BBC News Online Feature


Article by Jonathan Duffy BBC News Online

The lean machine

British Rail's tilting train (Courtesy of Rob Latham)

It was the train-spotters' answer to Concorde, but for one key difference - the revolutionary tilting APT was scrapped shortly after its launch, 20 years ago on Friday, writes BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

 

In retrospect, winter was not the best time for British Rail to have launched its revolutionary tilting train.

But on the morning of 7 December 1981, the Advanced Passenger Train rolled out of Glasgow station, packed with industry insiders, journalists and even the odd fare-paying passenger.

The APT could tilt by up to 12° (Courtesy of Rob Latham)

Bound for London, it was the APT's first public outing. With a 155mph top speed, the train had widely been trumpeted as the future of rail travel.

But a stack of problems quickly emerged. On the first run there were some tilt failures, and when it did work some of those on board said the leaning action had made them feel queasy.

Then, on the night of 7 December, the weather suddenly got very nasty. By the morning of the 8th, much of the country was lying under a blanket of deep snow.

The freezing temperature only aggravated existing problems, and caused the air brakes to seize up. The media had a field day. Although the tilting train had been in development for 10 years, there was a feeling it had been forced into service too soon.

 

Off the timetabled

The train struggled on but on the morning of the 9th the southbound trip was abandoned at Crewe and the APT was withdrawn from service.

Early 80s chic: Tartan trim in second class (Courtesy of Rob Latham)

It was a deeply inauspicious start for BR's flagship project, and one the train never really recovered from. The APT had been seen as the answer to Britain's rail conundrum.

In the 60s and 70s, inter-city services were one of the few profitable arms of the government-owned British Rail. But travellers wanted faster services. With this in mind, BR came up with the idea for a tilting train that could lean into bends and so effectively "iron out" the many corners that slowed conventional services.

At the time it was cutting edge work, says Kit Spackman, a tilt system development engineer who worked on the project from 1970.

 

Who pays?

"We were at the same sort of level in railway engineering as the Concorde guys were in aeronautical engineering," he says.

"The money is dirt cheap. [Compared with the French,] this is a very cheap project" Sir Peter Parker, BR chief in 1981

And like Concorde, the complexities of this high-profile project were compounded by the fact the tax-payer was picking up the bill. It became something of a political football.

"Initially, everyone was very highly motivated. But the whole time politics intervened. It was a very stop-go project," recalls Mr Spackman.

Today, the leaning trains that are common in Italy, Switzerland and Sweden, are packed with computer technology to ensure faultless and precise tilting time after time.

 

Lacking motivation

But in those days the computers were few and far between. All the tilt mechanism designs were hand sketched on a drawing board

The non-tilting but, at least, successful Inter-City 125

Even as late as 1981, on the first APT that went into service, the tilt mechanism was entirely analogue, says Mr Spackman.

Although the APT was re-introduced in 1982, still on a trial basis, the media had written its obituary, the government had shown a cold shoulder and those working on the project were deflated.

But Hugh Williams, a member of the initial project team, says the rot had already set in by the late 1970s, after the impatient BR board transferred the project to a new development team. By December 1981, he felt that freezing weather or no freezing weather, the omens were poor.

"I was frustrated that a project with such promise was effectively a basket case because of poor project management, lack of funding and a rush to bring it into service before it was ready," says Mr Williams, author of APT - A Promise Unfulfilled.

Driver's cab: There were no computers on board (Courtesy of Rob Latham)

By the mid-80s APT was scrapped altogether. There was no way forward, says Mr Williams.

"The train had received such bad publicity that I don't think the government could have given the substantial funding increase the project required."

Mindful perhaps, that 20 years later tilting trains are set to return to Britain's railways - Richard Branson's Virgin network has ordered several Italian-engineered models - Mr Williams believes the APT outcome was symptomatic of Britain's long-standing indifference to the railways.

"With hindsight, the project was typical of how we seem to run such things in Britain. We didn't have the will to see it through and we didn't commit the money it needed. That is true of the railways as a whole."

© Jonathan Duffy BBC News Online 7 December 2001.

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Last Revised: 29.03.2022 8:05
by R G Latham
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