In the 1970s, tilting trains were considered by many to be the future of our industry. They were the trains that would reach dizzying speeds on existing infrastructure. With high-centres of gravity, made safe by a raised outer edge of a road to stop them toppling over when going around a tight corner. It was an idea that seemed simple, yet ingenious at the time. And the UK was at the forefront of its development, with the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) developed by British Rail during the 1970s and early 1980s. Born out of viewing the emerging high-speed travel on the European continent, but frustrated by the UK's convoluted Victorian-era rail system that limited the speeds of conventional trains. The idea seemed great, but it never really prospered in the UK. And like many British rail inventions, they would be developed elsewhere before being reintroduced to the country by international companies. Now, Pendolino trains deliver a 35 percent increase in speed and can reach up to 250kmh on regular tracks. But at what point was the innovation stopped in its tracks? And can the tilting train stand up as an invention that revolutionised rail?
"The APT is a symbol of good ambition that crumbles as the politics change around it and the idea of what are seen as state vanity projects dies a death."
The story begins in the UK when British Rail (BR) pioneered the first Advanced Passenger Train (APT) in the 1970s. The active tilting ability was innovated to address the curves along the West Coast Mainline whilst maintaining high speeds. The experimental train achieved new records of 162mph, a record that stood for 23 years.
However, it wasn’t an easy run for this tilting train. High costs and media scrutiny meant that it was a constant political struggle to get the trains ready. Development of BR’s first prototype took ten years and they were first installed on the London to Glasgow route. The train experienced mechanical problems on its first journeys amid snowy conditions and the problems would grow as the criticism mounted. In its brief life span, the futuristic vehicle was seen as a waste of £47 million and mocked by the press. Journalists travelling on board early journeys complained that the tilt caused motion sickness, nicknaming the APT "queasy rider" as the PR battle was lost. With a string of problems and stinging criticism of BR’s incompetence, the tilting trains were withdrawn from service in Christmas 1981, after just a couple of weeks.
"The APT is a symbol of good ambition that crumbles as the politics change around it and the idea of what are seen as state vanity projects dies a death," says Bob Gwynne, National Railway Museum.
After their abandonment, the technology was taken up by Fiat in Italy who bought the patents to develop its Pendolino, meaning small pendulum in Italian.The trains which are now manufactured by the French multinational Alstom.
Pendolino tilting trains today
Now let’s fast forward to the present; there are currently 400 Pendolino trains operating in 11 countries across Europe, including Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, UK, Switzerland, China, Germany and Romania which shows that some progress had been made.
The Italian company first delivered tilting trains in 1982, travelling at speeds of 250km/h and ran the Rome-Milan route in under four hours. Passenger numbers increased from 220,000 in 1988 to 2.2 million in 1993.
In fact, Italy’s Pendolinos and their derivatives are still the most popular solution for active tilting in passenger trains. The technology which is still used today is nearly the same as the rolling stock developed by Fiat Ferrovaraia in the 60s and 70s.
Britain’s rails have however seen some success with their initial tilting mechanism. Some of the original BR technology is employed on the West Coast mainline operated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains. From 2001, the Virgin Pendolino is one of the UK’s fastest , electric high-speed trains setting the speed record for London to Glasgow at three hours and 55 minutes.
VR Group, the state owned Finnish railway operator has rolled out these trains since 1997 reaching speeds of up to 220kmh. The fleet has been running five main routes to serve all the main cities in Finland.
In 2003, the Czech Republic made its first order for seven Pendolino trains which used hydraulically powered tilting systems.
Alstom’s newly introduced Pendolino trains are 95 percent recyclable and 97 percent of the power is recycled and fed back into the catenary system. There has also been a better sound insulation design under the body to decrease noise pollution. They are seven cars long a run at a top speed of 250 kmh, accommodating up to 430 passengers.
And these Pendolino active tilting trains are now exported to the UK, coming in full circle back to where the concept was first invented and implemented.