For all their design innovations, railways still retain one fundamental weakness — they put metal wheels onto metal tracks.

Not just inefficient as there is limited grip between two such smooth surfaces, but noisy as well. So why don’t they use something different? It won’t surprise you to learn that railway companies have tried. And sadly failed.

It’s mainly a Frenchman we have to thank for the best attempt to deal with the metal upon metal, and that was tire magnate, Andre Michelin who upon returning from an unpleasant train trip instructed his engineers to develop something better.

Unsurprisingly for a tire manufacturer, they came up with a tire for railways.


The special pneumatic tyres, fitted with metal flanges in order to keep the coach on the rails, had a wooden hoop inside them so if they punctured, they only deflated slightly to prevent derailment.

At the time it was claimed that this type of tyre had an adhesion three times greater than steel wheels, so the test trains could accelerate faster and brake later than conventional steam trains of the era. The pneumatic tires absorbed shocks and bumps, and were considerably quieter in use — a boon it was said for passengers, but surely also for people living near the railways.

It also didn’t take too long for someone to think that if trains could run on road tires, why not combine the road and rail vehicles into one? And thus the Micheline Railcar was born — basically a bus that ran on railway tracks.

Quieter than steam with its diesel engine, it could also be started up faster than a steam locomotive and didn’t need trained operators to handle it. Anyone able to drive a bus could manage the Micheline. Tests were carried out in France, but in 1932, a Micheline Train was brought to the UK for evaluation. It was tested by the LMS on the line between Bletchley and Oxford, but did not prove to be a success.

There were other attempts — the Coventry Pneumatic Rail-Car, built by a Coventry car manufacturer for example. Which did have the advantage of looking exceptionally sleek as well.

Despite all the claims at the time of long life for the tires, they did wear out quickly, and also where a train carriage of the time needed just four wheels, a comparable carriage fitted with pneumatic tyres could need as many as 20 wheels.

The extra cost of building the carriage, and the ongoing maintenance meant the concept was doomed. It was the wrong sort of wheel on the tracks.

On the 30th November 1951, a debate in Parliament asked why defunct railway lines couldn’t be bought back into use by combined rail-road trains, but no one seemed interested anymore, and the Beeching Cuts would have probably killed the idea off anyway.

So to this day, we put up with steel on steel, and the inherent weakness that entails.


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  1. John Rayment says:

    There are, of course, rubber-tyred trains on the Paris Métro to this day, though not of the same sort of design.

    • Greg Tingey says:

      And they gave up on the experiment, after trying 2 or 3 lines, bacause of the exepense & complication & (would you believe it) the noise.
      Unfortunately, Montreal got sold this total pup, as well – because it was FRENCH, – not that nasty English railway thing – so now they are stuck with the tyred rubbish too!

  2. Ian Wright says:

    It’s not just certain lines on the Paris Métro that still use rubber tyres. All of Montreal’s metro system uses them. For a full list see:

  3. Greg Tingey says:

    Actually, provided you don’t have the wrong lubricant (like crushed leaves) in the way, steel-on-steel gives a very good grip.
    A common misconception.

  4. Tim Dunn says:

    Lovely stuff. That takes me off to various tangents of rail:bus tech: two magnificent later privately-funded enterprises were:

    1. The Centre for Alternative Industrial & Technological Systems one-time wonder that was tested briefly on the West Somerset Railway:

    2. Or indeed my personal fave – the streamlined Sadler Railcoach

    Then I suppose we can trundle off at different tangents with the Leyland railbuses (LEV1 is now in the National Collection and LEV2 is in the USA, about to be scrapped ) or the Colonel Stephens Model T Ford railbuses… – where as many auto/bus parts were used as possible in order to standardise and keep costs down.

  5. Alan McGregor says:

    I’m looking for the pro-rail stuff. I want to know how much more fuel efficient it is for rail adhesion than pneumatic tyres. I’m reporting at a public transport forum Saturday, in Lismore, NSW, Australia. I certainly couldn’t have a cup of tea with my laptop, or wheelchair down the aisle to the toilets on a bus!

  6. Joe Grey says:

    The whole point of steel wheel on steel rail is the low friction, I’m not sure of the exact figure but I you’re looking at about 90% reduction in energy required. And the acceleration you can get is still greater than what’s comfortable for standing passengers. And what happens to rubber tyres on rails in the wet?

    • jason leahy says:

      I think that tires will give better grip in the wet than smooth steel wheels and on ice and leaves on the line which get crushed by the wheels into a slippery slush.

  7. Stephen Vargo says:

    Michelin also tried this in the United States, partnering with the Budd Company in order to gain a greater presence in the American market. Michelines weren’t any more successful here, either.
    Four were built and all had a troubling tendency to derail. Two which were purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1933 ended up lasting the longest, mostly because their rubber-tired wheels were replaced with conventional railroad wheelsets. They lasted 10 years on the Pennsy, then were sold to a smaller short-line operator which ended up parking the Michelines and let them deteriorate until scrapping in 1948.

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