High-speed historic sky train and behemoths at the National Railroad Museum
Green Bay, Wisconsin, is probably best known as a city that could accommodate almost all of its adult population in its professional football stadium (all, sure). Within sight of Lambeau Field, however, is a museum that holds a different kind of history – the kind that helped build the West and the entire country.
Under the expansive train sheds of the National Railroad Museum, you’ll discover over 100 years of railroad history, from high-speed diesel-electric steam locomotives and classic dining cars to historic sleeping cars. There is a lot to see here.
One of the most notable is GM’s Aerotrain, a streamlined, futuristic mid-century creation that once looked like the future, but has since faded into the past. Here is a preview.
Discover 100 years of rail history at the National Railroad Museum
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In 1955, General Motors wanted to revolutionize the passenger train industry. Of course, the automotive side of his business was doing well, but like any large conglomerate wanting to maximize profits. So he came up with a flashy plan that leveraged multiple branches of the business to bring together something new and shiny.
And it was new and shiny. The Aerotrain was unlike any other train of the time. Its streamlined locomotive looked more like GM’s jet-inspired cars of the day. It seemed quick, and was designed to cruise over 100 mph, reducing the time between major cities in some cases to hours. Remember, that was before the high speed interstate highway system. And in the air, the prototype that would lead to the Boeing 707 had barely flown the year before. This made the idea of a 100mph long-distance train a huge promise.
In order to minimize design time and maximize profits, GM rummaged through its corporate parts basket. Power came from a V12 engine sourced from their Electro Motive division, the cars were modified GMC bus hulls, and aluminum was used throughout to save weight. The overall appearance was overseen by legendary automotive designer Chuck Jordan, who not only became Cadillac’s chief designer in the late 1950s (think “fins”), but later vice president of design for the set of General Motors.
The result was … bad, actually. Like, really bad. While the train looked fantastic, sparking the interest of the public and railroad companies, its performance was appalling. The engine was terribly underpowered, and despite its lighter weight, the Aerotrain struggled to climb hills without assistance. The cars were unpleasantly noisy, and they bounced around so much on their air suspension that they were virtually unusable at over 60 miles an hour.
All but one of the railways have abandoned the purchase of skyline trains. Whoever did it – the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad – bought all three prototypes at a great price and ran them on low-speed, short-haul commuter services in the Chicago suburbs. Even in this diminished role, they didn’t last long, retiring after eight years. One was sold for scrap, the other went to the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis and one is here.
Being covered, but not completely inside, the Aerotrain could use some TLC. Dust and bird droppings cover much of the exterior, and the interior of the locomotive and both cars is off limits (but not to a GoPro on a selfie stick) and unrestored. With any museum, especially railway 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 fault the museum for focusing its efforts on the most important vehicles in its care.
While my fascination with the skytrain motivated my visit, the National Railroad Museum has many other historic and impressive locomotives and railcars. The Dwight D. Eisenhower is an A4-class high-speed British juggernaut, one of four still in existence, which held records for decades on the UK’s east coast mainline. The gigantic Union Pacific “Big Boy” is one of the largest locomotives ever built and is in immaculate condition.
In all, there is over a century of rail history, including cabooses, Pullman sleepers, and a plow that resembles a rolling wooden cabin.
If you are not going to Green Bay,for a look back at the fascinating history of rail.
In addition to covering television and other display technology, Geoff organizes photo tours of museums and cool places around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, cemeteries. planes, etc.
You can follow his exploits on Instagram and his travel video series on YouTube. He’s also written a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, as well as a sequel.