I’ve just moved into my first home with my fiancé Tim and our cat Moo. It’s only a few miles from where I grew up so I know the area fairly well… or I thought I did.
Tim suggested that one day we walk from the village of Sutton Gault to his office in Earith along the river bank and have a look at the old Hovertrain site. “The what?”. “Hovertrain” he said, like I knew all about it. It turns out The Fens in the 1960s and 70s was a hotbed of engineering and scientific research into a new form of transport.
We walked out from The Anchor Inn and joined the river on the other side of the footbridge. This area commonly floods in the winter, so getting to it on foot was the only option. After about 30-45 mins walk down following the river south we ended up at the Gullet, the point where the typically straight Fen River Delph has a slight kink in it, and were presented with 3 concrete pillars poking out of the flooded river.
The kink in the river has been there for a long time, but these three concrete pillars were built to keep the straight line of the hovertrain track going. It was a small part of the 4 mile track that was built from Earith to Sutton Gault, and there were plans to extend it for a further 8 miles to give a 12 mile run for the train to attempt to make 200mph. The train used a Linear Induction Motor (LIM), first developed by Prof Eric Laithwaite of Imperial College London in the late 1940s, to propel itself along the concrete track. These motors are now generally used in maglev systems.
The track build started in 1969 and the first train was delivered to the site in 1971 from Vickers-Armstrong in Swindon. They had to demolish a pub in Earith to get the train up to the track start point at the top of the village! I can’t even begin to imagine the site of this train being dragged down Earith High Street and turning *that* corner (which heavy freight regularly struggle with) then tip toeing past the duck pond onto the drove at the back on the village.
Photo from Colne Parish Council site, available here.
After a couple of years of research, the train eventually hit 107mph in 1973, sparks flying and crackling as it made it’s way along the riverside track.
There is a fantastic video which has been made by The University of Cambridge’s Archeology Department showing some original footage of the project and the train running which is well worth a watch:
As the video says, the project was infamously canned in 1973 by the now Lord Heseltine in favour of the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) project, meaning around 150 engineers, scientists and track builders lost their jobs, despite the huge strides they were making in researching this cutting edge travel technology. A large chunk of these engineers upped and moved to Canada.
I was prompted to write this blog this morning as one of my friends Alan tweeted me a great shot of him cycling past Railworld in Peterborough where the train now resides. I’m planning to visit in the summer with Tim so we can learn more about the project. Along with the museum, local historian Eddy Edwards has an incredible website recording all the fine details of the project which I’ve regurgitated here.
— Feral Marmot (@feralmarmot) February 4, 2018
There has been talk of restarting the project, but it makes you wonder. How far would we have got with LIM/maglev research if the original project from the 70s kept going? Also we can draw so many parallels between this project and the current state of R&D science and engineering in this country today. Cutting funds and dropping projects after such large investment in people, equipment and facilities, while sometimes unavoidable, makes you wonder… what if we had kept these projects alive?
(Cover image used with permission of Alan at Feral Marmot)