Green Bay, Wisconsin, is perhaps best known as a city that can fit nearly its entire adult population into its own professional football stadium (all, Undoubted). Lambeau Field’s vision, however, is a museum that holds a different kind of history – the kind that helped build the West and the country as a whole.
under the huge train shed of National Railroad Museum From steam engines to high-speed diesel-electrics and classic dining cars to historic sleepers, you’ll find more than 100 years of railway history. There is much to see here.
One of the most notable is GM’s Aerotrain, a streamlined and futuristic mid-century creation that once looked like the future, but has since faded into the past. Here’s a look around.
In 1955, General Motors wanted to shake up the passenger train industry. Sure, the car side of its business was doing great, but like any large conglomerate that wanted to maximize profits. So it came up with a lucrative plan that leveraged the multiple branches of the company to bring together something new and shiny.
And it was new and shiny. The Aerotrain looked like no other train of that era. Its streamlined locomotive looked a lot like GM’s jet-inspired cars of the time. It seemed that Fast, and it was designed to cruise at speeds in excess of 100mph, reducing the time between major cities to hours in some cases. Remember, this was before the high-speed Interstate Highway System. And in the air, the prototype that would lead to Boeing’s 707 had only flown a year earlier. This made the idea of a 100mph long distance train a huge promise.
To minimize design time and maximize profits, GM rummaged through its corporate parts bin. The power was from the V12 engine they received Electro Motive Division, the cars were modified bus shells from GMC and aluminum was used to save weight. The overall look was overseen by the legendary automotive designer chuck jordan Joe became not only Cadillac’s chief designer (think “Fins”) in the late 1950s, but later General Motors’ vice president of all design.
The result was… bad, actually. Like, too bad. While the train looked spectacular, garnering interest among the public and railroad companies alike, its performance was disappointing. The engine was woefully underpowered, and despite its light weight, the Aerotrain had trouble climbing hills without assistance. The cars were obnoxiously loud and they jumped on their air suspension so much that they were basically unusable at over 60 mph.
All but one railroad passed on buying the Aerotrain. The one that did – the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad – bought three prototypes at a hefty discount and ran them on low-speed, short-haul commuter services in the Chicago suburbs. He did not last long in this dwindling role, retiring after eight years. One was sold to junk, one went to the national There’s another one here at the Transportation Museum in St. Louis.
Being covered, but not completely indoors, the Aerotrain could use some TLC. Dust and bird droppings have covered the exterior, and the locomotive and interiors of the two cars are off limits (though not for a GoPro on a selfie stick) and have not been restored. As with any museum, especially train museums, maintenance and cleaning is an expensive and ongoing process. And given the state of the world over the past year, it’s hard to blame the museum for focusing efforts on the more important vehicles in its care.
While my fascination with the Aerotrain inspired my journey, National Railroad Museum There are many other historical and influential locomotives and railcars. Dwight D. Eisenhower is a British Class A4 The high-speed behemoth, one of only four still in existence, held the record for decades on the UK’s East Coast Main Line. Huge Union Pacific “Big Boy” One of the largest engines ever built, and is in immaculate condition.
Altogether, there is more than a century of railroad history, including a plow car like caboose, a Pullman sleeper and a rolling wooden cabin.
If you’re not heading to Green Bay,For a look at some fascinating rail history.
As well as covering TV and other display technology, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and places around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane cemeteries, and more.