Since its pioneering introduction on the Western Region way back in 1976, the HST has been one of the most phenomenal successes in British Railway history. From the moment its sleek, streamlined nose made an appearance on Brunel’s classic railway between London, Bristol and the southwest, it has revolutionised services on what had previously been a slow and tedious railway. Today, in the twilight of their careers and with retirement on the horizon, the HST’s continue to show what they can do; even giving technology 40 years younger than themselves a run for its money.
The Great Western is often considered Britain’s first, true mainline railway; a brilliant example of Victorian engineering that was the brainchild of legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Through decades of sweat and toil, Brunel bridged rivers and blasted through hills to create the perfect railway; a line that would connect the capital of the British Empire with one of its most significant homeland ports, Bristol.
Over time the line saw expansion, acquiring several smaller railways en route. In the southwest, it continued through the historic city of Exeter before skirting the South Devon coast on the famous Sea Wall before reaching Plymouth; eventually crossing over the mighty River Tamar and winding its way through the Cornish Valleys to Penzance on the furthest tip of England. The Great Western also extended north via Banbury and Leamington to Birmingham, Wolverhampton and eventually Birkenhead on the shores of the River Mersey; opposite Liverpool. Perhaps the railway’s main domination was Wales, where trunk mainlines connected the major cities of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea while nearly every valley had at least one GWR branchline serving it.
However, by the beginning of the 1970’s, the glamorous days of Brunswick Green steam engines had been replaced by a sad display of unloved and tired diesel locomotives. The Western Region had gained notoriety for its independent attitude towards its British Rail masters, having developed its own system of operation while also creating its own fleet of locomotives.
The Western Region, unlike the other BR regions, comprised a fleet largely made up of diesel-hydraulic locomotives, namely the Class 42’s, Class 35’s and the famous Class 52 ‘Westerns’. These were supplemented by BR’s regular diesel-electric locomotives, such as Class 37’s and 47’s, to fill in the shortfall.
Additionally, trunk services between London, Bristol and Birmingham played host to the special Western and Midland Pullman services. These all-first class premier trains were comprised of two powercars and either six or eight coaches sandwiched between them. The result were revolutionary 90mph trains that worked top expresses across the Western and Midland Regions. However, these units were retired in 1973 after only 13 years of service due to increasing maintenance costs and persistent complaints regarding ride quality. Notwithstanding this, many of the principles behind the Pullman sets would make their way into the later High Speed Train development.
In spite of their arguably improved performance over diesel-electrics, diesel-hydraulic locomotives had been deemed non-standard by BR, and thus were slated for early retirement. This meant that maintenance of these engines was rudimentary at best, leading to concerns regarding reliability. Furthermore, the infrastructure of the Great Western mainline had been allowed to severely deteriorate; meaning journeys were disappointingly slow. A journey from London to Penzance, for instance, would take nearly 8 hours; while the condition of the rolling stock in general was old and decrepit.
Something had to be done, and thankfully it was; though in essence this action wasn’t deliberate.
As part of the modernisation of British Railways, experiments had been carried out to develop the world’s first tilting train; predicated on similar principles to that of motorcyclists in that leaning into corners would reduce the effects of centrifugal force at speed. The project, dubbed the Advanced Passenger Train (APT), considered the creation of articulated gas turbine multiple units that would help to iron out the corners on Britain’s winding rail network; thereby improving journey times.
By 1970, though, the APT project was running behind schedule, and BR desperately needed a viable stopgap that would help to reverse the company’s ailing fortunes. It was therefore decided that a diesel-powered high speed train would be created to act as short-term relief until the APT could be delivered.
The fruits of this interim project came to pass in the form of the Class 252); the prototype HST. The Class 252 consisted of a 2+8 formation of two Class 41 powercars, two first class coaches, a buffet, and five second class coaches; the coaches comprising of brand new Mark 3 carriages developed specially for the HST project.
The powercars were fitted with Paxman Valenta 12RP200L engines producing 2,250 horsepower; propelling the train to a top speed of 143mph. Upon attaining a top speed of 143mph, the prototype HST stole the world record for fastest diesel-powered train, with drivers convinced it could easily make 150mph if pushed. However, BR demanded that high speed tests were to cease after this record; as they purportedly feared the HST would steal the APT’s thunder as the future of rail transport.
The prototype HST was launched in autumn 1972, and began trials on the northern section of the East Coast Mainline; undertaking high speed tests on the famous ‘Racetrack’ section of the line between Darlington and York.
Eventually, it migrated south to the Western Region in June 1973, and began working between London Paddington, Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. At first, due to the condition of the track, the HST was limited to 90mph, as well as following the timetable of a regular loco-hauled service. However, despite its somewhat kerbed potential, the brand new Mark 3 coaches were lauded for their practical design, comfort and cleanliness. My dad rode the prototype HST in 1975, and said that riding on it was unlike any British train that had preceded it. It was quiet, it was smooth; it was a vision of the future.
Such was the popularity of the prototype that eventually production versions of the HST began to arrive on the Western Region in late 1975. For the next 8 months, the sets were tested and drivers trained, while in preparation for full service the track infrastructure and signalling was modified to allow for 125mph running.
Eventually, on October 4th, 1976, the first production HST entered revenue earning service on the Western Region between London Paddington, Bristol and south Wales. While 125mph operation could only be done on certain parts of the route, by 1980, as many sections of the line had been upgraded as possible; allowing these magnificent trains to absolutely fly. Initially, services only ran between London Paddington, Oxford, Swindon, Bristol Temple Meads, Cardiff and Swansea, but in 1979 a full service was provided to the southwest of England as well; including Exeter, Paignton, Plymouth, Newquay and Penzance.
The introduction of the HST was one of the most revolutionary moments in British railway history, slashing journey times across the network while also providing a level of comfort that was completely unprecedented. London and Plymouth were brought to within 3 hours of each other (as opposed to the previous 5 hours) and Penzance could now be reached in just under 6 hours. Speeds attained between Bristol and London were so fast that the two cities are now within just over an hour of each other; essentially making Bristol a commuter town of London.
Widespread deployment of the HST completely upturned the balance of rolling stock provision. The few remaining diesel-hydraulic locomotives were retired, while loco-hauled trains were relegated to secondary services. Trunk operation was solely the domain of the HST and passenger numbers soared thanks to the crisp, new carriage design and high quality on-board catering; thanks primarily to the spacious kitchen area provided in the expansive buffet car. Picking up on the success of the new trains, BR launched the “Age of the Train” publicity campaign; presented by the controversial Jimmy Saville.
Further to the HST’s initial launch on the Western Region, the Class 43 powercars that support the sets have seen their fair share of innovation thanks to the extensive fleet operating on the line.
HST’s were originally powered by Paxman Valenta V12 engines, which were also used in the Upholder/Victoria class submarines. However, by the late 1980’s, British Rail considered alternative forms of power to replace the ageing Valenta engines.
In 1987, 43167 to 43170 were trialled with 2,400hp Mirrlees Blackstone MB190 engines from the Class 60; but these proved to be an unsuccessful replacement for the Valenta’s and were ultimately removed in 1996. That same year, Paxman began development of an updated version of the Valenta dubbed the VP185, with trails commencing in 1991. Eventually, four powercars were fitted with VP185’s between December 1993 and February 1994, with 43170 being the first to enter service with the powerplant on September 22nd, 1994; being named ‘Edward Paxman’ to commemorate the event. All powercars fitted with VP185’s were based at Laira depot in Plymouth, and worked solely on the Western Region; with the exception of later VP185 fitted powercars used on the Midland Main Line.
On February 4th, 1996, following the privatisation of British Rail, the Western Region became the first private franchise to gain an operating certificate, this being under the management of of Great Western Trains; a joint venture between bus company Badgerline, which had a majority share, and First Group.
HST powercars were outshopped in a very pleasing and striking Green and Ivory livery, arguably one of the best liveries to adorn a HST set. Great Western made a huge effort to promote their identity, with modified interiors, shiny new colours, and a completely new image.
However, on September 19th, 1997, tragedy struck at Southall when a Bristol to London HST service slammed into a freight train at 125mph; killing 7 and injuring 139.
The crash was the first fatal accident involving the HST, and became a seriously controversial one when it was discovered that the cause was due to poor maintenance of the Advanced Warning System (AWS); which failed to register two amber signals and a red. Traced back to Great Western themselves, the company was fined £1.5 million, and privatisation as a whole was brought into doubt; specifically due to fears of a lack of suitable cash flow as income was based almost entirely on ticket sales with minimal government subsidy.
Eventually, in 1998, First Group bought the majority share in Badgerline, and Great Western Trains subsequently became First Great Western; revising the livery with a golden band that made the HST’s look something like a Golden Virginia cigarette packet (affectionately dubbed ‘Fag Packet’ livery).
Before FGW was even a year old, however, another tragic accident occurred when on the morning of October 5th, 1999, a HST service arriving into London Paddington was struck nearly head-on by a Thames Trains Class 165 multiple unit that was leaving the terminus. The ensuing crash caused the fuel tanks of the 165 to explode, engulfing the first class carriages of the HST in flames and killing 31 passengers. The blame was put on Thames Trains and the railway infrastructure governing body Railtrack; as it was a mixture of the former’s poor training programmes and the latter’s failure to identify and amend a barely visible signal that led to the accident.
The mixture of the Southall and Ladbroke Grove crashes, combined with the later Hatfield and Potters Bar disasters, were among the most fundamental factors behind the bankruptcy and collapse of private rail infrastructure management company Railtrack. Railtrack’s failure left the network in total disarray, and it was eventually renationalised to form Network Rail; with infrastructure projects now directly funded by the UK government.
In 2002, the HST fleet was supplemented by the arrival of the Class 180 express multiple units; five car trains which were expected to take over FGW’s top express services.
However, teething problems combined with less than stellar performance of these mechanically unsound units meant they were demoted to secondary services before being fully removed from Great Western operations in 2009. Otherwise, the HST fleet was increased following the withdrawal of Virgin Trains’ fleet in September 2003; replacing them with the fundamentally flawed Class 220 and 221 Voyager units.
However, disaster struck again on November 4th, 2004, when an FGW HST working between London and Paignton struck a car on a level crossing at Ufton Nervet near Newbury. The train, travelling at 125mph, was forced into the air before crashing in a mangled heap a few hundred yards down the line; killing 7 and injuring 71.
Sole blame for the crash was placed on the car’s driver, Brian Drysdale, a chef working at the nearby Wokefield Park Hotel who was committing suicide. The crash also brought to the public attention the inherent dangers of level crossings, with new legislation brought in after the accident to improve or replace crossings wherever possible.
In 2005, First Great Western, in cooperation with leasing company Angel Trains and
MTU of Germany, set about replacing the original Paxman Valenta engines of the 1970’s with brand new MTU 16V 4000 engines. These new MTU engines were part of a major life extension scheme that expected to see the class still working well into the mid-2020’s. Engine changes began with 43009 and 43004, together with a new livery that is still worn on some units as of late 2018. Over the next two years, the Class 43’s engines were systematically replaced; with the last three powercars, 43002, 43003 and 43034, making their final journeys under their original engines in December 2007.
The success and reliability of the MTU’s have since seen them implemented across nearly the entire fleet of HST’s working today; with the exception of VP185 powerplants used by East Midlands Trains.
The replacement of the engines was complimented by a widespread refurbishment of these trains to increase capacity, including the replacement of buffet cars into smaller bar/bistros, while first class trailers have been converted to standard class.
In addition, as of September 21st, 2015, First Great Western underwent a major rebrand that saw their entire image change to one that harped back to the classic Great Western Railway prior to 1948’s nationalisation. Sets are now being painted into Brunswick Green, interiors are being refreshed, and the First brand is being dropped from the name; replaced by what is now the new reimagining of the Great Western Railway.
However, time is running short for widespread HST operations across the Western Region, as, following the October 2017 launch of the brand new Class 800 bi-mode InterCity Express Trains (IET), HST sets are now being taken off-lease and put into store. Regardless, even in the face of their final withdrawal, the HST’s are still able to find a hard, working life afterwards.
Great Western intend to continue operating 12 short sets for use on services between Cardiff and Penzance; comprised of a 2+4 arrangement with modified Mark 3 coaches fitted with automatic plug doors. In October 2018, the first of 27 short sets began working for Scotrail on long-distance trains between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness; replacing Class 170’s on these routes and providing a premier service.
Even as HST sets are put into storage, other operators continue to show interest in these magnificent trains; with GBRF considering the possibility of converting redundant HST sets to freight and parcels trains.
So, looking back at the HST, what can you say about the career of a train that literally changed the face of British Railways and brought it back from the brink?
The HST is a timeless design that continues to excite passengers and crews even to this day. With a perfect mixture of style and substance, the train has outlived many of its contemporaries, and evolved from a simple stopgap into the mainstay of our nation’s rail operations. While the APT that was meant to take over from the HST subsequently died the death in the mid-1980’s, the HST continues to be a pillar of strength on the railway scene; being fast, practical, flexible and endlessly reliable.
The fact that companies still try to find uses for the HST, despite the fact it’s over 40 years old, is truly a testament to the strength and appeal of these fantastic trains.
Long may they continue to serve. 🙂