The Test Center

Early 1970s aerial view of the Pueblo High Speed Ground Test Center

Outdated Transportation

In 1964, the U.S. Department of Commerce launched its Northeast Corridor Transportation Project (NECTP). The goal of the project was to improve transportation in America’s “Northeast Corridor” between Boston and Washington D.C. Meanwhile, a huge increase in auto sales in the first half of the 1960s sparked fears of hopelessly overcrowded highways in large cities. U.S. Government officials had also taken note of the fact that Japan, less than two decades after their defeat in WWII, had their 130 mph Shinkansen bullet train ready and running for their 1964 Olympics. When it came to the practical application of transportation technology, the U.S. was starting to lag behind.

A Government Initiative

The High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 was an effort by Congress to stimulate innovation in the field of high-speed rail in the U.S. The Act created the Office of High Speed Ground Transportation (OHSGT) within the Department of Commerce. The legislation represented the first continuing, comprehensive Federal rail R&D program. Previously, the Federal Government’s involvement in railroad R&D was done through the Department of Defense, and then only occasionally. OHSGT’s charter was to research, develop, and then demonstrate projects that would contribute to high speed ground transportation technology. When the Department of Transportation (DOT) was established in 1967, OHSGT became part of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) under the DOT. It was the FRA which would fund high-speed rail studies.

Click here to read remarks by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing of the High Speed Ground Transportation Act on September 30, 1965.

Cultivation of Ideas

The Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA), also part of the DOT, sponsored aerospace companies to develop mass transit prototypes to meet growing transportation needs for urban areas. The UMTA also encouraged foreign competition to enter America’s mass transit market because of the country’s under-capacity to meet perceived future market needs. Technology company TRW performed in-depth analysis on all known high-speed transportation concepts to determine which were technically feasible. OHSGT made detailed engineering studies in fields related to all three of the Museum’s Rocket Cars – High Speed Rail (the Garrett), Monorails (the Rohr), and Tracked Air Cushion Vehicles (the Grumman). By 1972, the focus had narrowed to the study of magnetic and air-cushioned levitated vehicles, and the different types of propulsion systems that would move them. Linear Induction Motor propulsion was eventually selected based on performance, safety, and low environmental impact. This LIM technology is incorporated into the design of all three of our Rocket Cars.

The Search For a Test Site

In 1967, after two years of initial technical studies, the OHSGT began to look for a place to test real hardware. They quickly discovered that there were no existing facilities capable of testing high speed ground vehicles or other system components. The only site that was even close to fitting the bill was a small section of Pennsylvania Railroad’s mainline in New Jersey that had been upgraded for high-speed use. But OHSGT wanted a site that was isolated, and protected from interference, with no risk to other persons or property. Abandoned rail lines were considered but rejected, because they had grade crossings, or were not straight enough to permit the high speeds envisioned. It was becoming clear that an entirely new site was needed.

The Denver Test Center?

OHGST searched through real estate records of other Federal departments, but found nothing suitable. Next, they reviewed a list of sites that had been considered in 1966 by the Atomic Energy Commission for a potential linear accelerator. Here, they found a potential candidate site, the bombing range at the former Lowry Air Force Base east of Denver, Colorado. This parcel was not Federally controlled, but the State of Colorado, the owners of the site, offered to make the land available. However, this site was deemed unsuitable as well, when analysis of the earthwork for a high-speed loop found the terrain to be too rough.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Lowry’s consideration as a possible location for testing extremely cool space-age rocket trains got the attention of local media. Their news reports prompted several other state and local governments, as well as First Nations, to propose the use of their lands for this endeavor. 41 proposals were received from December 1967 to February 1968, including two more in Colorado. Preliminary surveys quickly rejected many of these proposals on the basis of unsuitable terrain, inaccessibility, or insufficient area. This sudden flurry of attention was starting to overwhelm the small FRA staff whose job it was to find a test site. So they did what any organization would do in this situation – they contracted it out.

The Essential Ingredients

In April of 1968, a subcontractor was hired by the FRA to collect the necessary data from the most promising sites, and report on the results. Each site would be judged on the criteria listed below. If you are from the Pueblo area, think about how places in and around Pueblo measure up to these criteria:

  • Maximum weather variation to perform “all-weather” testing
  • Relatively smooth terrain to minimize earth-moving costs
  • 50 square miles
  • Little or no cost to the Federal Government
  • No public roads on the property
  • A nice city nearby for the employees to live in, with industrial support and preferably a university with a technical department
  • No residential or business areas nearby that would be disturbed by testing (which was expected to be noisy)
  • No economic activity that would be displaced by the new facility

And the Winner Is…

The resulting report was reviewed by OHSGT and narrowed to the top seven contenders. The findings were then presented to the Office of the Secretary of Transportation. A final round of evaluations was then conducted by a Board named by the Secretary with members from various DOT departments. In December 1969, on the basis of those evaluations, the Secretary of Transportation selected the site northeast of Pueblo as the High Speed Ground Test Center. Hereafter, we’ll just call that site the “Test Center”.

Cheapest Land Deal Ever?

The Colorado state land board had to acquire several small tracts of land before the full 50 square miles could be leased to the DOT. After a few months, the lease between DOT and the State of Colorado was finally signed in Pueblo on August 22, 1970. The lease was for 50 years, with an option to renew, and cost the DOT $10. Yes, you read that right, 50 square miles for TEN DOLLARS. For that price, the entire state of Colorado could have been leased to the DOT for about 21 grand (enough to buy a very nice house back in 1970). By the end of August, ground was broken for the first test facility, a test track for the Garrett LIMRV. Tests on the Garrett started as part of a “grand opening” of the Test Center on May 19, 1971.

Track layout at the Test Center – the buildings for all three Rocket Cars (LIMRV, TLRV and PTACV) are in the upper right

The Testing Plan

At this Test Center, the three “winning entries”, represented by our three Rocket Cars, were developed and tested to varying degrees. A September 1970 project report from the Test Center described preliminary testing plans. At this early stage, the plans focused on technology instead of specific vehicles, which were still under development at the time.

  • Testing of a Linear Induction Motor vehicle up to 200 mph (all three of our Rocket Cars have this type of motor)
  • Testing of air cushioned vehicles (like the Rohr) up to 300 mph
  • Conventional and high-speed railroad testing, including derailment and track failure experiments (this is what the Test Center still does today)
  • Tube vehicle systems, at both atmospheric and partial vacuum pressures, with tunnel testing (this was never realized)

End of the Rocket Car Era

Less than five short years after the Test Center opened, testing on all three prototype vehicles ended due to lack of funding from the DOT. State-of-the-art high-speed rail R&D was de-prioritized – considered to be a “less critical program”. Billions of dollars in funding were redirected to maintaining and improving existing rail lines. The forecasts of “Carmageddon”, so common in the 1960s, had been partly mitigated by the availability of larger aircraft. Growth of demand for transportation slowed, further reducing the motivation to explore new transportation technologies. With government funds and projects disappearing for high-speed rail, the Test Center faced an uncertain future. The road ahead for the “High Speed Ground Test Center” was becoming less and less about High Speed, and more about technology to improve existing rail systems. If the Test Center was to survive, it needed to diversify beyond government contracts, and into the private sector. So in 1975, the Test Center reorganized, changed their mission statement, and changed their name to the Transportation Technology Center (TTC).

May 2019 photo of the Transportation Technology Center, unmodified TTCI photo, CC BY-SA 4.0

Rocket Car Garage Sale

Rather than take back possession of their high-speed prototypes – as was the customary agreement, the Department of Transportation opted to simply leave all three Rocket Cars at the TTC. But the TTC had no further use for them either, so in the interest of historic preservation, the TTC donated the three vehicles to the City of Pueblo. The only facility physically large enough to accept possession of the vehicles was the newly formed Pueblo Aircraft Museum, situated on city property at the Pueblo Airport. The vehicles remained at that Aircraft Museum (now called the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum) for decades.

To learn about the history of each of our Rocket Cars, and how they found their way to the Pueblo Railway Museum, go back to the Rocket Cars page.

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