At 40, HSTs still provide sterling service

October 4 marked the 40th anniversary of British Rail introducing High Speed Trains into everyday service, between Paddington and Bristol/South Wales. Over those four decades, the HST has become Britain’s most successful train. It’s become an icon for speed and style and it’s set to remain in service for a good few years yet.

That October day saw the first 125mph diesel service anywhere in the world. It put Britain second in the world for high-speed passenger services, behind Japan.

To mark this anniversary, Great Western Railway sent two HST power cars to York’s National Railway Museum over the weekend of October 1-2. In the blue and yellow colours of the original InterCity 125, 43002 Sir Kenneth Grange sat on the NRM’s turntable while 43185 Great Western sat outside, once more in BR InterCity ‘Swallow’ livery, complete with original cast plates. It looked magnificent in this livery that marked the high point of BR’s popular brand.

img_2178Great Western HST power car 43185 sits outside the National Railway Museum during a visit with 43002 to mark the type’s 40th anniversary in front line service. PHILIP HAIGH.

Inside the museum there were speeches on October 2 from GWR Engineering Director Andy Mellors and NRM Chief Curator Andrew McLean. The man behind HST’s famous nose, Sir Kenneth Grange, was to have spoken with the two Andrews but was delayed after a Great Northern train hit a herd of cows south of Peterborough, closing the East Coast Main Line for some time. He spoke later in the afternoon, just hours before the pair of power cars returned south to Bristol’s St Philips Marsh Depot.

Andy Mellors noted that HSTs had run an estimated 800 million miles since 1976. The type had, he said, brought comfort, speed and air conditioning  – even draught beer – and was still providing excellent frontline services.

There will be no draught beer on the HST’s replacement trains, government’s IEPs being built by Hitachi, while Mellors added that IEP would bring the biggest modernisation to the Great Western since Brunel.

That’s a bold claim given the revolution that HSTs brought. Not least because BR began developing it in 1970, just a couple of years after ridding itself of steam and only ten years after taking delivery of its final steam locomotive, 92220 Evening Star. HST was in service six years later. Compare that with IEP which will have taken a decade when it carries passengers for the first time.

Don’t discount the engineering advances behind HST. Considerable technical effort went into it. Better brakes could bring an HST to a halt from 125mph in 1,979 yards. This compared with 2,200yds for a conventional train from 100mph and meant that HST could run at its higher speed without wholesale changes to signal positions. There were some signalling changes because HST’s introduction led BR to bring flashing yellow aspects into use for diverging junctions. They were first introduced at Didcot East Junction where trains for Oxford diverge.

BR’s engineers faced great challenges in developing bogies that rode well and did not transmit excessively damaging forces down into the track. Computers helped but they were a shadow of what’s available to rolling stock designers today.

There was work too in developing a suitable engine to provide sufficient power to cruise at 125mph. With a power car front and rear, in contrast to just having a locomotive at the front, the load on each engine was split. Nevertheless, HST packed 4,500hp. For the Western Region, this took traction beyond the 2,700hp available in its 90mph Class 52s. On the Eastern, HST trumped the 100mph Class 55’s 3,300hp and would wrest top-link services from these much-loved locomotives.

For much of their lives, HSTs used Paxman Valenta engines. They were developed from Ventura designs, as used in the unsuccessful Class 29 (a class that would surely be unknown had not Hornby produced a model of it). In transforming the Ventura into the Valenta, it acquired a turbo-charger that gave the HST its very distinctive scream. It’s gone now with the switch to MTU 16V4000 engines that power most power cars today (those of East Midlands Trains use VP185 engines).

When an HST eventually rolls into the National Railway Museum as a preserved exhibit there’s a chance of returning a Valenta to its rightful place – at least, that’s what Andrew McLean hinted. That’s already been done by the 125 Group in restoring the NRM’s prototype power car 41001 to use at the northern section of the Great Central Railway.

The 125 Group is also behind the appearance of ’40 Years 1976-2016’ plaques on power cars across the country. Secretary Paul Zabernik told the audience on October 2 that it had sponsored a plate to be fixed to one power car of each operator’s fleet. They include GWR, EMT, Virgin Trains East Coast, Cross Country, Grand Central and Network Rail.

These plates feature Paul Gentleman’s design that cunningly incorporates Kenneth Grange’s nosecone with the ‘4’ of 40. As well as the plate for power cars, there’s a miniature pin-badge version available from the 125 Group.

Of course, HSTs were not just about Western services from Paddington. Brunel’s terminus might have been the first to welcome HSTs but it was followed by King’s Cross. Here the trains were progressively introduced from May 1978 to Newcastle and Edinburgh. The phased introduction was forced on BR by late deliveries of the trains from BREL’s factories.

The third batch of HSTs went to the Western Region for services to Plymouth and Penzance, with a full timetable running from 1980. This was followed by CrossCountry services from 1981. These introductions were not easy with BR having a tough time convincing the government to release sufficient investment funds. Midland Main Line passengers to and from St Pancras saw HSTs from 1983 as BR rejigged its fleets to find enough to transfer to the MML.

That the Midland was last is not a surprise. HSTs could cruise on Brunel’s ‘billiard table’ from Paddington. They could do much the same on the East Coast Main Line but the Midland was, and is, a curvy route. Writing in 1980, O S Nock noted the improvements HSTs offered in straighter lines. He recorded that HST could run Paddington-Chippenham (94 miles) in 53 minutes at a 106mph average. On the road north from St Pancras, he reckoned HSTs could not greatly improve the fastest standard time to Leicester (99 miles) of 80 minutes at an average 74mph. Nock reckoned APT would be the answer with its ability to tilt through curves. It was not to be and today’s St Pancras passengers have a choice of HSTs or Class 222 units, neither of which tilt.

While IEP will replace HSTs from Paddington and King’s Cross, a new lease of life beckons in Scotland with the transfer of 27 sets from next year. They’ll work Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness services in what will surely be the type’s Indian summer (just as Sir Nigel Gresley’s ‘A4’ steam locomotives worked similar Scottish services when displaced by Class 55s on principal trains from King’s Cross).

That the HST could reach 50 years in frontline service is ample testament to the skills of BR’s engineers led by Terry Miller (who trained under Gresley). Kenneth Grange rightly takes the plaudits for HST’s iconic looks but it was Miller’s men that gave HST life. I salute them all.

This article first appeared in RAIL 811, published on October 12 2016.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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