The M-10,000

"Tomorrow's Train Today" sped out of the gate on February 12, 1934, beating rival Ralph Budd's Burlington Zephyr into the public eye by two months. Though the now-legendary Burlington Zephyr was in production, it was Averell Harrimann and the Union Pacific that gave America its first taste of streamline design.

As early as 1905, Averell Harriman's father, E. H. Harriman, had commissioned W. R. McKeen Jr. to design an efficient train that could replace those powered by costly and cumbersome steam. McKeen's streamlined, gasoline-powered prototype could achieve between 40 and 60 miles per hour on sustained runs. Though the McKeen car was never manufactured, McKeen's vehicle would influence the design of future trains.

Averell Harriman shared his father's pioneering spirit. In 1932 the younger Harriman, as chairman of Union Pacific, spearheaded an effort to develop an experimental "supertrain" -- fast, light, novel in appearance -- to revive passenger service. In May 1933, before the diesel engine had been perfected, Union Pacific announced than a Winton electric engine would power the three-car Pullman train.

In some ways, the M-10,000 was revolutionary. Made of aluminum alloy, the three cars together weighed only 85 tons; a conventional 10-car steam train weighed roughly 1,000 tons. The fully loaded train -- 116 passengers and crew members, 25,000 pounds of baggage and mail -- needed 500 horsepower to achieve a speed of 90 miles per hour; a conventional train, 4,500 horsepower. The engine itself was lighter, as was the entire power plant, including the auxiliary backup engine (20 tons as opposed to a whopping 316 tons on a conventional train). Furthermore, the distillate fuel, stored in tanks in the floor, could carry the new train 1,200 miles without stopping for water or refueling. This was 12 times the distance a conventional passenger train could run on a load of coal.

The decor, too, was created with comfort and efficiency in mind: indirect lighting, pale colors, cork tile on floors to absorb sound. Even the items on board kept the train's weight down: standard china service for a passenger train tipped the scales at 530 pounds, but streamliner crockery was made from a new lightweight material that weighed only 189 pounds.

However, the M-10,000 had several fatal flaws. "While visually attractive and able to run at rapid speeds, the M-10,000 did not match the Zephyr in terms of state-of-the-art technology," notes historian Mark Reutter. "The Zephyr used the first high-speed diesel engine, which was the forerunner of all modern locomotives, while the M-10,000 used a less-efficient distillate oil engine. The Zephyr's stainless steel construction was perfect for high-speed rail travel, while the M-10,000's aluminum sheathing proved problematic and the train was scrapped in 1940."

The look of the streamliner captured the American imagination. Newsweek described the M-10,000 as "a great bulbous-headed caterpillar," but, according to one writer, the train looked more like a snake as it sped along the track. With its novel bubble top, tapered rear car, and waterfall grille, it embodied smooth forward motion even when it stood still. The three-car aluminum-clad train had an exterior color scheme that accentuated its horizontal flow: high-gloss brown on top with a wide yellow band on each side. Tests had revealed that yellow was the color most visible from a distance.

Averell Harriman wanted the M-10,000 to be seen. At its February debut, Union Pacific issued a souvenir coin made from the same aluminum used on the train's exterior. An NBC announcer toured the train and described it in reverent tones to his radio audience. Harriman exhibited it around the Midwest. Then, in the midst of the Great Depression, Harriman sent the train on a 12-week coast-to-coast tour. First stop: Washington, D.C., where President Roosevelt enjoyed a personal tour of the train before it set off, speeding west on the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the end of the tour, the M-10,000 had covered 13,000 miles on the tracks of 14 railroads in 22 states, making dozens of stops to allow breathless fans to climb aboard. It is estimated that 15 million people lined up to glimpse the M-10,000 and its rival, the Zephyr, as they sped across the country that summer.

Following the wild success of the M-10,000, Union Pacific added nine more streamliners to its fleet over the next seven years. Though it was always technologically imperfect, and in fact was retired from service by 1940, the M-10,000 had accomplished Harriman's goal of reviving his company's fortunes, and it had also injected excitement and glamour into rail travel. "They really don't run this Union Pacific train," one awestruck observer of the M-10,000 said. "They just aim and fire it."

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

The Railroad revolutionized American travel. What trains have you been on? Do you have any memories of Streamliners? Have you been in a Pullman car? Share your most memorable train ride.