What’s longer than a football field, made by General Motors but rarer than a Bugatti, and lives an unloved life in middle America? The GM Aerotrain. While we only get fleeting glimpses at concept cars from the American auto giant before most of them are whisked away to the Heritage Collection warehouse, two concept trains from the 1950s are substantially more accessible.
The streamlined Art Deco fantasy on rails could almost be accused of luring customers back to trains with sex appeal. This seems particularly odd because the Aerotrain was a product of General Motors, the company that actively pushed trolley traffic out of cities so people would buy their cars.
In the mid-1950s, GM’s Electro-Motive Division was responsible for producing train engines, and the locomotive business was shrinking thanks to the effectiveness of automotive travel. This was an era when GM’s industrial might seemed like it could solve any problem, and so they decided to save train travel by utilizing existing manufacturing.
The rail cars were an evolution of the company’s aluminum bus bodies; the motor was an established 1,200 horsepower 12-cylinder diesel powerplant; and all of this would be wrapped around a style coming from the mind of Chuck Jordan. Yes, the same man who had a hand in the outrageous tailfins of the 50s Cadillacs and the Lumina MPV of the 80s (this Aerotrain kinda looks like their love child, eh?)
This all seemed like a good idea. GM’s economies of scale would keep production and operating costs down in many new ways. The lightweight cars combined with the streamlined locomotive would provide was advertised with, “sustained speeds of 100 miles an hour.” Plus, the futuristic design would be too attractive to resist getting on board.
But the project seemed to come off the rails almost immediately.
Two of these LW12 locomotives (later given the Aerotrain name to increase exposure) went into service in 1956. The locomotive was excelling at high-speed service, but it didn’t have enough grunt to get up big hills. Passengers were not happy because the bus-inspired air ride suspension on the lightweight train cars bounced them around for a rough ride. Both were returned to General Motors within a year. After trying out different routes with no success, both Aerotrains were quietly put into service as low-speed commuter rail in Chicago. The project that was supposed to be the savior of passenger rail service turned into a last gasp for railroad innovation.
While the Aerotrain can be considered a failure that left the track a half-century ago, they have a lasting allure. Both are still on public display today. One is in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the one seen here is the first LW12 that entered service. It’s forever parked at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis.
The Aerotrain seems to have a fitting home here because the multi-building facility celebrates both trains and automobiles. But GM’s Aerotrain has a lonely spot next to a maintenance barn. In a bit of irony the train that had trouble with the hills is now sitting at the bottom of one. It’s out of sight from a large collection of its larger siblings who sit at the top as both a metaphorical and actual symbol of their greater success.
It might feel like a sad story, but it really isn’t. This is spring time and the weather is perfect to walk through the new green grass that is growing around this shiny steel relic. It’s under-appreciated history, so there’s no rope to keep you from getting close or crowd to block your view. So if you’re driving through the Midwest, skip the World’s Largest Ball of Twine and see the World’s Longest Tailfin instead.