Trains Magazine Special (2014)
Last of the Giants (Part 1 and Part 2) by Union Pacific,2474974

NYC M-497 tow

New York Central M-497 Black Beetle

By William Pearce

As the popularity of personal automobiles increased, passenger train travel decreased. In the United States, the decline quickened in the 1960s as the Interstate Highway System came on line and jet engines made air travel affordable. Railroad companies realized their long haul passenger service could not compete with the more modern forms of transportation but felt they could develop a better service in the short haul and mid-haul markets to win back customers.

NYC M-497 tow

New York Central’s M-497 Black Beetle tested the feasibility of using jet engines to propel a train at high speed on a conventional track. M-497 is seen here with a support car and engine. Note the red pitot tube just under the lights on the front of the train.

In 1965, James Wright, director of the New York Central (NYC) Railroad’s Technical Research Center, thought of an experiment to drastically increase a train’s speed in the shortest amount of time and with minimal changes to the train and track. Simply put, Wright’s idea was to use a jet engine to propel the train to much higher speeds. Wright discussed his proposal with the president of NYC, Alfred Perlman, but the talks died off.

Around a year later, in early June 1966, Wright received a call from Perlman authorizing the jet engine experiment and requesting that it be completed in 30 days. The project was a daunting one; not only was a train needed that could be modified for jet propulsion, but the team also had to find jet engines and a section of track suitable for high-speed tests. The rush was on to turn a visionary idea into a tangible reality.

NYC M-497 crew

The completed jet-powered M-497 and some of the crew that worked tirelessly at the Collinwood Technical Center to create the locomotive.

For the experiment, the NYC decided to use a Budd Company Rail Diesel Car-3 (RDC-3). The RDC-3 was a self-propelled commuter railcar powered by two 275 hp (205 kW) Detroit Diesel six-cylinder engines. The RDC-3 accommodated 48 passengers, was 85 ft (25.9 m) long, and had a top speed of 85 mph (137 km/h). The RDC-3 chosen was No. M-497, which NYC had purchased 13 years earlier, in 1953. M-497 was the first of three RDC-3s that the NYC owned. For $5,000, the NYC was able to obtain from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona a surplus jet pod from a Convair B-36 Peacemaker. The pod contained two General Electric J47-GE-19 jet engines capable of 5,200 lb (23.1 kN) thrust each.

M-497 and the J47 jet engines were relocated to NYC’s Collinwood Technical Center near Cleveland, Ohio. Under Donald Wetzel, the Assistant to the Director of Technical Research, modifications were made to combine the jet engine pod and railcar. Ruth Wetzel, Don’s wife and a commercial artist, drew up the basic sketches for the jet engine placement as well as an aerodynamic fairing for the front (B end) of the blunt-nosed RDC. She also outlined the paint scheme for the completed M-497. The fairing combined with the paint scheme ultimately earned M-497 its Black Beetle nickname.

NYC M-497 rear

This picture of the rear of M-497 shows the covered door and the fairings that extended down from the sides of the train. These changes to the Budd RDC-3 railcar improved its aerodynamics.

The engine pod was mounted above the front of the railcar at a five degree nose-down angle. The pod’s installation on the train was inverted as compared to the B-36, so the engines were rotated 180 degrees in their housings. The J-47 engines were converted to run on diesel fuel, and additional fuel tanks were installed in the mail section of the RDC. Some seats were removed from the front of the RDC to allow for the jet engine mounting structure. The drive shafts from the original diesel engines were disconnected, and M-497 was outfitted for the tests with more than 50 instruments in its baggage area. After scale models were verified in a wind tunnel, the aerodynamic fairing was built up over the front of the RDC. The fairing added 5 ft 7 in (1.7 m) to M-497’s length, making the modified train 90 ft 7 in (27.6 m) long. Based on wind tunnel tests, the back (A end) of the car was also slightly modified (the door was faired over), and the car’s sides were extended down to further improve its aerodynamics.

Wetzel was selected as M-497’s engineer because of his experience with the project. He also had experience with jet engines from his service in the military. M-497 was taken to a stretch of track between Toledo, Ohio and Butler, Indianan that had been specially prepared (rails welded together) for high-speed runs. This location offered a 68.5 mile (111 km) section of straight, multiple track. Initial tests revealed that the hot exhaust from the jet engines passed over the roof radiators for the diesel engines, which were used to power the brakes and accessories of the RDC. The lack of cooling air caused the engines to get too hot, and they shut down automatically. The auto-shut-down feature was disabled for subsequent runs; although the engines ran hot, the runs were short and the engines were not producing much power, so they were not in danger of being damaged. No other serious issues were encountered, and the high-speed tests proceeded.

NYC M-497 front

Never intended to be put in service or production, the J47 jet engines propelled M-497 to a record speed of 183.85 mph (295.88 km/h).

For the high-speed runs, a Beechcraft Model 18 flew ahead of M-497 to make sure the track was clear. On the second run on 23 July 1966, with Wetzel, Wright, Perlman, and other engineers on board, M-497 raced eastward on the track from Butler, Indiana. Wetzel had been asked to run around 180 mph (290 km/h), but as he approached the speed trap at milepost 352 (near Bryan, Ohio), he saw M-497 was traveling at 196 mph (315 km/h). He reduced power, and M-497 was recorded at 183.85* mph (295.88 km/h). This was and still is the fastest speed a train has traveled on open track in the United States. M-497 finished the run near Stryker, Ohio, some 21 miles (34 km) from the start. As a precaution, railroad ties were placed across the track near Toledo, Ohio to derail M-497 in case it ran away.

Additional tests were conducted the next day, but they never approached the speed from the previous day. One of the J47 engines refused to light. M-497 accelerated on one engine until the dead engine could be air-started.

After a short time in the limelight, M-497 was returned to its standard RDC-3 configuration and pressed back into normal service. The NYC’s M-497 had shown that high-speed rail service was possible on a conventional track, and that was the true goal of the experiment. The train’s configuration was not practical, as the jet engines required a vertical clearance in excess of what was standard at the time. In addition, the jet-powered M-497 did not have a reverse and needed another engine to pull it back to the starting point after a run. Of course, these problems could have been overcome with a specially designed engine, but it was already the sunset of rail travel in the United States.

NYC M-497 run

The jet-propelled M-497 at speed on the track between Butler, Indiana and Stryker, Ohio.

NYC, which had been in business since 1853, merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1968 and formed the Penn Central Transportation Company (PC). In 1970, PC became the largest company to file for bankruptcy protection. PC stumbled on until 1976 when it was finally broken up. M-497 outlasted both NYC and PC. Although given a new number with each new owner, the RDC-3 once known as M-497 and the fastest train in the United States was in service until 1977 and was finally scrapped in 1984. A plaque commemorating the record run was dedicated in Bryan, Ohio on 14 November 2003.

*Some modern sources list the speed as 183.681 mph (295.606 km/h), but this does not appear to be correct. Contemporary information and the plaque dedicated in 2003 record the speed as 183.85 mph (295.88 km/h).

Below is a video made by General Electric commemorating Don Wetzel and the M-497’s speed run.

Flight of the M-497 by Hank Morris with Don Wetzel (2007/2012)

Bennie Railplane test

Bennie Railplane

By William Pearce

George Bennie was born near Glasgow, Scotland in 1892 (some say 1891). From a young age, he became interested in rail travel. By the age of 34, he had patented his idea for a new form of public rail transportation. He envisioned a combination airplane and locomotive—an aircraft that flew on rails. This vehicle would be capable of high speeds and would operate independently of standard rail transportation.

Bennie Railplane poster

A poster forecasting the George Bennie Railplane (G•B•R) line.

In his System of Aerial Transport patent from 1923, Bennie describes a vehicle suspended between two rails positioned above the ground. A single bogie attached the vehicle to the upper rail. This rail would support the vehicle while it was at rest and at slow speeds. The lower rail would stabilize the vehicle via a set of guide wheels at each end of the carriage and would also prevent the body from swinging out as it traveled around curves.

A propeller was situated at each end of the vehicle. In the patent, only one of the fixed pitch propellers would be used to pull the vehicle along the track. The propeller at the opposite end would be used for breaking or pulling the vehicle in the opposite direction. The propellers could be driven by internal combustion engines or by electric motors powered via an electrified rail. As the vehicle’s speed increased, lifting planes positioned on the roof would support some of the craft’s weight, increasing its efficiency by decreasing the friction from the rails.

Bennie Railplane test

The Railplane moves away for the platform along the short test line.

Working with consultant engineer Hugh Fraser, Bennie’s vision became a reality in 1929. A test track for the George Bennie Railplane System of Transport, also known as the Railplane Line, was built in Milngavie, near Glasgow. The test track was about 425 ft (130 m) long and was built over a section of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) line. The elevated track was built by Teesside Bridge and Engineering Company. It had a 16 ft (4.9 m) vertical clearance above the railway (standard bridge clearance at the time), and each of its five spans was 80 ft (24.4 m) long. The elevated track would allow the Railplane to traverse geography not traditionally covered by a standard railroad track. In addition, utilities such as telephone and electricity could be incorporated into the elevated track.

The Railplane test car differed from the original patent in a number of ways. No lifting planes were incorporated into the Railplane, and it was suspended from the upper rail by two bogies. The bogies had laminated springs to dampen the ride. The two-blade, 9 ft (2.7 m) propellers worked together to send the Railplane along the line. Electric motors were used and they received their power through the rail. The motors provided a continuous 60 hp (44.7 kW) at 1,200 rpm but could be operated at 240 hp (179 kW) for up to 30 seconds. For braking, the propellers’ rotation could be reversed and the bogies had provisions to grip the rails.

Bennie Railplane

The Bennie Railplane on its elevated track as seen from the ground. The two-blade propellers can be see on both ends of the Railplane.

The Railplane test car was built by William Beardmore & Company Ltd. It was skinned in aluminum over an aluminum frame with a steel keel. The Railplane was 52 ft (15.8 m) long, 8 ft (2.4 m) in diameter, and weighed 12,000 lb (5,443 kg) complete. Two sliding doors with stained glass windows allowed passengers to enter and exit the Railplane. The plush interior of its 24 seat passenger area was outfitted by Waring & Gillow.

On 8 July 1930, the Railplane Line was officially opened to the press and invited members of the public. Although the rail and subsequent ride were short, they did illustrate the service a full Railplane Line would provide. It was noted that the Railplane was very smooth in both acceleration and ride. Bennie estimated the top speed of the Railplane as 120 mph (193 km/h). However, higher speeds could be obtained with increased power to the propellers.

Bennie Railplane interior

The plush interior of the Railplane which accommodated at least 24 passengers.

Other power arrangements were proposed. The Railplane’s electric motors could be powered by an onboard internal combustion engine connected to a generator. Alternatively, internal combustion engines could be directly connected to the propellers. Bennie also designed a way to couple multiple Railplanes together via their propeller hubs. It appears this system incorporated a four-blade propeller with an extended hub. A single engineer in the lead Railplane would control all of the propellers.

A Railplane Line was seen as a way to ease congestion by operating above and much faster than freight trains. Although there was considerable interest and various Railplane Line proposals, no main financial backers were found, and none of the proposals moved forward. By 1937, Bennie was bankrupt and the Railplane was abandoned. The Bennie Railplane track and carriage remained in place until 1956, when it was disassembled and scrapped.

Bennie Railplane four blade

The Railplane outfitted with a four-blade propeller and a special hub to couple to another Railplane.

In the intervening years, Bennie continued with the Railplane concept. In 1946, the George Bennie Airspeed Railway Ltd was founded, followed by the George Bennie Airspeed Railway (Iraq) Ltd in 1951. As with the original Bennie Railplane Line, these endeavors failed to move forward. George Bennie passed away in 1957, never having achieved his goal of creating a high speed public rail system.

Below is a video of the Bennie Railplane in action uploaded to YouTube by British Pathé.


“System of Aerial Transport” US patent 1,459,495 by George Bennie (granted 19 June 1923)