Dr Alan Wicken

Alan recounts a conflict with academics.

Railway voices at the NRM

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NARRATOR: Alan graduated from Loughborough in 1951 and he describes his work for Armstrong Whitworth on the Sea Slug - sea to air missile.

ALAN: My first job was with Armstrong Whitworth aircraft in Coventry, in the armaments division, which was based at Whitley and was concerned with the development of a sea-to-air missile called “Sea Slug” and I started off by – as a stressman in the design office at Armstrong Whitworth.

INTERVIEWER: Was this by nature a graduate apprenticeship or …?

ALAN: No, this was an actual job, yes straight into ... yes, yes … Yes I mean I had really enough practical training. So I started off as a stressman and after about two years of that – and I did some quite tricky analyses of what happened when it – the “Sea Slug” had four booster rockets attached to the body, which when the missile was fired, they flew off in all directions once they had finished, so I did some analysis of this process, of how the thing separated and so that was really how I got into dynamics for the first time and so I elected then to concentrate on aeroelasticity and dynamics, so really flutter, which is the sort of vibration of wings and the stability that if a wing flutters and goes unstable then eventually it collapses, which is fairly serious.

NARRATOR: Alan emigrated to Canada in 1955 and recollects his experience working for Canadair.

ALAN: I joined Canadair in their dynamics section, and there I worked on aircraft as opposed to missiles. I worked on the CL28 which was a maritime reconnaissance aircraft and the CL44, which was the first swing-tail freighter, and the CL41, which was a jet trainer and so on, a whole lot of aeroplanes. I had very good experience at Canadair, because there were a lot of projects and it was really at that time an American company owned by General Dynamics, so it was very good. So I was there for four years.

INTERVIEWER: Did you at that time contemplate that you mwight stay in Canada?

ALAN: Yes, I mean it was a possibility. I, I was an immigrant and so … a landed immigrant I had the status of a citizen really, of Canada, and I voted in the Canadian elections and things like that. I voted for Diefenbaker who once he got in power cancelled the Avro Arrow, which was fairly disastrous for the Canadian aircraft industry.

NARRATOR: Alan returned to UK in 1959, joined AV Roe’s weapons research division and describes the Blue Streak missile project.

ALAN: Blue Steel was a very interesting project because it became the deterrent, the UK deterrent for ten years, and – it would launch, basically would deliver an H-bomb, carried by a Vulcan, and – but it was essentially like a cruise missile; it was all steel, stainless steel, because it was supersonic. It had inertial navigation, it was the first UK application of inertial navigation, the first stainless steel airframe in the UK, certainly, probably the world, and in all sorts of respects it was a very advanced aeroplane, it was more like an aeroplane than a missile and it also – because it had a very complex control system, this interacted with the structure, and so I, sort of, and my colleagues, broke new ground in the subject called aero-servo-elasticity, which is the interaction of structures with control systems which is a very current concern with aircraft now, because you have such powerful control systems that are automatic and so on, so – and, and so we did, for example, live resonance testing with the control system working, which I don’t think had ever been done anywhere before, not even the States, so we were well in the lead there, and so, it was very interesting, and also I remember another problem that occurred was that as these Blue Steels were coming off the production line they powered up the hydraulic system and immediately the ailerons used to vibrate violently, the thing was unstable, from the word go, on the ground and so we had to do an investigation on that – I remember going in on a Sunday and working, you know, on the assembly line doing some experiments and that, that turned out to be a resonance between a very small item, part of the servo valve and the aileron torsion vibration mode, so it was quite – it was very, you know, interesting, and unusual and course such things have become more frequent as the technology has become more widespread. So that – I got quite a lot of good experience and of course hardly anyone’s heard of Blue Steel really, because it was sort of top secret and we only knew what our particular bit was, and two years ago, I went back to Woodford to a Royal Aero Society meeting there, where one of my colleagues on the Blue Steel team, John Allen, gave a lecture on the Blue Steel project, which it had just come off the secret list. For the first time I knew what all these other people were doing. But that was good experience -- but it came to an end, because A.V. Roe of course wanted a follow-on project, they had really finished the development of Blue Steel; 54 were built and were, as I’ve said, were in service and there were two possibilities, one was for another, you know, a follow-on deterrent, which the Government weren’t keen about, and the other was to use it as a satellite launcher. It would have been a very cheap method of launching a satellite, but the Government was really pretty adamant that it didn’t want to put any more money into the British aircraft industry and it – the – at that time they had a fairly serious loan from the Americans, and the Americans persuaded the UK Government to buy a missile called Skybolt, so really you could see the writing on the wall for the Weapons Research Division at A.V. Roe, and so I decided to look around for another job.

NARRATOR: Alan joined British Rail in 1962 to research the dynamics of rail vehicles and tells how he was recruited by Dr Sydney Jones.

ALAN: Exactly. Well, this comes about because there was, in the ‘50s, a research advisory committee to the British Transport Commission and they persuaded the BTC to build some new laboratories at Derby because they said, you know, research is at too low a level; though there had been research on the railway in various forms, it had been, I think it’s fair to say, on a fairly limited scale, and they, Colin Ingles who was the Director of Research, was about to retire, and so they recruited Sydney Jones, who had been head of, I think it was the Weapons Department at R.A.E. Farnborough, the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, and had then gone on I think to the -- some other jobs I think in the electrical industry, but was a very research-orientated man, very forward-looking …

INTERVIEWER: Had you come across him?

ALAN: No, not at all, no. He arrived in the early part of 1962, and he looked around at the work – well, the story he told, was that he went round all the chief officers of the engineering and operating functions and said, “What can research do for you?” And the reply he got from nearly everyone was that they needed improved shunting poles. [laughs] Now I’m not sure it was quite as bad as that, but it -- there was an indication that there wasn’t really a forward-looking attitude on the technical side, and also Sydney Jones came to the view that the mechanical engineers in particular didn’t understand the dynamics of railway vehicles and hence this advertisement. So, so really there were some far-sighted people on the BTC research committee, exactly how Sydney Jones came to be recruited I don’t know, but …

INTERVIEWER: Is it true to say, Alan, that at that time there might have been more knowledge of railway dynamics in the private sector, who were designing and had for a period designed diesel and electric locomotives?

ALAN: Yes, it’s possible. I think in fact there was a level of empirical knowledge without any doubt at all, because if you look at something like the Mark II coach with B4 bogies, it worked very well. I mean when we subsequently came to analyse it, it was really well optimised, by purely empirical means.

INTERVIEWER: You mean, by luck more than by judgement?

ALAN: Yes, well, a great deal of engineering insight without a doubt. Of course the difficulty with that comes if you want to go to very much higher speeds or do something that is slightly different from what you’ve learnt to do, then you really are in difficulty, and – anyway, so I applied for this job – oh, the other thing I did was I looked at a train in Northumberland, I noticed one of these coal trains and it was snaking beautifully, and I thought, “Well that’s, you know, there clearly is something, there is a problem here.” So I applied for this job and I went down to 222 Marylebone Road and was interviewed by Sydney Jones, Don Bartlett, a chap called Professor Peter Grootenhuis and one or two others, someone from the staff office I think, and … and had an interview, they asked me if I know anything about bogies, and you know, I said, “No, I don’t,” and they asked me also, “Was I enthusiastic about trains?” and I said, “Well, not – not a, you know, railway enthusiast at all.” Well, Peter Grootenhuis told me many years later, he said, “The reason you got the job more than anything was you said you didn’t know anything about bogies, and you were just the man they were looking for!”

NARRATOR: Alan describes the contrasts between working in the railways and the aircraft industry.

ALAN: In the aircraft industry one was used to working in a, in a very large team, with, in retrospect, very able people indeed, so one, you know, felt that, you know, it was a competitive field, you, you know, you had very strong competition, shall we say. In the railway field there were fewer people, much fewer people, working on anything and the resources were obviously much more limited and of course compared with defence or aircraft, you know, the spending was minuscule really. So, immediately one seemed to be in a much smaller enterprise, which actually I found very refreshing and I found the people very helpful, I mean, here was I who was sort of brought in from outside, and as far as the Research Department was concerned everyone was very very co-operative indeed.

NARRATOR: Alan outlines the conflicts of responsibility for the increasing numbers of derailments of freight vehicles on plain line.

ALAN: I saw stability of vehicles and the hunting problem as the main problem, so actually I set in train the work on the irregularities and also then started the basic research on the hunting problem, which -- I mean I’d already done some simple calculations before I arrived and I knew straightaway where some of the answers lay, so it was really -- I mean, the problem was right up my street, I had the experience and also the insight and to -- when I was given a ride we -- one of the chaps who came to work for me who was already in research, called Brian King, he’d been running a double bolster bogie vehicle that hunted beautifully and had a hole in the floor so you could watch it, and he gave me a ride on this soon after I arrived and it was immediately obvious to me the kind of problem it was and the way one could tackle it, so I could get stuck into that and, so it was very good to have the support from Arthur Butland but it was quite clear that this was part of the basic conflict between the civil and the mechanical engineers as to who caused the problem, whether it was the track or the vehicle, and the reaction from the mechanical engineers was simply that they knew everything there was to know about bogies and they couldn’t see why research was getting involved in this problem, et cetera et cetera. But in fact, within two years the problem of the derailment of two-axle wagons became a really serious problem and that was because they were trying to run freight trains at higher speeds and they had, under the 1955 Modernisation Plan, they had fitted them with brakes but they’d done nothing about the suspension, and they were hunting violently and if there was then, at the same time, a dip in the -- a serious dip in the track, they would come off, and so, in fact, there was a very serious problem and the mechanical engineers were attempting to solve this by taking the wagons and doing ad hoc modifications to the suspension; of course they didn’t really know how they should be modifying the suspension or what the basic parameters of the suspension were, so it was a, it was an approach doomed to failure, and we within two or three years, I was able to suggest how you could design these suspensions to run stably and we’d demonstrated it full-scale with a vehicle called HSFV-1.

NARRATOR: Alan explains the way computers were used in the 1960s.

ALAN: I had been using computers, though remotely, in the early days, right from the start of my working career, but there was a computer at Derby, I think it was an Elliot [ph] computer and of course we’d had very good computational facilities at Canadair, considerably in advance, and in fact at A.V. Roe I’d built an analogue computer and I was actually more keen on analogue computation than digital, but initially the first calculations I did I had them – I got them sent to English Electric at Warton, Preston, which, you know, British Aerospace became, and the flutter section, they did them for me. The flutter equations of an aeroplane and the railway vehicle equations you can actually – they are very similar in form, and you can make them the same if you interpret certain things in a different way, so could use existing programmes. So initially some of the work was done at Warton I remember through the colleague called Phil Coates [ph] who looked after the computer at Derby. So we were using computers, and then we bought an analogue computer, which we used, I used a lot, earlier on, but of course analogue computers are now in museums really.

NARRATOR: Alan recounts a conflict with academics from University College on the dynamics of railway vehicles.

ALAN: British Transport had let a contract to University College, in the shape of Professor R.E.D. Bishop, to study the railway stability problem, and so when – I didn’t know about this when I arrived – and, but it soon emerged that he was supposed to be doing the fundamental work and I wasn’t really very pleased about this, and they, they soon brought him up to Derby and it was an extremely difficult meeting, because Professor Bishop was known, he was known – I think he’d been at Farnborough – but he was known for his fiery antagonistic approach to everything anyway, and he accused me of being very rude, I remember, in the meeting and a – I wasn’t conscious of being rude – but he was just absolutely – and he basically said, “You just leave the theory to us, we know about these things, you go and do some measurements for us.” Well of course I told Sydney Jones after that was totally unacceptable, and but fortunately – also they had one of the external research committee members, Professor Tustin [ph], who was actually an electrical engineer, a very able and nice man, along for this meeting and the thing was I talked about the control engineering approach to this problems which sort of endeared me to Tustin [ph] and also I said, “Of course you know the man who’s done the most in this field is a Japanese called Matsudaira.” Now, Bishop had never heard of Matsudaira, so the thing was I actually came out of that meeting rather well, even though I felt rather – and so Sydney Jones said to me afterwards, “Look don’t worry about, I’ve got every confidence in you, I want you to do what you’re doing and we’ll just play along with Bishop and see what he produces.” Well, this went on, actually I suppose for another three years, he – they produced one or two reports of incredibly simple, simplistic models that were a mile away from reality, and in the end they just gave up and Bishop, who was sort of thinking that the railway vehicle problem would be a thing that he could, you know, have a, make a big impact on, he went and did ships instead, and became the guru of ship dynamics. So the poor naval people who I had contact with much later in my career and I ended up on the same committee with Bishop, one of the naval machinery committees, and it was obvious that they all felt the same about him as I did. But – so there were, you know, there were – but that’s, of course that does happen in research, you get people wanting to carve out their own niche and so on.

Dr Alan Wickens interviewed 22 March 2002

Ref no 2002-46

This is an edited version of a transcript to match the content on the audio extract.

NARRATOR: Alan outlines the first thoughts in 1965 on the development of a tilting vehicle.

ALAN: in 1964 the first Shinkansen had opened, and also, the InterCity business on BR was actually very forward-looking and had been, you know, increasing speeds, and showing worthwhile improvements in revenue. I mean, there was this rule, which I think dates back to that period, of one mile an hour extra in average speed is worth one per cent improvement in revenue, and I think the introduction of the Deltics on the East Coast Main Line and the speeding up of those services demonstrated that, and so I said to Sydney Jones, “I think you know we’ve flogging a dead horse looking after these pallet vans and things, we ought to be looking – becoming more adventurous and looking forward,” and I thought we ought to be doing something on a high speed passenger vehicle. So I made a proposal for a high speed passenger research vehicle, and I think that was November 1966, I still have a copy of it, sort of two pages really, and it was to have, I think, it was going to be a two-axle vehicle because by – the work we’d done on two-axle vehicles in fact showed that you could make them very stable and a two-axle vehicle is inherently more efficient than a bogie vehicle with all the mass of the bogie frames and so on, so it was a two-axle vehicle, it was going to be of lightweight construction and it was going to have body tilt, because in the summer of 1965 I’d employed a young Dutch student for the summer and I’d got him to do some work on powered tilt, on tilting the car body of the vehicle with some control system so that it would go round curves faster with the same level of passenger comfort, like riding a bicycle if you like, round a curve.

ALAN: anyway I recruited Mike Newman, in particular, who joined me fairly soon afterwards, and he said, “Really, this project of the single vehicle is not really viable, because you cannot solve any of the interface problems with it, you need a complete train.” That’s absolutely right, so we then developed the proposal for APT(E) and over a period of a year or so, or more, we developed the proposal for APT(E) which was a complete train, which was intended to -- with more commercial objectives. Instead of simply running at high speed, as was the initial concept, it was to run at high speeds on existing track and with various objectives of keeping the cost within existing limits and so on, and that was the basis of the APT(E) project.

NARRATOR: Alan explains how the government was persuaded to fund 50% of the development costs of the first APT project.

ALAN: Stanley Raymond was Chairman, and Stanley Raymond actually was very pro- R and D. I think it was probably because in a way Stanley Raymond was an outsider, he, he wasn’t liked by the railwaymen for some reason, and also Research was seen as outsiders, we were not really part of the real railway, and anyway he was very -- but he said, well you know, he was very much in favour of this, but the financial position of the Board being what it was, you know, the Board on its own couldn’t actually … fund it, but he gave approval and encouragement to Sydney Jones to actually approach Government directly, so I think this must have been in ’66, ’67. Anyway, Sydney Jones started to make overtures to the Department of Transport in particular and the chief scientific adviser to the Government at that time, which was Solly Zuckerman and he – anyway, he spent a long long time walking the corridors of power in Whitehall, and of course they all said, “Yes this is a really good idea, we must do this – now why don’t you talk to so and so?” you know, and the way the Whitehall system goes, and so this went on for probably two years, and -- but Sydney Jones was an extremely persuasive man, he was a Welshman, and -- well you probably knew him Ian – very persuasive, and in -- he talked me into joining the railway in the first place, so he’s really, he was very persuasive, and so -- he was very charming, he could really influence people, so he certainly made progress and in the end, in -- towards the end of 1969, he got approval for funding for this expanded research, including APT, on the basis that the Board, if the Board put up half, the Government would put up the other half. So it became a 50:50 venture with the Department of Transport, and it became known as the joint research programme. Well, the joint research programme was part of it, and APT was the other.

NARRATOR: He describes how some of the early structural problems of the APT Power car were resolved.

ALAN: The power car structures – these were very difficult, because the equipment obviously was not very well defined at this stage, so Jim Wildhaber joined us to head up the structures group from Westlands helicopter company, and he proposed and designed a space structure made of welded square tube – you know, steel tubing, on which a sort of cosmetic shell was put, which was non-structural, which was, you know, matched the rest of the train, and that was a very good decision because sort of half way through the construction of the train it became apparent that the length of the power cars was too short. Firstly the dynamicists felt that they couldn’t stabilise it properly and it would hunt and – but more importantly in a way, it – there wasn’t actually enough room in the body to house all the equipment, so when the dynamicists sort of announced at a project meeting that they desperately -- they needed more length to the body, you could see the people on the equipment side sort of heave a sigh of relief, it let them off the hook completely. So at a fairly late stage I made the decision to double the length of the body, which was actually easy to do because it was just a space frame.

NARRATOR: Alan outlines the organisation of the APT development group and the building of the test track at Old Dalby.

ALAN: the organisation of the group was that Mike Newman headed a design, if you like, and the manufacture of the train and Alastair Gilchrist headed the development and research and testing side. So right from the beginning, in addition to building -- starting to build this train, we, we took over the Melton Mowbray-Nottingham main line and made that into a test track with a new sort of little workshop and so on at Old Dalby, and that was 17 miles long. It was double track, we converted most of it into single track, except in the tunnels, and it had all sorts of track features on, but it was quite a good test line because it had quite good curves on it, and we laid it, we re-laid the track with representative kinds of BR track, long welded, jointed, switch and crossing work, everything like that, so that was done concurrently … in addition to the test track we built a new lab, the Vehicles Laboratory as it became called, but that was built specifically for APT and that had a roller rig in and it had a large brake dynamometer; it had tilt rigs, resonance testing equipment and so on, because our whole approach was really one of not only doing calculations, as it were, to design things, but to demonstrate that, you know, the numbers came out in the end, and also that when we did trials on the track what we measured was in some way compared with our predictions and that we really know where we were, so it was a very important part of the project that we develop this approach, that was not actually usual in railways, but of course was normal in aeronautics and is something – and so, so that was a major effort as well, and of course we also developed the the – we had to do more work in aerodynamics, there are a lot of aerodynamic problems, so we set up an aerodynamics section..

NARRATOR: Alan gives the background to the blacking of the APT test train by ASLEF, the subsequent modifications and achieving 155mph on the high speed trials.

ALAN: the train ran anyway for the first time, up to Duffield and back. The -- at that time ASLEF were in dispute with the Board over pay and single manning, and so they immediately blacked the APT(E). A further point of contention, actually, was the fact that the cab was designed with an extremely strong structure to protect the driver, which meant that there was a rather small window which was made of a very thick windscreen made by Pilkington of the same material that they used for Concorde, so it would withstand a brick being thrown at 150 miles an hour, so – but the result of this was that there was a central driver’s seat, and we only provided one driver’s seat, only a jump seat behind, that was seen as very aggressive by the unions, here was BR pre-empting the discussions on single manning et cetera. Anyway, they blacked the train immediately, and the -- in a way the team, sort of, were quite pleased, the lower down you went, because they knew there were a lot more things to do and quite a lot of modifications because we’d already learnt quite a lot because I should mention that we -- early on we built a very simple two-car train, which we called the “pop train”, it was just basically two power car frameworks, with three bogies, with the full tilting system and we’d been running this for some time, trailed by an ordinary locomotive, and we’d learnt a lot from this, and we, we were already at the stage where we wanted to introduce modifications on APT(E), but we – I was insistent really that we, you know, meet the timescale and run APT(E) albeit that we knew we wanted to move ahead. So anyway, it was then agreed that the locomotive works would use one of their shops, I think it might have been number six shop, to make a, quite a lot of changes to APT(E) to bring it up to date with the results of the “pop train” and the laboratory work and so on, whilst it was blacked. The problem was, of course, is, was getting it there. Now fortunately a supervisor who belonged to the NUR agreed to drive it across to the works, other side of the main line of course, and so he did this one night, so we were able to get on with the work, in number six shop, and the result of that was a national rail strike. Now the national rail strike cost far more than the whole of the R and D programme, so that was it. And then, after a period, we -- you know, it was all -- I think it was six months or something like this that the thing was blacked, and we – the national strike was one day – we then were able to start running at Old Dalby, and we then were able to very successfully demonstrate what a tilting train was like, and then subsequently we did high speed trials on the Western Region, where we achieved a hundred and fifty-five miles an hour, which of course was a British speed record and also was the specification that we had set out to do, and the other demonstration we did was Leicester, oh, St. Pancras to Leicester on the Midland Main Line, and I think we did it in 57 minutes which you know showed the virtue of tilting train, go round corners that much faster. So those two runs really demonstrated the concept was right, and in fact the specification which we’d set out with, of nine degrees of tilt and the speeds and so on, very – have stood the test of time because most tilting trains tilt at nine degrees and have been successful in service, even though APT wasn’t.

NARRATOR: He explains the reasons for dropping the gas turbine and choosing the electric option with power equipment from ASEA instead of GEC.

ALAN: The passenger business came to the conclusion that the best route to put APT on was the West Coast Main Line, because they needed better speed, high speed, and of course it’s quite curvaceous as well so the tilting would be of positive benefit. So that immediately solved one of the technical problems, which was that of the motive power, because we could … the gas turbine, the Leyland engine, had more or less failed as a commercial venture and Lord Stokes agreed personally, I think, I don’t know whether it was with the chairman or … but he agreed that they would continue to support APT(E) even though they were basically going to go out of the gas turbine business and they did, and I mean they were extremely helpful. So APT(E) was to be supported, and of course the engines did take up a lot of effort, but we didn’t have to continue looking around for another engine. We then went out to tender for power equipment for prototype service trains, to the industry, and we specified the kind of weight constraints that were appropriate to the train. GEC responded to this, I’m not sure there was anyone else in the business by then, but GEC responded and essentially their response was there was a list of the requirements and against each one it said, “will not comply.” They said the weights were unrealistic, et cetera, et cetera, the whole thing was quite … the … and Lynn Fairbrother, was our … our sort of head of the electrical work on APT at that time, and so we had a situation where GEC just refused, really, to meet our requirements, but … so we decided that we’d go to ASEA, which we did. ASEA actually, made a proposal which met all our requirements, and they didn’t do it by cutting any corners, but it was an intelligent and constructive approach, very impressive. Immediately GEC gets on to Downing Street and complains, and so there’s a terrible row about this, that GEC … you know, we won’t support British industry, et cetera, et cetera you know, all the usual guff, and anyway, we stuck with ASEA

NARRATOR: He summarises why only three APT sets were built instead of the original ten.

ALAN: the Government was very pro-APT and they offered the Board funding for eight trains I think, or was it ten trains, 80 per cent of the funding for eight or ten trains, and the Board, they had this offer, I think it took them a year to respond to the Government, having a lot of discussion at BR headquarters, that they couldn’t afford the 20 per cent; by that time of course the Government, there were funding cuts and God knows what, so we ended up with four trains.

INTERVIEWER: I mean here was a lost opportunity.

ALAN: Absolutely. And it … that I think was the crucial decision that killed APT, because if there’d been ten trains the industry would have responded in a way that would have been entirely positive, they could see that the passenger business was serious and so on. With four trains, subsequently cut to three, it was yet another experiment, and I think that was the crucial bad decision, and that was because accountants on the Board, I think, were trying to be clever, rather than being sensible.

NARRATOR: Alan explains how the drive to reduce the costs of railway vehicles led to the building of the Leyland railbus, and recounts an operating experience in the United States.

ALAN: ..they analysed this situation and thought that why not take a bus body and marry it to the HSFV suspension and make a what was sort of called really a “cheap and cheerful” vehicle, as a demonstrator, and the obvious bus body to use was the -- that of the National Bus body, which was made near Workington in Cumbria, which was a very advanced, highly tooled assembly line … which made an excellent stressed skin construction. Sadly that method of construction has gone out … gone out of fashion, and they’re back to building buses more or less by knife and fork methods, but this was a very good, very well-made body, and we interested National Bus Company, or was it Leyland, I think it was Leyland, I think they’re owned by Leyland, in this project and so they joined with us to manufacture this vehicle and this was called the LEV1, and was demonstrated, and it showed that you can get, what shall we say, an averagely acceptable ride but at an, you know, an incredibly low cost compared with the conventional way of doing things. And we also, I think a little later, built a trailer vehicle, the size of a standard Mark III coach, using the same sort of … but using standard bogies, and I think there are some of those in service. The … this was certainly … this got the attention, I think, of the traction rolling stock committee or … there was quite a lot of interest in it, and there was also interest in it, interestingly enough, from the United States and, well you will know probably more about this that I do, but they … the Federal Railway Administration had asked to borrow LEV1, and so off it went to the States, complete with ghetto grills, to protect the windows from thrown stones and things like that, and was demonstrated in New Hampshire as there was an imminent election. As I understand it, a chap driving a pick-up truck tried to race it to a level-crossing which had no gates or lights, collided with the train, and was killed, and his estate then came on to various parties like BREL and the British Railways Board and whoever, claiming that they had been negligent in making a train look like a bus and therefore giving the wrong impression to the driver of the pick-up truck, and it cost several million..

NARRATOR: He outlines the background to the development of the prototype MAGLEV which was subsequently used as a people mover at Birmingham airport.

ALAN: the Government decided to place two contracts, one for the magnetic levit … for the linear induction motor, with Brush, a research contract and the other for the magnetic levitation suspension with the research laboratories at Derby, which is an indication of our standing in … at that date. The agent for placing the contract was going to be … was the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. They were very interested in a transport system they were going to have applied in Sheffield, called “minitram” which was what is known in the States as a personal rapid transit system, in other words, very small vehicles, centrally computer controlled, and thereby offering high frequency of service and so on, but enormous amount capital cost and is really yet to come about. But they were interested in the system, and so they said, “Yes, you can have this contract to develop magnetic levitation, if you apply it to a vehicle of the minitram specification. So in other words we had a specification which was a small vehicle and about perhaps ten feet long and, you know, like a little box. So that’s what we did. And we designed and built models to work on this and we actually built a section of track in the Technical Centre with a sharp curve in and built a vehicle. This vehicle, again, was more of a demonstrator, although some … quite a lot of the work we’d been doing on APT, in terms of tilt and sort of active suspensions, was actually applied in this MAG-LEV vehicle, and later work on tilt depended on the MAG-LEV vehicle, so there’s an interesting cross-feed there. Anyway, some years after we had been doing this work, or during the … towards the end of it, the Birmingham airport decided to build a new terminal, and wanted to connect this to the Birmingham International railway station, and they wanted some kind of people mover, so … and they knew of the MAG-LEV work we’d done at Derby, and they came to see it, and basically they said, “That’s just what we want; it’s different, but will do the job.” So we then were in the position of how do we pursue this? We could specify but obviously we couldn’t manufacture it, so I’m not sure quite how we became involved in this initially, but Harry Kline of GEC transportation projects was -- became involved, and he was able to get a consortium together to built this, and it involved Metro Cammell, GEC traction, GEC signalling, Brush and BR Research and I think Taylor Woodrow probably were the builders of the track. And I know he had a lot of difficulty, because Arnold Weinstock was very much against this, for some reason. I mean I would have thought it was a good thing for GEC to do, to expand their business, but there we are. Anyway, Ian Campbell, who was by this time the Board member for research and engineering, he strongly supported it, and so … that was successfully built and in fact was in service for ten years, and sadly was taken out of service not too long ago, because GEC wouldn’t support it and obviously by that time some of the electronics was getting old.

NARRATOR: Alan explains the Stoneblower track maintenance concept.

ALAN: the concept was based on the idea that the old method of measured shovel packing, in which you if you see a low sleeper you raise it and stuff some stones underneath, was actually far more efficient and beneficial than tamping the track, which churns everything up, and in fact, measurements that were done showed that the effect of tamping was very short-lived, that the track tended to subside into its old state fairly quickly, whereas measured shovel packing would last for a long time, and so the idea was to mechanise this process, and an experimental machine was built and it was demonstrated. This was part of the joint programme that was funded by the Ministry, and then the time came to go out to tender for a prototype and this was a very difficult situation. Obviously we were working very closely with the civil engineers and two companies were in the running, Cowans Sheldon and Plasser and Theurer. Plasser and Theurer, of course, had the experience but also had a vested interest in existing technology. In fact Plasser and Theurer made an offer which the Board could hardly refuse, and one had to take at face value their, what shall we say, their good faith. In reality the prototype turned up late with many features down-graded and not properly interpreted and didn’t really take on board the work done by the Research Department and so that was a problem. And then there were … there was problems with Plasser’s, allegations of corruption et cetera made by various people in relation to various people BRB, which cast a pall over proceedings, and so … but fortunately, eventually this all passed over and further development had been done and further prototypes were ordered from a company in the States which I think have now been delivered and are in service and in fact it has finally been implemented but it has taken an inordinately long time … and that’s characteristic, I’m afraid, of many railway research projects, that the technology is relatively easy, but the implementation is often incredibly difficult for all sorts of reasons.

NARRATOR: He outlines the tripartite collaboration with GEC and Westinghouse which developed solid state interlocking for rail signalling.

ALAN: Then there was the most successful project of them all, which was the Solid State Interlocking, which was replacing the, sort of, reed relay type interlocking used in power signalling since it was introduced, by solid state electronics in a way which made it robust and fail safe and so on, and Alan Cribbens was responsible largely for that work and …

INTERVIEWER: Was that actually started in Derby?

ALAN: Yes, yes, it was started in … it was started in Derby and we were able to negotiate a tripartite collaboration with GEC Signals and Westinghouse Signals. Again, Ian Campbell was … he played a very large part in actually getting that implemented, but it was very difficult because we started out with this idea and of course the signalling companies essentially were making a lot of money out of reed relay technology; they knew how to make them, there was no development to be done and they were expensive and they needed replacing, so it was bread and butter business to them, and we came along with these proposals which basically would undermine that business completely. They really dare not not participate because they were afraid their competitor would, so we were able to play the two off to the point where they were actually collaborating with each other, which was a major feat,

NARRATOR: Alan reflects on the changes in relationships with the traditional engineering departments during his 20 year involvement with BR Research.

ALAN: when I joined Research in 1962 in the next ten years there was always a degree of friction and disbelief existing between the engineering departments and Research, and in … one of the things I set out to do, and many of my colleagues were keen to do the same, was to actually get things implemented and to build bridges with the engineering departments, where we could, and … and get to a situation where Research was actually effective in doing research and enabling the technology generally to improve, and I think we were very successful at that and it … Research can be criticised in a way in … by 1980 it was said, “Well, Research hasn’t got any new projects coming along.” Well, in a way that’s not entirely true, but there was an element of that, in that it had taken so long to get some of the … the, you know, the significant projects going that a lot of effort had gone into that and the … it had really prevented the … because we were stuck with certain projects for so long, like the stoneblower, it stopped the natural progression of projects because you couldn’t start on another project while this one was still in the process of being applied, and that was quite a serious problem.

INTERVIEWER: By 1984 your role widened, I think, to include engineering development as well as research. What did that encompass?

ALAN: Yes, well, yes. It’s … it was a bit murky. The … it was obvious really … when Ian Campbell was the Board member for engineering, as I think he was, engineering and research, he was very helpful of course in the process I’ve just been talking about, he was … ‘cause he was open-minded and though he was a civil engineer he, he did not … you know, he had no sort of loyalties to a particular kind of engineering or anything like that, he took a broad view, and he was concerned, I think - I’m sure - with the greater good, and he really furthered these projects I’ve been talking about.


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