British Rail – Advanced Passenger Train

Following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed and troubled projects from around the world.

British Rail – UK
Project name : Advanced Passenger Train (APT)
Project type : Design and development of high speed trains
Date : 1981 (filed under historical failures)
Cost :
 £50M (1981 costs estimated) – £150M (2012 inflation adjusted cost)

Synopsis :
With the goal of decreasing travel times between the UK’s major cities, in the 1970’s the then publicly owned “British Rail” undertook the development of the Advanced Passenger Train (APT).  The speed at which existing trains could travel was limited by the twisting nature of the Victorian era tracks that link the UK’s major cities.  To overcome this constraint British Rail engineers designed a tilting mechanism that would allow the train to lean into the turns, thereby allowing the train to travel through the bends at higher speed.

The project was originally broken into three phases: Phase 1- Development of a prototype, Phase 2 – Introduction of a limited fleet into passenger service to prove the technology and Phase 3 – Deployment of the full fleet.

Advanced Passenger Train (APT)

The Advanced Passenger Train (APT)
source wIki commons

Despite significant technical problems with the prototype (failure to right itself after the bend and major mechanical failures) the decision was made to implement Phase 2.  Pushing the fleet into public service before the technical issues were resolved resulted in a major public relations disaster and the ultimate cancellation of the project.

Note: As an illustration of how a failure can lay the ground work for later successes, the tilting technology developed for the APT was sold to the Italian firm Fiat Ferroviaria.  Fiat Ferroviaria successfully resolved the technical issues and included the technology in their “Pendolino” design.  The Pendolino design was subsequently sold back to the British who do now operate tilting trains on the Victorian era rail lines.

Contributing factors as reported in the press:

Lack of quality control (testing of the prototype was very limited). Continual changes to the design. Failure to manage public expectations (glitches are to be expected in a prototypes but British Rail failed to adequately manage the expectations of the press or the public). Pushing a product into full service before quality issues were fully resolved, thereby resulting in the product being ridiculed.

Related stories :

The Italian designed Pendolino trains were successfully operated by Virgin Transport from 2003 under an operating franchise agreement with the British Government.  In 2012 the competition to renew the franchise for a further 15 years was serious botched and has earned its own place in the Catalogue of Catastrophe.

Reference links :

  1. Advanced Passenger Train (APT) – Wikipedia page
  2. New Scientist 1 Aug 1985 – Page 46