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July 5, 2024

Aerowagon, the Soviet Aircraft-Engined High-Speed Train From the 1920s

The Aerowagon or Aeromotowagon was an experimental high-speed railcar fitted with an aircraft engine and propeller traction invented by Valerian Abakovsky, a Soviet engineer from Latvia. It produced speeds of up to 140 kilometers per hour (87 miles per hour). The Aerowagon was originally intended for the express transportation of important documents and to carry Soviet officials on government business.

Abakovsky’s Aerowagon (front view)

On July 24, 1921, a group of delegates to the First Congress of the Profintern, led by Fyodor Sergeyev, took the Aerowagon from Moscow to the Tula collieries to meet with local miners and to visit an arms factory. Abakovsky was also on board. The “cutting edge Aerowagon” moved at the speed of about 40-45 km/h, safely delivering the delegates first to the site of the mines, then to the Tula weapons factory.

Having visited the local theater for the ceremonial session of the local Council, the delegation was in a hurry to get back: the train was now going 80-85 km/h. At 6:35 PM, around 111 kilometers outside Moscow, near Serpukhov, the Aerowagon was derailed at full speed and “blown to smithereens.” Two days later, the Pravda newspaper published the story with the headline: “Catastrophe on the Kursk road.” The text went as follows: “Of the 22 people onboard, six were killed: Otto Strunat (Germany), Gelbrich (Germany), Hsoolet (England), Konstantinov Iv. (Bulgaria), Chairman of the Central Committee of the Council of Miners, Comrade Artem (Sergeev) and Comrade Abakovsky.” A seventh man (Paul Freeman) later died of his injuries.

The last lifetime photograph of Fyodor Sergeyev near the air car of Abakovsky during the third Congress of the Comintern and the first Congress of the Profintern.

An official investigation concluded that the cause of the derailment was the poor condition of the railway track. Artyom Sergeyev (the son of victim Fyodor Sergeyev) claimed sabotage arranged by Trotsky.

Later, the official reason for the tragedy would be chalked up to the quality of Russian railroads: the Aerowagon supposedly encountered a bump and was derailed as a result. The investigation was wrapped up... together with further research and development of the Aerowagon.

However, Artyom Sergeyev (the son of victim Fyodor Sergeyev), had a different theory, which had been maturing over the years (he was only four at the time of the incident; three days after the tragedy, he was taken in by Joseph Stalin himself). He would later recall:

“As Stalin would say, if an accident brings about political consequences, it deserves closer inspection. It transpired that a heap of rocks was laid in the path of the aerowagon. Furthermore, there were two panels. One was headed by Enukidze [Avel Enukidze, secretary of the Central Electoral Committee and godfather to Stalin’s wife], who saw the culprit in the faulty construction of the wagon itself. But Dzerzhinsky [Felix, the father of Soviet security services] told my mother that this required further investigation: rocks don’t just fall out of the sky.

“In order to counter Trotsky’s influence, on Lenin’s orders, Artem created the International Union of Miners. The ruling committee was set up several days prior to the tragedy. And, at the time, Trotsky wielded massive power: the majority of the army was on his side, as well as the minor bourgeoisie...”

Lev Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Revolution, had the biggest chance of rising to power after Lenin’s death. In 1940, already exiled, he was assassinated in Mexico, on Stalin’s orders. It is Sergeev’s opinion that Trotsky was the man behind the plan that resulted in his father’s death.

After the failure, nobody dared touch the Aerowagon project again until 1970, when a new version was built with two AI-25 jet engines installed on the roof. The wagon quickly reached 250 km/h, with the tests aiding in the development of next-generation trains.

However, it remained idle after the tests, sitting at a station and gradually falling into disrepair. In 2008, the nose, together with the jet engines, was removed, painted and repurposed as a 110th anniversary monument to the Tver Carriage-Building Factory.


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