In the summer of 1966, railroad engineer Don Wetzel bought a pair of GE jet engines from a surplus Air Force bomber, bolted them to the roof of a stock commuter car, and took the train to a straight section of Ohio track. On his second try, he zipped down the rails at 183 miles per hour, a new North American rail speed record.
The record still stands. Wetzel’s jet train, along with France’s TGV 001, also remains the world’s fastest self-propelled train. (Unlike electric trains, the jet train carried its own fuel). “Actually, our speed hit 196 miles per hour and we were decelerating when we went through the timing traps,” Wetzel says. “Everybody thought it was pretty funny that we set a world record when we were slowing down.”
The jet-powered M-497 set the U.S. rail speed record of 183.85 mph on July 23, 1966. The record still stands.
Photo Credit: From The Collection Of Donald C. Wetzel
Wetzel, now 81, worked in the 1960s as the assistant to the director of technical research at New York Central Railroad. He was looking to build a fast train, not a jet train. “High-speed rail was coming into vogue and we wanted to show that the concept was feasible over conventional rail,” he says. “The GE jet engines were the cheapest 5,000 horsepower engines we could find. They were also the most reliable.” (A GE jet engine also powered Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America jet car that reached an average speed of 400 mph during a land speed record in 1963.)
Wetzel and his team found a pair of GE J47 engines at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, from a decommissioned Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” bomber. The railroad paid $5,000 for the engines and shipped them to Cleveland non-stop on a tractor trailer. “We were on deadline and needed them in a hurry,” Wetzel says. “We had only 30 days to build the train.”
The crew’s first task was to switch the engines from jet fuel to diesel. “We talked to GE [aviation] in Cincinnati, and also got some advice from NASA,” he says. “Diesel is more viscous than kerosene and we had to increase the pressure in the fuel nozzles so that the fuel would atomize and ignite.”
Second on the list was the locomotive. Wetzel and his team found an available 13-year old Budd “Beeliner” diesel commuter car numbered M-497 that was shuttling passengers in and out of Detroit. The crew pulled out rows of seats to make room for struts supporting the engines, put in instruments measuring speed, stress and bearings temperatures in the baggage room, and installed fuel tanks in the mail section.
The jet engines landed above the engineer’s cab. “The original design had the engines in the back, but my wife Ruth, who is a commercial artist, said that they looked better in the front,” Wetzel says. “Pilots say that when a plane looks good, it flies good, so we went with it.” Ruth also designed a sleek, sloping nose for the Budd.
On July 23, 1966, the team took the car to a straight piece of Ohio track made mostly from ordinary bolted rails and hammered for decades by heavy freight trains. Wetzel put on a pilot’s helmet, climbed into the cab. On his second try the speedometer showed 196 mph. “I had been instructed to go through the timing traps at 180 mph, so I had to slow down,” he says. Once or twice, because of its light weight, the M-497 failed to close the track circuit and the “track occupied” light turned off at the dispatcher’s office at the Toledo train station, making the observers anxious. Did the train go airborne? Wetzel does not believe so.
After the record, New York Central took the car to New York, where media and public adulation lasted for a few days. Then the lights went out on the speedy Budd. The railroad dismantled the fancy nose, put back seats, and commissioned the car in commuter service along the Hudson River. On a good day, it would make a run from Poughkeepsie as far as Harlem. It was scrapped in 1984.
Wetzel, always thinking, salvaged the jet engines and built a patented jet-powered snow blower. The first machine blasted snow as well as ties and ballast from underneath the rails. But Wetzel made it work. “They worked all over the country,” he says. “Even in Saudi Arabia. They used them as sand blowers to blow sand from the tracks.”
A historical 1966 video of Don Wetzel’s record-breaking ride. Video Credit: From The Collection Of Donald C. Wetzel