There’s a perplexingly small overlap between those who like cars and those who consider having their commute interrupted by a train the highlight of their day. Trains, after all, just take what excite us about cars—complex, mechanical things steeped in performance, technology, and luxury—to loftier extremes. Interest in one should translate into at least a mild enthusiasm for the other.
Alas, that’s not the case. Car people and train people don’t mix nearly as much as we should. Because for every soulless light rail people-mover, there are some truly incredible machines throughout the history of trains that are worth celebrating. Machines that are every bit as exciting, fascinating, dangerous and brilliantly engineered as any supercar—and remember, powered trains also have the benefit of a good century-plus more development than cars.
Even if you think you’re the farthest thing from a foamer (that’s rail speak for a train nut), it’s time for a glimpse at what you’ve been missing.
10) Franz Kruckenberg’s Schienenzeppelin
Wrapped in a streamlined aluminum body and pushed along by a gigantic propeller, Franz Kruckenberg’s Schienenzeppelin (or rail zeppelin) was an early attempt at high-speed rail combining both locomotive and passenger cabin that, for obvious reasons, didn’t get very far. Though it achieved 143 mph in June 1931, setting a railed vehicle record that wasn’t surpassed for 23 years, insurmountable design flaws prevented the Schienenzeppelin from maturing past the prototype stage.
Powered by a 12-cylinder BMW aircraft engine (originally two straight-sixes jammed together) that ran on conventional gas, it struggled to climb hills, pull train cars, and most importantly, it was a menace to any pedestrians in its vicinity during operation. Hitting a developmental dead end in 1934, Kruckenberg sold the prototype to the Deutsche Reichsbahn, which gutted the machine in 1939 for war materials.
9) Deutsches Bundesbahn Schi-Stra-Bus
Built in postwar Germany, the Schi-Stra-Bus (whose name translates as rai[l]-stree[t]-bus) was a hi-rail-style vehicle designed to travel on both the autobahn and existing rail infrastructure. Powered by a 118-horsepower Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz diesel, the Schi-Stra-Bus could propel 77 passengers up to 50 mph on the road, or after being lowered onto standalone rail trucks, 75 mph on a track.
Entering service in June 1953, the Schi-Stra-Bus was adopted on another four routes over the next two years, though postwar expansion of road infrastructure quickly made the concept obsolete. By 1960, it was operating on just one line, and in 1967, the Schi-Stra-Bus retired to a museum. Mercifully, though, said museum keeps the Schi-Stra-Bus in running condition and takes it out for the occasional excursion.