Back when London was surrounded by more green and had just one airport, a radical scheme was cooked up for a high-speed monorail linking the city to the airport. And not just any monorail — these “trains” could also run on roads!
The Air-Rail system was announced in April 1957 and was designed to provide a link from Victoria railway station to what is today Heathrow airport. To cut costs, it would have been built as a second deck running above existing railways leading out of London.
The railway had strong political support, with its Chairman being Sir Alfred Bossom, an MP, and numerous other railway executives on its board.
The journey time from airport to railway station was expected to be around 15 minutes, with Victoria station handling both passengers and freight.
The monorail would run above the existing railways and would be supported on concrete beams, with the running rail also made of concrete, not steel. The plan saw the line run through Clapham Junction, Putney, Richmond and Twickenham, before then departing away from the existing railways to head over to Heathrow Airport.
It was claimed that the practicability of this route, from an engineering point of view, has been recognized by the chief civil engineer of British Railways Southern Region. Which was just as well, as it was their railways above which the monorail would be passing.
The trains were not expected to stop en-route — those stations were simply the route it passed over. The use of the elevated railway and the avoidance of buying land meant that the railway’s urban section was projected to cost just a tenth of the cost of building a conventional service.
The whole project was estimated to have cost around £8 million at the time.
What makes the plan even more remarkable though is that this wasn’t a conventional railway, mono or otherwise, but a hybrid road vehicle and railway.
The little wheels you can see poking out of the bottom of the train in the picture below aren’t for the railway, but because the train can leave the railway, and those wheels are for use on roads.
The trains would have been diesel-based, and capable of reaching 100mph, with predicted speeds of as much as 250mph being built into the route design. What was holding the speed back to a “mere” 100mph though was the method of running over the railway — rubber tyres. Rather than running on metal wheels, they would run, like cars, on tyres that would clamp around the railway track.
Each carriage would have been able to carry around 50 passengers, but the real innovation was how the carriages would handle cargo.
To reduce time wasted at the airport, the carriages would be able to leave the railway, and then, on their own road tyres, drive around the airport just as if they were normal cargo lorries.
In 1958, Sir Alfred Bossom, the Chairman of the proposed monorail said that if approval was granted that year, then the service could open to passengers in 1961.
Following demonstrations using radio controlled models, which appeared to work well, the scheme was passed to the government, but it was eventually it was killed off, probably because of its use of unorthodox transport methods.
Although a pity it wasn’t built, the reality is that had it been, it would have probably been shut down, as the costs of running a unique design railway often soar to unaffordable levels as the years pass and maintenance costs rise.
It’s highly unlikely that the line would be running today, as the arrival of the London Underground in 1977 would have rendered its costly service uneconomic.
But for a while, we could have had hovercraft, Concorde and a weird high-speed railway. Britain was quite a curious place.
And in some regards, Heathrow still is experimenting — with driverless pods.
Illustrated London News, May 3rd, 1958
FlightGlobal, February 1958
The Age, January 24th 1958