A Cautionary Tale

The Space Port and Virgin Orbit rocket had a fuel anomaly! So, today here’s cautionary tale about innovation and change management from 40 years ago…….

Back in 1980s , I knew loads of engineers who were working for British Rail on the ’tilting train’ in the City of Derby. They were brainy and bright, innovative and pushing the boundaries of technology to allow trains to tilt as they entered bends (we’ve got loads of them in our network thanks to the Victorians) using sensors and hydraulic jacks.

Work on the APT (Advanced Passenger Train) began in the 1960’s and trains were in service in short patches from 1981 until the winter of 1985/6.

So what went wrong?

The APT’s maiden Glasgow-to-London run happened on 7 December, 1981. Reporters invited on board complained that the tilting mechanism caused motion sickness, nicknaming the APT “queasy rider”.

A PR war broke out.

In response, British Rail suggested they were already the worse for wear, having drunk copious amounts of free alcohol the night before.

What the journalists didn’t mention was that the APT cut the London-to-Glasgow journey time to 4 hours & 15 minutes.

In the days that followed, the train experienced mechanical problems on journeys amid snowy conditions. That opened the floodgates and I recall, this marvellous piece of engineering history, was mocked Day after Day after Day in the press as a waste of money – £47m in total.

The outcome was a brief life the APT. The press had made what should have been applauded……a laughing stock.

Despite this, in December 1984, one of three APTs in service set a record for the London-to-Glasgow run of 3 hours & 52 minutes!

But that very same month, BR announced the withdrawal of the trains from service. They seemed to have lost their nerve.

For me, it’s not only a story of our amazing UK engineering capability, but also a tale of national shared vision that hideously crumbled when the going got tough and politics changed.

What happened next?

Well, you guessed it – the Italian firm, Fiat, bought the patents for APT’s tilting technology and used these to help develop Pendolino trains, now manufactured by the French multinational Alstrom.

Back in the 1980’s we let the press destroy a dream and gave away our innovation. The learning appeared to be that it was better not to be too innovative or fail. Other countries, meanwhile, were prepared to take the risk!

What I’ve learned during my career in innovation and change management is that it’s not easy – which is why some people shy away from it.

It takes Leaders with resilience, nerve and grit to win through and achieve that vision. So please, let’s not treat Spaceport and Virgin Orbit in the same way. Let’s support them to fail fast, learn even faster, go again and succeed soon!

They are brilliant. I’m proud of them. The UK should be proud too!

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