RTV 31 Tracked Hovercraft – Peterborough, England - Atlas Obscura
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Peterborough, England

RTV 31 Tracked Hovercraft

A clumsy-looking flying locomotive rusts within sight of a busy rail station.  

With the exception of a line of concrete test-track supports in a soggy field near the village of Earith, this RTV 31 Tracked Hovercraft test vehicle is the sole surviving relic of an ultimately doomed endeavor.

Fresh from inventing the modern hovercraft, the British were quick to combine hover technology with one of their earlier innovations, the railway locomotive, culminating in this ill-fated, government-funded experiment. This prototype hovering train is now the star attraction at a small volunteer-run railway museum. 

Looking like a Sci-Fi shuttle craft, and reminiscent of an early attempt at a Hyperloop system, this RTV (Research Test Vehicle) 31 Tracked Hovercraft was built in 1970 to test the feasibility of high-speed hovering trains. The locomotives were intended to fly inches above an elevated concrete track on a thin cushion of air. The aim of this low-friction transport system was to dramatically cut journey times between London and Edinburgh to 90 minutes, reaching top speeds of around 300 miles per hour between stations.

The Tracked Hovercraft technology might have actually succeeded, had its early test track not been built on unstable reclaimed marshland. This softly subsiding substrate made precision engineering a straight and stable concrete test track incredibly difficult. Having sunk more than £5 million into the scheme already, the United Kingdom government cancelled funding for the prohibitively pricey project in 1973, shortly after the RTV31 had completed a 104-mile per hour test run.

Having spent two decades at a Technology College, the RTV 31 vehicle was donated to Peterborough’s Railworld Museum in 1996 where it has towered over the entrance on a short section of concrete track ever since. It is a recognizable landmark on the approach to Peterborough Railway station from the direction of London.

Know Before You Go

The RTV 31 Tracked Hovercraft can be viewed from the East Coast Main Line Railway just before arriving at Peterborough Station from the South. From the direction of London, it is on the left side of the tracks. From the direction of Edinburgh, it is on the right. For a closer look, alight at Peterborough station and take a short walk to the small charitably-run Railworld Museum, which features many other interesting exhibits in addition to the dominating RTV31. There is a small entrance fee.