Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientists and engineers who developed some of the modern world’s most incredible technology.

This week’s instalment traces the history of the UK’s experimental tilting trains of the 1970s and 80s. The Advanced Passenger Trains were intended to rival France’s TGV and Japan’s bullet train, but negative press and complaints about motion sickness helped scupper the project before it could get going.

Peter Snow is on a quest to track down the people who made the UK a world leader in science and industry. He is searching for the unsung heroes of modern British history – the media-shy scientists and engineers whose resourcefulness and determination shaped much of today’s incredible technology.

The series focuses on the true backroom boys of British engineering – men who worked in their bedrooms and backyards to make inspirational breakthroughs in technology and kick-start whole industries. These people battled against the odds, taking on sceptical governments, hostile unions and indifferent corporations to make their vision of tomorrow’s world a reality.

In the second part of the series, Peter uncovers the story of British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train (APT). This much-maligned project is now largely remembered as the tilting train that made its passengers sick. Yet, as Peter discovers, the APT was in fact one of the greatest technological advances on the railways for 100 years.

Back in the 1970s, British Rail was determined to move into the modern age and introduce trains that could match the high-speed rail fleets of France and Japan. In a bid to slash journey times on the long and winding west coast mainline, the BR board acted somewhat out of character and hired two whizz kids from outside the industry – engineers Alan Wickens and Mike Newman – to oversee the APT project. The result was an Advanced Projects Group so radical that even Margaret Thatcher was reputedly a fan.

The French and Japanese had produced their high-speed trains simply by building new straight lines at massive expense. The APT, by contrast, was supposed to use Britain’s existing twisty track whilst at the same time nearly doubling the speed of intercity journeys. To achieve this remarkably tall order, the train was designed to tilt around the curves. In practice, Alan and Mike’s experimental train, the APT-E, was a total success. Its revolutionary tilting system and advanced hydrokinetic brakes enabled it to hit 150mph on lines where other trains could only hit 70.

How, then, did this successful prototype result in one of the most derided episodes of British Rail’s history? Once the APT-E left the Advanced Projects Group, it was handed over to BR’s more traditional engineers. Dozens of cost-cutting changes later, it entered service before it was fully tested. A disastrous trial run with journalists onboard – many of whom had already partaken of the train’s generous bar – resulted in complaints of motion sickness and helped destroy the project’s credibility in the press. A handful of APTs saw service in the mid-1980s, when they regularly posted fast journey times – but by then the political will had died and the trains were quietly withdrawn.

However, this was not the end of the tilting train. In the 1980s, British Rail sold the technology to Fiat. Almost 20 years later – in a twist of painful irony – Virgin Trains spent billions of pounds buying a fleet of tilting Pendolino trains back from the Italians for use on the same west coast line that the APT was originally designed to serve.

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