Things Fall Over All the Time

Host:

A new high-speed train has entered service, promising to herald a fresh era in transport and a renaissance for the UK railway industry. The British-built Albion class locomotive incorporates the very latest technological and engineering developments but it's fair to say that its inaugural run has not been overwhelmingly successful. We're joined in the studio today by Sir Arthur Manning who will hopefully be able to tell us what has gone wrong. Sir Arthur, good evening and thank you very much for joining us.

Sir Arthur:

Good evening and may I say that I am delighted to be here.

Host:

The pleasure is all ours, Sir Arthur.

Sir Arthur:

I'm quite sure it is. Now I'd like, if I may, to return to some of the comments you made in your opening address. You say that our train has not been 'overwhelmingly successful'; you refer to things having 'gone wrong'. It might be argued that you are justified in using these terms, but I'd like to remind you that what we are dealing with here is new technology and that there are inevitably going to be some teething problems.

Host:

I accept that, of course Sir Arthur. But the train did actually fall over as soon as it cleared the station, did it not?

Sir Arthur:

Granted, I have to concede that the train gave the appearance of having fallen over, yes.

Host:

You're saying that it appeared to have fallen over?

Sir Arthur:

It appeared to have fallen over, yes, and the reason that it appeared to fall over is that it actually did fall over. I don't think that we can, in all honesty, claim that it didn't. But, of course, things fall over all the time and, as I say, we are dealing with very new technology here.

Host:

I see. Perhaps you could give us an insight into some of this new technology?

Sir Arthur:

Well, I'll do my best, but I'm not particularly savvy in that department myself.

Host:

I'm sure you do yourself a disservice.

Sir Arthur:

Only at the weekends. But no, the plain fact of the matter is that I can just about manage to operate a toaster without reference to the instructions, and I recall that I once had a go with the vacuum cleaner, but ask me to strip down a diesel engine and I'm all at sea.

Host:

I would never dream of asking you to do such a thing, Sir Arthur.

Sir Arthur:

That's good to know. But notwithstanding my lack of expertise, I can tell you that I have studied some of the promotional copy concerning the train and my understanding is that the wi-fi is truly excellent and that the coffee machine in the buffet car is world-beating. I'm told that commuters put great store in such things.

Host:

Very good. And would excellent wi-fi and a world-beating coffee machine normally result in a train falling over as soon as it left the station?

Sir Arthur:

Could do.

Host:

Has that sort of thing been known to happen before?

Sir Arthur:

To my knowledge I have to say that it hasn't. But, you know, you can never really rule these things out.

Host:

You don't think that it perhaps may have had something to do with the fact that the train only has wheels on one side?

Sir Arthur:

As I say, we can't really rule anything out at this stage. That is certainly one of the possibilities.

Host:

Along with the wi-fi and the coffee machine?

Sir Arthur:

Along with the wi-fi, as you say, and the coffee machine. It could go either way at the moment.

Host:

I see. And are there other possible causes that are currently being evaluated?

Sir Arthur:

Why yes, we're keeping an open mind at the moment and our investigators are looking into several possibilities. Bird strike, for example.

Host:

Bird strike? Is that feasible?

Sir Arthur:

Most certainly. If it was a fairly large bird, such as a cormorant, an albatross or a fat pigeon, then it could easily topple a train if it struck it in exactly the right spot and with enough force. Our people are currently combing the area in search of a likely culprit.

Host:

A likely culprit being, I presume, a dazed-looking bird with a crumpled beak.

Sir Arthur:

Exactly! And, of course, we can't entirely rule out the possibility that driver error is to blame.

Host:

Is it possible for a driver to make a train fall over?

Sir Arthur:

With the right training, yes. You or I couldn't do it, obviously, but our drivers undergo weeks of intensive instruction and with the skills and experience at their disposal they can easily cause the sorts of blunders that would make a train fall over.

Host:

Really?

Sir Arthur:

Absolutely. It would be the work of a moment. Imagine the scenario: our driver is sitting on the poop deck - or whatever they call the bit where the steering wheel is - he's happily chuffing along when all of a sudden he's distracted by something outside the window - a chap waving, perhaps, or an amusingly shaped hedge. An unusual pig, even. Before you know it: wump! The train has fallen over.

Host:

I see.

Sir Arthur:

This sort of thing happens all the time, so I'm told.

Host:

But it would be fair to say that when a train only has wheels on one side this is bound to be a significant factor in its unwillingness to remain upright?

Sir Arthur:

Let's just say that if we rule out every other possible cause, it is something we may have to look at again.

Host:

It is unusual, though, for a train to only have wheels on one side, is it not?

Sir Arthur:

Ah, you know something about trains then?

Host:

I've seen a few in my time. As I recall, the wheels are normally distributed fairly evenly along both sides.

Sir Arthur:

Normally, yes. And, of course, this is what makes our train so revolutionary.

Host:

And so unstable.

Sir Arthur:

Well, we'll have to wait for the results of the investigation before we can leap to that conclusion. It's certainly an innovative design.

Host:

Your chief engineer has gone on record as saying it was an oversight.

Sir Arthur:

Oh no, no, no. Is it likely, do you think, that we would simply forget to put half the wheels on? We have a rigorous quality control procedure. We'd spot that sort of thing like a shot. Oh no, this was most certainly deliberate.

Host:

Forgive me if this seems a naïve observation - after all, I'm no expert in these matters - but it is difficult to see what the advantages of only having wheels down one side could possibly be.

Sir Arthur:

Manifold. That's what the advantages are: manifold.

Host:

Perhaps you might itemize them for us?

Sir Arthur:

Nothing would give me greater pleasure. The most obvious benefit, of course, is that it makes the train much, much lighter.

Host:

Lighter?

Sir Arthur:

To put it another way: it's not as heavy, if I might be excused resorting to technical jargon. You see, train wheels are great big massive things, so the fewer of them you have, the better. And it also helps with cornering.

Host:

Does it?

Sir Arthur:

Depending on which way round the corner you're going, yes. And there are also all sorts of other benefits: it halves the wear and tear on the rails, it cuts down on noise and... well, I'm sure there are many other positives.

Host:

Sir Arthur, I believe your company has invested a great deal of money in the design of this train?

Sir Arthur:

My company has invested a great deal of money in the design of this train, yes.

Host:

I also imagine that you personally have a great deal to lose should the project fail?

Sir Arthur:

It would be no exaggeration to say, should the project fail, that I personally would be sunk.

Host:

What then - if it's not too delicate a question - what then do you propose to do should the design of the train be found to be at fault?

Sir Arthur:

Well, of course it won't

Host:

It might.

Sir Arthur:

It won't.

Host:

It could.

Sir Arthur:

It won't, but just in case it does, we do have a contingency plan which involves a radical new scheme to dynamically modify the centre of gravity of the vehicle while it is in operation.

Host:

You're going to get everyone to lean over to one side.

Sir Arthur:

We're going to get everyone to lean over to one side. You see, there's always a solution if you're prepared to put your mind to it. Goodnight.

 

Taken from The University of the Bleeding Obvious Annual 2018.

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