The InterCity 125’s were first introduced on the East Coast Mainline in Summer 1978 as the second region to receive HST behind the original Western Region. Services operated from London King’s Cross initially to Newcastle, York, Darlington, Leeds, Hull and Edinburgh, taking charge of the famous Flying Scotsman service, doing the run in 4 and a half hours
compared to that of the previous Class 55 Deltic locomotives and their time of 5 hours and 55 minutes. Very soon the HST sets, then designated under TOPS as Class 254 Diesel Multiple Units, took charge of all premier services on the Eastern Region out of King’s Cross, displacing the Deltic’s to semi-fast and slower operations before full withdrawal of the class in 1982. The removal of the Class 55’s coincided with the final production of the Class 43’s, which were now heavily operated across the UK network, with primary praise for their speed and efficiency on the East Coast Mainline, a route that continued to maintain its reputation as one of the fastest railways in Britain.
This was further added to by the opening of the Selby Diversion, a re-routing of the
traditional East Coast Mainline to the west of a notable bottleneck at Selby, where the Swing-Bridge on the River Ouse would cause major delays, especially in the event a ship struck the structure. As such, between 1976 and 1983, a new route built primarily for the 125mph HST sets was opened across the former Selby Coalfields between Doncaster and York, bringing this slow section of the mainline up to a consistent speed of 125mph. The InterCity 125’s benefited heavily from this new route, and reductions in journey time came down to just under 4 hours between Edinburgh and London. Full HST distribution on the Eastern Region was completed in 1979, with sets working one of the longest single journeys in the UK between London and Inverness on the 8 hour ‘Highland Chieftain’ and the 7 hour ‘Aberdonian’ to Aberdeen, now known as the ‘Northern Lights’.
HST’s however have not constantly dominated the East Coast, as between 1986 and 1990 the route was electrified from King’s Cross to Edinburgh and Leeds as part of a major modernisation plan. As such, following the widespread introduction of the
Class 91 InterCity 225 sets from 1988 onwards, the HST’s began to be redistributed elsewhere, primarily to the Midland Region and the Cross Country network. Upon privatization in 1996, GNER, or Great North Eastern Railway, inherited a fleet of 21 Power-Cars from InterCity, used primarily for long-distance trains to Aberdeen and Inverness, but would occasionally cover for Class 91’s on intermediate services on the East Coast. Trains were
outshopped in GNER’s striking Midnight Blue with orange waistband livery and continued to provide a valuable part of the ECML network. Between 2002 and 2007, GNER carried out a major refurbishment of its fleet called ‘Project Mallard’, including new carriage interiors, updated mechanics and lighting such as LED headlights, and, for the HST’s, replacement of their original Paxman Valenta engines to the newly developed MTU engines trialed by First Great Western. Sadly, GNER would not see out the end of the Project as in 2007 it’s ownership of the route was removed due to financial instability with regard to its parent company Sea Containers. The franchise was eventually won by National Express, which set up National Express East Coast and continued to update the fleet to MTU power. The final powercars updated to MTU engines were 43110 ‘Stirlingshire’ and 43108, which lost their Valenta’s in mid-2008.
Since then, in spite of the various franchise changes that have taken place on the East Coast Mainline, from National Express to the government owned East Coast Trains in 2009 and finally to Virgin Trains East Coast in 2015, the fleet has remained largely the same. The fleet has been largely expanded through the inheritance of ex-Virgin Trains Class 43’s, as well as several former Midland Mainline and East Midlands Trains sets. Networks for the
HST’s have been expanded to services to Hull and Lincoln, and occasionally sees the hiring of extra HST sets from other operators, including Arriva Cross Country, East Midlands Trains, and, in some rare instances, First Great Western.
In addition to the operations of HST sets by the East Coast Mainline’s franchise holder, the rise of Open Access operators resulted in the creation of Grand Central, which began operations in December 2007 as a rival to the then franchise holder National Express East Coast. As part of the service startup, Grand Central leased 3 HST sets from Poterbrook, these consisting of all but two of the rare buffer-fitted HST powercars. Sets consist of 6-coaches operating between London King’s Cross and Sunderland via the Durham Coast Line, with the company putting a greater level of service and comfort as their unique selling point. This fleet was complimented in around 2009 by sets of redundant Class 180’s which had come out of storage after withdrawal by First Great Western. Originally, Grand Central’s HST’s were the last to be fitted with their original Paxman Valenta engines, making them extremely popular with enthusiasts. However, to conform to EU emissions regulations, the sets were gradually converted to MTU power, the last being done in 2010.
As Grand Central expanded its service to Bradford Interchange, Class 43’s remained dedicated to the Sunderland service while Class 180’s worked the Bradford trains. On some occasions, a HST would operate to Bradford to cover for a 180 if it was out of action, but this was very rare. Eventually, however, the desire for a standardized fleet of Class 180’s, which are only 15 years old, meant that, from around 2015, mutterings of HST replacement began to become a major issue. This was eventually confirmed with the transfer of First Great Western’s remaining 5 Class 180’s in December 2017 to the company, expanding the Grand Central fleet to 10 of these units. This coincided with the withdrawal of HST operations, with the three 6-car sets being transferred to East Midlands Trains, spelling the end of HST operation with the open-access provider.
For Virgin’s HST’s, the future is equally bleak as the development of the Class 800 IEP (Intercity Express Project) sets gathers pace, with bi-mode diesel/electric units being proposed to replace the HST’s on their long-distance trains to Inverness and Aberdeen. But until then, the mighty HST is expected to remain a vital part of the operations up and down the East Coast of Britain.