When railroad engineer Don Wetzel and his colleagues with the now defunct New York Central Railroad decided to build a high-speed train in the 1960s, they salvaged a pair of GE jet engines from an Air Force bomber and attached them to the roof of a stock commuter car. On July 23, 1966, Wetzel put on a white pilot’s helmet and sped down a straight section of Ohio tracks at 183 miles per hour. The train set a world record for self-propelled trains and got recognized by Guinness World Records.
The rail speed record still stands in the U.S., but jet train was scrapped long ago. However, LEGO “virtuoso” Aleksander Stein recently recreated the vehicle from LEGO bricks. To mark the occasion, GE Reports managing editor Tomas Kellner talked to Wetzel, who is 82, about his record-breaking ride, jet-powered snow blowers, and “LEGOmaniacs.”
LEGO “virtuoso” Aleksander Stein recently recreated Don Wetzel’s jet train from LEGO bricks.
Tomas Kellner: How did you get the idea to build a jet train?
Don Wetzel: I was employed as assistant director of technical researchat the New York Central Railroad. The research department was charged with the responsibility to make trains run safer, faster and cheaper. High-speed rail was just coming into vogue and the Pennsylvania Railroad was an arch competitor. We thought we could prove the validity of high-speed transport over conventional rail.
TK: Why did you pick jet engines?
DW: They were the cheapest 5,000 horsepower engines we could find. They were also the most reliable. They were widely used in many Air Force aircraft. The engines we used were GE J-47-19 jet engines removed from a Convair B-36H bomber named the “Peacemaker.” We found them at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. There was a company called Page Airways that was selling them on the surplus market.
The jet-powered M-497 set the North American rail speed record of 183.85 mph on July 23, 1966. The record still stands. Photo Credits: From The Collection Of Donald C. Wetzel
TK: That sounds too easy. How much did you pay for them?
DW: They were readily available and so we bought them. We paid $5,000 for the entire pod. They put it on a tractor-trailer and sent it from Arizona to our Cleveland Collinwood rail yard.
TK: How did you learn to work with jet engines?
DW: I am a former military pilot. I had previously invented and patented a railroad snow blower utilizing the GE J-47 jet engines so I had a lot of experience with them. The engines could be easily adapted to burn diesel as opposed to jet fuel. The snow blowers were used all over the country. They also used them in Saudi Arabia to blow sand from the tracks.
Wetzel’s patented jet engine snow blower.
TK: Did you modify the engines?
DW: We talked to GE Aviation in Cincinnati and got some advice from them. We also got some advice from NASA here in Cleveland. They helped us convert the engine to a 28-volt DC starter and
Wetzel’s team used two surplus General Electric J47-19 turbojet engines to power the train. Each engine was capable of producing 5,200 pounds of thrust.
TK: You said that you used diesel. How did you change the fuel system?
DW: Diesel fuel is more viscous than jet fuel. We had to increase the pressure to the fuel nozzles so the fuel would atomize and ignite in the combustion chambers. That was easily done. We made our own throttle with a Vickers hydraulic flow control valve, instead of the complicated throttle used on the airplane.
TK: The train’s sleek cab would make Ferrari proud. How did you design it and found a place for the engines?
DW: My wife is a commercial artist and she did the streamlining design. The original design had the jet engines on the rear end of the car, but we changed it to the forward end. 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 train looked good, it would run good.
The staff of New York Central’s Collinwood shop who created, built and manned the M-497 pose in front of the train before the trials began.
TK: How did you decide on the rail car?
DW: We picked an ordinary commuter car. We found a 13-year-old Budd “Beeliner” Rail Diesel Car in Detroit. It had the NYCRR number M-497. We removed the seats to make room for the structure supporting the engines. The instruments that measured speed and stress were in the baggage area. We installed fuel tanks in the mail section.
TK: Tell us about the record ride.
DW: If I recall it correctly, there were four runs total. I was a locomotive engineer on steam, electric and diesel locomotives – including diesel locomotives manufactured in Erie, Pennsylvania by General Electric. As I said, I was also a former pilot. I guess those skills made me the obvious person to run the M-497.
The instrumentation bay of the M-497. Besides speed, the New York Central team measured stress, temperature, vibration and other behavior.
TK: Where did you run it?
DW: We took the train to a straight stretch of track west of Toledo, Ohio. It was conventional track and roadbed. There was only a small section that was welded. On my second run our speed reached 196 mph and we were decelerating when we went through the timing traps. They told me that they wanted the train to run through at 180 mph. Everybody thought that it was quite funny that we set a world record while decelerating. We were going 183.35 mph when got through the gate.
The M-497 setting the U.S. rail speed record of 183.85 mph on July 23, 1966.
TK: Were you scared at any time?
DW: No, but the crew told me that once or twice it seemed that the M-497 was airborne. It failed to close the track circuit and the track-occupied light turned off at the dispatcher’s office at the Toledo train station. It made them anxious. I knew that we weren’t actually airborne, we just didn’t complete the track circuit due to the M-497′s light weight.
TK: What happened to the jet train next?
DW: It had its moment of glory at a press conference in New York City. But then we sent it back to Beach Grove, Indiana, removed the engines and put them into snow blowers. We also rebuilt the commuter car and it re-entered regular service on the line between Poughkeepsie and Harlem, New York. The railroad scrapped it in 1984.
TK: This story has a sad ending.
DW: It doesn’t. The goal was to prove that high-speed rail was possible in the U.S. We absolutely proved the validity of the concept that very high speeds could be attained using conventional rail equipment.
TK: Do you know that the M-497 now lives on as a LEGO model?
DW: I do. My granddaughter, Stephanie Donovan, now Stephanie Cullum, and her husband Doug are “LEGOmaniacs.” On their first date, Dough brought her a bunch of LEGOs instead of flowers. She knew right then that he was the one. They even had a LEGO wedding. All of the decorations were made of LEGO bricks, including the gentlemen’s boutonnieres. The bride’s bouquet had clear LEGO bricks wired through as sparkle. They still have thousands of LEGO pieces at home, including the latest LEGO sets. They told me about the train.
TK: This has the all the makings of another great story! Congratulations, and thank you for the interview.
Don Wetzel’s granddaughter Stephanie Cullum and her husband Doug are “LEGOmaniacs.” Here they are pictured on their wedding day in June. They told Wetzel about the LEGO jet train.