British Rail Hovercraft Ltd

British Rail Hovercraft Limited, or Seaspeed as it was branded and known, operated hovercraft services between Southampton and Cowes from March 1966 to 1981, with the first managing director of the company being Charles Anthony Brindle (1965-1969). The government-formed company was approved by Barbara Castle (1910-2002), minister of Transport (1965-1968) and in the October of 1981, the company merged with the Swedish Company Hoverlloyd Ltd, and for the three remaining operating years became known as Hoverspeed UK Ltd which had a fleet of six hovercrafts. Other hovercraft companies operating at the same time included Hovertravel Ltd.

The design of the hovercraft was created by Cambridge born Sir Christopher Cockerell (1910-1999) in the 1950s. The Isle of Wight Company, Saunders-Roe introduced the first full-scale craft in 1960, which could reach speeds of 35 knots. From 1962, many hovercraft routes were established throughout Britain. Seaspeed was the first company offering scheduled services, which were established in 1966, which sparked interest in the formation of other companies such as Hoverlloyd in 1967 which was created with the intention of creating an international hovercraft service between Ramsgate and Calais and in 1977.

British Rail had been following the development of the hovercraft from the start, and it was with the pressure from the Ministry of Technology that resulted in British Rail establishing a hovercraft division in 1966. Originally, it was suggested by the government of the time that a national hovercraft interest should be formed by the then the nationalized transport industries of the time; BOAC, British Rail, BEA, Transport Holding Company. Consequently the other three parties left the partnership and it was decided that a national private company entirely owned by British Rail should be formed. The initial headquarters were based in London, Portsmouth and Dover.

Seaspeed began operating their first passenger service in 1966 between Southampton and Cowes, with a single fare costing 75p and trips departing every hour (each crossing took twenty minutes). Seaspeed’s services were the first scheduled services in the world, and from the start they were highly intensive. From each hoverport, bus services were operated, there was free parking and the ability to carry small luggage, free of charge. Other passenger services to Portsmouth, the Humber and Clyde estuaries and the Thames were opened the following year, but these consequently had all closed by 1972 resulting from the low passenger levels. In 1969, Seaspeed’s first channel route had been established between Dover and Boulogne with 27,000 passengers being carried to France within the first season. A service to Calais was opened in 1970, and took 30 minutes from Dover, as opposed to 35 minutes to Boulogne. The international hovercraft services allowed a fast link between London and Paris and coach links were set up from each port, with coach time to London taking 6 hours and 7 hours to Paris. The beginning of Seaspeed saw some minor accidents with the manoeuvring of hovercrafts at the hoverports, and similarly it was common for the engines to be unreliable which resulted in the engines being frequently repaired.

By 1980, Seaspeed had carried a total of 1.3 million passengers on all of its routes combined, however with the rising fuel prices and economic recession, Seaspeed had consequently made a loss of £2.8 million, and as a result it was decided that the profitable company, Hoverlloyd should merge with Seaspeed. The new company, Hoverspeed began operating its first route in October 1981 with British Rail losing interest in the company in 1984. The cross channel hovercraft services stopped in 2000 after the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994.