Events : HST@40 – St Philips Marsh Depot Open Day

We love our cars but we also adore the High Speed Train (HST), the iconic high speed train that’s just reached an incredible 40 years in public service – and is still going strong. Mike Humble travelled to Bristol and spoke to its stylist and designer, Sir Kenneth Grange, along with other key railway figures…

Words: Mike Humble Photography: Mike Humble, Jacky Lawler, Andrew Elphick

Including the prototype power car, six class members from all over the UK joined the celebrations to mark the High Speed Train’s 40th birthday in Bristol

Trains… is there much else mechanical that tugs on the heartstrings of most red-blooded little boys and some girls for that matter? Legend is a word that often gets thrown around too much in our modern society, a society where looking back seems to be the only way forward. But almost 50 years ago plans within British Rail’s hierarchy were morphing into a shape that would change the public perception of rail transportation. Those plans and, indeed its shape, without any doubt became the stuff of wonderment and true legend – not just in the UK, but all over the world. I am, of course, referring to the BR Class 43… the High Speed Train.

So, when it was announced that GWR was to open the doors to its Bristol-based St Phillips Marsh traction depot to celebrate 40 years of the High Speed Train, I didn’t need much persuasion to attend. The event was raising money for the Springboard for Children charity and, all in all, over 5000 people attended, which was considerably more than was initially expected. Even long before the gates were opened, an orderly queue was slowly forming that eventually spread along the road for a good few hundred yards and the atmosphere were electric as both the young and old patiently waited for 10.30am.

It needs to be said that GWR and its events staff put on an amazing display of HST and heritage traction, organisation was spot on. The stars of the show came from operators including Grand Central, East Midlands Trains, Network Rail, Virgin East Coast and, of course, the prototype power car which now lives in the hands of the very capable 125 Group. However, in the interest of balance, there was a mouth-watering collection of heritage locomotives, too ranging from the LMS steamer Royal Scot to diesel traction such as the Class 08 shunter right through to the mighty Class 50, the latter seeing their daily operational duties replaced by the HST for services into the West Country.

It’s only the second time in the history of the depot that the gates have been opened to the general public and by midday the crowds were as thick as what you would find at a theme park. Despite the varied collection of heritage that included steam, the HST was the star attraction on the day with six examples from various operators of the former InterCity network proudly standing to attention with the freshly-restored prototype power car. But there was a nice surprise in store too. All attendees knew there was going to be a power car naming ceremony on the day, but just how special this was to be came as a very pleasant moment in history.

The oldest power car, and still in daily use received a special retro Inter City wrap livery and was named in the honour of Sir Kenneth Grange. A replica name plate is handed to Ken from GWR engineering director Andy Mellors.
The oldest power car – 43002 which is still in daily use received a special retro InterCity wrap livery and was named in the honour of Sir Kenneth Grange. A replica name plate is handed to Ken from GWR’s Engineering Director, Andy Mellors

One of Britain’s leading stylists and industrial designers, Sir Kenneth Grange, was in attendance to name power car 43002 in his honour. Sir Kenneth was involved with British Rail from the outset in 1968 when the idea of a new breed of high-speed train was first mooted. The HST project came from a boardroom coup within the British Rail Board of Directors on a separate project known as APT or Advanced Passenger Train. Disagreements broke out over the heavy usage of unproven technology with APT such as its propulsion and tilting suspension methods. The Engineering Team that featured existing rail engineers and the best young talent from the nautical and aerospace sector soon found themselves at loggerheads.

It was only when a splinter group of dye-in-the-wool railway boffins headed up by the late Chief Engineer, Terry Miller, bluntly told the board that they could have a prototype express passenger train capable of speeds well in excess of 100mph using a more conventional diesel electric power supply. The bandy gang of renegades all agreed that this could be a reality within two years and put their case to the Board. They were told to get on with it and, true to their words, a prototype of the 4500hp diesel electric train we now fondly call the HST was soon hammering its way around the network undertaking extensive proving runs – breaking the world speed record for a diesel train in 1973 at 143mph just for good measure. A production set smashed that record in 1987 with a recorded 148mph!

Some impressive heritage exhibits were also on public display including this mouth watering brace of BR Class 50's.
Some impressive heritage exhibits were also on public display including this mouth-watering brace of BR Class 50s.

Sir Kenneth was initially commandeered to try styling ideas for exterior decoration and the InterCity livery, but it was only when he decided to sketch some of his own ideas out that plans really took off and a milestone in British Railway history was created. Thinking that the existing cab looked clumsy and in need of some radical aesthetic improvement, Sir Kenneth, on one of his many think tank meetings at BR’s Derby-based technical headquarters, pulled out his artwork in front of the BR Board and awaited a response.

‘I was very much treated by some as a young upstart by some rail men who had worked in the business man and boy. Some wondered just who the hell I thought I was when it was they who ought to know better about designing a train.’  Sir Kenneth Grange on his occasional frosty receptions from key BR engineering managers.

With a huge grin he told me ‘there was a short silence as the drawings were passed around the room for inspection, you could almost hear the wall clock ticking and then came a huge tidal wave of acceptance”. Despite now being 86 years old, Sir Ken talks with youthful animation and total recall, chuckling to himself when he looks back thinking what these world wise engineers must have initially thought. Sir Ken quips: I was very much treated by some as a young upstart by some rail men who had worked in the business man and boy. Some wondered just who the hell I thought I was when it was they who ought to know better about designing a train’ – that still tickles him pink to this day.

Attitudes within BR changed from that moment and, despite considerable sum already invested in the prototype power car, his restyle was universally applauded and set in stone for full-scale production. I suggested to him that maybe this was a rare example of everyone from the driver to the Chairman of the Board all singing from the same hymn sheet. His eyes light up and he retorts with a proud assertive tone: ‘Absolutely dear boy, and the speed at which the project went along from that moment onwards was incredible.’

Despite his maturing years Sir Kenneth Grange was a fascinating man to talk to. I have idolised his HST design all my lifetime and it was a pleasure to spend some time with him.
Despite his maturing years, Sir Kenneth Grange has a boyish charm and infectious enthusiasm in his way of explaining things – he was a fascinating man to talk to. I have idolised his styling and the engineering aspects of the HST all my lifetime. It was a genuine pleasure to spend some time with him

We were sitting in a newly-refurbished GWR Mk3 first class coach and, while we were talking, his eyes would occasionally scan everything from the carpet to the light fixtures in the roof. The man clearly cannot stop looking and studying every shape and form – this was something I noticed when I spent some time with another great designer, Dr. Tom Karen. It was obvious that he still feels very proud of his involvement, so I ask if this was the case: ‘Of all the things I have styled and put my mark on, most of which millions of people have had tangible exposure to, the HST has been the most thrilling project of them all.’

‘It revolutionised public transport and, to this day, continues to symbolise high speed rail travel.’ Andy Mellors, GWR’s Engineering Director

I even managed to speak to a couple of drivers and both stated that, even now, they get a subconscious thrill from being at the helm of a train they dreamed about driving when they were just boys still at school. Engineering staff still have a huge amount of respect for the train too, and Engineering Director, Andy Mellors, was keen to point out that the train was designed from the ground up to appeal to everyone that mattered from the passengers to the fitters. He went on state: ‘It revolutionised public transport and, to this day’ continues to symbolise high speed rail travel.’ A testimony to the ruggedness of the original design is the incredible feat that the class has now travelled a combined distance of around 803 million miles!

Despite the ongoing bar-room argument that is privatisation, one thing still runs clear and that is the incredible emotion and affection for a man-made hulk of steel. Just like other legendary icons of transport such as Concorde, the HST is an emotive and iconic piece of design and ingenuity that outstripped all expectations of it. Not only that, but it turned around the fortunes of BR and yet forty years on still makes boys, girls and adults stand and stare in admiration. Without a doubt, the HST has been the most important and game-changing train in the history of 20th century railways… Happy birthday my friend!


We would proudly like to mention that well over £65,000 was raised for the Springboard for Children charity. Our thanks go to the following people for their time and help on the day:

  • Sir Kenneth Grange
  • James Davis and Paul Gentleman – GWR Press Office
  • Andy Mellors – GWR Engineering Director
  • All the staff who gave up their time for free and the GWR Events Team
Mike Humble


  1. The HST power car does look good in the original livery, but I think with the MTU engine they have lost their souls
    The VP 185 powered ones aren’t to bad at least making some noise.
    An MTU one in BR livery is a bit like painting the Vulcan in Luftwaffe livery!

  2. Why?

    The re-engineering programmes have kept them going and ushered in the reliability required of a 21st century privatised railway.

    The Valenta was life expired and no longer in production and was getting expensive and difficult to keep in order… failure rates were getting pretty bad as the early nineties unfolded.

    The original plan was to fit the Paxman VP185 (itself loosely based on the RP200) units after trying these alongside a Mirrlees Blackstone engine (the latter was not a good unit) but plans for privatisation were already afoot and it was left for the ROSCO’s to decide the fate of the RP200 Valenta.

    Besides… The MTU16v4000 program was engineered and designed just up the road from me… East Grinstead in fact.

    BTW… Did you know who actually owns MTU? – – – We do! and oddly enough, what’s left of Paxman is now under the ownership of MAN Diesel.

    Rolls Royce Power Generation Systems wholly own MTU (UK firm and NOT German)… Not all bad news eh?

  3. Great article – with just one error – you call Kenneth Grange a ‘stylist’ – that’s not quite true – he is an ‘Industrial Designer’ – there is a distinction (I am a qualified one). And one of the greatest to come from the UK (one of the others works for Apple…….)

  4. At one time Virgin wanted to halve the sets to have 4 carriages with a 43 at one end and a driving trailer at the other.

    In the end they ordered the Voyagers instead.

    HMS Belfast has a similar mismatch of spec & livery, as it was refitted in the 1950s but has it’s WWII paint scheme.

  5. Richard, that isn’t strictly true (although there is some fact in it). Even with DVTs (which there weren’t any at the time as they were all in service on the WCML until the Pendolinos were introduced and in regular service – the Voyagers came first) and combining Cross Country and West Coast’s (the 2 original Virgin Franchises) fleet of HSTs – bear in mind that First Great Western (First had by that time taken over GWT), GNER and Midland Mainline were hanging onto theirs, they wouldn’t have got near the number of voyagers that were introduced.

    Virgin bid for the Cross Country franchise with the promise of all new stock (the Voyager and Super Voyager). However the Department of Transport (this was the correct name at the time) did not allow them to order enough. Virgin’s idea for the “challenger” sets was a number of 2+5 HST (2 power cars and 5 Mk3 coaches – 1 first, 1 buffet and 3 standard) to supplement the Voyager fleet (and some challenger sets actually ran whilst the Voyagers were being introduced. Sadly the government decided that Virgin would not lease HSTs after the Voyagers were all in normal service, and they ended up over on the MML supplementing their fleet for Project Rio (a service to Manchester Piccadilly to cover for the southern WCML being shut for upgrades) before a few went into storage, and ultimately ended up going to Network Rail, Grand Central and FGW.

  6. That original livery is still by far and away the best, perfectly complementing the train’s own lines, rather than clashing with them as all the other awkward and garish liveries have done since. Is there a plan to re-livery a whole train set, rather than just one power car?

    Happy Birthday, HST. May you celebrate many more.

    …and if the landlord of this parish will allow me to post a vid., can I recommend arguably one of the best TV advertisements ever made:

  7. As Michael McIntyre would say the HST my favourite of them all!

    Loved my Hornby model back in the 1980s as it was so modern – even remember those dodgy ads staring Jimmie Savile and the age of the train! not a good thought! lol

  8. I knew I was on the right lines (no pun intended!)

    I remember the police loco ad, there was even a model made of it IIRC.

    I also had a Hornby HST set, though it’s long been up my parents loft.

  9. I just think the MTU is too quiet, but that’s what the modern operators of the railway want
    About 12 years ago I was working for central trains, we used to have to refresh the route between Leicester and Nottingham now and again as our depot didn’t have any booked work over it.
    I’ve never officially signed HSTs but have driven them quite a few times over the years.
    This day I got in the front of one at Leicester and the driver asked me if I wanted to take it.
    So I got in the seat ,two buzzers from the guard, blew the brake off and into power notch one, as soon as I felt all the train moving into notch 4 full power and the glorious valenta scream drowned out every noise on Leicester station,just as they did all over the UK . The driver turned to me and said we aren’t allowed to do that anymore as it scares the passengers!!

    Here is an example of scaring passengers I’m the fat bloke with the orange bag getting into the cab!

    I didn’t realise MTU was British owned,if only they had no silencer!

  10. I remember when Midland Mainline were operating Manchester – London services a few years ago, & occasionally during weekends they were diverted via Marple to get on the Hope Valley line.

    So I often had the chance to see them pass the back of my parents house, the engine sound was a big giveaway.

  11. That sounds like Operation Rio, when the WCML was closed for upgrades. I got Leicester to Manchester return for £20 – for a £10 supplement I got a wide, reclining chair in first class – lolling in luxury watching the Hope Valley scenery fly by – happy days!

  12. Yes it was when the WCML was being upgraded & services tranferred to the Midland Mainline.

  13. The Inter City 125/ HST revolutionised the ECML when it was introduced in 1978. The Deltic service was good, of course, but the introduction of the HST knocked 45 minutes off the Newcastle- London journey, meaning Newcastle and London were less than three hours apart on express services. Also there were big improvements in catering, often a joke then, as the Inter City 125 used microwave ovens and in comfort as all carriages were air conditioned( there were still some early Mark 2 non air con carriages in use then).

  14. The catering in the early days was excellent, so good that the que for the buffet often extending into the next coach, how often do you see that today. They did a range similar to wimpy bars served in rectangular plastic trays and it wasn’t expensive. Even as kids we would have something to eat on the train if returning to Middlesbrough from York. That service hasn’t ran for years.
    Also when first built ,although it received criticism for the windows not fully lining up with the seats in second class ,the only airline type seating was 8 seats either side of the central partition.
    A lovely light airey feel to the coach nothing like the current battery hen style interior on the great Western ones today.

  15. @ Russ Pigott, it seemed the Inter City 125 was a winner wherever it was introduced.
    I did hear the tradition for excellent catering continued when the late, lamented GNER took over the ECML in 1997. This is one private rail operator which is missed, apart from the catering, the trains looked upmarket, the staff were immaculately attired and polite and the trains were mostly clean. I’ve not used the ECML since GNER went out of business, but the grey livery favoured by East Coast looked awful.

  16. I suppose GNER weren’t too bad, I was never keen on the livery, the 91s looked awful in it especially as they had looked so good in Inter-city.
    I believe the original HST buffet car had a deep fat fryer and griddle.
    I just never think of using any on train catering these days, expensive rubbish. Always makes me laugh on the Anglia Norwich London services, the buffet car attendant anounounces ‘we have a great selection of sandwiches’ err I’ll be the judge of that thank you!
    Getting back to the HST a few years ago was lucky enough to have a tour of the prototype power car when it was being restored.
    That one actually has a second cab at the rear for shunting, though at present its not operable but will be restored sometime.
    It also sounds weird as it has conventional electric train supply 800-1000vdc it idles at 750rpm and the governor jacks the fuel rack to maintain this speed when train supply is on.
    The production ones Idle at 800 and 1000rpm when train supply is on this because it’s an alternator on those supplying 415vac to the train

  17. Being a one time owner of a vauhall Firenza HPF, I’ve alswyas considered this to be a Droop Snoot Train!

  18. Speaking of Kenneth Grange being tickled pink, apparently he used to attend meetings at Derby wearing a pink denim suit. He thought he looked like the dog’s wotsits, but the rail designers were laughing up their sleeves. Felt tip fairies, eh. (as they call stylists in automotive)

  19. The Inter City 125 lives on in shortened form on Scot Rail where they are used on long distance services, a huge improvement over the DMUs that were in use for 30 years. On a service like Aberdeen to Glasgow, an Inter City 125 is a far better way to travel than on a Super Sprinter.

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