Flying Trains

Flying Trains

30 November 2011 by Justin Pollard

We've talked before about Zeppelins, in particular those that went up, up and away and then occasionally burst into flames, but what about those that ran on rails? I say 'those', there was only really one, in Germany at least, but for a moment in the 1930's it looked like the sort of high-speed train transport that still fills the pages of science fiction was going to get off to a flying start.

The Schienenzeppelin was not the first propeller driven railcar. Those laurels probably belong to the Soviet Aerowagon which Valerian Abakovsky designed to whisk important Soviet officials around their huge country. Sadly, on 24th July 1921 it whisked all those on board, including Abakovsky, off the tracks and to their untimely deaths, marking the end of a rarther promising project. More fortunate was the brilliant Scottish engineer George Bennie who built a prototype track and railcar for his 'Bennie Railplane' at Milngavie near Glasgow, which opened on 8th July 1930. His idea was for a propeller driven train riding on a gantry high above the original track, carrying passengers quickly and quietly to their destinations, while the slower freight trains lumbered on below. Everyone agreed it was a magnificent idea and Bennie was feted as the next in a long line of those great British engineer who were builting the modern world. Showing a depressingly familiar lack of foresight both government and private backers then failed to invest anything further in the project, leaving Bennie bankrupt and his test track sold off for scrap.

This, however, was not how they were going to treat the future in Germany. They too had a brilliant engineer, in the shape of Franz Krukenberg, originally a ship-building engineer, who had already designed aircraft and airships, although he was an early critic of Zeppelins due to their explosive nature. In 1929 he came up with his own spin on the idea - the Schienenzeppelin (rail zeppelin) - so called simply because it looked a bit like a Zeppelin airship. Built from aircraft aluminium, the light, single unit railcar would carry 40 passengers down the track, pushed along by a rear propeller attached to two (later one) huge BMW aero engines. By early 1930 an enthusiastic German state had the plans on the drawing boards of the designers of the German Imperial Railway company. Just six months later it was on the tracks. With it's sleek aerodynamic bullet nose and modernist, stripped back, Bauhaus interior it looked frankly more advanced that most trains that I at least currently travel on.

And it was fast. On 10th May, 1931 the train broke the 200km/h barrier and just 11 days later set a new world rail-speed record of 230.2 km/h. This wouldn't be beaten until 1954 and is still the record for a petrol powered train.

So what happened to this future? It won't have escaped your attention when sitting at faulty signals outside Woking or a hour or so that we still don't whiz around in high speed aircraft-style railcars. Well to be fair, the Schienenzeppelin was not a perfect design. The train proved unable to climb steep gradients hence requiring either new tracks to be laid or an additional power-source put in the unit. There was also something of an infrastructure problem - one which has hardly gone away since. As the train was fast and light there was a danger that uneven tracks, designed for heavy, slow trains, might lead to the Schienenzeppelin 'lifting off'. To try to counter this the driveshaft was inclined at a 7 degree angle to provide some down-thrust but the truth of the matter was that not many tracks were designed for a train quite like this and track laying was a much bigger and more costly undertaking than train building. There were other more prosaic problems too. The rear propeller drive meant that the train couldn't really be attached to other units, hence nullifying one of the great advantages of rail transport - the ability to connect large numbers of wagons or coaches together. Finally there were those spoilsports who pointed out that a huge uncovered propeller, scything through the air at terrifying speeds, made standing idly on platforms a shade more dangerous than it had previously been.

All these things conspired against the futuristic Schienenzeppelin and in 1939, at the outbreak of war, the only prototype was broken up - it's parts apparently needed for the war effort. The German Imperial Railway took another tack, developing their own non-propeller driven railcar, the splendidly named 'Flying Hamburger'. So had Germany's Zeppelin train been a red herring? As is so often the case, much of what Krukenberg learnt by building the Schienenzeppelin was put to use in later high speed designs such as the TGV but not everyone at the time was all that unhappy. At the risk of suggesting the Nazi state was at all cynical, to many in the regime the programme served its purpose admirably. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany an airforce but who could complain about the development of high-performance aero engines and airframes if they were simply to be used in trains?

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    Posted By: Justin Pollard @ 30 November 2011 11:41 AM     General  

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