The Western Region was the first of the British Rail regions to introduce the Class 43 HST, and had also been the testing ground of the original Class 41 prototype back in the early 1970’s. The first HST operations on the Western Region was carried out on the 4th October, 1976, but 125mph speeds could only be carried out on certain sections of the line, although by 1980 as many sections of 125mph running had been introduced as possible. Initially, services only ran between London Paddington, Oxford, Swindon, Bristol Temple Meads, Cardiff and Swansea, although in 1979 a full service was provided to the South West of England including Exeter, Paignton, Plymouth, Newquay and Penzance.
The introduction of the HST services absolutely revolutionised the route, with the fastest morning services from Plymouth to London taking just under 3 hours instead of the previous 5 to 6. Additionally, the HST’s saw off many of the loco-hauled operations on this route, including the much-loved Class 52 ‘Western’ diesel hydraulic locomotives. Class 50’s from the West Coast Mainline began to take over on many loco-hauled services, but these were slowly pensioned off to other routes, and very soon services out of London Paddington were exclusively operated by HST’s, although Class 47’s
soldiered on until about 2004.
The Western Region was also known for its large amounts of developments to the HST fleet. Originally, the Class 43’s and their HST sets were powered by Paxman Valenta V12 engines that were also used in the Upholder/Victoria class submarines. These engines had 2,250hp at their disposal and could whisk the Class 43 powercars to their record breaking top speed of 148mph, although in routine operation these trains never went above 125mph. However, by the late 1980’s it was apparent that the Valenta engines were starting to look their age, and a variety of alternatives were analysed.
For a period of 9 years, 43167 to 43170 were trialled with Mirrlees Blackstone MB190 engines, but proved an unsuccessful replacement for the Valenta’s. In 1987, Paxman began development of an updated version of the Valenta dubbed the VP185. Trials began in 1991, and an agreement to commence installing these engines to members of the fleet was signed in 1993. A qualifying requirement for the trial was that the engine should undergo a British Rail Type Test which was carried out between December 1993 and February 1994. The test involved completion of 3,000 cycles, each of 10 minutes duration, with four minutes at the maximum power of 3,500hp and six minutes at idle, simulating the typical ‘on-off’ nature of IC125 duty. The successful results of the test cleared the way for installation of a VP185 in Power Car 43170 at Plymouth Laira Depot for in-service trials in the summer of 1994. Power car 43170 entered service on 22 September 1994, being named ‘Edward Paxman’ to commemorate the event.
During the late 1990’s 25 HST power cars were re-engined with Paxman 12VP185L engines in order to improve fuel consumption and reduce emissions, but these engines have proved less reliable in service than hoped. However, the 12VP185L was introduced fleet-wide within the Australian XPT series, a small fleet of HST sets built for the CountryLink services of Australia.
The very last VP185 engine to be manufactured at Paxman’s Colchester Works was despatched from the factory on 15th September, 2003, for duty with Midland Mainline. At the time Midland Mainline operated 18 of these powercars, whilst First Great Western operated 4.
On the 4th February, 1996, the Western Region became the first private franchise to operate following the privatisation of British Rail in 1994, this being under management of Great Western Trains, a subsidiary of the bus company Badgerline. HST powercars were outshopped in a very pleasing and striking Green and Ivory livery, which took us folks here in the South West by total surprise and admiration.
However, dark clouds arose with privatisation, the first being on the 19th September, 1997, at Southall, when a Bristol to London service hauled by 43173 smashed into a freight train after its defective Advanced Warning System (AWS) failed to register two amber and a red signal, with the result of 7 deaths and 139 injuries.
In March 1998, Badgerline was taken completely under the ownership of First Group, who promptly rebranded the franchise as of December the same year as First Great Western, revising the livery with a golden band that made the HST’s look something like a Golden Virginia cigarette packet, being affectionately dubbed ‘Fag Packet’ livery. FGW’s new ownership however was mired in yet another devastating crash, this time on October 5th, 1999, when a Thames Trains Class 165 overshot a red signal on its way out of London Paddington and smashed into the front of an approaching HST hauled by 43011 at Ladbroke Grove, resulting in the leading trailer of the 165 exploding and setting fire to the First Class carriages, with the result of 31 deaths and 523 injuries.
The most recent fatal crash of a First Great Western HST was on the 4th November, 2004, at Ufton Nervet, where 43018 operating an evening train to Paignton struck a car that had been deliberately parked on a Level Crossing caused by Brian Drysdale, a chef at the nearby Wokefield Park Hotel, committing suicide. Upon striking the car at 125mph, the HST essentially took-off and smashed down a few hundred yards down the line, killing 7 and injuring 71.
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, intending to extend the life of the HST’s by another 20 years. Engine changes began with 43009 and 43004, together with a new livery that is currently worn today. Over the next two years, the Class 43’s engines were replaced, the last three powercars, 43002, 43003 and 43034, making their final journeys under their original engines in December 2007.
Today the HST reliability and efficiency has been increased massively thanks to the new MTU engines, and First Great Western continues to carry out widespread operation of these plucky and powerful trains. The company has increased capacity with different Buffet cars, being reduced to Bar/Bistro’s, and the conversion of many
First Class trailers to Standard Class. In addition, as of September 21st, 2015, First Great Western underwent a major rebrand, taking a leaf from bygone days to change their entire image 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 may be running short for HST’s on the Great Western, as the new Class 800 Bi-Mode InterCity Express Programme intends to see these 39 year old trains retired by 2025. In the mean time, these services continue to be an integral part of the InterCity network to the South and West of London.