How Trackless Trains From the Cold War Helped Prevent a Nuclear Apocalypse

It came down to one engineer.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The photo credit line may appear like thisMark Holloway/ Wikimedia Commons

If you remember the Cold War, you'd know that it was a trying time of strife with Russia that led the U.S. government to fear that Russians might go over the Arctic Circle to get a nuclear bomber in America, consequently causing a nuclear apocalypse. 

In order to avoid such dire circumstances, the U.S. needed to ensure that Soviet bombers were indeed not crossing the North Pole or to at least have the time to respond properly if they were with its own bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. To do this, the Army planned the quick development of 63 manned radar stations in the high Arctic. 

The next question then became: how could the Army transport all the materials needed to build the stations? That task fell upon The Western Electric Company, a subsidiary of AT&T who worked with TRADCOM, The U.S. Army Transportation Research and Development Command, to resolve this dilemma, according to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center.

These organizations turned to Robert Gilmore LeTourneau, an inventor, who had spent a good deal of time working on a futuristic diesel-electric drivetrain for multi-wheeled heavy-machinery. The special train used a combustion engine to spin an electric generator that would then send its power to hub motors.

This made the train capable of achieving multi-wheel-drive without differentials or driveshafts. In 1953, LeTourneau introduced the VC-12, the first trackless land train to assist logging operations with a hauling capacity of 140 tons.

It was this train that grabbed the attention of TRADCOM. Once TRADCOM saw a demonstration of LeTourneau's train, it was impressed enough to get him government funding and that's when history saw the development of the TC-264 Sno-Buggy.

The Sno-Buggy then inspired the Army's LCC-1, a train equipped with four cars including an articulating locomotive at the front and a 600-hp diesel engine with a hauling capacity of 45 tons. This train worked in Greenland from 1956-1962 but was abandoned in an Alaska salvage yard only to eventually be put on display at the Yukon Transportation Museum in Whitehorse, Canada later on.

These weren't the only versions of LeTourneau's trains. There was also the VC-22 and the TC-497. Both these trains, however, were also eventually abandoned due to the introduction of the Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe twin-engine heavy-life helicopter that could do everything LeTourneau's trains could but better, cheaper, and faster. This made for a sad tale to what was some very impressive heavy machinery.


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