In 1966, on a 21-mile stretch of straight rail beginning in Butler, Indiana, the New York Central Railroad Company hoped to restore and revolutionize passenger train travel for the entire world. This wasn’t because of the good ol’ American need to explore and invent. It was because affordable American automobiles, the Interstate Highway Act, and commercial jet travel were strangling the entire passenger train industry. The company was dying.
In 1944, the Interstate Commerce Commission reported passenger train travel exceeding 9 billion miles in the United States. By 1962, that had fallen to 1.8 billion miles. Railroads, which had once been a symbol of American travel, had been relegated to a third-tier industry.
Japan had faced a similar crisis following World War II. Their solution had been the famed bullet trains, which streaked along at speeds exceeding 130 mph. The New York Central Railroad hoped a similar leap in speed and efficiency might resurrect their industry. It wasn’t enough to make larger, faster diesel engines to propel a new generation of trains. They needed to be larger, faster AND lighter.
The Central’s Technical Center solution’s was jet technology. Twenty years of jet engine improvements had made the technology affordable, efficient, and powerful. The Tech Center turned to retired Marine (turned rail employee turned pilot) Don Wetzel to spearhead the project. Not only was this Railroad Renaissance man charged with putting together a jet train, but he was given only 30 days to do it. Rumors of competing firms trying to invent similar jet trains made New York Central Railroad very nervous. Whichever company marketed it first would easily dominate competitors. It had to be Central. To compensate for the time crunch, the company handed their Technical Center a virtual “blank check.”
Wetzel and New York Central Railroad chose a Budd Rail Diesel Car baggage-mail train, numbered M-497, as its guinea pig. The simple storage compartments would be easy to remove and replace with the instruments needed to run jet propulsion, and its sleek design could be quickly streamlined.
The most remarkable addition were the engines. The railroad company purchased a pair of GE’s “slightly-used” J47 turbojet engines, which had been installed as boosters on the Air Force’s first long-range strategic nuclear bomber, the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, which still holds a record as the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built. Plagued with design flaws, this behemoth had been replaced by the B-52 in 1955.
The pair of J47 engines had a combined thrust of 10,400 pounds. To put that in perspective, the X1 “Glamorous Glennis” which Chuck Yeager had piloted to break the sound barrier in 1946, had only 6,000 pounds of thrust.
Wetzel and the engineers decided the turbojets could be mounted on top of the M-497 instead of behind it. This reduced the time needed for installation without a loss in efficiency. Several supporting pylons ran through the M-497 to secure the turbojets…otherwise they might rip off the train’s roof. Or simply fly loose.
New York Central Railroad earmarked a 70-mile length of raid for the test. It started in the small(-ish) town of Butler in eastern Indiana and ran to Toledo, Ohio. To prepare it for the stress of a jet train travel, Central restricted travel on these 70 miles and completely resurfaced it. Then they examined, repaired or replaced each 39-foot rail.
Confident of the jet train’s performance, New York Central Railroad proudly announced the M-497’s first test on July 22nd to the press and welcomed them to view it. Wanting to hedge bets a little, railroad representatives refused to answer questions until after the test. Media bestowed the name the “Black Beetle” on the M-497, after the jet-black streamlined cowling covering its nose. Don Wetzel hated the name, but it stuck.
Four men crewed the M-497 during its first test run. The fifth seat, next to pilot Don Wetzel, was occupied by the New York Central Railroad Company’s then-president Alfred Perlman. Although Wetzel was sure the train could reach speeds approaching 300 mph, Perlman instructed him to play it a little safe and “keep it below 200.” His caution was understandable. Media attention for such an epic disaster might be a fatal blow to both the crew AND the company. A safe victory would be enough.
Perlman also knew something Wetzel and the crew of the M-497 did not: any hope of this jet train rescuing the industry had already vanished. While the jet train itself was a marvel, both the industry AND the country weren’t ready for it. Mounting jet engines above the train made the most utilitarian sense, but thousands of the bridges straddling Central’s service tracks were too low to allow the jet train’s passage.
The exhaust from the turbojets also posed a unique hazard. The force would batter anyone passing behind the train, even when it was moving at low speeds. It could also kick up and fling loose debris at lethal speeds. This meant the train design would have to deflect the exhaust upwards. This would lower the fuel efficiency of a propulsion system that already inhaled fuel.
But Perlman wouldn’t ruin anyone’s fun just yet.
Of the myriad of instruments the “Black Beetle” carried, its internal speed indicators and external timing traps were the most important. The measured speed of the train along the rail had to be measured and confirmed with the greatest accuracy, so that even the most skeptical railroad official would be satisfied.
Wetzel installed a mechanical, not electronic, speedometer on the M-497. This provided a smaller cross-section of information, but was both more reliable and more accurate. He also had an airspeed indictor mounted outside the train’s cowling to confirm the speed. After each run, Wetzel compared his speeds against the timing traps along the track. They all matched.
Before the runs, Wetzel and the crew put the M-497 through some diagnostic paces, while a Twin Beech aircraft circled lazily overhead, dropping to 1500 feet and following the M-497 as it worked through its checklist. The railroad needed a vehicle to pace and monitor the jet train. An aircraft was the only choice. A rumor circulated widely after the test that the M-497 “outran” this Twin Beech, but Wetzel impatiently put that to rest. “He never outpaced us because we ended the run and he peeled off.”
The interior of the M-497 looked more like a science fiction movie set than a cockpit. Dozens of different instruments and gauges occupied most of the train, all of them monitored by three crew members. They measured everything from the ambient temperature to rail vibrations, and dutifully recorded them on magnetic tape for later analysis.
Because they were so absorbed in their assigned tasks, the actual record-making run could hardly be called eventful, at least for the men inside the train. There was no time for illuminating self-reflection or enjoyment. Eyes remained glued to gauges. Only Don Wetzel, as the train’s “pilot”, had a view worth reporting.
The M-497 hit the timing trap just outside Bryan, Ohio, second run, establishing a rail speed record speed of 183.85 miles per hour*. This speed was confirmed by a movie camera, two timing traps, and the two speed indicators mounted inside the jet train itself. When the train stopped, Wetzel leapt out, ripping off his white helmet, and said “It was quite a ride!” Backs were slapped, but at Perlman’s order, no one announced the broken speed record to the hovering reporters.
*When Wetzel had a private moment away from reporters, he informed his fellow engineers that the M-497 had actually been SLOWING when it hit the record speed. Further outside Bryan, he had seen the indicator reach 196 miles per hour!
The M-497 ran a few additional (shorter and slower) tests, mostly to give any engineer or worker involved in the project a chance to enjoy it, however briefly. No one knew the M-497 had only one run left in her, when Wetzel would pilot her to New York City for her first, last, and only public appearence.
Three days later, crew and officials from the New York Central Railroad Company joined the “Black Beetle” in New York City. Now Perlman answered questions…but some of his answers disappointed. He firmly stated the M-497 was simply an experiment, not the first vehicle in a railroad revolution. Its purpose, he explained, was in answering one question for the future of the New York Central Railroad Company: “Can conventional equipment on conventional track in high-speed service?”
All told, the company had spent around $40,000 (over $300,000 today) to get their answer. Yes, it can.
The end of the M-497 jet train came swiftly. As soon as the press conference concluded, diesel engines towed the “Black Beetle” (I repeat, Don Wetzel always hated that name) to Beech Grove Shops, a railroad maintenance outfit in Beech Grove, Indiana. And just as the M-497 had been launched in Indiana, she would be destroyed there as well. Workers removed the streamlined cowling and reinstalled the seats and storage areas. The jet engines were repurposed into “snow blasters” for the railroad.
In 1984, the record-setting car’s final owner, Conrail, scrapped the M-497. There was no memorial or fanfare.
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