Like Budd's RDC car, GM's Aerotrain was a postwar attempt to help railroads turn a profit on passenger service. But the Aerotrain promised a lot more and delivered much less. In June 1955, while the Aerotrain was still being designed, a General Motors press release predicted that "this crack new 100-mile-an-hour streamliner" would run from New York to Boston in 2½ hours - faster than today's Acela. Even before it was delivered, a New York Central magazine ad claimed "This Train Will Save an Industry," and the Pennsylvania Railroad's 1956 calendar featured a painting of the Aerotrain titled "Dynamic Progress."
The Aerotrain was in fact a mixture of off-the-shelf GM parts with futuristic ideas and styling. The idea was to create a fast, fuel-efficient train that would be cheap to purchase and operate, allowing railroads to compete with autos and airplanes on medium-haul trips of 200-700 miles. The Aerotrain's 40-seat coaches were based on GM intercity bus bodies, complete with lavatory at one end and baggage compartments under the seating area. Like buses of the time, each four-wheeled coach rode on an air bellows suspension, unlike normal passenger cars that rode on metal springs. Under the hood, the Aerotrain's engine was a 1200-horsepower EMD switcher, re-geared for speeds up to 100 mph. The styling borrowed heavily from General Motors cars of the era, with the observation car almost a dead ringer for the back end of the 1955 Chevy Nomad station wagon.
In early 1956, the two prototype Aerotrains entered service on the Pennsy between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and on the New York Central between Chicago and Detroit. It soon became apparent that the air bellows suspension was fine at bus speeds but utterly inadequate for a high-speed train. Above 60 mph, the lightweight cars shook horribly; one wag noted that if the trains had operated at or near their top speed, "any surviving passengers would have been approaching the condition of Jello." After less than a year of service, the test trains were returned to GM. In 1957 they were sold to the Rock Island, which used them in lower-speed commuter service in the Chicago suburbs until their 1966 retirement. For 2006, this highly detailed RailKing model allows you to relive the Pennsylvania's hopes for the Aerotrain in high-speed service - without the rough ride - or the reality of the Aerotrain on Rock Island commuter runs.
Did You Know? Upon their retirement in 1966, the two Aerotrains were donated to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay Wisconsin and the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, where you can see them today. Although the Aerotrains were not popular with passengers, their styling - which once appeared futuristic and today looks retro - has made them tremendously popular with model railroaders. An HO model introduced by Varney in the 1950s has sold thousands of copies and is still available today from Bowser Manufacturing.