Somewhere in the forgotten sidings of a remote railroad, an abandoned train is slowly rotting away. Once it might have heralded a bright new future for transportation in the Soviet Union. But now its blue livery is faded, its state-of-the-art technology left to gather rust. This is the story of the turbojet train, one of the strangest inventions to come out of the Cold War.
By the 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union had been locked in the Cold War for more than 20 years. The previous decade, the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the conflict to terrifying new heights, and even though nuclear war had been averted, the two superpowers were a long way from reaching any kind of truce.
But while political tensions flared, the two nations were also caught up in a battle of a different kind. In 1969 the Americans had a huge triumph in the so-called Space Race, beating the Soviets in becoming the first to land a man on the moon. But even though that round was over, the fight to be the most technologically superior continued.
In 1970 the race to develop the biggest and the best technology took a somewhat bizarre turn. That year, the Soviets developed a turbojet train – a futuristic type of railcar that was powered by a pair of monstrous, roof-mounted jet engines. And unbelievably, they weren’t the first to stumble across this questionable idea.
Back in the mid-1960s, the New York Central Railroad engineer Don Wetzel had the task of developing a new type of train. As assistant director of technical research, it was his job to dream up a vehicle that would deliver faster, safer travel, while being more cost-effective to run. And naturally, his thoughts turned to high-speed rail.
Soon Wetzel began considering jet engines as a novel way to power his high-speed trains. “They were the cheapest 5,000 horsepower engines we could find,” he told GE Reports in 2014. He continued, “They were also the most reliable. They were widely used in many Air Force aircraft.”
Amazingly, Wetzel paid just $5,000 for an old Air Force bomber. He retrieved its dual engines and got to work. And soon, the M-497, or Black Beetle, was born. With the recycled jets mounted on top of a repurposed Budd Rail Diesel Car, Wetzel had created a train that looked like something straight out of science fiction.
In fact, it was Wetzel’s wife who was largely responsible for the car’s futuristic appearance. “The original design had the jet engines on the rear of the car, but we changed it to the forward end,” he explained. “She said that the car looked a lot better with the engines on the front. There’s an old pilot legend that if an airplane looks good, it usually flies good. We felt that if the jet plane looked good, it would run good.”
On July 23, 1966, Wetzel put the M-497 to the test. Having selected a long, straight section of track near Toledo in Ohio, he strapped on a pilot’s helmet and set his creation in motion. Incredibly, he claims that the train reached speeds of 196 miles per hour – before decelerating as it passed through the testing gate.
Officially, Wetzel’s jet-powered locomotive was recorded as having reached 183.85 miles per hour, making its way into the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest self-propelled train in the United States. Remarkably, it’s a record that the M-497 still holds today, more than 50 years after its first journey.
But despite its speeds, the M-497 did little to transform the locomotive industry. Instead, Wetzel’s invention was dismantled, its engines reused to power snow blowers in Indiana. Meanwhile, the railcar itself – now stripped of its record-breaking ability – met with a rather prosaic fate, re-entering service to ferry passengers between Harlem and Poughkeepsie, New York.
However, the spark had been lit, and over in the Soviet Union engineers soon got to work creating their own turbojet train. Completed in 1970, their version was dubbed the High-speed Laboratory Railcar. And like the M-497, it featured two conspicuous engines mounted on the front of the car.
Apparently, the goal was to see the train reach speeds of more than 220 miles per hour – smashing the record set by the Americans four years previously. However, records show that it only officially clocked less than 160 miles per hour, falling slightly short of Wetzel’s impressive achievement.
Nevertheless, the Soviet train reached impressive speeds – and all on the country’s standard railway tracks. However, it soon became apparent that this futuristic vehicle would not offer a cost-effective way to travel. In fact, it burned fuel far quicker than a jet plane, making it impractical to run.
At least in part due to this rather glaring fault, the Soviet turbojet train was abandoned. And for some time, enthusiasts believed that the relics of this strange project had been forever lost. However, in May 2014 the photoblog English Russia shared images from an unknown source that claimed to have located what remains of this incredible invention.
Apparently, the photographs were taken on a remote stretch of railroad somewhere in Russia. And in them, we can see the sad fate that has befallen an invention that was once considered the height of innovation. Now its jet engines are crumbling and broken, with missing pieces that expose the machinery within.
Below, the streamlined front that once tore through the air has clearly sat still for generations, its light blue paint cracked and peeling, its windows blacked out by a thick covering of dust. And the wheels that once span at such dazzling speeds are rusted into position as vegetation grows between the cracks.
Through scattered holes in the bodywork, you can glimpse tangles of rusted metal and old machinery. In fact, the entire thing appears to be collapsing in on itself, destined to rot into the bleak, post-Soviet landscape for ever more. And when it finally disappears, a fascinating piece of history will be lost to time.
In the 21st century, a monument in the Russian city of Tver is the only nod to the ambitious project. Featuring a recreation of the railcar’s front with two jet engines mounted above, it appears strangely incongruous against the staid backdrop of grey concrete and orderly trees. But how many who walk past this spot know the incredible true story of this futuristic train?
Today, Japan’s bullet trains use high-tech tracks, cars and signals to travel at up to 200 miles per hour. And while Wetzel’s turbojet locomotive remains the fastest to ever grace American soil, the Russian’s managed to get a little closer to their competitors in 2009, when their Sapsan electric train reached speeds of 180 miles per hour. In fact, even though the Cold War is over, the global battle for technical dominance appears to continue apace.