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 city to 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.

air-rail-map

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 enroute — 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.

air-rail-concepts

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 which 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.

air-rail-carriage

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.

air-rail-carriage2

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.

Sources

More Unusual Railways by Day, John Robert

Illustrated London News, May 3rd, 1958

FlightGlobal, February 1958

The Age, January 24th 1958

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7 comments on “Unbuilt London: Heathrow Airport’s High-Speed Monorail
  1. Greg says:

    Even today, a film set “in the future” has monorails, while cities tend to regret they were ever built, see Sydney for example.
    The undoubtedly unique suspension monorail of Wuppertal keeps running though.

  2. Matthew says:

    Looks to me like the plan was to link Heathrow with the West End Air Terminal rather than Victoria station, see below:
    https://thebeautyoftransport.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/an-airline-terminal-in-the-city-centre-empire-air-terminal-london-uk/

  3. tim says:

    the design seems very very similar to that of the Seattle monorail – which of course still runs (even if it is more of a tourist attraction)

  4. Annabel says:

    Would they have actually extended the Tube had this system been in place, though?

    It could have gone either to the West London Air Terminal or to the Victoria Air Terminal, both of which were very much a part of things in my youth. It was very convenient, actually – people living in London didn’t ever need to go all the way to the airport to meet people; you just told them to get the coach to the WLAT and met them there!

  5. george says:

    My dad told me a tale (probably apocryphal) about Churchill, on being told Bossom wished to meet him, pondering for a while: “Hmmm, Bossom. Not quite one thing, and not quite the other.”

    • Jen Oram says:

      John Arlott, I think it was, cited Churchill when making a similar remark about the New Zealand cricketer Bob Cunis.

  6. Andrew says:

    George – the story may be apocryphal, but similar quips by Churchill about Bossom’s name are mentioned in a number of sources. For example, http://www.newenglishreview.org/Mary_Jackson/Bossom/

    I believe it was mentioned on QI a while ago.