Fifty years ago a promise was made of high-speed monorails with hovercraft style trains whizzing around the country at speeds as high as 300 miles per hour.
London to Edinburgh in little more than an hour!
This was the Tracked Hovercraft – an experimental blast of optimism from the 1960s that promised much, but as was too often the case at the time, was just a bit too exotic to be really viable.
The tracked hovercraft was an evolution of the conventional hovercraft when it was noticed that the smoother the surface the hovercraft ran over, the less air leaked out of the sides and the more efficient its operation.
If you could build a concrete track and run a hovercraft along it, the fuel efficiencies could be substantial — and when the maths was done, the hovercraft at high speeds should out perform steam and diesel trains, and do so at much higher speeds than trains were able to reach.
The key discovery was that hovertrains would be exceptionally efficient at high speeds as conventional trains suffered from a problem known as hunting oscillation, which limits their speeds and reduced energy efficiency.
An unrelated invention of a linenear motor would enable the hovertrain to be pushed forward by magnetic action rather than having a hovercraft style fan on the back.
The combination of these two technologies lead to the hovercraft monorail concept — and tests were carried out to develop the idea.
Although there were problems, these were being ironed out, and the hovertrain offered not just the exciting possiblity of very high-speed travel, but also travel that was more comfortable due to the air cushion, and for railways, with the load more widely spread across the entire train, a much cheaper monorail construction compared to conventional ballast and tracks.
In 1967, 50 years ago, the research project became a company, the Tracked Hovercraft company was born.
A few years later, a full size protoype was commissioned, and a 4-mile concrete monorail track built in Cambridgshire.
Unfortunately for the hover fans, British Rail, always a skeptic of outside ideas, was working on its own solution to the hunting oscillation problem, and its Advanced Passenger Train was expected to be the solution, offering high speed travel in the UK.
That turned out to be a dud, although arguably as much thanks to the preview trip carrying a lot of very hungover journalists who lambasted the swaying service in their newspaper articles.
The hovertrain project was also eventually cancelled, among some vocal arguments between politicians and researchers.
However, the facts suggest that the hovertrain, even if it could have worked, and maglev trains were fast suggesting a better alternative, the main issue was the lack of compatibility between conventional train tracks and the hovertrain.
Upgrading the intercity lines to permit high-speed conventional trains wasn’t cheap, but at least the high speed trains could slow down and use urban tracks and stations at their destinations.
The hovertrain would have needed an entirely new infrastructure to be built in cities to connect the urban centre to the suburbs where the intercity line would take over.
Frankly, the sight of monorails in cities, however exciting they sounded was far too expensive for cash-strapped Britain to pay for.
But with Concorde, Hovercraft, and nearly Hovertrains, the 1960s sure were fun.
After its cancellation, the one prototype train was left in storage for some years until it was donated to RailWorld in Peterborough, where it remains to this day.
As it has been outside all these years, and there’s minimal displays about it, there is now a campaign to put the train under cover and do more to show off this most unusual train.