Black Beetle: The First Jet-Engine Locomotive

Today, we take ultra-highspeed “bullet trains” for granted. But back in the 1960s they were still just a concept, and no one was sure how a super-fast train would work. One of the oddest experiments of the time was the Black Beetle, the world’s first jet-engine locomotive.

The Black Beetle during a test run.                                                            Photo from Tumblr

In the early 1960s, passenger rail was in big trouble. The US was in the final stages of completing the largest cross-country highway system in the world, the automobile had replaced the train as the transport of choice, and the remaining passenger rail lines were in serious decline.

Two of the remaining train lines were the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad, who were competing for the shrinking commuter market in the northeast. In 1965, the New York Central believed it could gain an advertising advantage over its rival (and draw more commuter passengers back to the railroads) if it could field a super-fast train, and turned to its Department of Technical Research, based in Cleveland, to help. The department’s Assistant Director, Don Wetzel, had formerly been an Air Force pilot, and he came up with a bold idea for an ultra-highspeed passenger train–a jet-powered locomotive. After talking it over with the company president, Alfred Perlman, Wetzel was given an ordinary Budd RDC-3 “Beeliner” locomotive, number M-497, and was given the green light to perform some experiments. It would be a great publicity stunt, and who knows, it just might lead to a viable commercial project.

At a scrapyard in Tucson, Wetzel was able to buy two surplus General Electric J-47 turbojet engines, for $2500 each. In the 1950’s the US Air Force had used the J-47 engine to power a variety of frontline combat aircraft, from the F-86 fighter to the B-47 Stratojet nuclear bomber. But production of the J-47 had ceased in 1956 and it was now obsolete. The engines were particularly convenient for Wetzel because, although they had been run on jet fuel, they could also be easily adapted to run on diesel.

Wetzel purchased a surplus engine pod from an old B-36 Peacemaker nuclear bomber. The intercontinental bomber had supplemented its piston-engine pods with two jet pods, each containing two Model 19 variants of the J-47 with 5200 pounds of thust each. Wetzel extracted the engines and altered them to use diesel fuel, then mounted them on top of the Beeliner. The locomotive was modified with a specially-built fairing at the front to make it more streamlined, and most of the interior was emptied and then packed with test instruments. Finally, the engine was given a glossy red and black paint job, which led to it being christened “The Black Beetle”.

In the summer of 1966 the Beetle was ready for testing. Wetzel volunteered himself as the “test pilot”, and selected a 68-mile portion of track that ran from Stryker OH to Butler IN. It was the longest straight stretch of railroad that the New York Central had. Because this line was used only for freight, it did not meet the standards for passenger track, and the rails had to be replaced and upgraded.

The first test was on July 23, 1966, followed by another test on July 24. The highest speed that was officially recorded was 183.681mph–but at the moment this measurement was made the train was decelerating, so it likely hit at least 190mph. It remains the fastest speed recorded for a light-rail passenger train in the US.

Despite her record-setting run, however, the Black Beetle had an ignominious end. Jet-powered locomotives were simply not practical, and the concept was dropped. The Beetle’s J-47 engines were removed and used in another experimental project–jet-powered snow-blowers that were carried on a special car to remove ice and snow from the tracks. The Beetle’s locomotive was restored to diesel power and sent to New York City with the Pernn Central Line (Penn Central was a merger between the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad). When Penn Central was purchased by Conrail in 1976, the obsolete Beeliner was sold to the New York MTA, which used it for spare parts and then scrapped it in 1984.

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