Alastair Dalton: Inventor’s anniversary points us to the future

A copy of the railplane poster is displayed at Milngavie Station. Picture: NRM Pictorial Collection
A copy of the railplane poster is displayed at Milngavie Station. Picture: NRM Pictorial Collection
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The only evidence in Milngavie of a local experiment what could have revolutionised travel is a commemorative poster in the town’s railway station.

The 1930 illustration shows a futuristic propellor-driven monorail racing ahead of a steam locomotive with the slogan “Swift Safe Sure”.

The Glaswegian inventor of this “railplane”, George Bennie, had lofty ambitions for his creation, envisaging it whizzing along at 120mph on tracks stretching from cities such as London to Paris and Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

However, after decades of seeking investors and attempting to woo transport firms, his Milngavie test track was dismantled and he died bankrupt, 60 years ago on Sunday.

The anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on what could have been, but also the other British transportation inventions whose worth was never realised at the time.

Bennie saw his railplane as enabling rapid transit over congested streets without the need for extra land.

In 1930, The Scotsman observed that a planned line between Southport and Blackpool “marks a revolution in travel facilities”.

However, his 120m-long test track was too short to demonstrate the top speed of his “guided airship”. which is said to have put off potential backers.

As author Malcolm Thwaite has argued, Bennie’s scheme both ran into hostility from the railway companies and struggled in the economic recession of the 1930s.

All that’s left, apart from the poster, is a small display featuring a model at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

Other travel innovations have fared better - but long after they were first trialled.

British Rail pioneered tilting technology which enabled trains to corner faster, but its Advanced Passenger Train was scrapped in the 1980s.

The technology was perfected abroad before British passengers finally started using it on the Italian-designed Virgin Trains’ Pendolino two decades later.

Similarly, the world’s first commercial maglev - magnetic levitation - train ran between Birmingham Airport and the National Exhibition Centre in 1984 before being ditched 11 years later because of upgrading costs. Maglev trains now run in China at up to 267mph.

Similar technology - the trains “floated” half an inch above the tracks - is being used in the latest cutting-edge transport development, Hyperloop, travel along a vacuum tube at 750mph.

The concept is being spearheaded by the likes of Tesla founder Elon Musk, with the many research groups involved including students from Edinburgh University who are promoting a 45-minute route between there and London.

Just as Bennie’s railplane was designed to travel faster than any steam locomotive of its day, Hyperloop’s anticipated speed would take land transport into a new era.

However, it is difficult to assess whether we are on the cusp of a game changing breakthough, a technology that will take decades to perfect, or one that proves neither safe nor desirable.

A sceptical transport academic has described Hyperloop as “barf pods” - because of their rapid acceleration - while the Institution of Civil Engineers warned that everyone on board would die if there was any fault with the system.

As we look back to Bennie’s vision, we should also consider with caution how future travel may evolve, bearing in mind the justly-paramount current focus on safety.