These days we take air travel
for granted, but this was not always so. I was reminded
of this on a visit to Southport on Merseyside, home of one,
if not the best boys' comic of all time, The Eagle.
Founded by a
clergyman, Marcus Chambers, in the early 1950s, its main
feature on the opening pages was 'Dan Dare, Pilot of the
Future', and this is commemorated by a bronze bust of the
aforementioned comic strip character, together with a plaque,
in Southport's main shopping centre. To some of a certain
vintage this may conjure up visions of the evil Mekon, space
ships, novel gadgets and strange methods of transportation
- all, of course, flowing from the fertile mind of their
creator, Frank Hampson. One of the latter futuristic modes
of travel was the monorail.
A flash back to
the mid-Fifties reminded me of a visit with a scout troop
to a camp near Glasgow. On one outing we came across something
which could have come straight from the pen of Hampson for,
glistening in the sunlight, and despite its age and condition,
was an object shaped like an aircraft fuselage (it even
had a propeller mounted at the front and rear end) suspended
from a single overhead rail. It was what we later discovered
to be the Bennie Railplane, an innovative transport system.
even in 1955, were not new. As far back as 1825 the first
passenger carrying overhead railway was in use (albeit horse
drawn) at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire and based on a patent
taken out in 1821 by one Henry Robinson Palmer. But it was
to be another half century before a steam-driven monorail
was demonstrated at the US Centennial Exposition and not
until 1888 that the 91/2-mile Listowel & Ballybunnion system
(also steam operated) was opened on the west coast of Ireland.
There was even a gyroscopic monorail demonstrated to the
military in 1909 at Gillingham, designed by Louis Brennan;
but of course, the best-known monorail which is still in
existence and in everyday use is the Barmen-Elberfeld swinging
railway at Wuppertal in Germany which was opened in 1898.
without a doubt and arguably the most exciting and futuristic
proposal was the one patented and built by George Bennie.
The beautifully streamlined monorail coach was powered by
two electric motors drawing power from the local tram grid
to produce a continuous 60 brake horse power, with 30 second
bursts of up to 240 b.h.p. Each motor drove a separate four-bladed
airscrew/ propeller positioned at either end of the fuselage
to give a projected cruising speed of up to 120 miles per
Mounted on a rigid
overhead structure, the system neatly combined the safety
of rail travel - it was dubbed 'Railplane' from the very
beginning - with something like the speed of an air travel,
but with none of the problems later associated with the
latter. Furthermore, by constructing the monorail over existing
railway tracks, costs and some other environmental considerations
would have been kept to a minimum to produce an effective
and highly efficient transportation system with the secondary
benefit of separating fast passenger traffic from slow moving
The capsule was
suspended from the steel trestles on two bogies mounted
on laminated springs with a 'swayframe' structure beneath
to act as a guide, but bearing no actual weight. A set of
locating wheels were employed underneath to take up undue
swaying on curves due to centrifugal forces. With the railcar
being propelled by airscrews, it's tare weight, or total
weight before passengers, goods, etc., was low and adhesion
did not enter into the tractive-effort calculations.
But the real genius
in the design was the `lifting-plane' (or wing airfoils)
at either end to give lift. To quote Bennie's patent application
dated September 1921: `As the speed of the craft increases,
the weight of the same is gradually transferred from the
rail to the planes so that any tendency of the craft to
rise can be overcome by adjustment of the lifting planes'.
Heady stuff for the early Twenties, but the basic principle
that keeps aeroplanes aloft and the adverse to that used
to keep modern Formula 1 cars in contact with the ground.
Gradients as steep as 1 in 25 would be negotiated with ease
due to no wheel adhesion being necessary - leaves on the
'line' would never be a problem!
In 1929/30 a short
experimental track of approximately a quarter of a mile
in length was built by The Teeside Bridge & Engineering
Works at Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow. George Bennie
gave many demonstrations with interest running high at the
time and proposals were put forward to link the aforementioned
city with Edinburgh, a journey which could have been completed
in less than half an hour. Southern Railways also expressed
interest in a London to Croydon Aerodrome link.
But the Thirties were
the wrong time for such advanced ideas. Finance was extremely
difficult in those post depression days and a catastrophe
in the shape of the Second World War was looming. The project
was eventually abandoned.
Just after the
war, about a decade before my visit to Milngavie, another
14 year old schoolboy of the time, Christopher Wood, can
recall visiting the site with his father. They were on a
business trip to a local garage which backed onto the structure
and he can, to this day, vividly recall seeing what was
now a rather sorry looking, but still almost complete, monoplane.
"The capsule was approached"
he said, "By a flight of wooden stairs leading to a platform
about 40 feet above the ground and the vehicle resembled
a cross between an aeroplane fuselage with propellers at
either end and a tram with controls at both ends". "It was
clothed in aluminium with large windows on either side and
a long sloping windscreen front and rear; the interior by
that time had been almost gutted, but had obviously been
very luxuriously appointed". He went on to say, "Our guide,
who was the garage proprietor, had with him an enormous
ceramic fuse holder which he proceeded to plug into a switchboard
at platform level. "We entered the cabin, walked up to the
driver's cab at the front and he then operated the controls
which were similar to those of an old?fashioned tram. "The
propeller stopped turning idly in the wind and began to
pick up revs in front of us. "The light entering the cabin,
I remember, had a flickering quality as the blades spun
faster and faster. "To my amazement the mechanical brakes
which held the car stationary were released, and the machine
moved slowly off down the track. "As we approached the end,
travelling quite slowly, the motor was slowed and then put
into reverse so that the air?screw brought the machine to
a halt. "The propeller was then reversed pushing the Railplane
back to the platform, moving at little more than 5 mph".
ever came of this venture, although the creator tried to
revive it after the Second World War but to no avail. Always
a favorite model with Meccano model-building addicts, the
monorail structure was nevertheless kept in the limelight
by authors such as Ernest Carter in Model Engineer magazine
and the like. The only remaining artifact of the venture
known to be on display today is a model in Glasgow Museum
forlorn and derelict for many years, the system (which undoubtedly
would have done much to relieve traffic congestion had it
been widely accepted) was broken up for scrap in the mid-Fifties.
As for George
Bennie himself, he died, alone, in 1957 at the age of 65
years, in an Epsom nursing home. Penniless at the end, a
man driven by an obsession of a vision never fulfilled,
but remembered nonetheless in a way that only former 14
year old schoolboys of the era can understand.
As an epitaph
it would be fair to say: the idea was right, but it was
the timing that was wrong.
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