The Black Beetle

M-497 Black Beetle

So, you’ve got a Budd RDC-3 Rail Diesel Car, and you want to make it go fast. REAL fast. What’s the best way to go about that?

You can try mounting a pair of GE J47 jet engines on it, robbed from a scrapped Convair B-36 Peacemaker bomber. That’s what the New York Central did in 1966, when they developed the “Black Beetle” M-497 unit.

It was an NYC attempt at high-speed rail, strapping a pair of engines from a Cold War bomber onto an otherwise-conventional rail car. The J47 engine also powered the famed F-86 Sabrejet and Craig Breedlove’s “Spirit of America” car, which set a record of over 400 mph at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1963. The Budd Car was gutted of the usual seating and amenities to make room for gauges and test equipment to keep tabs on speed, seismic readings and track conditions. Up front, the Budd Car was fitted with a shovel-type nose that, like an automotive air dam, was intended to help aerodynamics and apply downforce to help keep it stable. Engineer Don Wetzel was in charge of the design, subjecting the nose to extensive wind tunnel testing; his wife Ruth, also an engineer, was responsible for mounting the jet engines up front rather than in the rear.

The Black Beetle was rolled out on a budget of only $35,000 and was tested on a 69-mile section of track between Butler, Indiana and Air Line Junction, Ohio—flat, straight and relatively new track that was well-suited for high-speed testing. Over the course of two days of testing, the Black Beetle hit 184 mph, setting a record that would stand for the next 40 years. After each run, the car had to be towed back to its starting point.

In the end, the Black Beetle wasn’t much more than an experiment, and the Budd Car was put back into revenue service. The engines, however, were shipped back to a maintenance yard and refitted onto a snowplow; they were detuned to reduce their power output and were used to blast snow along the tracks on the NYC for many years to come.

What the Black Beetle did prove was that well-maintained standard trackage could be utilized for high-speed rail. Even though it didn’t become a reality in revenue service, the NYC’s research was valuable , especially since high-speed rail is being considered a little more seriously today.