Life begins at 40 for HSTs moving to Scotland

Scotland has a new railway icon to join the Forth Bridge. National operator ScotRail has been showing off its first HST that’s come from Great Western Railway as it prepares to receive a fleet to run services between the Central Belt, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Of course, HSTs are nothing new in Scotland, they’ve been running to Aberdeen and Inverness for decades linking those cities with London. What’s different is that ScotRail’s HSTs will be working domestic trains rather than ones to and from England.

It’s testament to the remarkable engineering of Terry Miller’s team, and the styling of Sir Kenneth Grange, that a train first introduced to service in 1976 is still so exciting. ScotRail plans to use them from next May in shorter formations than today’s trains, giving a much higher power-to-weight ratio and bringing the promise of zippy performance. The train operator will be updating them to include power operated doors, a first for the type, and controlled-emission toilets so that human waste in no longer dumped on the track.

There’s a sense of history repeating itself. When British Rail introduced HSTs to East Coast Main Line services in 1977, it relegated Class 55s from top-link to secondary work, including Aberdeen. Indeed, when the ‘55s’ were new in the early 1960s, they pushed steam from the top spot and ‘A4s’ – another icon – found an Indian summer of work on express services along Scotland’s east coast. So it is again, as Hitachi’s IEP multiple units displace HSTs from their work from Paddington and King’s Cross.

You might say that Scotland is receiving cast-off stock from elsewhere in Britain, as the 40-year-old HSTs replace newer Class 170 DMUs. They are certainly approaching the point at which express stock is often withdrawn but the modifications ScotRail plan should give them new life. They may now be icons but they do have faults. Their Mk 3 trailer cars flex sharply when passing another train at speed, giving passengers a sudden shock. ScotRail plans to use them at lower speeds so this should not be a problem. They can be draughty and their corridor connections are far from weatherproof. Power doors will solve part of the draught problem because they will not have the drop-light windows needed for today’s manual doors. I hope refurbishment solves the corridor connection problem.

Their arrival in Scotland marks one step in welcome change. The other is the overdue electrification of the main route between Edinburgh and Glasgow, known generally as the ‘E&G’. It’s not the first electric route between the two cities, BR delivered that by wiring via Carstairs for its IC225 stock in the early 1990s. It’s not even the second – electric trains started running via Airdrie and Bathgate in 2010 after that route was reopened (it closed in 1982 and was lifted). But the E&G has long been the principal route between the two and has had a shuttle service to suit.

Hasty changes to 1,250hp Class 27s in the early 1970s saw them running at each end of a rake of six Mk 2 coaches, replacing tired DMUs. Intensive shuttle working did little for the type and they were replaced from the end of the decade when Class 47/7s became available. They worked with Mk 3 coaches and a Mk 2 driving coach in a push-pull formation. BR touted Class 158s as an improvement when they took over a decade later, to be replaced in turn by today’s Class 170s.

Now electric services beckon with Class 385s from Hitachi. These services are late. It’s taken Network Rail longer than thought to erect wires on the route and this has delayed Hitachi’s test programme for its new trains. It now looks like services will start next year rather than this December. However, the E&G’s overhead wires via Falkirk High went live on September 2, paving the way for electric train tests to start.

Wires between Edinburgh and Glasgow do nothing for Aberdeen and Inverness, hence the arrival of HSTs to boost their services. Despite their age, HST remains a remarkable train. BR only sanctioned the building of a prototype in 1970 and it was in passenger service just six years later. Compare that with the Department for Transport’s IEP which has yet to carry a passenger but was started in 2005.

BR was pushing boundaries. HST was to be a 125mph train but its specification called for it to stop from this speed in the same distance as conventional 100mph trains. BR’s original deployment plans included 30 HSTs for Edinburgh-Glasgow trains as part of a proposed fleet of 161 trains. Sadly, government decided not to support BR’s ambition and the order was cut back to 95 sets, denying Scotland the chance to bring cutting-edge traction to its premier route. At least the route received Mk 3 coaches but a ’47’ could never match an HST’s performance or its style. Quite what passengers would have made of an HST’s screaming turbos as it ascended Queen Street High Level Tunnel’s 1-in-41 gradient must be left to conjecture. I’m sure it would have proved popular with enthusiasts!

Paddington passengers were the first to experience HST at its design speed of 125mph from October 1976. Eastern Region HSTs started arriving from summer 1977 with passenger services starting from the next spring and gradually being introduced. BR’s plans to bring HSTs to Scotland were disrupted when Penmanshiel Tunnel collapsed in March 1979 but with a replacement line quickly built HSTs could link England and Scotland’s capital cities. Aberdeen joined the HST network with a pair of daily trains. Inverness has to wait until 1984 before it saw the sleek, sharp nose of an HST.

Meanwhile Craigentinny Depot in Edinburgh’s eastern suburbs was becoming expert in maintaining the type, a job it still does today. Tomorrow will see ScotRail’s HSTs maintained at Haymarket, on the other side of town. I daresay a few staff might switch.

HST might be 40 but properly refurbished and modernised, it should be good for many more years. I look forward to seeing them in service.

This article first appeared in RAIL 836 on September 27 2017.

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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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