It was the coolest thing on the rails: quad headlights, two-tone paint, hardtop styling, and tailfins.
GM’s Aerotrain was the epitome of 1950s auto styling applied to railroad transportation. It was built in the hopes of recapturing the massive passenger rail losses that had occurred since 1945 when autos became the dominant form of transportation. Ironically, it was built by the largest automaker in the world at the time.
“The Aerotrain is not a luxury train, but a coach train designed as one approach to the solutions of the serious economic problem railroads face in their passenger train operations,” noted GM’s Electro-Motive Division vice-president Nelson Dezendorf, at the time. “The major objective of the Aerotrain is to provide the utmost in speed, safety, and comfort at the least possible cost.”
Debuted to the public in 1956, two Aerotrain sets, comprising of a single locomotive and 10 coaches, toured North America. The Aerotrain was powered by a 1,200-horsepower, two-cycle EMD locomotive engine of 567 cubic inches (9291 cc) for each of its 12 cylinders. The GM-built engine (GM had been in the locomotive business since the mid-1930s) provided an electrical current to the traction motors, which powered the engine wheels. Smaller versions of the same diesel engine, two six-cylinder Detroit Diesel engines of 71 cubic inches (1163 cc) per cylinder, ran the Delco generators which in turn provided current for heating, lighting, and air conditioning.
Keeping everything within its own house, the bodies for the Aerotrain were modified bus bodies built by GM Truck and Coach, and the trains were assembled at EMD’s facility in La Grange, Ill. before hitting the rails for promotional purposes. The standard 40-passenger, 40-ft. bus body was widened 18 inches to provide more seating area for passengers and when finished, each train provided a passenger capacity of 400 with appropriate lavatory and pantry compartments.
Styled with a completely revolutionary appearance for the railroad world, the Aerotrain’s team of designers wanted to express visual qualities of swiftness and efficiency. Heading up this team from GM’s Styling Section was Chuck Jordan, who was chief designer of special products at the time. His work on the Aerotrain came early in his GM career, and he would leave his mark on the Chevy Corvette, Chevy Cameo pickup and Cadillac. Notably, he became chief of design for GM’s high end auto division, instrumental in the now-iconic tail fins on the 1959 Cadillac. The trailing coach of the Aerotrain was pure 1950s GM, its rear end highlighted by a wraparound rear window and stubby fins like a very large 1955 Chevy Nomad station wagon.
While there had been some attempts at lighter and more fuel-efficient passenger trains, GM’s concept provided solid cost-cutting measures. At the time a conventional passenger coach weighed in at about 65 tons, while each GM coach weighed 16 tons. With a low centre of gravity and its light weight, an Aerotrain would drastically cut down on a railroad’s operating costs over conventional locomotive-passenger car trains. EMD built just the two experimental Aerotrains sets.
And while the Aerotrain provided all the visual highlights of the time from GM styling, it also rode on air suspension, which like its sister GM car divisions, gave the Aerotrain its most grief. GM built some cars with air suspension in the late 1950s, and they were not successful. GM reasoned the air suspension for the Aerotrain would keep maintenance costs low and provide weight savings, but it also contributed to an uncomfortable ride, something rail passengers would not tolerate. The interiors were also a little weak on the comfort side, having the look and feel more of a city bus than a railroad coach.
The Aerotrain was demonstrated throughout North America, including trips through Quebec and Southern Ontario, stopping at major railroad stations for public viewing. In 1956 two giants of the industry, the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads, each leased one of the train sets and put it in revenue service, and then the second set went west in service on several Western U.S. railroads including the Union Pacific and the Santa Fe. Canadian National tried out the first Aerotrain briefly in 1957 after the NYC testing.
But the locomotives were found to be difficult to service due to their styling features, and could not climb certain mountain passes without the aid of a helper locomotive. With these detrimental factors, along with the rough and unstable ride at speed, GM was not able to continue with the project. GM sold both trains to the Rock Island Line late in 1958 for commuter service in the Chicago area, where they were used until 1966.
Fortunately, both Aerotrain sets survive and are on display in railroad museums in Wisconsin and Missouri, reflective symbols of an era when styling was the major influence in transportation.
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