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The Train that Floats in the Sky - Cambridgeshire's remarkable high-speed hovertrain experiment of the 1960s and '70s

last modified Feb 16, 2017 09:36 AM
As part of ongoing investigations into ‘fenland utopias’ by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), the story of Cambridgeshire’s hovertrain is the subject of a new short film - The Train that Floats in the Sky.

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An image of what might have been. Credit: D. Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit
Although only rarely acknowledged, Cambridge and its fenland to the north have an important role in the world’s history of high-speed transport. Memories of a grand experiment to develop a magnetic hovertrain in the late 1960s and early 1970s tell of an intriguing story of innovation and a utopian vision that should have transformed the landscape, but of which today there is little trace.

As part of ongoing investigations into ‘fenland utopias’ by the University's Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), the story of Cambridgeshire’s hovertrain is the subject of a new short film The Train that Floats in the Sky, produced in partnership with Peterborough’s Railworld as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund grant-aided Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership.

Created by motion graphic designer Nick Edwards, the 14-minute film features original period footage and interviews with local researcher Eddy Edwards, Railworld trustee Brian Pearce and CAU director Chris Evans, and captures the moment of discovery of a lost hovertrain archive.

 

 

The hovertrain project was a significant British research and development scheme that combined Sir Chrisopher Cockerell’s hovercraft invention with Prof. Eric Laithwaite’s work on linear induction motors. “The ultimate aim,” explains Marcus Brittain, the CAU’s film coordinator, “was high-performance transport technology using environmentally sensitive motors, and to achieve this before France’s ‘Aerotrain’ project.”

Following protracted negotiations, the scheme was ‘propelled’ in 1967 through government funding of £5.25 million, and Tracked Hovercraft Ltd was formed. With the company’s offices and laboratories based in Cambridge, the construction of a full scale test track – a gigantic concrete monorail – was begun in 1969 along the Old Bedford River between the fenland villages of Earith and Sutton Gault. According to Chris Evans, the Unit’s director, it was the “long, straight and flat character of the Bedford Level that attracted many forms of scientific experiment” that today are the subject of an “Archaeology of the Great Straight.”

In spite of the experiment’s progress it was beset with problems, many caused by the soft fenland ground, and in 1973 the funding was cut and, with considerable emotion for those invested, the project was ended. The film explores the local and physical legacy of the Tracked Hovercraft project, and a near-forgotten fenland vision of the future.

 

LISTEN: Dr Marcus Brittain of the CAU discusses the hovertrain project and film on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

(starts at 1:47:40):

 

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