BBC North Yorkshire Feature

Article by Matthew Seymour BBC North Yorkshire

To tilt or not to tilt

Virgin super voyager

As Virgin trains announce the testing of their new tilting train, some may have a strange feeling of deja-vu.

That is, if you're old enough to remember the last time this was tried.

The Advanced Passenger Train project aimed to build a high speed train that could cope with the curves on Britain's tracks.

Four trains were built. The APT-E (Experimental) was the first and was crammed with innovative new technology.

The most famous feature of the APT was the tilting mechanism. This allowed the body of the train to lean into corners, so it could go faster without things sliding around inside.

The APT-E was followed by three APT-P (Prototype) trains which were operated as a passenger service for a number of years.


Not just the tilt

The APT was revolutionary in almost every way.


Headline news

The APT was given a big media launch but got off to a bad start as a passenger service.

The tilt mechanism compensated so well that it caused travel sickness. An adjustment fixed it, but damage to the reputation was done.

Front page photos of one APT being towed by an old diesel unit only helped to convince the public, and the British Rail management, that the APT wasn't reliable.


Virgin's super voyager is a tilting train.

The tilting train was a British innovation at it's best yet the technology was ignored.

Now tilting trains are in use all over Europe and Virgin's new tilting trains are Italian.



Eventually the APT program was scrapped. Many of the engineers and designers who worked on the project left British Rail after becoming disillusioned.

It was true to say that there were many design flaws in the APT-P. However as a prototype this could be expected.

The problems could have been resolved but the decision was taken not to spend the money.


Not a dead loss

Don't think that nothing good came out of the project. The wheelset design used on the APT was carried over onto the new HST (High Speed Train) project.

In fact with the exception of the tilt mechanism the HST was technically almost identical to the APT.

Whilst the HST couldn't match the 162mph of the APT they could achieve about 140mph. In practice this was limited to 125mph because of signalling restrictions.

The HST has had a long life, only now being replaced by new continental designed trains. Some of the HST power cars have travelled around five million miles.

That is really a testament to the quality of innovation achieved by the British Rail research teams.


The future tilts

Some say that the APT was simply too far ahead of it's time with too many innovations at once. Others argue that BR management didn't have the foresight to invest in the best technology.

Either way there's no doubting that the idea actually works very well. Sadly the technology that BR developed was sold off and tilting trains are in use almost everywhere except Britain.

Until now that is. Virgin trains are about to introduce their new Super-Voyager into service.


Italian job

The virgin train is actually a Pendolino made by the Fiat group.

Although it's an Italian design there's no doubt that there's some APT technology at work.

Chris Green, Chief Executive of Virgin Trains said: "The Pendolino owes its existence to the Advanced Passenger Train."

APT-E on a trial run in 1976The APT-E at the National Railway MuseumThe APT-E at the National Railway Museum



APT-E is being restored at the NRM in York

A number of people travelled on the APT-P after it was put into service on the West Coast mainline in the early 80's.

Chris Gardner had this to say about his experiences of the train.


During the later months of 1984, APT was put in to regular service on the Glasgow-London line as an unadvertised relief. I travelled several times on APT during this period.

The only way of making a day trip from London was by taking an early morning train to Crewe, and changing there for Preston, arriving in time to catch the up APT back to Euston.

These were nail-biting expeditions. This was before the era of the mobile phone, and British Rail never seemed quite sure whether the train would run or not.

There was the strange ritual at Preston of obtaining a "boarding pass". This was nothing more than a badly photocopied slip of paper, but it clearly played an important part in getting us onto the train.

BR staff were unashamedly proud of their new toy. The relish in the announcer's voice at Preston was obvious; "the next train to arrive on platform three will be the Advanced Passenger Train service to London Euston, calling at…"

Poor APT's wings were well and truly clipped on these runs. She was officially limited to 125mph, and restricted by the presence of the slower Intercity service just ahead.

The pattern of each journey would be a lively (and indeed slightly bouncy) acceleration from the station stop, 125mph (or more) being gained very quickly, followed by an inevitable slowing to 100mph once the service train had been caught. The excitement was therefore in the first 15 minutes or so after each station.

Regrettably I did not keep my logs, but I can remember 136mph as being the fastest speed I recorded. This remains the fastest I have ever timed on BR.

The ride was the most exciting I have ever experienced by rail. A bit bouncy as it accelerated from a stand, but very nippy. Wonderful acceleration and braking. A bit claustrophobic inside, and the tartan moquette was a bit loud. Still, it was by then completely reliable. It was a great tragedy that this wonderful train never saw squadron service.

The train was usually almost empty, and many of the passengers were BR staff and engineers who had worked on the APT project.

It was like a small and friendly club. There were two separate portions, each with a buffet as the central power car had been cordoned off as a result of fears that the intense magnetic fields would interfere with heart pacemakers.

I had many conversations with APT engineers, obviously glowing with pride that their child had finally come good. "Of course she could do 180mph if she were allowed to…"

After the public launch in 1981, the press had a field day with stories of "tilt sickness". Maybe this was as a result of badly adjusted or failed tilt mechanisms, because I can't say there was any evidence of this on my runs in 1984, during which the tilt performed faultlessly.

It was, of course, an unusual experience. On one side you would see ballast and running lines, on the other the sky, and the surface of the wine in a wine glass would stay level while the glass tilted. But it wasn't uncomfortable.

This period of APT's history culminated on December 12th when she set a new London-Glasgow record of 3hrs 52mins. That's 401 miles at an average speed of 103mph, which had included a five minute stop at Stafford due to track circuit failure.


Fact file

© Matthew Seymour BBC North Yorkshire 11 April 2002.

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Last Revised: 29.03.2022 8:03
by R G Latham
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