LONDON – Ladies and gentlemen, because of signaling problems in the Venus area, and the wrong kind of asteroid on the line at Jupiter, the 11:27 for Uranus is running approximately 3½ light-years behind.
Back in the distant days of nationalized railways, when they should have been concentrating on congestion at Crewe and uncurling their on-board sandwiches, the members of the British Railways Board were busy filing a patent for a spaceship.
Deep in the archives of the European Patent Office, researchers have found evidence that in the early 1970s railway chiefs envisaged an era beyond slam doors and tilting trains — they registered a design for a nuclear-powered flying saucer.
Had the application been filed on April 1 it would have been understandable, but it was lodged at the Patent Office, in London, by Jensen and Son on behalf of British Rail on Dec. 1, 1970, and the patent, numbered 1310990, was granted on March 21, 1973.
Charles Osmond Frederick, an engineer and inventor, was commissioned by the rail board to come up with a "lifting platform."
What he produced was a space vehicle, with its passenger compartment upstairs, like the pod of a jumbo jet, and engines powered by "controlled thermonuclear fusion reaction ignited by laser beams."
Because of its frighteningly powerful propulsion system, it would have had limited use on commuter services from Woking to Waterloo, or on the loss-making branch lines of central Wales.
Even on long-distance prestige routes, such as that of the Flying Scotsman, it would have scorched too many line-side barley fields between King's Cross and Edinburgh Waverley.
What British Rail was thinking of remains unclear. The patent document states: "The present invention relates to a space vehicle. More particularly, it relates to a power supply for a space vehicle which offers a source of sustained thrust for the loss of a very small mass of fuel. Thus it would enable very high velocities to be attained in a space vehicle, and, in fact, the prolonged acceleration of the vehicle may in some circumstances be used to simulate gravity."
Passengers on the new Pendolino trains on the West Coast mainline achieve simulated gravity by the simple application of electricity from the overhead wires, which on the whole does not even spill their gin and tonics.
The comic-book flying saucer shape would have been powered by something fancier. "A controlled thermonuclear fusion reaction is ignited by one or more pulsed laser beams produced by lasers and reflected or focused on to a central reaction zone on the underside of the platform ... The pulse frequency will generally be greater than 1,000 Hz to avoid structural vibration within the vehicle."
So no jiggling over the points outside Newcastle Central, then.
Space experts have dismissed the design as pure science fiction. Michel van Baal, of the European Space Agency, in the Netherlands, said yesterday that the craft would have needed an "unbelievable" amount of energy to fly.
"I have had a look at the plans, and they don't look very serious to me at all," he said. "It is based on a fusion process that doesn't exist yet. I doubt whether, even if it was developed, it would ever be practical."
Colin Pillinger of the Open University, who is still looking for his Beagle 2 Mars probe, said that there was not enough information to determine whether the British Rail flying saucer would have taken off.
He dismissed the propulsion system as fanciful. "It is very unusual, and if I hadn't seen the documents I wouldn't have believed it."
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said yesterday: "We have no plans to introduce nuclear-powered flying saucers to the network."
British Rail's imaginary spaceship is incontrovertibly grounded. A note at the bottom of its archive documents says: "Patent lapsed through non-payment of renewal fees."
Just another case of government under-investment in public transport.