Tomorrow's world today

The story of The Little Train That Could is an encouraging fable for anyone who has ever plodded uphill in pursuit of success, never losing sight of their destination, even when newer models have coasted by on the fast track. First seen on BBC1's Tomorrow's World in 1969, has the Tilting Train finally crested the summit, having endured a 30-year climb, to become the millennial mode of transport?

The early 1970s saw the advanced passenger train prototype tested on the London-to-Glasgow line. Passengers were promised a faster, more comfortable journey made possible by the APT's unique tilting mechanism, which allowed it to negotiate sharp bends on the track at high speeds. It was hailed as "the jewel in British Rail's crown", a beacon of hope for a national engineering industry in decline.

Tomorrow's World was an eager advocate of the APT's trail-blazing in the early days, but sadly it wasn't long before problems set in. BR was keen to point out that its revolutionary tilting mechanism was performing faultlessly - and more than a little embarrassed to admit that it was the rest of the train that was failing to keep up. The hydro-kinetic braking system caused major setbacks when the wrong kind of weather prevailed - in its first week out, the APT's brakes froze in low temperatures and its derailed passengers were downgraded to regular, more reliable, non- tilting trains. The rolling stock became a laughing stock as the APT repeatedly failed to make it out of the shunting yard, and, in the early years of the 1980s, The Little Train That Seemingly Couldn't was exiled to Crewe, destined to spend its sunset years in the locomotive equivalent of Eastbourne.

But lo! Twenty-five years down the line, here comes the Fat-Walleted Controller of great British innovation - Richard Branson - to save the day. Having seen the tilting mechanism developed in this country adopted by rail companies in Italy, Sweden and Germany, the new owner of Virgin West Coast railways has decided to bring it back home.

In 1988 TW reported from Italy on a new tilting train. "It's like a super- comfortable roller coaster - and it's really rather exciting!" enthused the presenter. And if you were wondering why the Italians' need for a smooth-cornering tilting train was pressing enough for them to steal a march on BR's idea, this was amply demonstrated by the TW reporter himself. Quaffing Chianti on board a bog-standard high-speed train, it seems, presents the stylish Italian commuter with all manner of problems, not least of which must be sponging red-wine stains off pale-hued Armani linen as you rattle untiltingly towards your meeting in Milan. The cultural divide was the key to the Italian rail industry's foresight - after all, when did you last see a BR commuter in standard class indulging in a full- sized bottle of wine for consumption between Euston and Manchester Piccadilly? The price alone is enough to make you keel over, tilt mechanism or no tilt mechanism. Hence the absence of urgency in introducing a train whose primary boast appears to be reducing the risk of on-board wine spillage.

Ten years on, TW's Howard Stableford asked Richard Branson why he's convinced the time is right to go full-tilt on the West Coast line.

"I have a dream," declared the shy and retiring Virgin boss. "I want to make trains the most desirable way to travel." Judging by the state of the rolling stock he has inherited on the existing London-to-Glasgow line, it surely could not be made any less desirable. But wait: Mr Branson's vision for his 21st century trains entails nothing less than state-of-the-art comfort at 140mph. Seat-back TV screens, plush carpets, IT facilities, spacious seating, improved lighting and tinted windows, just for starters. Don't forget the bacon and tomato rolls, Richard.

On tonight's programme (BBC1, 7.30), Craig Doyle star-gazes in Hawaii, and Philippa Forrester reports on the millennium bug.

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