Wednesday, 21 December 2011

_swift, safe, sure. the george bennie railplane system of transport.

In Britain we tend to lag behind the rest of the world with regards to advances in mass transit systems. Japan has had the bullet train since the mid 1960s as well as more recently the MAGLEV in China and South Korea while we drag our feet with the implementation of connecting our capital with the rest of the country using a high speed rail network. This lag does however betray a national rail engineering pedigree; Stephenson is the “father of the railways”building the world’s first public railway while the first commercial MAGLEV line ran at Birmingham airport, owing its existence to Professor Eric Laithwaite. One other lesser known rail project is the George Bennie‘Railplane’ of 1929 based in Milngavie, south of Glasgow. 

Wonderfully futuristic looking, the appearance of the railplane is a result of it borrowing heavily from airship technology of the time and it’s construction by a company who also manufactured the R34 airship. Although the railplane project was unsuccessful commercially (funding for the project was never secured and Bennie subsequently went bankrupt in 1937) the project offers many interesting design features and concepts.

The most apparent difference between the railplane and conventional rail transport is its elevated position. The bogies for the train are above the carriage and suspended from a rail above. This somewhat odd configuration does however lend itself to a greater stability during travel. During conventional rail travel the centrifugal forces exerted on the train when travelling round curves need to be counteracted to prevent derailment. This is done by raising the outer rail to tilt the train back towards the inside of the curve. When the railplane moves round a curve the centre of gravity of the train is always below its point of suspension on the track. This, in conjunction with the particular construction of the bogies for the railplane makes it apparently impossible to derail.

Photograph of a model Railplane - University of Glasgow Archives

Utilising an aerodynamic design that came almost half a century before Kenneth Grange’s 125 Intercity Train for British Rail, the railplane benefits again from its suspension above ground. This is because any vehicle that moves along the ground cannot have its undercarriage fully streamlined meaning that it creates an unavoidable drag. The railplane’s elevated position allows for this problem to be bypassed.   

The elevated track of the railplane also means that the construction of the track makes very little contact with the ground creating significant savings in comparison to ground based tracks (the same argument was raised during the recent Pylon design competition in comparison to underground utilities) as well as causing far less disturbance to the environment.

Photograph of George Bennie demonstrating a model of his Railplane - University of Glasgow Archives

A raised track would also allow for the mitigation of differences across the contours of landscapes potentially opening up routes for tracks that would have been previously either unviable or requiring great civil engineering interventions. It is also worth considering that view for passengers travelling on an elevated carriage would be far more appealing and extended than that available for ground based rail travel.

Safety is also another thing that could be potentially increased with the embracement of elevated rail travel. Although I am reticent to draw comparisons to the logic of separating vehicular and pedestrian travel as many post-war planners looked to encourage in Britain, because of the consequences we have seen resulting from many elevated roads,  a raised track would help to prevent people and other vehicles colliding with trains.

It is however very easy to imagine that if a vehicle was to crash on an elevated rail system the results could be potentially far worse than a crash that occurred on land. As well as this an elevated rail system would surely also rally the NIMBY troops in their droves. We don’t like anything that spoils our views in Britain, especially those of rolling hills of greenery and an infrastructural project like this would cut through the very heart of this idealised idyllic scene. As seen with the recent Pylon design competition the NIMBY army is still strong and the recent High Speed Rail proposals floated by the government that run deep into the Tory heartlands have met great opposition.
In conclusion the George Bennie Railplane system seems completely ludicrous at first glance. An odd mixture of train and airship I’m sure that raising the possibility of its potential for future mass transit would raise as many smiles as eyebrows but as explored in this article I think there are enough reasons for some, certainly not all, of its design elements to be considered for the future. There are now elevated rail systems across the world, often incorporating high speed arrangements and at a time when we are considering our high speed future I think George Bennie’s ideas are worth another look at.

And have a look at the railplane, it looks great, doesn’t it?!

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