Yesterday, in York, the two appeared side by side – a replica of George Stephenson’s original and a prototype of a capsule that will, if it works, propel passengers of the future from Yorkshire London to London in 20 minutes flat.
“It’s being fired in a slightly different way, using a vacuum and magnets – but a rocket is a very good analogy,” said Judith McNicol, director of the National Railway Museum, which is relaunching itself as a home for technology of the present and future, as well as the past.
The original Rocket has long been at the Science Museum in London, but is coming to York in the next few years.
But it was its spiritual successor, the UK’s first “hyperloop pod” that was the focus of attention at yesterday’s launch.
Positioned next to the museum’s prized steam loco Flying Scotsman, and the present-day Class 88 hybrid diesel-electric freight train, it looked more like a bobsleigh than a passenger service – but placed inside a vacuum tube it could travel at up to 650mph, according to students at Edinburgh University, where it was developed.
“Will it work? I don’t know but we need to keep trying different things to see what the future might hold,” Ms McNicol said.
“If you were to go back 200 years to when Rocket was in trials with other engines, everyone said it would never go. But it did – it revolutionised the world.”
The Hyperloop, resembling in principle the vacuum tubes that used to carry money in metal canisters from department store tills to the cash office upstairs, will go on display in York later this year. Elon Musk, the American businessman who popularised the Tesla electric car, is one of the backers of Hyperloop technology worldwide.
The relaunch of the York museum is part of a £50m “masterplan” that will see its Great Hall redeveloped, the creation of a “wonderlab” gallery for young visitors and anew open store that will display some 11,000 railway objects.
Work is expected to start on the Great Hall in 2020 and to be finished the following year, with the rest of the plan complete by 2025, in time to mark the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington railway – the world’s first steam line.
By then its collection could well include one or more of the trains that still currently ply the region’s main commuter routes.
The Pacer trains, built in the 1980s for the old British Rail with bus bodies placed on railway bogies, and intended to last no more than 20 years, are still in daily use across the North, but the Government has ordered that they be phased out by 2020.
Ms McNicol said: “There are things that are operating at the moment that we would like to represent in the museum in the future, and the Pacer is certainly one of the things that we’ve talked about.”
But it is the arrival of Rocket, on a long-term residency, that had been at the top of her wish list.
“Of all the things that absolutely sum up what Britain did to change engineering and the way we travel, it’s Rocket – and having that here is exactly what I wanted,” Ms McNicol said.
Stephenson’s crowning glory will go first to this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle and then to Manchester before arriving at York, where two replicas of the engine have been displayed.