8 Crazy Trains in History

From the beginning of railway travel, people have tried to make trains bigger, better, faster, more efficient, or just plain different. Here are some of the strange ideas they came up with along the way.


(Image credit: Franz Jansen)

German engineer Franz Kruckenberg had an idea: why not build a train that worked like a blimp? It was the late 1920s and he was a zeppelin designer by training, but he’d recently turned his attention to the rails. He’d tried his hand at creating a hanging monorail, but when that failed he decided to try something new—a streamlined, aluminum bullet train powered by a giant propeller. This time, it worked! Built in 1930, the Propellertriebwagen Schienenzeppelin was as fast and smooth as its name was long. Zooming at an unprecedented 140 mph, the engine set a speed record that would stand for another 23 years.

So why aren’t today’s Amtraks propeller-powered? The (extremely noisy paddles) that made the train run also prevented cars from coupling to each other, so the Schienenzeppelin wasn’t actually much of a train.


Sail-powered trolleys were used in the UK from the 1850s onward, especially in coastal areas that had a reliable gust. One in Cliffe, England, used abandoned cement mine tracks to transport people wanting, as the book The Cement Railways of Kent describes, to “dig worms and inspect the sea defences.”


(Image credit: Chris McKenna (Thryduulf))

Not to be confused with a deluxe barbecue smoker, Richard Trevithick’s 1804 locomotive was the first steam engine to successfully run on rails. On its first run, the 7-ton train maxed out at 5 mph. The train was so heavy that it made only three journeys, breaking the cast-iron rails every time.


Built in 1887 to swindle gullible investors, the Holman had wheels on wheels on wheels. Impressive, but they did nothing to make the train run better. Locomotive authority Angus Sinclair said it had the same value as “throwing gold coin over Niagara Falls.” Nonetheless, a test run helped sell a few phony stocks.


Suspended by steel trestles, the train-plane hybrid hung from an overhead rail and was pushed along by two airplane propellers. Projected to cruise at 120 to 150 mph, a prototype ran in Milngavie, Scotland in 1930, but a lack of funding left the idea literally hanging.


New York City’s first subway was a pneumatic tube. Built under Broadway in 1869, a giant rotary blower nicknamed the “Western Tornado” pushed a single car down the track. The system was slow and loud, and it was shut down after a stock market crash in Europe caused investors to lose interest.


Louis Brennan’s 1903 “gyro-car locomotive” teetered on one rail and leaned at corners like a motorcycle. Two gyroscopic stabilizers helped the car lean around bends, standing erect even when stopped. In 1910, the train debuted in London, carrying 50 passengers, including Winston Churchill. But it still flopped: One was scrapped and another was made into a park shelter.


(Image credit: JakeLM)

Magnetically levitating trains—called maglevs—literally float on a cushion of air. Recently tested in Japan and Germany, the rails are lined with strong electromagnets. The repellant force makes the train float up to four inches above the track; since there’s no friction with the rails, the trains can reach 311 mph!


The article above is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the January-February 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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The first commercial Maglev train was in use in the UK at Birmingham Airport in 1984. I used to go for rides on it as a kid. It's now been replaced with a monorail.
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