(first posted 10/18/2015) In 1995, British Rail didn’t celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their pride and joy, the Inter City 125 diesel train, as ‘we don’t want passengers to realise how old it is’. Well, twenty years further on, the Inter City 125 (or HST, for High Speed Train) is still the best way to travel Britain’s rails, it still has another 20 years left, and passengers still don’t realise how old it is. So let’s celebrate this, the fastest diesel train in the world, and review its life story.
In the 20 years after the war, the domestic travel market in the UK, as elsewhere, was transformed. Motorways spread their tentacles and bypasses cleared bottlenecks; by 1970, car ownership had increased by five times since 1945. Although British Railways (BR) had eliminated steam, train speeds lagged, with only the 100mph electric expresses from London to Birmingham and Manchester and the mighty Deltics being a credible competitor in the speed stakes; other routes reached only 90mph. A step change was needed if long distance train travel was to survive into the 1970s – but without the funds or political will to build new express lines like France and Japan, the new trains had to deliver accelerated performance on existing infrastructure, and around existing slower passenger and freight traffic.
Tilting had a weakness, beyond the alleged travel sickness. The cramped confines of Britain’s railway structures – a downside of being the pioneer – meant that the profile of the APT narrowed above the waist, restricting interior room. But that was the least of its problems, as perhaps predictably, it was too advanced and expensive for the real world. Traditional railway engineers in BR had been sceptical from the start, and in 1969 had successfully lobbied the board of British Rail (as it became in 1964) to start parallel development of a more conventional diesel powered alternative shortly after the APT project commenced, to hold the fort until the real APT was ready.
This emerged in 1972 in prototype form as the High Speed Train (HST) – just 22 months after approval of the project. Compared to the APT, this was a decidedly conventional train – but a very thoroughly engineered one, from a team led by Terry Miller, Chief Engineer (Traction & Rolling Stock) of BR.
To produce the high power needed to propel an eight or nine coach train at 125mph, Miller needed 4,500hp, compared to the Deltic’s 3,300. No suitable power unit existed, so, two power cars were used, one at each end and linked by electronic control systems.
BR had used this idea before, with mixed results, in the ‘Blue Pullman’ of 1960. The concept has numerous advantages – it reduces the weight of the power car to something that virtually every line in Britain can accept without expensive strengthening of the track and bridges (an HST power car is just 70 tons – barely half the weight of existing 2,200hp diesels); it maximises flexibility – no need to run the engine round the coaches, just drive from the other end; and reliability, by having in effect two separate locomotives – and one was enough to propel the HST at 100mph; unlike conventional diesel multiple units, there are no engines under the floor of the coaches, so no noise or vibration for passengers; and it allowed for the train to styled in a cohesive and dramatic way, with power cars and coaches sharing the same profile and livery.
The chosen engine was the Valenta, produced by the Paxman engineering and diesel engine company. Then a subsidiary of English Electric, and later one of the constituents of the Alstom Group, the business is now part of the MAN group. The Valenta is a V12 four stroke turbo-charged and intercooled diesel, with a capacity of 79 litres (4,800 cu in). As installed in the HST, the engine in each power car produced 2,250 hp (1,680kw). Power is passed to the four tractionn motors on each power car through a Brush Traction generator.
And it has one of the most penetrating exhaust notes ever heard – maybe not as pleasing to an engineer as a Deltic’s gearing based roar, but impressive nevertheless to platform observers – the famous ‘Screaming Valenta’. Target speed was down from the APT, of course, to 125 mph, but the higher speed and superb acceleration still allowed huge cuts in journey times.
Between the two power cars were BR’s new Mark 3 coaches; these were a brand new design, designed for 125 mph running and solidly constructed in a steel monocoque engineered for strength and crashworthiness, and, at 23m (75ft) long, 3m longer than previous coaches. The Mark 3 was the first British coach to feature such things as double glazing, full air-conditioning and air based suspension. Crucially, they were fitted with disc brakes, not the clasp brakes of older stock, which enabled the HST to be brought to a halt from 125mph in the same distance as a Deltic from 100mph. This meant no need to replace the lineside signalling. The Mark 3 is also, compared to the APT, spacious, with no narrowing profile as the HST was not designed to tilt. The meticulously developed and tested suspension and bogie (American – truck) design gives a very smooth ride on even indifferent track, and the spacious seats are an indictment of virtually every train built since. Even 40 years on, they are a superb vehicle, and stand comparison with anything in the world outside the Japanese Shinkansen, French TGV and German ICE fleets.
All the seating was in open coaches – 2+2 for Standard and 2+1 for First – around tables and with all seats aligned to fit the window spacing (you’d be amazed at how hard it can be on a modern British train to get a seat with a window rather than pillar view!).
This meant the final demise of the traditional railway compartment, seating 4 or 6 passengers depending on class in an enclosed compartment accessed from a corridor along one side of the coach – a layout that dated back to the earliest days of the train, but clearly didn’t suit modern needs.
Truth be told, the looks of the prototype power unit were not its best feature. The cab was designed to accommodate a single centrally seated driver – something the trade unions promptly refused to accept, insisting on the traditional two man crew – and the side windows were deliberately set behind the driver’s field of vision to avoid the distracting phenomenon of ‘sleeper flicker’ – the constant flashing of sleepers (American – ties) in the corner of the driver’s eye. This, plus crash protection, meant a heavy looking frame around the central window, exacerbated by the mandatory bright yellow paint. The livery of standard BR passenger blue and grey, but with the two colours reversed, didn’t help; the power car lacked presence and gave little impression of speed or power.
But the performance was stunning. Pretty much straight out of the box, it demonstrated that a sustained 125mph was possible on existing track, safely, smoothly and comfortably, and with impressive acceleration and braking. The prototype was extensively tested on the Western Region of BR, between London Paddington, Bristol and South Wales, which would be the first route to receive the new trains, and, in June 1973, it achieved a world diesel train speed record of 143.2 mph on the Eastern Region racetrack north of York.
Series production of HST power cars began in 1974 at the BR works in Crewe, where the Grand Junction Railway began building steam locomotives in 1840. The Mark 3 coaches, built at the former Midland Railway works in Derby, were little changed from the prototype, but the power car was dramatically restyled by Kenneth Grange, one of Britain’s leading industrial designers.
Considering he was better known for such classics as the Kenwood food mixer, the angle poise light and the standard British parking meter, picking him for the HST was a gamble – but one that paid off brilliantly.
The production HST looks fast and modern, even now. The sharply angled nosecone (a one piece GRP moulding) was aerodynamically better than the prototype’s blunter prow, and Grange accentuated the impact of the shape by using bold yellow around the nose and down the flanks, ending at the Rail Blue radiators, which hinted at the power lurking within and blended neatly into the blue and grey coaches. Conventional railway couplings were replaced by an emergency coupling hidden behind the smoothed front panel. And just in case you were in any doubt, the new name Inter-City 125 was prominent on the side of the power car and on each coach. Passengers could see they were being invited aboard something new and special – but without paying a premium fare – the HST has always been a standard fare train.
Fleet operation of the Inter City 125 began on BR Western Region in October 1975, and by May 1976 27 sets were in service. Each set had 8 Mark 3 coaches, including First and Second (soon renamed Standard) class seating and a restaurant / kitchen or buffet car.
Journey times from London to Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea were slashed by a quarter and passenger numbers soared – known as the ‘nosecone effect’.
From 1977, HSTs were introduced on the East Coast route north from King’s Cross to Yorkshire, Newcastle upon Tyne and Scotland.
The big acceleration on that route came in 1978, when almost an hour was cut from London – Edinburgh times and the service frequency increased. By 1982, HSTs had appeared on the Midland mainline from St Pancras to the Midlands and Sheffield, and the Western Region had enough sets to replace 100mph loco-hauled trains west of Bristol to Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance.
It wasn’t just passengers that loved them, either; drivers queued for the normally less popular long distance assignments once HSTs were assigned to a route, and on-board crews appreciated the much better working conditions compared to the stock they replaced.
Ultimately, 95 sets of Mark 3 coaches and 197 power cars were built, and both the East Coast and Western mainlines strengthened trains to 9 coaches. All of Britain’s express routes saw them in regular service right through the 1980s and 1990s, except the electrified West Coast from London Euston to north west England and Glasgow, and even on journeys such as Aberdeen to Penzance, where the scope to exploit their speed was limited in many places, the enhanced environment won back passengers.
HSTs have always been intensively worked – most run 1,000 miles every day, and on the East Coast, one diagram runs from Leeds in Yorkshire to London, to Aberdeen in north east Scotland, back to London and then back to Leeds – something over 1,500 miles of high speed work in 18 hours!
Outside the south east of England’s third rail commuter network, HSTs have been regularly used on virtually all the main lines in Britain over the years. Today, the HST is still (for a few more years) the mainstay of the routes to the west from London Paddington, and north from St Pancras. The Cross Country network, centred on Birmingham, is also a key user and they remain as the second string on the East Coast. Together, these operators take the HST every day to Inverness in the Scottish Highlands; Penzance in Cornwall; Fishguard in south west Wales; and Hull on the Yorkshire coast, and virtually everywhere in between. Not bad for something designed as a stopgap 40 years ago!
Inevitably, there have been reliability issues over the years, most notably with overheating in the exceptional summer of 1983, but these were largely resolved by tightening inspection and maintenance procedures. Other issues have been caused by the hard life the engines get – constantly cycling from full power to coasting and back, as frequently as every 5 minutes on some routes.
And by the early 1990s, it was apparent that while the train had a long life left in it, the Valenta was past its peak – too noisy, dirty and fuel-hungry for the 21st century, and increasingly hard to maintain. So re-engining became the game, with the first trial of a new Paxman engine, the VP185, in 1994 leading to a programme to re-engine the Midland Mainline fleet of 24 power cars. Operators elsewhere preferred the MTU V16 4000 engines, and there are now 170 power cars using that engine. The last Valenta was replaced in 2010.
The HST does have two basic problems, which both date it and show that, ultimately, it was built to a budget. To open the doors from the inside, you had to open the window and lean out and grasp the external handle – just like in George Stephenson’s day. To be fair, an interior handle and locking mechanism was fitted in the 1990s – not for convenience, but for safety, to ensure doors shut fully and couldn’t open at speed. And the toilet discharges direct onto the tracks beneath. Yes, in the 125 mph masterpiece, you still cannot flush when the train is stationary. Both these need to be fixed if the trains are to fulfil their potential to last another 20 years – and can be. After all, Hitachi turned one into a diesel-electric demonstration prototype.
Since privatisation in the 1990s, HSTs have appeared in the liveries of at least twelve private operators at various times, some better than others – a bewildering kaleidoscope to the ordinary observer. This, and a variery of interior refits, may have helped it stay fresh in the eyes of the travelling travelling public, and let them mistake its age – unlike in BR days, the HSTs on each route look different inside and out.
Many will remember fondly the smart and well maintained dark blue and red of Great North Eastern Railway, but my favourite is the BR Inter City division’s dark grey and white with red detailing applied from the mid-1980s onwards – a traditional two tone railway style that emphasised the smooth lines and length of the train and stood out from the plainer blue and grey of the lesser trains around it.
There is even an all-over yellow one today, used by the infrastructure owner Network Rail as a track measurement train; it covers all the mainlines of Britain every 13 weeks, checking and recording track geometry at high speed.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, BR exploited the HST ruthlessly in its marketing, producing some great posters and TV spots. It also made sure that periodically a new high speed record would be set, usually to promote new services. In September 1985, the new Tyne-Tees Pullman covered the 268 miles from Newcastle to London in 140 minutes at an average speed of 115.4 mph. An 18 mile stretch near Peterborough was covered at an average of 140.1 mph. And in November 1987, power cars 43102 City of Wakefield and 43104 with three coaches set a new world speed record for diesel traction of 148 mph between York and Northallerton – a record that has yet to be verifiably broken.
We have all had our favourite HST journeys over the years, from marvelling at the novelty of smooth, quiet high speed travel in the early days, to the time an American visitor insisted on standing in the aisle of a GNER express as ‘the trains going past the other way are way too close and way too fast’. Explaining the closing speed of 250mph amused her partner, but she didn’t sit down until we were an hour out of London.
But my favourite memory is an evening journey from London to Edinburgh, in the mid-2000s. Diligent online hunting for advance fares made first class train travel cheaper and faster than flying down to the capital on business; southbound was the 0600 Flying Scotsman from Edinburgh, formed of one of the new Class 91 electric sets – no faster than a 125, but bouncy and cramped. Coming back, a GNER express to Aberdeen – guaranteeing an HST as the electric wires stop at Edinburgh – leaving around 1630. No commuters, as first stop is York, 200 miles north.
And the last coach was almost empty – a table for two at the very rear of the train to yourself.
Leave the door window open as you board, and you get the full Valenta roar as the train accelerates up the steep incline through the tunnels out of King’s Cross, then sit back and relax. Spread out, recline the seat, perhaps; enjoy the at seat drinks service from the attentive stewards. Then, after York, move forward to the Dining Car for the best train food in Britain- a leisurely three course dinner, with not a drop of wine spilt, as we skim across the Vale of York at two miles a minute (or more, if time needs to be made up).
A low sun emphasises the dramatic sight of Durham Cathedral (‘half church, half castle against the Scots’, say the guidebooks) and the always stunning sight of the six great bridges across the River Tyne as we snake in and out of Newcastle Central. North of Newcastle, there are some great coastal views and then along the cliffs north of Berwick upon Tweed as the speed drops and the line curves through the hills of the Scottish Borders, before we finally emerge into the dramatically located Edinburgh Waverley, four and a half hours from London. Beats an hour on the Underground to Heathrow, two hours queuing and an hour and a half squashed in a 737 every time.
Britain’s pre-eminent authority on modern railway engineering, Roger Ford of Modern Railways magazine, has said ‘the HST remains the standard by which all other trains are judged’. How right he was – and nothing has matched that standard yet.
This article was a great way to start the day!
Living where I do I am fortunate to be near Amtrak, which services limited areas in many parts of the Midwest. My only experience with it is when my family and I rode from here to Kansas City – a distance of about 110 to 120 miles. Checking speeds with the GPS on my phone, we lumbered our way up to about 72 mph once or twice.
I knew rail in Europe had much faster speeds than here, but I thought it often topped out at around 100 mph. The speeds of the HST are quite invigorating!
Fitting seats to the windows? That is the ideal, which seems so often seems unattainable in planes and trains.
!00 to 125 years ago trains in the US regularly ran 70-90 mph and often above that. The US let its world class railroad system deteriorate and today a journey from Chicago to LA takes over three time what it did 100 years ago. It is about the same amount time it took in 1870 right after the transcontinental railroad was built 145 years ago.
You’re wayyy off base there. The all-time record for the Super Chief (Chicago-LA) was 36hrs 49 minutes, but that was not in revenue service. The schedule during the Super Chief’s heyday in the late 30s was 39 hrs 45 minutes.
Today, Amtrak’s schedule is 41 hours.
Let’s try ticking to facts, please.
That was wonderful, Roger, thanks for another excellent article. The videos were great as well, they definitely added another dimension. Thanks!
Jim, BigPaws wrote this. However, it is my understanding he and Roger have met each other.
well, we are brothers! LOL!
Fantastic piece Big Paws. You covered the brief parameters really well, ‘sleeper flicker’ and legacy infrastructure really helped me understand the task. And that shape is superb. Cheers.
I have never traveled by train and never felt the urge until I read this…amazing!
I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, but it really does. That’s why I like this site!
The Intercity 125 was diesel; unlike in the USA where the only passenger trains of comparable speed currently in service are electric, high speed came to Britain first on diesel trains. When a train was designed for similar-speed service on British electric lines, it arrived as the Class 91 electric locomotive, Mark 4 coaches, and a nonpowered control cab car to permit operation with the locomotive on the rear, to avoid having to turn trains around at endpoints. It was named “Intercity 225,” not because it was 100mph faster than the Intercity 125, but because that SOUNDED faster. The electrics are CAPABLE of 225 km/hr, which is 140 mph, but in service are limited to 125 mph.
High speed rail is simply fantastic, and it’s amazing that America has completely missed the boat on it. A high speed line down the eastern seaboard would make perfect sense.
All major Chinese cities are now linked up by high speed rail, using licensed Japanese technology. The trains rarely go below 300 km/h on longer runs. It used to take us six hours to get from Shanghai to Nanjing, and now it takes 80 minutes. The cost of the first class fare is about $20.
I love travelling on high speed lines. It is by far the most comfortable way to travel.
A quick PS – ‘After all, Hitachi turned one into a diesel-electric demonstration prototype.’ – this should have read disel-electric- battery hybrid’ – my slip up!
I got to ride these when I visited England, Scotland, and Wales. I didn’t find them very attractive, but I did find them comfortable. Better than flying. 🙂
Thanks for a great article on one of my favorite British trains. Got to ride these a couple times between London and Edinburgh.
Here’s my one and only decent shot of one, swinging off the Tay bridge into Dundee, Scotland on Dec. 18, 2005.
BigPaws raises an interesting point on the intense working of these trains with their regular high daily mileage. In the early ’80s while the French were making much of their TGV’s regular 186mph/300kph top speed (on newly built lines) HSTs were, on average, faster because they would spend much less time standing still between duties.
Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor in the USA do attain speeds equal to and greater than those of the Intercity 125. Conventional trains with 1974-vintage Amfleet coaches and 1978-vintage AEM-7 electric locomotives operate at sustained 125 mph speeds regularly, which is good. But the passenger is aware of it, which is bad. The coaches shake and rattle, their suspensions lurch, creak, clunk and groan, and the interiors, though not prisoner-grade, do not match the comfortable, spacious seats and quiet elegance of the IC125 at its best. Stand-in-queue food service, staffed by a single, sometimes-surly employee pushing microwave-heated food in plastic wrap, is all that is available. The gunslit-sized windows make the coaches feel even more closed-in. Though they do make smaller targets for the rock-throwing vandals who infest the decayed inner reaches of Philadelphia, Baltimore and other big cities whete the trains run, they are a major impediment to scenic viewing along the Shore Line north of New Haven, CT.
The Acela trains, dating from fifteen years ago (can it be that long? I rode the very first revenue run!) are faster, operating at up to 150 mph but only for a short stretch in Rhode Island. They do ride more smoothly, tilting in curves; are quiet and have big windows. But they cost a lot more for a minor shortening in trip time, thus appealing to the Eastern urbanite “it costs more and the prestige is worth it” mentality.
Outside the Northeast, Amtrak trains run at 110 mph for a few dozen miles in Michigan. A highly-touted “high speed corridor” between St. Louis and Chicago has a 110 mph speed limit for maybe a couple of dozen miles but road crossings and track switches reduce actual running at that speed to ten miles or so. There are hundreds of miles at 90 mph on the Chicago-Los Angeles route…but just about all else is no faster than 79 mph, with those lines lacking signals restricted to 59 mph. Of course, curves and mountainous terrain limit speeds, too. American trains actually run SLOWER on many main lines than in the steam era, due to GOVERNMENT-imposed speed limits that actually allowed the privately-owned railroad companies to REDUCE maintenance because trains were not running as fast. “I’m from the Government. I’m here to HELP you.” Yeh…sure.
FRA speed limits are based on a number of factors, signal system, track condition, and geometry among them. Most railroad rules, it is said, are written in blood, meaning a particular rule came about due to serious injury or death. How is the FRA at fault for imposing a lower speed limit due to a private company choosing to inadequately signal their line or do less maintenance in order to save a penny? The limit imposed is designed to prevent derailment or collision.
Thanks for this – brings back memories from the 90s, living in the UK…
Thanks, that was a great read. I did a London to Edinburgh via York trip in 1992, so quite possibly it was on one of these. Later in the same trip we rode the TGV from Paris to Tours, and the high-speed was definitely more obvious.
US rail is of course not nearly what it could be, but is better than you’d think given the level of disdain. Example of how much Americans hate (are afraid of?) rail: #1 Son was just planning a Thanksgiving trip from college in NC to family north of NYC. Had a train trip planned which started a 5 minute walk from his dorm, gave him 10 or so hours to sleep or read, and let him connect to commuter rail to a station 10 minutes from the relatives. When the relatives found out he wasn’t flying, they freaked and immediately bought him airline tickets, so now he’ll need a cab to the airport, 2 hours early, spend 4 hours flying (connecting flight) and then have to be picked up at the airport (an hour away) on the busiest travel day of the year. And only twice as expensive. But thank goodness he didn’t have to take a train! [Face palm] But they’re family….
Prime example of why I hate flying. If we could get the travel time down on rail, like the rest of the civilized world, it would be perfect, social perception be damned.
Of course the in-laws live over an hour’s drive from the nearest train station or airport, so that one will always be by car…
My takeaway here is that the strong acceleration and braking were key to making this train work out – without the first it could not get to 125mph around the other traffic and without the second it wouldn’t have been permitted without major infrastructure changes. Add in a design and the tome of thew whole that so fitted its period (around the same time as Concorde going into service, the Rover SD1, exploitation of Noth Sea oil and gas etc).
The noise is certainly something, though I hadn’t realized the trains had been re-engined. Is performance unchanged?
Also, I wasn’t aware that the HST was still such a mainstay on major lines — I had the impression (incorrectly inferred from press reports about train investment etc) that these were now confined to more minor routes and services.
Best livery in the GNER navy blue and red. Just is. Accept it, little brother.
Not just acceleration and braking, crucial though these were. The onboard environment (still more quiet, smooth, spacious than any British express train since) gave credibility to the promise of a new travel experience, along with more frequent as well as faster journeys.
Performance us just as good with new engines, but quitter. I live 200 yards from the ECML, and 125s are the quietest of the diesel trains passing.
And don’t believe what you read in the British press about railways. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
Wow. Talk about YMMV!
I’ll agree that the HST design was a beautiful (in its original Blue/Yellow British Rail livery at least) and expedient way to achieve (relatively) modern rail travel on the UK’s patchwork of old infrastructure back in the 70s.* This article was a great read too, but Big Paws you and I have radically different perspectives on British rail travel!
Far from being “still the best way to travel Britain’s rails” the fact that the HST is still in service (albeit – thankfully – with modern power plants) is an embarrassment: among the more stark evidence of the abject failure and farce that was privatising Britain’s railways.
Some objective comparison on *actual* space aboard our trains would be fascinating, but subjectively I had to laugh at the description of class 3 coaches as “spacious” and nearly spat on my screen reading the suggestion they’re “an indictment of virtually every train built since”. They were excellent for the time, they’ve not aged well even with repeated retro-fits.
And those carriages (more than the endlessly re-liveried shells) are the give-away to the majority of passengers that they’re being carried in a museum piece. It’s rare nowadays (in my experience) to be waiting to alight an HST and not hear one or other of your fellow passengers (packed into the noisy draughty “vestibule”) express astonishment, anger or even fear about those manual externally operated doors for one thing, and then there’s the lack of sockets, the compromised layouts, the appalling toilets, the constant noise, and the juddering ride… Some people might be surprised that the design is entering its fifth decade but nobody buys these as current, let alone modern vehicles.
I’m a regular traveller on the East Coast mainline and I breathe a sigh of relief each time my allocated train pulls into view hauled by a (nearly as antiquated) Class 91 rather than one of these bone-rattling fossils. The HST’s old BR successor is admittedly no design classic, but the “225” is equally obviously less past its prime. Meanwhile the best long distance rail experience I’ve had in Britain for comfort, speed and quiet is easily travelling North-South over on the West Coast line on a Pendolino. Certainly that’s no Shinkansen but it’s lightyears ahead of an HST.
All of which is not to say I don’t share your soft spot for the HST, it’s a hugely significant British design and one that’s been a feature on the railways my entire life. I only wish it was (as it should have been decades ago) gracefully retired to the National Museum in York instead of still being flogged up and down mainline routes the length and breadth of the country.
Classics by the curbside are great, they’re chosen over newer conveyances by their occupants for one thing. Classics on the tracks however aren’t a choice for most of those using them. Fine if it’s just the occasional nostalgia-fueled tourist route, but the HST fleet are still used as the backbone of British inter-city rail simply because the present franchising system discourages infrastructure investment. They’re horses being flogged well past belly-up by a broken rail system and it makes me sad and angry.
I genuinely admire the design for its time, I’ve many fond memories of travel in them in their prime and I loved this article as a write-up of their development, but I can’t stomach the suggestion that these are somehow stalwarts of the network, or that they’re in some indefinable way “just better” than all subsequent designs. They’re not. The only reason they’re still in service is cynical money grabbing on the part of the franchise holders.
The sooner the last HST gets rolled into retirement the better.
* IMO the significant difference between Britain and France/Japan at the time wasn’t (as suggested in the article) a lack of “funds or political will” but rather the simple fact of how small an island this is: Japan in the 1950s and France in the 1960s may not have been exactly spacious countries but they were empty compared to the UK of the 1970s.
Thanks for adding your perspective. The author obviously has great affection for the HST, but I have picked up here and there that it’s hardly state of the art in certain ways. The reality is that no 30 year old train is, and that’s why countries that invest adequately in their high speed trains have new generations every decade or so. This is clearly a “classic”, for better or for worse.
Just to clarify (as it might not be clear from my grumbling comment) I share the aithor’s affection for the HST. They entered service the year before I was born so they were still very much in their prime for my formative years.
The sadness and anger at their remaining in service is partly due to those early memories of the HST and later 225. The feeling that (while not as exciting as the TGV or Shinkansen) new & clever designs were always being cooked up to meet this oddball little island’s high speed rail needs.
I suppose it’s a bit like that bitter sweet feeling you get seeing the last great model from a marque you idolised as a child.
Yes, there are some tatty ones out there, and some of the recent refits have squeezed in too many seats, and the toilets are medieval and the doors are a cost cutting too far. Maintenance and the work rate are getting harder, which doesn’t help, but I still prefer them to a Voyager – noisy and harsh, with the below floor engine and cramped, and the Pendolino, which is quiet but cramped (tiliting profile again, but at least it uses it, unlike most Voyagers), with little luggage space and the famous self-opening toilet door.
And, as you say, when new / looked after / in their prime, something special – I spent many years travelling regularly on them, and they’re definitely a classic for me.
I find Pendolinos very claustrophobic* and as for window seats without windows, well….
* I was lucky enough to travel on APT-P as well and that was bright and airy, far nicer than a Pendo.
and for diesel fans there was often a fumey stench leaking into the cabin.
Which may have been fixed now.
Wonderful article, and when my wife and I ever make it to the UK, I’ll have to try to incorporate some rail travel.
The engine whine sounds like turbos spooling up… I might have missed it in the article, but do you know what the typical operating RPM is of the diesels? I would assume they are medium-speed engines… [googling] ah, I see they are high-speed engines (making 2,250 HP @ 1,500 RPM).
By the way, it’s Sir Kenneth Grange (knighted in 2013). Beautiful restyle and livery!
The constant high RPM, I believe, is necessitated by relatively high demand for electrical power in the carriages, as the HVAC systems are electrically powered. Many Amtrak diesels (the once-common EMD F40s in particular) have a similar elevated idle speed and are about as loud as the HSTs.
In the US, by the way, a lot of the equipment originally inherited by Amtrak, dated from the steam-to-diesel transition years, so the heating was supplied by steam piped from the locomotive. This meant that as late as the ’80s, some passenger diesels still carried auxiliary steam boilers for car heating. That equipment is now all gone, or has been retrofitted with electrical systems now.
“And the toilet discharges direct onto the tracks beneath.” I read it six times and I can’t still quite understand it.
There is no septic tank, in other words.
Originally, toilets on trains were not much more than a commode sitting on top of a hole in the floor (in many countries, there wasn’t even a commode, only a hole…and in some, that’s still the case). Only relatively recently have trains been fitted with closed sewage systems that carry the waste to the end of the run, or wherever the tanks get pumped out.
I’m sure that makes for a pleasant experience for the mechanics whenever maintenance is required on a train’s undercarriage.
As a kid, I very much enjoyed the experience of stepping on the pedal at the base of the toilet, watching the little metal door open, and the trickle of water (from where?) ‘flush’ the toilet contents down onto the tracks whizzing by below.
The Amtrak lines replaced most of their old equipment in the 1970s, but the old New York Central commuter line to Brewster NY stayed with this antiquated equipment through the mid-80s (oh what a nightmare they were!).
My friends and I used to ‘explore’ along the commuter tracks in Philadelphia, back when we were all ‘free range children’ , but we never made any correlation from our experiences in the rail cars toilets to what we were walking in along the tracks.
“All passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets, while the train
Is standing in the station for a while.
We encourage constipation
While the train is in the station
Cross your legs and grit your teeth and smile.”
thanks to Oscar Brand
Nice article .
Interesting article Big Paws, and the trains are immediately recognisable to me because they are 99% visually identical to the XPT model train I had, which is the New South Wales version of the HST that went into service in 1982. They are limited to 100 mph in service although are apparently capable of 120 mph. Like the HST they are still in service although moves are starting to plan their replacement.
Ive done a few trips on the XPT mostly Albury to Sydney great trains to ride on you’d never know your doing 160kmh untill you go past a town or something large and fixed,
HO scale is as close as I’ve gotten to an XPT. The last train trip I’ve done outside metro areas was from Bendigo to Melbourne before they upgraded the track, I believe sections were limited to 40km/h due to the poor condition and there was certainly enough movement that going faster was not a good idea.
About 8 years ago at another station I saw the rail move up and down at least 8″ between the bogies passing over a particular spot where the sleepers (timber) or ballast needed repair.
At the other end of the scale the high speed trains in Europe are pretty incredible, I’ve been on the ICE, TGV and Eurostar.
I didn’t have space to add in the XPT unfortunately – but not noticing the speed sounds just like the HST experience!
I go the UK every year for vacation, I love riding the trains there, I make a point to take a ride to a different location or 2 every visit. I wish we had such a system here in the US.
Great article, I must have been pulled by one of these on my month long trip to Britain in the early 90’s
Always thought it weird that English rails go bang-bang whereas I’m used to the clickety-clack of North American tracks.
Fascinating and informative article Big Paws! Thanks!
It’s amazing to me that the rail infrastructure in the UK is such that these can run on any passenger track in the country (or at least so the article suggests). While some of the larger cities in the more populous regions of the US have quality enough to allow for similar speeds, most of us are stuck with old, subpar freight track that limits speeds to embarrassingly low numbers. Hitting 75 MPH is cause for celebration. While I enjoy train travel, it’s so much slower than even traveling by car in most of the country. And, with all the other debatably useful things the government spends its money on, no one wants to authorize more funds for passenger rail, unless it’s commuter light rail within cities (and that’s even a hard sell).
The US is more than twice as large as the EU-28 which is one reason why air travel is more popular than trains in the US. Trains in the US proportionally ship more than twice as much freight than the EU, which ships more freight by road and water.
Star Wars Imperial Gunner hemet-esque frontend.