Class 43’s and their InterCity 125 sets were introduced onto the Cross Country Route towards the end of their production run in 1982. The Cross Country Route is traditionally designated as the line between Bristol Temple Meads, Birmingham, Derby, Chesterfield, Sheffield, Leeds, Doncaster and York, where it joins the East Coast Mainline, although the Cross Country service pattern used to be much more diverse, with some obscure trains such as Sunderland to Shrewsbury, Aberdeen to Portsmouth, Hull to Birmingham and Dover to Glasgow. HST’s primarily began operation on the longest services, those being from Penzance and Plymouth in the South West of England, to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in Scotland.
Upon their introduction, the HST sets began to replace the older loco-hauled classes and services being operated by ageing Class 45 and 46 Peaks, as well as Class 47’s, although in some instances a Class 50 would be pressed into service. The formation of these sets differed from the remainder of the HST sets in use as they only consisted of 7-cars (5 Standards, 1 Buffet, 1 First), as opposed to the 8-car formations on all other routes. Also, First Class was located at no particular end as these trains didn’t serve a London terminus, whereas usual train formation tradition would have First Class at
the London end, so business travellers didn’t have far to walk to their waiting Rolls Royce!
Although HST operation was widespread, and many sets dedicated to the operation of the routes, there weren’t enough to replace Loco-Hauled services entirely, and thus Class 47’s continued to be prime mover’s on the Cross-Country network right up until 2002 after the introduction of the Class 220/221 Voyagers.
In January 1997, the Cross Country network was privatised, and came under the ownership of Virgin Group, operator of both Cross Country services as well as trains on the West Coast Mainline from London Euston. For the Cross Country fleet, this consisted of 52 HST Powercars based at a variety of locations along their route, including Plymouth Laira, Manchester Longsight, Leeds Neville Hill, Derby Etches Park, Edinburgh Craigentinny, Glasgow Polmadie and Bristol St Phillips Marsh. This was the second largest number of HST Powercars operated by a single company behind Great Western Trains’ fleet, including all 9 of the rare Buffered Class 43 units that had been used during the testing of the
Class 91’s on the East Coast Mainline in the 1980’s.
The Network remained primarily the same, although there were less operations on the Southern Region, and many of the shorter journeys were cut back due to Franchise divisions. Additionally, the HST’s had the task of operating trains from London Euston to Holyhead as part of the West Coast Franchise, with officially 5 powercars owned by that franchise to work the service. These powercars however could be swapped with Cross Country sets and vice versa. Holyhead services differed in that they were formed of 8-cars, with the traditional First Class at the London end.
Reliability early on however was a big issue with the HST’s, with a prominent number of failures and cancellations due to poorly maintained stock. I remember well having my train cancelled due to a failure with the HST, or dragged into the station 6 hours
late by a Class 47. In fact the reliability issues meant that Class 47’s were posted at a myriad of locations so they could immediately spring into action if a Virgin HST happened to break down somewhere nearby.
Reliability issues were gradually improved as the franchise got to grips with its new fleet, and slowly the company began repainting trains from the previous InterCity Swallow livery into Virgin Trains red. In the Summer period, Virgin would increase capacity by hiring in a HST set from another company, usually GNER or Midland Mainline as their northern bases were more ideal for a single out-and-back journey.
However, as part of Virgin’s commitment to upgrade both franchises, the company made an order in March 1998 to lease 34 Class 220 ‘Voyagers’ and 40 Class 221 tilting ‘Super Voyagers’ from Bombardier to replace loco-hauled and HST services on the Cross-Country network. Loco-hauled services were first to go, with the Class 47’s
bowing out in September 2002. An increase in popularity however for the 2001 Summer Season forced Virgin to retain their HST’s, but reduce them to 5-cars nicknamed ‘Challengers’ so they could keep up with the faster acceleration of the Voyager units. Some services did still operate at 7-cars, operating to their own diagrams, but time was rapidly running out for the HST’s on the Cross Country network. The axe finally fell at the end of the 2003 Summer Season on September 27th, with the final service being to Glasgow Central hauled by 43154 and 43157.
This wasn’t the end of the HST’s however, as capacity issues with the smaller Voyager units meant that soon afterwards, Virgin was once again hiring HST’s from Midland Mainline and GNER to operate the service. As for ex-Virgin Trains sets, these were either placed into storage or sold on to other operators, most notably Midland Mainline, who began to use them on the Project Rio service from London St Pancras to Manchester Piccadilly whilst the West Coast was being rebuilt.. These services ended in 2004, but some sets were retained while others were sent to First Great Western and GNER.
In November 2007 however, Virgin Trains lost the Cross Country franchise to Arriva, who made it their intention to return regular HST operation to the network. 5 former Midland Mainline Project Rio sets were brought in and refurbished throughout 2008 to operate 4 diagrams a day as far as Plymouth, two from Leeds, one from Edinburgh, and one from Glasgow. Powercars in operation with Cross Country were re-engined with brand new MTU powerplants, and their numbers changed to be increased by a figure of 200. Carriages were also refurbished, with the removal of the Buffet in place of a small kitchen, with food and drink service provided by a trolley. Seat reservations were made electronic, and the general interiors of the carriage fully refreshed for a much more pleasing interior.
Today these HST’s continue to ply their trade on the Cross Country network, having never truly disappeared from the route. Most of the time these sets prove even more popular than First Great Western’s, and considerably more than the Voyagers, and if I’m travelling to the Midlands I’ll often try to reserve myself onto a HST (although Cross Country are known for supplying a Voyager instead at the last minute).