Schienenzeppelin, the railway zeppelin: a futuristic mega-train that exceeded 220 km/h 90 years ago

Schienenzeppelin, the railway zeppelin: a futuristic mega-train that exceeded 220 km/h 90 years ago

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In the late 1920s, Franz Kruckenberg had a delusional idea. Trains had advantages. Zeppelins had advantages. Why not combine them and make a kind of hybrid capable of “flying” on rails? The task brought them, but Kruckenberg was not new and already left with a more than respectable baggage. He had worked as an engineer at Schütte-Lanz, Zeppelin’s main competitor in airship manufacturing, and was aware of other such attempts.

The result of his efforts and studies would be the Schienenzeppelin —“railway zeppelin”: no, the name is not the most original—, a locomotive worthy of the best retro-futuristic films. More surprising than its appearance is its power: in the summer of 1931 the train went from 220 kilometers per hour (km/h), a more than respectable mark for a train with a propeller and gasoline.

Despite the speed he reached, all his potential and Kruckenberg’s contacts, his proposal did not come to fruition and has gone down in history as a delirious railway curiosity.

Objective: fly on rails

Its beginnings date back to a century ago, to the first half of the 1920s, when Kruckenberg, then at Schütte-Lanz, decided to change gears and focus his attention on the railways. The fact that he changed aircraft for locomotives does not mean, however, that he gave up speed.

The engineer did not want conventional trains, but real bullets.

To achieve this, he teamed up with one of his old colleagues and around 1924 —he recalls The Mercantile— founded the firm Gesellschaft für Verkehrstechnik (GVT). Four years later Kruckenberg was already thinking about how to create a rail service for the Flugbahn-Schnellwagen route. In the early 1930s the GVT had the prototype of its zeppelin train and only a few months later it was buzzing during a test run. 182km/h between Hanover and Burgwedel. The speed was not stunning yet, but it stood out for its low consumption and certainly pointed ways.

By autumn the zeppelin train, manufactured by the German company Deutsche Reichsbahn, was already starring in its coming-out. The 20-ton, two-axle vehicle was powered by a 46-liter BMW V-12 engine and a huge rear-mounted propeller that in the summer of 1931 allowed it to exceed 220 km/h, a mark that some sources outline as 230 km/h (143 mph).

As for its dimensions, Interesting Engineering It specifies that the prototype was around 26 m long and 2.8 high with a wheelbase of 19.6. Over the years the design was slightly tweaked: from the initial two six-cylinder BMW IVs it became a single 12-cylinder 600 HP BMW VI with a two-blade propeller first and a Maybach GO 5 later. Its creators also redesigned the front end and added a hydraulic system to the transmission.

Neither the improvements nor the speed were of much use to Kruckenberg and his Schienenzeppelin, which met the wind against in its attempt to establish itself in the railway network.

His bad star is explained by a combination of factors. He was not quite convinced about his rear propeller, too dangerous —they believed then— for crowded passenger stations, funding was lacking and the Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft did not entirely like that “zeppelin train” with devilish speeds either. Towards 1933 the company opted in fact to design its own railcar, for which it made use of Kruckenberg’s designs to a great extent.

1280px Schienenzeppelin Steilrampe

Bundesarchiv Bild 102 11902 Berlin Schienenzeppelin

To further complicate the picture, making the Schienenzeppelin profitable did not seem like an easy task.

The first prototype had capacity for only 40 passengers and by incorporating a propeller at the rear, the operation of adding new wagons was more complicated than with conventional machinery. If we add to that the objections to build a new infrastructure, best suited at the high speeds reached by the Schienenzeppelin, the picture is completed.

Kruckenberg ended up selling the prototype to the Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft and before the end of the decade he had already retired. He considered keeping it as an example of German railway talent, but even here the zeppelin had no luck. The Reich Railway Ministry ruled out investing the money and space that would require moving the machinery to a museum.

At the end of the 1930s, the winds of war began to blow and the Nazi authorities they saw more appropriate to scrap it in 1939 and reuse its materials, including its powerful engines, which ended up in light bombers. Eighty years later the memory of him remains.

The pictures.

The marks.

And the image of a train that still, in the era of the AVE, bullet trains and hanging maglevs, would make us turn our heads if it zoomed past a railway line, propelled by its propeller.

Bundesarchiv Images, Bild 102-11902 / Georg Pah (Wikipedia) and Franz Jansen (†), Erkrath (Wikipedia)

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