The lost, glorious future of high-speed HOVERTRAINS
November 6, 2017 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Who needs Hyperloop when we could have been getting around all this time in hovercraft trains? That's right: I said hovercraft trains! Get your fill of air-cushioned, levitating nerdery after the jump.

Our story begins in 1961, when British Rail started experimenting with something they called a Tracked Hovercraft, otherwise known as the Hovertrain. Here's a wonderfully boffinish 1972 video wondering if the hovercraft technology the British were then so successfully developing could be "applied to vehicles running at high speed on land." Evidently the answer was "yes"!

The French took the idea even further. Engineer Jean Bertin managed to build four working prototypes of his Aérotrain system; the last iteration of these set a world speed record for overland air cushion vehicles in 1974, hitting a peak speed of 267.4 mph.

If not quite as fast as Bertin's system, though, nobody pursued the concept of hovering trains quite so far as the American elevator manufacturer Otis — or more properly their customer Duke University, who operated a personal rapid transit system based on the Otis Hovair platform between 1979 and 2009. Being able to move sideways as well as forward and backward, the Hovair pods were promoted as "horizontal elevators." (Mind you, I've never been in an elevator, Otis or otherwise, that has anything more than the single degree of freedom. A low-quality, 18-second snatch of video is evidently all that remains online to document the Duke system's performance, and it doesn't show any sidewaysizing to speak of.)

Hovertrain was canceled amid budget cutbacks in the deeply gloomy year of 1973; Bertin's supremely Gallic system died with him, in 1975. Though it managed to outlast the British and the French by some three and a half decades, the Duke PRT system was eventually scrapped to clear land for development. At present, it sadly seems certain that those of us who occupy this benighted stub of a timeline will be denied the glorious sideways-gliding personal hovertrain future we so richly deserve.
posted by adamgreenfield (3 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
(All of the above inspired by an awesome book my partner bought me yesterday, the sublimely nerdy British Rail: Designed 1948-97. I unabashedly recommend the book to those many of you who I know to be fans of Total Design.)
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:50 AM on November 6

Hovertrains are dead, but several kilometres of the elevated test track of the Aérotrain (previously) are still standing and you can follow them on Google Maps. There are also 3 US-made prototypes based on Bertin designs currently on display at the Pueblo Railway Museum in Colorado.
posted by elgilito at 2:54 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

The Otis horizontal/vertical elevators using inductive power sound interesting, because they just installed such a system in Germany this year.
posted by eye of newt at 8:35 PM on November 6

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