Friday, June 25, 2010

The M-497 Black Beetle

Imagine for a moment. It's 1966. You're Don Wetzel, assistant technology director of New York Central Railroad. NYCR isn't doing so well. The Interstate Highway System is nearing completion, cars are fast, and gas is cheap. Rail transport is in decline as the infrastructure ages and the rolling stock rusts. It's five years before Amtrak will be formed, and NYCR is headed for an ugly merger with Penn Central.

NYCR is looking for ways to save itself; one is to follow the Japanese and upgrade to high-speed rail. However, it needs to know if its tracks can handle high-speed vehicles. You're given 45 days - and a nearly unlimited budget - to build a test vehicle.

Now, 45 days isn't enough time to build much of anything. NYCR's diesel stock isn't capable of anything over 100 mph, and there's no time to electrify even a short section of track. But you're Don Wetzel, and you're not just a brilliant engineer, you're a certified pilot as well, and like any good engineer you've kept up to date on developments.

You decide to take one of the most common local service railcars of the day - the Budd Diesel Rail Car - and attaching jet engines. Yes, that's right, jet engines. You're going to mount them on the back of the car, but then your wife draws some sketches on a napkin at dinner and convinces you to put them on the top front of the car.

You pick a pair of GE J47 jet turbines and have them mounted. Instruments are mounted to measure strain and speed, but no modifications are made to the body, wheels, or axles of the stock railcar. Your engineers attach a menacing aerodynamic front to the car, and it's ready for flight. The nickname "Black Beetle" follows quickly.

On July 23, 1966, you're ready to open up the throttle. The car is brought tto a 24-mile stretch of the NYCR mainline between
Butler, Indiana and Stryker, Ohio. It's part of a 63-mile straight line between Butler and Toledo - the second-longest section of straight track in the nation. As movie cameras watch, the Black Beetle reaches over 183 mph*, a light rail speed record that will still stand in 2010.

Although it's little more than a publicity stunt from a dying railroad, it does prove that high-speed trains can operate on ordinary track - knowledge used three decades later for Amtrak's Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor.

The engines and mask are removed and the car is returned to regular service; it runs service for Metro-North until 1976, and is eventually stripped and scrapped in 1984 - an unglorious end for an interesting bit of history.

The jet engines, meanwhile, are used in your next crazy project: a jet-powered snowblower for tracks in winter areas. It works well, removing snow from the tracks.... plus taking the ties and gravel railbed with it. After some, ahem, modification, though, it becomes the prototype for the now-standard snow-clearing devices.

Here I've displayed the route of the M-497 and the straight stretch of rail in Google Maps:

View Route of the M-497 in a larger map

Wikipedia article
Dark Roasted Blend - source of pictures as well
Excellent article on American Heritage
Book by Wetzel and two railroad historians

*Various sources give 183, 183.681, and 183.85 mph as the record.

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