Prototypes and Experiments

Here Comes Tomorrow—Fast!

In the golden age of American growth after WWII, the automobile and airline industries were taking off, but railroad, especially passenger rail, was in a serious slide. Railroad needed a stylish, fast new train of the future to rescue the industry, and General Motors, through their  Electro-Motive Division, with the help of designer Chuck Jordan, had the answer.

The train was officially known as the LWT-12 (Light Weight 1,200 horsepower) and was powered by a single General Motors Diesel Electic propulsion unit. Light weight was the key, as the LWT-12 was designed for a lower power requirement than regular trains, and in the area of fuel economy it did deliver.

But compared to other trains of the day, it was seriously underpowered. One of the two prototypes, when leased to Union Pacific on a run between LA and Las Vegas, required a pushed diesel to help it up steep grades. 

The passenger cars for the new light weight train were essentially modified busses from GM’s Motor Coach division. Each was built into a 40 passenger coach that rode on two axles instead of 4, and had air ride. The frame and axles were almost identical to a road-going bus, but the smooth ride did not translate to the tracks.

Additionally, passengers found the downsized cars very confining as compared to the standard passesger coaches.

The design of the train was very expressive of the jet age, but the way that the engines and power plants where put together did not lend itself well to ease of maintenance, another factor that caused railroads to shy away.

After their initial leases ran out, two of the prototypes put in a ten year career with the Rock Island Line in Chicago. Now they reside in transportation museums.

The design does live on, in a smaller version built for the Washington Zoo. One of three, the other two were at Disney World until they got bumped for a monorail. The Disney trains, and possibly the Zoo train, were powered by Oldsmobile rocket V-8s and utilized Oldsmobile windshields and other parts.


Info and image sources were darkroastedblend, Wikipedia,, Hemmings, silodrome, and

  • fodder650

    Oddly I think the miniature ones with the Rocket V8's have a better power to weight ratio then the big version

  • Slow_Joe_Crow

    I'm probably waxing pedantic but since it is in my backyard I feel I should point out that the Zooliner was built for the Washington Park Zoo (now Oregon Zoo) in Portland OR and not someplace in DC. I've actually ridden it and there are builder's plates in the cars from a company in Clackamas.

  • aastrovan

    I wonder if it needed a push diesel because of traction loss caused by the light weight?
    Great story and great design,