Propellor-Driven Locomotives

Gallery opened Nov 2005

Updated: 22 Nov 2017

Hugo the Zeppelin loco
in Thomas the Tank Engine
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There have been very few attempts to drive locomotives by means of propellors. One advantage is that forward thrust does not depend on adhesion between wheels and rails. A corresponding disadvantage is that a propellor does not give a positive drive; it is working in a fluid medium so there is an inevitable loss of efficiency. The significance of this loss is something I have not worked out yet.


THE GERMAN DRINGOS PROP-LOCOMOTIVE: 1919

Left: The Dringos Prop-Locomotive: 1919

Until recently this project was believed to be Russian, but that is not the case and I apologise for the previous misinformation.

In fact the picture shows a test prototype of the "Dringos" locomtive, patented by Dr.-Ing. Otto Steinitz (front left in the photograph) and assembled under license by the Luftfahrt Company in Grunewald, a suburb of Berlin. It had an aero engine and a two-bladed propellor at each end. The locomotive made its first successful test run on May 11, 1919 from Grunewald to Beelitz, about 30 miles there and back, carrying various government railway officials and parliament members - about 40 people in total. The locomotive easily sustained a speed of 60 mph, limited mostly by concerns about the primitive chassis and braking system of the prototype.

The exhaust stub of the engine at the other end can be seen top right against the gantry.

Unfortunately no detail is visible in the dark parts of the photo, but a little information can be extracted from the picture. The engine is a six-cylinder in-line model, with a total absence of silencing on the exhaust stub. One thing that can be asserted with confidence is that this was not a quiet machine.

The test locomotive was built from an old railway freight wagon using a aircraft engines originally contracted for military use. Part of the motivation for this scheme was finding an acceptable civilian use for these engines that had been contracted for the war effort. Subsequent post-WW1 requirements that Germany destroy its stockpile of and manufacturing capacity for military aircraft parts were definitely a factor in diminishing the interest of the corporate backers - the engine manufacturers. The government railroad interests apparently had little enthusiasm for the concept all along.

It is notable that this project was at least ten years ahead of the more widely known Berlin-Hamburg trials of the Krukenberg propellor locomotive. (see below)

This information was most kindly provided by Michael Steinitz, the grandson of the inventor.

Left: The Dringos Prop-Locomotive: 1919

This is a much better version of the picture, kindly provided by Chuck Bencik, who has done a good deal of computer restoration work on it; many thanks to him. The magazine appears to have been photographed using a flashgun.

The Dringos locomotive has a Wikipedia page but it is in Czech. Just hit the Translate button.


THE BENNIE RAILPLANE: 1929

Left: The Bennie Railplane.

The Bennie Railplane was a streamlined coach powered at each end by an electric motor driving a four-bladed propeller. Each motor was rated at a continuous 60 bhp.The railplane was a monorail, suspended from a single rail above, with a stabilising rail below. The projected cruising speed was up to 120 miles per hour. Braking was partly by means of the overhead wheels, assisted by reversing the rear propellor. It was patented in 1921.

In 1929-30 a test track about a quarter of a mile in length was built over an LNER line at Milngavie, on the outskirts of Glasgow. Many successful tests and demonstrations were made, but no investors were forthcoming. The track was dismantled in 1941 as part of the WW2 scrap metal campaign, and sadly George Bennie died in obscurity in 1954.

This remarkable machine is a popular subject on the Web, and searching on "Bennie Railplane" will bring up far more information than there is space for here.


THE RAIL-ZEPPELIN: 1931

Left: The Rail-Zeppelin: 1931

The schienenzeppelin (ie the rail zeppelin) was a prototype propellor-driven light-weight railcar that held the world railway speed record for no less than twenty years.

It was powered by a BMW aeroengine, driving a four-blade wooden pusher propeller. On June 21, 1931, it kept up 230 km/hour (143 mph) for about 20 km, gaining the . It was designed by Franz Kruckenberg. Like the Bennie railcar, it never went into production, mainly because of the obvious dangers of combining a propellor with a platform-full of passengers. Other problems were that you could not join two together to form a train because of the propellor position, and the inability of the propellor to drive the railcar up steep gradients.

The rail zeppelin has a very good Wikipedia page.

There is film of it on YouTube with German commentary.

There is also a newsreel of it in English on YouTube.

Above: The Rail-Zeppelin with casing removed: 1931

This shows the aircraft-style, or rather airship-style, of construction, with a complicated network of perforated aluminium girders. This was presumably essential to minimise the weight.

The original version had two coupled BMW IV 6-cylinder aircraft engines using petrol, which were later replaced with a single BMW VI 12-cylinder engine of 600 horsepower (450 kW) driving a four-bladed fixed pitch wooden (ash) propeller. This was later replaced by a two-bladed propellor. The propellor axis was angled down by 7.5 degrees to make sure there was a downward force on the track.

Picture kindly sourced by Chuck Bencik.

The rail zeppelin was dismantled in 1939 because its material was needed by the German army.

Most of you are probably familiar with Thomas the Tank Engine. I was astonished to hear that rail zeppelins have reached the island of Sodor.

Left: Hugo the Rail-Zeppelin

Hugo has undergone some modifications compared to the prototype:

  • The nose has been flattened to accommodate a face
  • He appears to have two additional windows on his cab compared to the prototype
  • He is fitted with a siren which he uses to warn nearby people that his propeller is starting
  • Unlike the prototype, Hugo is able to move backwards. Using a variable-pitch propellor, I assume
  • He runs on diesel instead of petrol (gasoline), unlike the first version of the Schienenzeppelin
His driver's name is Franz, apparently a reference to designer Franz Kruckenberg.

I don't know about you, but I find locomotives with huge faces rather frightening. I would want to know if Hugo has any territorial ambitions.


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