40 Years ago - From British Rail’s space train to ending of the steam ban

Published 3rd September 2012

Rail bosses filed for a thermonuclear fusion reaction powered spacecraft patent

LONDON - Forty years ago, plans show that British Rail had applied for a patent for a nuclear powered passenger train. It had an upper level seating area for passengers and could have been very fast and cheap to operate BR claimed. The Patent Application was made on behalf of BR by Charles Osmond in 1970 and was granted in March 1973.

The proposals were discovered on the European Patent Office website and the application said the reaction would be "ignited by one or more pulsed laser beams".

The paperwork says that "The present invention relates to a space vehicle. More particularly it relates to a power supply for a space vehicle which offers a source of sustained thrust for the loss of a very small mass of fuel.

"Thus it would enable very high velocities to be attained in a space vehicle and in fact the prolonged acceleration of the vehicle may in some circumstances be used to simulate gravity."

Charles Osmond’s patent eventually lapsed seemingly because the renewal fees were not paid and the scheme never progressed beyond a paper exercise.

APT on trial in 1972

The space age looking BR Advanced Passenger Train was undergoing ‘taxying’ trials at Derby Research Centre in 1972.It was envisaged that the train would run at up to 250mph between an underground terminal linked to Kings Cross and Euston to a new airport at Foulness in Essex.

The line would run in a tunnel for the first nine miles and then in the open for 40 miles built to European loading gauge. This did not take place but the HS1 route follows much of this plan 40 years later to Stratford while the airport is still being considered!

High Speed Train construction in 1972

The Prototype High Speed Train (HST) was being developed at the time of the Space Train Patent and was under construction 40 years ago. This proved to be what many consider to be the most successful train design and it revolutionised travel in Britain cruising at 125mph. It entered service in 1975 reducing journey times, increasing comfort and saving the long distance rail network and services.

Steam Ban lifted in 1972

British Rail had banned all steam locomotives following the end of steam in August 1968, with the exception of Flying Scotsman. When this engine went to America, it left the enthusiasts without any real steam workings until October 1971 when BR allowed GWR ‘King’ No. 6000 King George V to run from Hereford on four charter trains.

These trial runs were successful (despite mass trespass) and were the precursor of today’s huge steam train business.

Last Royal Mail automatic mailbag catching machines

The railways had a history of carrying letters and parcels from 1830 and until October 1971, used automatic lineside apparatus to catch and drop off mailbags without stopping the train.

This method of transferring mail ceased in October 1971 and 50 years earlier, regular exchanges had taken place at around 240 locations on the rail network. The final exchange was made near Penrith on ‘The West Coast Postal’ from Euston on October 1st. The mail had been sorted on Travelling Post Offices, until the system ceased in 2003 due to more automation.

British Rail to be split into Eight divisions?

Consultants had recommended that BR should be split into eight or nine territories from 1972 to replace the existing regional setup. The map looked rather like the Railtrack setup in 1994 following privatisation.

No more Warships at Waterloo

The Class 42 diesel hydraulic had been used since 1964 on the Waterloo and West of England services and they were replaced by class 33 diesels instead.


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