Published: November 16, 2023
By: Adam Burns
The Xplorer was a lightweight, streamlined passenger train operated by the New York Central between Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1956 to 1957.
It was an experimental train designed by Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton and Pullman-Standard, utilizing the new Talgo concept in an attempt to compete with the rise of automobile and airplane travel during that era.
The train was unique for its single-unit design, with all sections connected without the typical articulation seen in most trains. Despite its innovative design, the Xplorer was not successful and was taken out of service after just a year. It was sold to the Pickens Railroad of South Carolina for excursion service in 1964 and scrapped around 1970.
Xplorer - also known as the Ohio Xplorer - was a unique, lightweight train intended to revolutionize the industry in the 1950s. This streamliner was manufactured by two reputed companies – the locomotive was produced by Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton while the railcar was made by Pullman-Standard.
These trailblazing companies were known for their innovative feats in the industry and while not a successful design, the Xplorer was nevertheless a testament to their skills and ingenuity as manufacturers.
When Spain's newfangled lighweight TALGO design made its way to the United States during the 1950s, a number of railroads were intrigued. TALGO - an acronym for Train, Articulated, Lightweight, Goicoechea (the train's design), Oriol (the train's financier/business partner) - was a unique spin on an old concept.
The lightweight trainsets harkened back to the early streamliners of the 1930s but were intended to reduce operating costs while not sacrificing ride quality.
The New York Central, which was nearly bankrupt by the 1950s, likely would have never entertained the TALGO concept if not for its new president, Robert Young. He had previously led the Chesapeake & Ohio and was always a big proponent of passenger trains.
During his stint at the C&O, Young had sought to greatly upgrade the railroad's passenger services. Most notably he attempted to launch "The Chessie" in late 1948, an all-coach streamliner linking Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati, Ohio.
It was to be led by a sleek steam-turbine locomotive, the M-1, designed by General Electric and Baldwin. Ultimately it was never launched; several of the new cars purchased for the service were eventually sold while the unproven and troublesome steam turbines were scrapped.
Young, however, still believed in the lightweight concept as a means of competing against the automobile and airliner while also reducing operating costs. In his book, "The Diesel Builders Volume III: Baldwin Locomotive Works," author John Kirkland notes Young called his idea "Train X" to describe this equipment, which had not yet been invented in the U.S.
On January 19, 1954 Young resigned as chairman of the C&O and then won a proxy fight for control of the NYC. He was elected chairman on June 14, 1954.
At around this time American Car & Foundry unveiled its TALGO demonstrator set; after witnessing it in service, Young believed it was the answer to his "Train X" concept.
New York Central contracted Pullman to build the Talgo cars - capable of seating 392 passengers - while Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton was tasked with constructing the locomotive.
Even the train's power was a radical design. Baldwin was licensed to utilize Maybach's Mekydro hydraulic transmission and ultimately came up with the RP-210 diesel hydraulic locomotive.
Given #20, the locomotive could produce 1,000 horsepower and could operate at speeds up to 120 mph. However, at only 11 feet in height the locomotive looked small even next to a standard EMD cab model.
To further reduce weight the RP-210 - which stood for Road Passenger locomotive sporting 2 powered axles and 1000 horsepower - was equipped with only a single powered truck.
The lead swivel truck also housed the diesel engine and its hydraulic transmission, which were both mounted above the axles. The carbody was then placed on the trucks and frame. The idea of this design was to reduce weight while also allowing the engine and transmission to be serviced from inside the locomotive.
At the time, the RP-210 was renowned for its proficient design and lightweight structure. The streamlined locomotive and railcars were built over a period of consolidation and pioneering development in the railroad industry - essentially a last ditch effort to again achieve profitibility in rail travel.
The components were constructed during a time when both Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton and Pullman-Standard were intensely experimenting with cutting-edge technology and design in rail travel.
The trainset, sporting a vibrant yellow and blue livery, carried out a test run on April 18, 1956 from Chicago to Toledo, Ohio via Elkhart, Indiana before returning to LaSalle Street Station. It then performed a public exhibition run on April 29th and was subsequently christened the Xplorer.
Next, the train was brought to Grand Central Terminal in New York City and exhibited during May 27-28, 1956. It then made its way back to Ohio where it entered service on June 3, 1956 between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. The trainset made a 520-mile roundtrip daily with nine scheduled southbound stops and ten northbound.
While the Xplorer was designed to operate at speeds up to 120 mph, the route's signaling could only handle speeds of up to 79 mph.
Its debut was received with excitement and anticipation, as people eagerly awaited to experience the promising capabilities of this pioneering lightweight streamliner, unlike any other train in operation at the time.
The Xplorer offered an array of onboard services to make the passengers' journey comfortable and enjoyable. Its unique lightweight aluminum Talgo trainset featured an aerodynamic design with plush seating, in-car dining options, and lounge service.
Unfortunately, the public's initial excitement for the train quickly cooled when its jarring, rough ride was experienced.
This downside primarily resulted from the Xplorer's lighter design and the use of a single-axle suspension system. The experience was often uncomfortable for passengers, particularly at high speeds.
The discomfort became a persisting problem, leading to frequent customer complaints. These issues eventually tarnished the previously glamorous image of the Xplorer, with travelers preferring more reliable, comfortable, and traditional trains instead.
The RP-210, despite its innovative design, wasn't free from problems either. In addition to the difficulty of maintaining the power system, the locomotive was prone to mechanical failures. These challenges led to service disruptions and further dented Xplorer’s reputation.
By 1957, the train's reputation was in freefall due to its persistent problems. As a result of declining passenger numbers and high operational costs, the train was withdrawn from main line operation after barely one year of service.
This decision was a significant blow to both Baldwi and Pullman-Standard, who had placed substantial capital and development into the Xplorer project.
Afterwards, the trainset was demoted to commuter service, running the 100-mile corridor between Chicago and Elkhart. Operating here at lower speeds the ride quality was much improved and resulted in fewer customer complaints. It remained here until 1960 when the set was retired.
It was later sold to the Pickens Railroad of South Carolina in 1964 for excursion service and then scrapped around 1970.
Even though Xplorer was discontinued, its unique design and innovative technology led to several advancements in the rail industry. The lessons learned from the project, such as the importance of ride comfort, paved the way for the development of new, more comfortable passenger trains in the future.
Though the Xplorer suffered from negative public reception, it was, undeniably, an engineering marvel of its time. Its journey, while marked with difficulties, represents the spirit of innovation and risk-taking that characterized the American rail industry in the 1950s.
The Xplorer's journey, albeit full of ups and downs, provides enriching insights into the evolution of passenger rail travel. It underscores the necessity of trial and error, iteration, and continuous improvement in the path to innovation.
Despite its flaws and subsequent discontinuation, the Xplorer holds an important place in the annals of railway history. Its significant contributions to radical design changes and its innovative features, reminiscent of "Talgo" trainsets and "RP-210" power systems, have left indelible marks on the railroad industry.
The Xplorer embodies the pioneering spirit of American ingenuity and resilience. It stands as a symbol of innovation, fortitude, and tenacity. The train's story is inspirational for train enthusiasts and scholars alike, as it offers invaluable lessons on the intricacies of technological innovation, user experience, and the necessity of iteration and perseverance.
The Xplorer's journey is a critical chapter in the history of the railroad industry. Its legacy, though marked with failures, stands as a testament to the bold and inventive spirit of its creators and the relentless pursuit of progress in the industry.
In sum, the train was an ambitious endeavor that dared to revolutionize the traditional norms of train designs. The genius of the concept, coupled with the challenges it faced, created a compelling narrative of ambition, human ingenuity, vulnerability, and eventual success in new realms. Undeniably, the Xplorer's tale is a crucial thread in the rich tapestry of American railway history.