Orders of the Day — Hydrofoils and Hovercraft

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd November 1967.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Varley.]

10.2 p.m.

Photo of Mr Roger Cooke Mr Roger Cooke , Twickenham

I am pleased to have the opportunity of raising the subject of the future of hydrofoils and hovercraft tonight, particularly as, last July, I tried to get the matter on the Order Paper but these unfortunate craft were sunk by the steep waves of the Consolidated Fund Bill debate. It is time to examine the progress particularly of the hovercraft, because it is now 10 years old. There has been the rolling out of the biggest one yet made—the 160-ton SRN4.

I confess to some disappointment with the progress of the hovercraft, looking back on the hopes raised in the Adjournment debates that I initiated four years ago, in August, 1963. We have spent about £5½ million on research and development, but we have sold or made only about 40 or 50 of all types.

There are three doubts arising about the original brilliant hovercraft design of Mr. Christopher Cockerel]. First, they are turning out to be very expensive to build, especially as built by aircraft manufacturers. The SRN6 is costing £1½ million. Secondly, they seem tricky to control and manœuvre in strong cross winds and, thirdly, despite what is said by some of their advocates, the design reacts to the sea—in other words, it contours over the surface of the sea—instead of, as we had hoped, riding completely above it.

Another point is that although these vehicles have amphibious capabilities, being able to go on land and sea, some people are trying to use them in harbours. Their value is lost in this way.

During the last 10 years we have been concentrating on hovercraft, and I ask myself whether we have had a blind spot about what is going on in the rest of the world in respect of non-displacement marine craft generally. Against the 40 or so hovercraft which we have built, nearly 1,000 hydrofoil craft are operating in Russia, Italy, Greece, Norway, Denmark, Japan, Australia, the U.S.A. and the Caribbean, and that does not include the whole list. By hydrofoil, I mean a boat lifted up on its foils by its speed, as if skiing over the water.

I raised this subject about five years ago in an interview with the Admiralty, at which it was very sceptical about the future and possibilities of these craft. It did not think that the hydrofoil would ever be able to operate in the North Sea. After a few Questions in the House, I then dropped the subject.

However, a year or so ago I had a tremendous shock when I went from Ismail, in the mouth of the Danube, across the Black Sea, to Odessa, a distance of 150 miles, in a Russian hydrofoil craft in a rough sea—about Force 4 or 5 swell—and the journey took about five hours at an average speed of 30 knots. That was in the Russian Koneta, a 100-seater. It was not a smooth ride, I admit, but we got there and my wife and I upheld British dignity, as some others did not. I also went on their Raketa in the Baltic at 40 knots, so I was deeply impressed by hydrofoil craft.

At Whitsun this year, I examined the Condor Service operated by Mr. Peter Dorey between Jersey and Guernsey and the French coast. I found the Supramar PT-50, a 120-seater built in Italy to German-Swiss designs, very favourable, again in Force 4 or 5 wind and swell. We averaged 32 knots and a much smoother ride than on the Russian craft, which were originally built mainly for river operation.

While in Montreal this summer, at Expo, I was kindly shown the Canadian FHE400 being built at Sorrel near Montreal by the De Havilland Aircraft Company of Canada. This is a huge military craft, about 200 tons or more, 150 feet long, with a foil span of 66 feet, and it is designed to do 50 knots in Atlantic conditions and 60 knots in smooth water.

I am very glad to say—I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will confirm this—that the National Physical Laboratory (Ship Division), in my constituency, has helped in the design of this Canadian craft. If it is successful, it will, of course operate, with one-tenth the crew of a destroyer, although almost the size of a small destroyer. I do not advocate that we should build this, because it is a military problem, but we do want commercial craft operating in the 30 or 40 knot bracket and I believe that hydrofoil craft can do that successfully.

The cost of the different forms of craft work out as follows. For a conventional ship, the cost is about £1,000 per passenger seat, for a hydrofoil craft, about £2,000 and for a hovercraft about £3,000. The Norwegian experience of running both hovercraft and hydrofoils shows us that the running costs of the latter are lower than those of the former. This is done by the Norwegian Institute of Transport.

I was interested in an article by Mr. Christopher Cockerell, in Flight International on 19th October this year, in which he said: It is going to be interesting to see whether hydrofoils oust hovercraft or vice versa. My own opinion is that there will always be a place for hydrofoils, but that above a certain size, which might be 100 tons, and above a certain speed, which might be 40 knots, hovercraft are likely to take over. I think that he implied that under 100 tons and under 40 knots there is a place for hydrofoil craft, as I am sure there is. The seagoing capabilities of the hydrofoil should not be underestimated. It has its platform over the waves, and the ride comfort of the hydrofoil may turn out to be superior to that of the hovercraft. For instance, the Boeing PCH1 Highpoint, which the American Navy has been developing, encountered waves of an average height of 6 ft., with an occasional 10 ft. wave, and it did 100 miles in 3 hours 19 minutes.

In those conditions, when it was floating hull-borne a large percentage of the crew were seasick, but when it became foil-borne, there were only four mild cases of seasickness. Previously, it had achieved speeds of 80 knots, a remarkable achievement. The Americans are developing and have just launched a larger craft—the Grumman PGH I with the Rolls-Royce engines and the Boeing PGH2, with the Bristol Proteus engines. Sud Aviation, of France is developing hydrofoils, and I am glad to hear that Southern, Hydrofoils and other people in this country are still trying to develop these craft.

I was glad to hear in April that the Minister had appointed a working party to look into the subject of hydrofoils, we are eagerly awaiting its report. I feel that we must press on to find an answer to the problem whether we should take up hydrofoils as well as hovercraft. The answer may well be that we should take licences from the U.S.A. for building such craft in this country. The future may lie with a hydrofoil of aircraft configuration with submerged foils driven by water jets or it may lie with surface-piercing foils with automatic controls. I rather favour the aircraft configuration with submerged foils, but that is a technical matter. In a great maritime nation such as this, it is shameful that the shipbuilding industry has taken no interest or not more than a passing interest in hydrofoil development during the past 10 years.

I will turn for a few minutes to hovercraft. The British Hovercraft Corporation has 90 per cent. of the market and it made the very big and bold jump from the 7 to 10 tons SRN5 and 6 to the huge SRN4, just launched. But technically the new hovercraft is not very different in design and layout from the small vessels. Will this new craft be commercially viable at a capital cost of £1½ million? It was designed at a time of shortage in cross-Channel shipping, but now that there are 16 to 18 ships a day crossing the Channel, competition will be severe.

I ask the Minister: what is to be our policy towards hovercraft? As well as large craft, there will surely be a market for very small craft such as two-seaters at £1,500 each, perhaps pleasure craft, or four-seaters at £5,000 each, or 12-seaters at perhaps £18,000 each. If there is such a market, as I believe there is, who will build them? I doubt whether the British Hovercraft Corporation has enough operational experience of its own to provide the required modifications to vehicles. For instance, Hovertravel Limited, a gallant little company, operating in the Solent for the last two-and-a-half years with the SRN6, has carried 800,000 passengers at almost no profit. It has had to suffer very high maintenance costs—wear and tear at £15 an hour and five times the cost of fuel. But it has provided endless experience of skirt wear of great value to manufacturers. Should not operators such as these, with experimental craft, get some relief for their excess maintenance costs in future? Should not some help be given? Anything that the Parliamentary Secretary can say on this point will be helpful. Instead of being able to operate untramelled, this little company is threatened by the subsidised British Railways Seaspeed Services who, it appears from their accounts last year, carried 100,000 passengers in the Solent and lost £68,000.

When I went to Montreal and rode on the enterprising hovercraft service operated by Hovertravel Limited, on the St. Lawrence River, and heard of their possible future developments there, I was horrified to hear later that it was the competition of British Railways at home that had induced the firm to pack up its promising Canadian venture and come back home. I hope, therefore, that British Railways will not be the nigger in the woodpile over hovercraft.

Investors from Sweden, Hoverlloyd, are putting up £3 million to operate two cross-Channel hovercraft from Pegwell Bay—about which my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) knows—an open site suitable for an amphibious vehicle with plenty of room on the beaches, as recommended by the inspector of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. British Railways are apparently intending to operate from Dover Harbour and this has caused the Minister to reopen the inquiry and delay the start of this service, which will cause considerable cost. No wonder Mr. Karl Bokman, Chairman of Swedish Lloyd, is angry.

To consider Dover, with its narrow harbour entrance—of just a few hundred feet—and the dangerous tidal race, with the serious risk of a major extent involving a machine which must crash across shipping lanes at 70 knots with 700 passengers on board in a heavy cross wind—is something I would not like to contemplate.

I return to the subject of manufacturing. I was glad to read of the coming introduction of sidewall hovercraft by Hovermarine Ltd. I have for long been convinced that for controllability in estuary work, to avoid risking sideways drift, immersed sidewalls would be the answer—a sort of catamaran hovercraft which is able to use conventional piers and pontoons. However, I understand that a private enterprise company which had put down a deposit for the first such craft had it snatched from under its nose by the superior purchasing power of British Rail.

We must face the fact that marine hovercraft are much nearer ships than aircraft. They should be built by shipbuilders instead of by aircraft people, because aircraft costs are two or three times those of conventional engineering, as I know from personal experience in the motor industry. I was glad to hear that Vosper-Thorneycroft is entering the hovercraft field. We may get some economic shipbuilding with the assistance of such a company.

I do not want to be depressing about the future of hovercraft. Obviously, there is a future for both hovercraft and hydrofoils, and I pay tribute to the huge amount of work that has been done by Hovercraft Development Ltd. and the British Hovercraft Corporation. We must look at the whole of this question from the point of view of the non-displacement ship problem commercially—treating the military side as a sideline—keep our lead in commercial hovercraft and catch up with the thousands of sea miles we have fallen behind in the sphere of hydrofoils.

10.19 p.m.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Middlesbrough West

I apologise to hon. Members who would have wished to take part in this debate. Time is short and a large number of points have been raised. I appreciate the interest which the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) has taken in these craft over the years. We in the Ministry of Technology have been happy to put him in touch with the National Physical Laboratory and others, including the Canadian craft which he visited during the summer. I assure him that we are interested to hear his views.

The hon. Gentleman expressed a number of reservations about hovercraft; first, that they are expensive to build. We have had the idea of hovercraft for only about 10 years. They must still be regarded as going through a very rapidly moving development phase and inevitably at this time they are expensive. Perhaps there is a good deal of justice in the hon. Member's criticism of the technology brought to bear, but as he himself has said the range of manufacturers is expanding, and with Vosper's coming into the field, any padding out, as it were, of design costs that may have taken place will be brought under the scrutiny of heavy competition.

Manœuvrability is something about which it is clearly necessary to gain operating experience with the big craft, and short of operating the SRN 4 in a wide variety of sea conditions one cannot pre-judge the question of hovercraft. The hon. Member said that British Rail was prepared to operate in and out of Dover Harbour, but the very fact that British Rail is prepared to do so is a tribute to the manœuvrability of the craft and not merely a criticism of British Rail.

As to the response to the surface of the sea, it is certainly the case that the craft does not ride without any interference at all in rough sea conditions, and there is a learned discussion by Mr. Cockerell in the article which the hon. Member quoted about the effect of sea conditions. He suggested that, for these reasons, the hovercraft is not the sole solution of all high-speed seaborne craft problems and it is certainly very well worth while looking at hydrofoils. This is what we are already doing.

The working party to which he referred is chaired by Mr. Silverleaf, an acknowledged expert in both hovercraft and hydrofoil technology, and deputy director of the National Physical Laboratory. On this working party we have Mr. Dorey of Condor Limited, to which firm the hon. Member referred, and Commander Du Cane of Vosper's, as well as representatives of the Ship Research Association, the N.R.D.C., the Ministry of Defence, the Board of Trade and our own Department. I therefore think that the hon. Gentleman can be satisfied that a dispassionate and technically highly competent view will be taken of the rôle and support will be given to hydrofoil development in this country.

Photo of Sir Eric Errington Sir Eric Errington , Aldershot

I was very grateful for the opportunity given to me by the Minister to see some of these things, but when he is dealing with the question of a number of people getting down to settling these matters, may I ask whether there is anyone who represents the radar industry, with the idea of using radar to control the craft as it approaches the oncoming waves?

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Middlesbrough West

This idea may not require the presence of a radar expert, but a number of the members of the committee can certainly call on any such advice that is helpful to them.

The ultimate rôle of hovercraft versus hydofoil requires much more experience. The hon. Gentleman was right in pointing out that we have so far put relatively more development effort into hovercraft than have other nations, but it is not unreasonable for nations to specialise, and it is right, I think, that we should examine and plan a thoroughgoing research and development programme and a technique that looks promising, bringing to bear precisely the criteria to which he points, but not being discouraged at the first batch of technical problems, which inevitably have their cost penalties attached to them.

The hon. Gentleman cannot complain about slow progress and, at the same time, urge commercial discretion. We have made pretty rapid progress. He mentioned the very considerable size of the SRN 4, which would take up the greater part of this Chamber and carry on board every Member of the House across the Channel in about 35 minutes—and no doubt it will do so some day. But this is a very great advance of a totally new form of transport in the bare span of eight years since we had the first hovercraft moving over water.

If, however, we are to get the successful exploitation of this on a much wider scale, it is necessary not only to look at the operating requirements, the commercial environment in this country, but the commercial environment in a world-wide market.

It is very significant that of the 40 or 50 hovercraft to which the hon. Member referred, about half have been exported and are being tried out in a very wide variety of different operations. The hon. Member took a great interest in the possibility of winter trials of SRN6 which has been operating at Expo. A tender has been submitted for these winter trials and we expect the result of these in a very few days.

When hon. Members from their travels throughout the world come back, as I am very glad that many do, with stories about the interest being taken in hovercraft in other markets overseas, I follow these up with interest and I often find that in practically every case one or other of the hovercraft agencies has already been there and talked to the people and carried out an evaluation of the market. They have fed back the experience into the development programme in this country.

I am certainly not saying that there are not problems. We have had to improve our own organisation in government to handle hovercraft generally and now we have a hovercraft directorate which did not exist in the early years of hovercraft development. Now we bring together the civil and military requirements and deal with the whole industry and the research and development programme in a single directorate in the Ministry of Technology.

Mr. W. R. Ress-Davies:

Can the hon. Gentleman say that his Ministry now has control over this development so that British Railways, who have their separate department, are under the control of the Ministry in securing rapid development of hovercraft?

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Middlesbrough West

No. British Railways are under the control of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport—

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Middlesbrough West

I assure the hon. Member that it is not a trouble at all. If hovercraft are to sell throughout the world their viability in the hands of operators must be established. It is, therefore, absolutely essential that British Rail should operate this service in competition with seaborne and other methods of travel.

The hon. Member for Twickenham raised the question of unfair competition with private operators. When we have one hon. Member advocating greater British Rail operation and another advocating less, it seems to leave the matter more or less in balance. The rôle of Hovertravel in the Solent is well recognised. Certainly one cannot but admire the work put in by this firm. It has been of immense value to hovercraft. It has collected an immense amount of data and I am glad to say that we have given the firm information contracts to make sure that the know-how that it has collected is fed back into the development programme. We shall, of course, continue to keep in touch with the firm as its work develops.

I think the year ahead will be very interesting. SRN4 will go into cross-Channel operation next year. We have a widening range of firms with hovercraft licences. We have the very advanced Hydrofoil craft under development in Canada to which we contribute very much from the National Physical Laboratory. Certainly Britain needs to pay a great deal of attention in this field and I think it is doing so. I think we shall reap the fruits of success in future. This has not only been in seaborne craft. In other applications of hovercraft we have the hovertrain development which is in its first stage and has been launched with the support of the N.R.D.C. and which leads to very interesting possibilities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.