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Honorary Degree Orations


Professor Alan H Wickens

Public Orator, Professor Steve Rothberg presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Ceremony held on Thursday 13 July at 10.30am


Chancellor, Pro-Chancellors, Vice-Chancellor, new graduates and those of you who are still waiting, ladies and gentlemen ....

I wish to share with you a tale that is brimming with pertinent messages for new graduates … messages about the power of analysis, about the vital combination of inspiration and perseverance required of the engineer, about the capacity to learn from others in different disciplines and about the political and commercial aspects of life in engineering. Above all, though, this is a tale of achievement on a grand scale.

Alan Wickens holds a Loughborough College Diploma in Aeronautical Engineering, gained in an era ... a little while ago ... when our aeronautical engineers were able to enjoy some quite remarkable facilities … such as their own airfield. His career began in the aero industry with some of the best known companies of that time.

While Alan was building his reputation in structural dynamics, the Civil and Mechanical Engineers at British Railways were arguing about why trains had a tendency to sway uncontrollably - a motion know as hunting that could ultimately result in derailment. Leading dynamicists of the time recognised a fundamental similarity with a phenomenon known as flutter in the aircraft industry and recommended recruitment of an aerospace dynamicist to initiate an overdue investigation of railway vehicle dynamics. They recruited Alan Wickens.

The Civil Engineers were delighted to see the pressure intensify on the Mechanicals. The Mechanical Engineers were not so pleased and, to rub salt into the wounds, an aeronautical engineer was going to tell them how to make railway vehicles. Alan introduced analysis at the design stage in an industry where the prevailing approach had been to build it then fix it. The early work, described to me by a former colleague as ‘Alan’s triumph’, solved a 100 year old problem, a problem that had been recognised, but not solved, by many, including George Stephenson himself.

There is a railway rule that for every 1mph improvement in average speed a 1% increase in revenue can be expected. In Britain, however, our tracks have too many curves and our marvellous landscapes are not suited to long straight sections of high speed track as in mainland Europe. So, in 1966 and now as Head of the Advanced Projects Group, Alan led a study on powered tilting of the train body to increase speed around the curves while maintaining passenger comfort … and so the Advanced Passenger Train APT was born. By 1971, Alan’s team had a gas-turbine powered train with performance that still cannot be matched by today’s tilting trains and their own dedicated test track to run it on! As a train set, that takes some beating!

The experimental APT proved the tilting train concept beyond doubt. In 1975, the project team received the MacRobert Award of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK’s premier award for innovation in engineering and in 1978 Alan, by now Director of Research, received an OBE. Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering followed in 1980.

While the experimental APT was a huge success, Alan himself has acknowledged the connection made between the passenger variant of APT and the phrase ‘ill-fated’. World-class innovation proved insufficient in the face of a lack of political courage and a railway industry whose structure rendered it incapable of supporting the revolution embodied in APT. By the time APT entered service, the media, whom some suggest cannot always be relied upon to recognise world-class innovation when they see it, were poised, pencils sharpened, ready to deliver the fatal blow.

Aspects of the APT tilting technology were sold to Fiat in Italy who persevered with its development and have been selling tilting trains all over Europe since 1989. In the UK, Virgin’s renewed rolling stock now boasts almost 100 tilting trains including 53 Pendolinos, based on the Fiat technology and acquired at a cost around £1bn. It is not the first time that the Italians have beaten us at our own game recently.

In recent times, we have been fortunate to have such a distinguished engineer and innovator as one of our Visiting Professors. While he does now find more time to indulge his passions for music and the Spanish sunshine, his appetite for innovation and for collaboration across the engineering disciplines remains undiminished. His recently completed text book on rail vehicle dynamics is described simply as ‘definitive’.

Therefore, Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you, and to the whole University, Professor Alan Wickens OBE, for the degree of DOCTOR OF SCIENCE, honoris causa.


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