Life and death of the Aerotrain

I discovered the existence of the Aerotrain on a road trip from North-East to South-West France. At some point in an unbelievably boring stretch of motorway, we drove past a strange raised track that was quite obviously cut to let the motorway through. After some research, I discovered that it was the test track of the ill-fated Aerotrain.

The test track

The Aerotrain was designed using the same fundamental principle as the hovercraft. As far as I can tell, they were invented independently around the same time, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The veracity of the history of scientific discoveries is very much subject to who is writing it, it seems.

Anyhoo, while the British were looking at amphibious hovercraft, the French concentrated on the principle of a hover train that could travel at high speed along a raised, inverted-T-shape track.

Scale model of the Aerotrain
Scale model of the Aerotrain (front view)
Scale model of the Aerotrain (rear view)

The principle was approved, full size tests were designed and built, and speed tests were run. The lack of friction allowed the prototypes to reach speeds up to a record-breaking 430 km/h (267 mph), with the vertical bar of the track acting as a guide to prevent the train derailing. The train held its position on the rail with smaller lateral air cushions in most models although experimentations with gripping wheels were also made.

It was, to be fair, a bloody good idea. And it looks like amazing!

Full size prototype, #01 - public transport size
Full size prototype #02 - personal vehicle size - Thunderbirds are go!
The Tridim, a small passenger transport car designed to test maneuverability.
The Suburban 44 - a 44 seat passenger transporter and first fully electric Aerotrain.

The first tests were interesting enough for the French government to consider building several high speed hover train lines, and work began on a new series of full scale passenger train prototypes. The I80-250 was an 80-seat passenger transport train with an enclosed rear propellor

The Orleans I80-250 Aerotrain
The Orleans I80-250 Aerotrain
The rear propellor of the I80-250 - shiny!

The tests of all the high speed and full scale prototypes confirmed the original tests. The speed was incredibly good, and the ride was smooth. Above all that, the train was economic to run, with only very little energy required to move the train forward on its cushion of air. It was designed as the perfect middle ground between plane and train travel: simple, economic to run over medium and short distances, fast and comfortable.

The I80 HV (highspeed) Aerotrain on the track - the reactor on the top faces forwards for braking, the main propulsion is the wide vent at the back.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of funding for the research and the switch of governmental support from the innovative aerotrain to the seemingly less risky TGV project, the whole project was abandoned in 1974. There are many theories as to exactly why, ranging from political conspiracies to a simple lack of understanding and misconceptions about the technology. Whatever the reason or reasons, it truly is a shame that all this wonderful technology and many years of work went to waste.

The Tridim, abandoned
The Aerotrain #01 - abandoned
The aerotrain #02 - abandoned
The inside of the I80 passenger section (after the project was abandoned)
Saddest of all, the I80 was victim of arson and almost completely destroyed only a few days before it was due to be transported to a museum.
Fortunately, the Aerotrain #02 was saved and restored...
...and exhibited at several motor shows

All the Aerotrains look amazing in movement, and look at the adorable little Tridim moving around, it really is like something out of a Thunderbirds episode!

A 6 part documentary has been made by an association about the search for the last remaining aerotrain prototype:

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykDWsm3oCz8

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqS7RmegIBU

Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhIgfAsmJlU

Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iM6vDAaQwWI

Part 5: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_rWIfMKE-Q

Part 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gI5lCCRJFsY

(Source)

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