Weimar Rail-Zeppelin: streamlined white-elephant

A Wired/Jalopnik post details the sad history of the Schienenzeppelin, a Weimar-era German "rail zeppelin" that used a giant prop to pull itself down the railroad tracks:
Conceived and built in 1930 by the German rail company Deutsche Reichsbahn, the Schienenzeppelin was a design alternative to the streamlined steam locomotives of its day. It was a slick and relatively lightweight at 20 tons, running on but two axles and powered by a 46-liter BMW V-12.

The same engine was later used to power the light bombers of the Luftwaffe. The engine sent 600 horsepower to a massive ash propeller, tilted seven degrees to produce downforce. It was one of those designs that would shock and delight even in these times, when aluminum is used not for Bauhaus trains but for high-revving V-8s and computers from the near future.

Originally good for 120 mph -- on par with the fastest streamlined steam locomotives -- the Schienenzeppelin topped out at a magnificent 140 mph in the summer of 1931. It was a record that stood for 23 years and was never surpassed by a gasoline-powered locomotive.

Prop-Driven 'Rail Zeppelin' Is Many Kinds of Awesome


  1. Not so much a white elephant, but rather a very sneaky way to test engines for military aircraft, because of the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on Germany after WWI.

  2. My grandmother still tells me about this, when it stopped in her city of Holzminden, Germany. She has pictures too, completely out of this world.

    I think this thing didn’t pull itself down the tracks, but rather pushed. What we are seeing here is the backside, it’s even more interesting from the front.

    Let’s see if I can post an image search here:

    1. Thanks for the post. It would be great to know that it actually did push itself. My first thought was why would you put a prop at the front of a train instead of the back?

    2. If you spoke to your grandmother about carefully digitizing those pictures and sharing them with the world you’d probably make some archivists very happy. Storing them in whatever condition they’re now in, protected from the unkind wear of time on physical photo prints.

      Seriously: people would probably be thankful that such photos were preserved digitally, especially if she made them available to the public. Please ask her to consider it!

    3. i’m somewhat disappointed that the propellor wasn’t on the front.
      i had imagined the fairing and blades would act as a combination cow-catcher and cow-mincer…

      …sort of like this unfortunate incident.

  3. The prop-driven Bennie Railplane was built in Scotland about the same time. It was supposed to go above the freight lines so passengers could go more quickly. Only a short test track was ever built (in the posh suburb of Milngavie, which isn’t pronounced the way it looks). There’s a little footage of the thing running: http://ssa.nls.uk/film.cfm?fid=1341

  4. Scruss, that doesn’t really look like the train on these pictures, are you sure that it’s the same?

  5. There’s only thing that’s cooler than the Rail Zeppelin, and that’s the Kraftwerk video of Trans Europe Express with footage of the band made to look like they are travelling on one:

  6. Herr Kruckenberg, the Rail Zeppelin’s designer, went on to design slightly more sensible trains such as the SVT 137 “Flying Hamburger” passenger unit that ran in the late 1930s between Hamburg and Berlin, at speeds well above 100mph.
    Many consider the SVT the first “modern” rail vehicle, making it the ancestor of all today’s high speed trains.

  7. So the 20 ton locomotive was lightweight, but the propeller (whose weight was unspecified) was “massive”?

  8. Not too many gasoline powered locomotives out there…I wonder whether the higher speed possible later was due to a change to a variable pitch prop. Even with one, ISTM that slow acceleration compared to the ammount of horsepower would limit the utility of high top speed.

  9. I wouldn’t call this a white elephant. This was trickery. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was not allowed to develop aircraft engines for 15 years after WWI.

    “Dies ist nicht ein Flugzeugmotor, ist es eine Lokomotive!”

    1. This is also the the impetus behind the German development of the jet turbine coffeemaker, the heli-perambulator, and the rocket cow-milking machine.

  10. This seems counter-intuitive. A propeller pushing against the air should be much less efficient than wheels pushing against the track.

    1. The effect of pushing a plane through the air is very similar to pushing a boat through water, you can find loads of info on cons and pros of the “pusher configuration” thorough your favorite search engine.

  11. If this operated on a treadmill with rails embedded in the tread, would this thing be able to move forward if the treadmill sped up to match its speed, but in the opposite direction?

  12. What happened to companies/people/governments building things that are so esoteric and awe inspiring that they look like they came straight out of a novel?

    Those were the days. You know before computers could model everything and tell you how dumb your idea really was.

  13. What happened to companies/people/governments building things that are so esoteric and awe inspiring that they look like they came straight out of a novel?

    Those were the days. You know before computers could model everything and tell you how dumb your idea really was.

  14. Just a small point: I doubt there’s such a thing as a 46 liter motor of any kind (unless maybe in the bowels of a cruise ship).
    It’s 4.6L, and goes to show that BMW was (and continues to be) into high performance decades before it became wrongly associated with yuppies.

    1. “I doubt there’s such a thing as a 46 liter motor of any kind”

      Nope. For example, look up the EMD 710; its name comes from its per-cylinder displacement of 710 ci, or 11.6L. Quite a few locomotives use V12 and V16 versions: that’s 139L and 185L respectively.

  15. Train version of the Captain Nemo Nautilus?
    When I see this photo, I can’t stop thinking about Nautilus on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie:

        1. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, AKA Lenin, died in 1924. So it probably wasn’t him.

          Maybe it was his younger brother, Bob.

  16. Used a giant prop to *push* itself down the track, not pull. The propeller was at the back, not at the front.

  17. While the rail-zeppelin was, as others have highlighted, no doubt sponsored by the government chiefly as a means of testing aero engines without building aero-planes in which to mount them, the very ability to employ extant powerplants points up the possible benefits of this scheme. Imagine if all the Curtiss JN-4s tossed onto the surplus market after World War I in the States had instead been turned into the prime movers for high-speed trains. On the other hand, yes: I pity the stout-hearted soul who approached the platform edge too close as this vehicle pulled out.

  18. In DrPretto’s first video link, did anyone notice the cheat? In the August test run, there was no propeller. And because the skin had not been installed, you can clearly see the motor above the front wheels.

    1. no cheat
      the front unit is the auxilliary motor, used for slow speed operation around rail yards and also to drive the on-board eleictricity supply

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