British Rail, which has trouble running the 5.48 from Fenchurch Street, once had ambitions to fly you to the stars.
Plans for a flying saucer were drawn up by a BR scientist more than 25 years ago. The designs were even registered at the Patent Office, where they have been gathering dust ever since.
Last night, experts were examining the blueprint after the patent was discovered by chance. And their conclusion will come as no surprise to anybody who has endured BR's more down-to-earth mode of transport: "Passengers on the flying saucer were unlikely to reach their destination." The problem appears to be that they would have suffered a slow and lingering death from radiation sickness -- which puts all the old jokes about British Rail sandwiches in the shade.
BR's bid to join the space race appears to have been launched a few months after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. While some scientists were busy working on another project which never really took off -- a train which would float above a magnetic track -- Charles Frederick was quietly working on his blueprint for a thermonuclear powered space ship at the railway research centre in Derby.
His plans were first registered with the Patent Office on December 11, 1970, when they were described as a lifting platform.
By March 1972 the plans had been amended and registered by the British Railways Board under the official title of "Space Vehicle." They show a classic sci-fi flying saucer, complete with small portholes for the passengers to gaze out. The patent does not reveal whether there would be first and second class compartments, and leather straps to cling to in the rush-hour.
The ageing yellow papers were eventually discovered at the Patent Office in Newport, Gwent, by David Wardell, publisher of Inventors World Magazine. He said: "This patent was developed and amended over a number of years, so BR must have thought there was something in it. You don't go to all the expense of issuing a patent for a prank."
A BR spokesman suggested Mr. Frederick may have designed the flying saucer in his spare time, but was obliged, under the terms of his contract, to register it under BR's name.
But according to inventor Charles Frederick himself, when he patented British Rail's first spaceship in 1970, it was with more than half a hope of seeing it fly. And after nearly three decades of gentle leg-pulling by his friends, and the public disclosure of his plans, his dreams are still not completely dashed.
Now 59, grey-haired and retired from BR's technical department for three years, he sat in the garden of his country home and contemplated what might have been, and still could be...
"I'd hate to predict the future," he said. "And yes, I'm used to the obvious jokes about BR and spaceships. But think about this. Just suppose for a moment it had worked, the prestige today would have been completely different, wouldn't it?"
As a 33-year-old, he had had the stars in his sights and the scientific qualifications to turn them into drawings. He had worked for the Atomic Energy Authority and the electricity generating board, was a key member of the BR research team and a member of the British Interplanetary Society.
Neil Armstrong had just become the first man on the moon and scientists were looking to the stars.
In a Derby laboratory, Mr. Frederick, backed by BR, came up with a means of propulsion which involved thousands of tiny nuclear explosions a second. The force of these would propel the ship
out of Earth's gravity into space. The one drawback was that it all depended on nuclear fusion, a force which scientists today are still trying to harness.
Although experts said the initial designs would have subjected passengers to a lethal dose of radiation, the inventor felt that could have been overcome given sufficient shielding.
And he strongly defends BR's interest in his plans. "Sometimes people followed an idea to see where it led, and many good things came from that approach. I'm proud of the things we achieved. We made great advances in railway technology."
Except, perhaps, making the trains run on time.
[UNITED KINGDOM UFO MAILING LIST can be reached by email at email@example.com and has a web site at http://www.waverider.co.uk/~paulj/ufo1.html]
Original file name: CNI - British Rail UFO 3.4
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