From propellers to sails to magnets, history's inventors have come up with some excellent ways to ride the rails.
1. Propellertriebwagen Schienenzeppelin
German engineer Franz Kruckenberg had an idea: why not build a train that worked like a blimp? It was the late 1920s and he was a zeppelin designer by training, but he’d recently turned his attention to the rails. He’d tried his hand at creating a hanging monorail, but when that failed he decided to try something new—a streamlined, aluminum bullet train powered by a giant propeller. This time, it worked! Built in 1930, the Propellertriebwagen Schienenzeppelin was as fast and smooth as its name was long. Zooming at an unprecedented 140 mph, the engine set a speed record that would stand for another 23 years.
So why aren’t today’s Amtraks propeller-powered? The (extremely noisy paddles) that made the train run also prevented cars from coupling to each other, so the Schienenzeppelin wasn’t actually much of a train.
2. SAIL TROLLEYS
Sail-powered trolleys were used in the UK from the 1850s onward, especially in coastal areas that had a reliable gust. One in Cliffe, England, used abandoned cement mine tracks to transport people wanting, as the book The Cement Railways of Kent describes, to “dig worms and inspect the sea defences.”
3. PENYDARREN LOCOMOTIVE
Not to be confused with a deluxe barbecue smoker, Richard Trevithick’s 1804 locomotive was the first steam engine to successfully run on rails. On its first run, the 7-ton train maxed out at 5 mph. The train was so heavy that it made only three journeys, breaking the cast-iron rails every time.
4. THE HOLMAN LOCOMOTIVE
Built in 1887 to swindle gullible investors, the Holman had wheels on wheels on wheels. Impressive, but they did nothing to make the train run better. Locomotive authority Angus Sinclair said it had the same value as “throwing gold coin over Niagara Falls.” Nonetheless, a test run helped sell a few phony stocks.
5. GEORGE BENNIE’S RAILPLANE
Suspended by steel trestles, the train-plane hybrid hung from an overhead rail and was pushed along by two airplane propellers. Projected to cruise at 120 to 150 mph, a prototype ran in Milngavie, Scotland in 1930, but a lack of funding left the idea literally hanging.
6. BEACH PNEUMATIC TRANSIT
New York City’s first subway was a pneumatic tube. Built under Broadway in 1869, a giant rotary blower nicknamed the “Western Tornado” pushed a single car down the track. The system was slow and loud, and it was shut down after a stock market crash in Europe caused investors to lose interest.
7. GYROSCOPIC MONORAIL
Louis Brennan’s 1903 “gyro-car locomotive” teetered on one rail and leaned at corners like a motorcycle. Two gyroscopic stabilizers helped the car lean around bends, standing erect even when stopped. In 1910, the train debuted in London, carrying 50 passengers, including Winston Churchill. But it still flopped: One was scrapped and another was made into a park shelter.
Magnetically levitating trains—called maglevs—literally float on a cushion of air. Recently tested in Japan and Germany, the rails are lined with strong electromagnets. The repellant force makes the train float up to four inches above the track; since there’s no friction with the rails, the trains can reach 311 mph!
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