Raise a glass to : Happy Birthday HST!

Some of our previous BL/BR-themed content went down rather well in the past, so Mike Humble wiggles a glass to the only serious threat to the passenger car in the 1970s and one which also proved that not all State-owned companies were doomed if they featured the word “British” in the title…

below HST

In a world where four wheels is good, I invite you to take a few minutes out to celebrate the only serious threat to the passenger car in the 1970s – the High Speed Train. Besides which, we are all transport enthusiasts anyway, aren’t we?

It was this week a staggering 40 years ago that production started at British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) in Crewe on the most iconic and legendary passenger train this side of Sir Nigel Gresley’s world-famous A4 steam locomotive. Even though a prototype HST had been plying its trade as early as 1972, certain design aspects were found to be below expectations. The production HST featured a super-sleek aerodynamic cab styled by Kenneth Grange, revised cab controls and numerous other incidental and mechanical updates thanks to information gleaned from intensive prototype running experience.

Today, the vast majority of the total build, which was completed by 1982, still swoosh by on our privatised and fragmented rail network at over two miles a minute. This fact is all the more amazing when you consider it was only ever intended to be a stop-gap design until the doomed Advanced Passenger Train (APT) came on-line. The HST was designed by a ‘splinter group” of old-school Engineers who scoffed at the British Rail Board’s (BRB) plans for an all-singing, all-dancing and all-tilting express passenger train. An experimental department had been set up in Derby back in the late 1960s with some of the best engineering talent being recruited from the automotive and aviation industry.

However, some more traditional engineers claimed to be able to provide the BRB with an express passenger train capable of 100+mph running with superior acceleration and the ability to adhere to stop within existing signalling constraints at 125mph better than a Class 55 (Deltic) could at its 100mph limit. Maybe the BRB had doubts about the APT from the outset as they soon gave the go-ahead for what was simply known as the High Speed Train. Great rivalry soon spread amongst the ranks in Derby as the race was on for rail supremacy. The APT offered a passive tilting system, gas turbine propulsion (from British Leyland) articulated bogies and space age aluminium construction – proper stuff of science in every sense.

The HST, on the other hand and despite its modern streamlined appearance, offered nowhere near the same level of scientific and, dare it be said, unproven technology. A locomotive unit at each end hauling a line of air-conditioned coaches with air suspension and disc brakes was as lavish as it got. The HST was, of course, modern at that time but it was technology that was very much feasibly possible in theory – all it needed was refining with a little fine tuning to get it just right.  Development work on the HST progressed at a considerable pace – especially when one recalls that there was no fancy software to run simulations or predict outcomes and what computers were available featured huge reels of tape and clunky bake-o-lite knobs.

The Derby boffins pose here at York in 1973 to commemorate to completion of high speed endurance testing on the East Coast Mainline. During these trails the world speed diesel traction speed record was broken at over 143mph
The Derby boffins pose here at York in 1973 to commemorate the completion of high speed endurance testing on the East Coast Mainline. During these trials, the World Speed Record for diesel traction was set at over 143mph

Indeed, from the first rough sketches and discussions through to the first proving run of the prototype train, took under two years. Barely one year later, in mid-June 1973, the prototype HST No: 252001 broke the World Speed Record for diesel traction between Darlington and York, reaching 143.2mph. It stayed on the Eastern Region until May 1975 by which time it had operated for over 100,000 miles. After more intensive proving on the Western Region, service and performance data was being constantly fed back to Derby and the BRB pushed the button allowing full-scale production despite some initial Union friction over the cab design and insistence of two man running with higher wages for higher speeds.

What we ended up with and now know instantly as the HST was not only a complete success in terms of design and engineering practice but was also revolutionary in changing the public perception of British Rail. Once passenger services started, it was not uncommon to find people happy to stand all the way to their destination just to experience travelling at over two miles per minute in air-suspended, air-conditioned luxury. The APT in gas turbine form was soon cancelled – partly because of BL losing interest in gas turbine propulsion – so the HST became the backbone of the InterCity brand. Passengers old and young adored them and train drivers battled to get onto the waiting list to drive these new steel wheeled wonders.

Doncaster 1980. An Eastern Region HST departs passing
Doncaster 1980: an Eastern Region HST departs and passes “The Plant” – birthplace of locomotives such as Mallard and The Flying Scotsman

Over the years I have heard some heart-warming and smile-inducing anecdotes about various antics and experiences at the controls of an HST in the days before black boxes and GPS tracking devices – one of the best goes as follows:

“I started on the footplate just as steam was sighing its last hiss and then progressed onto the mighty Deltics. Great as they initially were, towards the end of their reign they were cold in winter, hot in summer and mechanically knackered – not to mention rattling every bone in your skeleton on poor track. The HST was mind-blowing to the driving crew and after a while you got to know which ones were better than others. Just like the steamers I cut my teeth on, each set had its own character and quirks and you adapted your driving style accordingly. An HST set with quick reacting brakes and a good response to power input made a relatively monotonous job a pleasure to undertake.

“A well-prepared HST set allowed you to brake that little bit later and accelerate quicker than your training had ever dictated but they were forgiving machines to command, too. I recall leaving Darlington some five or six minutes late owing to the bloody Guard alighting to buy cigarettes or something like that from the WH Smiths platform shop. Well, we shot through Northallerton as if we were on fire and I noticed an indicated 135 on the clock. A few miles further along we went over the points at Thirsk so fast that my thermos flask jumped off the desk and soaked my trousers with hot coffee.

“It must have been felt back in the coaches too as the aforementioned Guard started pressing the communication buzzer in a mad frenzy like morse code – we were signal checked just outside York such was our early arrival. Very fast running was by no means unheard of by experienced drivers, but I must stress that we knew what both our own personal abilities and the trains’ limits were!

 “The Class 43 was lovely and InterCity was a respected brand, the loco’s were terrific machines – they really were and my one remaining memory is the trembling vibration in the cab that made your keys jingle as the framework took up the immense torque of the engine after you tapped up to notch five (maximum power) on a speedy departure. That and a melodic whine from the traction motors from around 50mph upwards.

“Although largely replaced on the East Coast by the alarmingly rapid Class 91 Electra, the new breed took many years before they became a reliable racehorse whereas the HST just worked straight out of the box if you like and they had soul… all seventy nine litres of it… screaming away just a few feet behind your backside. They were times with memories I shall forever treasure.”

G.E Hutton – Driver – InterCity (Eastern Region) – now retired

On the whole, the HST fleet tended to be fairly reliable when operated and serviced properly but, as timetables were squeezed, maintenance quality could fluctuate and reliability became open to question. The unusually hot summer of 1983 caused some chronic HST failures with exploding turbo chargers and fatal engine faults owing to overheating. British Rail laid the blame squarely at the engine manufacturer – Paxman of Colchester. To combat a serious overheating fault, the engines were fitted with a high water temperature shut off device (HWT). If the engine coolant reached a critical level the device would be triggered which automatically shut down the offending engine before any serious harm was done.

This safety device was also a double-edged sword as the remaining engine would then be required to work the whole train plus a 70 tonne dead weight of a non-functioning locomotive. If the driver failed to nurse the poorly train for the rest of the journey the remaining engine would be strained and shut down thus rendering the whole train a failure – in rail-speak, this is known as a ‘cripple”. Faced with the prospect of legal action, Paxman undertook some thorough investigation both in-house and by shadowing BR’s own Depot Traction Fitters. It soon became apparent that the Lion’s share of the huge upturn in engine failures was down to insufficient cleaning of the radiator cooling group. Oil mist and other debris would block up the fins of the massive radiators thus reducing its efficiency considerably.

The original beating heart of the HST. A reconditioned Paxman Valenta 12RP200L diesel - all 79 litres and 2500bhp of it. (Img: GEC Diesels)
The original beating heart of the HST. A reconditioned Paxman Valenta 12RP200L diesel – all 79 litres and 2500bhp of it.           (Img: GEC Diesels)

Furthermore, when the HWT devices were isolated while in Paxman’s own laboratory conditions, it was found that in extreme temperature conditions gasket compound used in some areas of engine build would break up. This would float around in the coolant jacket and, when temperatures dropped again, would cause blockages in the radiators or cylinder heads that would lead to wreckage of the cylinder liners and piston distortion sometimes ending up with a scrap engine. Turbochargers would crack due to heat but this component was always the weak link – it was not uncommon for a tired turbo to cause spectacular white smoke effects. A worst-case scenario would be for the turbo to disintegrate and the engine try to ingest the components – once again… another engine scrapped.

An interesting conversation with a retired Rail Application Engineer went something like this:

We were summoned in front of the board (BRB) and it was rather like waiting to see the headmaster and once beckoned inside the room they wasted no time in venting their frustration and anger at the rate of engine failures the HST fleet was experiencing. They were very seriously threatening us with legal action for loss of revenue but were initially negative towards our suggestion of shadowing their Depot Fitters. They had this frustrating attitude of ‘BR knows best” but we stood our ground, they reluctantly backed down and allowed us to go ahead and undertake our investigations.

“At first, we couldn’t work out why this was happening as we had worked closely with radiator specialists Marston to develop a unique cooler group with a surface area not much smaller than a squash court. It was purpose built for rail usage and was stringently tested for the kind of intensive thermal cycles a locomotive would experience such as long periods of idling after equal periods of maximum power and vice versa.

“It wasn’t long before we showed them solid proof of inadequate cleaning, poor preventative maintenance, wrongly specified or incorrectly measured coolant additives, HWT devices either not functioning or disconnected altogether and leaking pipework. As you can imagine we left them with egg on their faces but they worked with us rather than against us and we soon had a working team between us both and strict regimes were implemented that dramatically improved the situation almost overnight.

Anon – Retired engineer – GEC Paxman Diesels Limited, Colchester

The mid `90s brought privatisation as can be seen here at York with this Great North Eastern HST set.
The mid-1990s brought privatisation as can be seen here at York with this Kings Cross bound Great North Eastern HST set

However, after that slight blot of the BR copybook, the HST went on to offer superb service not only in the UK but in Australia as well. Down under, the InterCity XPT was a revised and modified HST with a coach design developed especially for the Australian climate and down-rated engines built locally by the Commonwealth Engineering Co in Granville and Melbourne, NSW. Meanwhile, back home in the UK, the HST continues to give a good account for itself in a privatised rail network. The InterCity brand has given way to eight private operators and, despite the design being the age that it is, it still stands as a byword of high speed rail travel born in an era that truly was the age of the train.

What is a shame, though, is that the once familiar scream and whine of the combined total of 4500bhp has pretty much gone. The quest for lower operating costs, better reliability and the effect on the environment in terms of both emissions and noise prompted two major engineering programmes in the past two decades. In the fading years of the much-missed BR, some experimentation took place with new engine designs to equip the HST for the 21st century and beyond. The Paxman VP185, which replaced the Valenta series, was found to be an ideal transplant. The age of the train also became the age of technology as this new engine could stream data to its operational base via a GSM link – East Midlands Trains still use them daily.

“Re-engineering had to happen and quickly. The Valenta engines were pretty much life expired and obsolete, keeping them operational was becoming harder all the time as the rolling stock was pushed harder than ever before in a private operation. Failure rates were reaching an all time high and with the operators facing serious financial penalties for cancelled or late running diagram’s all hands were on the pump to come up with a solution.

“Despite engineers working on plans in Leicestershire, Sussex and Germany, the internet shrunk the world for us in terms of development and sped up the process no end. I worked on the VP185 programme and thought that was an impressive instalment but with MTU our UK engineers worked with their guys here and abroad with impressive efficiency. I still find myself deeply impressed with the telematics on board.

“Sure, we had some teething issues initially, but now we could watch the engine perform in real-time from the comfort of our office chairs and we would be alerted by a warning so quickly that more often than not the driver would not even be aware of an issue. In the old days, the first time we knew of a failure would be from the driver either responding to a warning light on the panel desk or a worrying loud bang from behind.

“The R41/4000 is a lovely engine and the only real challenge was getting the desired power output from the engine at an exact 1500rpm because of the limitations of the existing alternator and power generation equipment. It doesn’t even break into a sweat at full chat and it’s a real shame the public can’t see it as the installation inside the body is most impressive.”

K.F. Brown – Traction Engineering Supervisor (retired) – Brush Traction Limited, Loughborough

HST 43290 was the first unit to be re-powered with the V16 MTU engine and sports a unique cast name plate. Now operating with Virgin East Coast it can be seen here waiting for two strokes of the communication buzzer.
HST 43290 was the first unit to be re-powered with the V16 MTU engine and sports a unique cast name plate. Now operating with Virgin East Coast, it can be seen here waiting for two strokes of the Guard’s communication buzzer at Newcastle Central recently

Taking technology even further in the privatised era, GNER followed by First Great Western undertook the biggest re-engineering programme in the loco’s history by completely re-wiring and installing a brand new design made by MTU called the “R41-4000”. This V16 power units are based on very successful marine designs – just like the Valenta and VP185 units – and, even though they are physically longer thanks to an extra pair of cylinders, it turned out to be a fairly simple task, albeit a bit of a squeeze. Enthusiasts like me sorely miss the deafening scream of the original power plants but, from an engineering and operational point of view, they simply work while vastly reducing daily operating costs thanks to lower fuel and oil consumption plus increased reliability.

Work is underway and plans are afoot for a new breed of diesel-powered high speed trains although we do, of course,already have the Voyager and Super Voyager class but will they be rattling along the up and down fast lines forty years from now? I very much doubt it. One thing has been proved and that’s the HST was in every way the high watermark of British railway design excellence and, just like that other great British transport icon – Concorde – I will bitterly miss them when they are gone.

Happy 40th Birthday HST!


Mike Humble


  1. From my BR days I remember the engine failure issue being rather more than a slight blot! – HST’s where dropping like fly’s in the early 80s. The Valenta engine was essentially a marine unit used by the Royal Navy in patrol boats and as an auxiliary unit in larger ships. Designed to be installed with plenty of room around it and a never ending supply of sea water to keep cool. In its intended installation it also ran at constant speed, not continually cycling between idle and full chat with attendant thermal shocks. To a some extent this also affected the English Electric and Sulzer units in earlier locomotives, but the high revs and specific power output of the Valenta in the HST compounded the problem. At one stage power cars where equipped with 45 gallon drums of coolant in the engine room and a hand pump to allow a travelling fitter to constantly replenish leaking coolant over the course of the Journey. Perhaps we could have a tribute to the early BR Electric locomotives? Almost as fast as the HST’s, more powerful and with a similar impact on the travelling publics perception of Inter-City rail travel in the 1960s and early 70s – and far more reliable! The class 86 is 50 years old this year.

  2. The early AC locos could be hit & miss, the class 81 & 85 were fairly reliable (& much technology when into the design of the 86), the class 82 was a bit behind, & classes 83 & 84 had a lot of problems & were withdrawn for a time until the WCML was extended to Glasgow & more locos were needed.

  3. Another ex-BR engineer here.

    Firstly, congrats on a brilliant article, exactly the sort of thing I love to read!

    I’m delighted to see such an affectionate homage to what I believe is the most successful diesel train design the world has yet seen. The HST was a great example of British triumph in the face of adversity, engineered on a relatively tiny budget to take on the challenge of matching (well, not quite) the new era of high-speed trains in Europe and Asia.

    Without widespread electrification we needed a diesel-electric design, and the 125mph top speed seemed really space-aged when they were introduced. (Prior to that the highest running speed on BR was the limited number of services on the WCML permitted to go at 110mph). To travel at 125mph and yet be able to match the braking performance of ‘conventional’ stock at 100mph (with twice the kinetic energy) was a major achievement. For my money the mk3 coach design remains the absolute highlight of British railway engineering; even 40 years later they are quieter, better riding and more comfortable than anything that has followed them with the possible exception of the Eurostar sets. Travelling on a Voyager is like sitting on a washing machine by comparion; travelling on a Pendalino is like being locked in a smelly box.

    Yes, the Valentas suffered from thermal shock, but so did almost every power unit used for similar duty cycles. I started working at when the Deltics were still running on the ECML and their power units were always blowing up due to the typical cycle of idle-full throttle-idle-full throttle. By comparison the HSTs were paragons of virtue, with the second power car meaning that most journeys could be completed even if one failed.

    Later on they became the most reliable diesel-electics in the world; by 1989 many of the early power cars had already reached the 2,000,000 mile mark, by the time of the MTU engine replacement programme many Valentas were over 5,000,000 miles. i don’t believe that any other other wheel-driven machinery in the world has travelled further or at such average speeds – several ECML rosters had sets doing over 1000 miles a day!

    Drivers for the most part loved them too – the cabs were roomy and well-insulated compared to the diesel engines they replaced and the view through the single windscreen was great; most later rolling stock feels like trying to drive a pillbox by comparison. I worked for some time as a technical riding inspector out of Doncaster, charged with keeping them going by identifying (and fixing) small faults on the move, and spent countless hours riding in the back cab watching the tracks snake into the distance at 125mph! Electrical faults were the most common, but it was a point of pride that we never ‘failed’ a unit unless we had to.

    They stopped well too. I remember being on board one that suffered from a brake pipe failure north of York as we were travelling at 125mph, applying the brakes hard on. The driver said that from the pressure dropping to the train coming to a standstill happened almost between two four aspect signals, so about 1200 yards. A class 47 or similar would need further to come to a halt from 95mph.

    Comfortable, fast, reliable and very safe (look up the Colwich crash to see how well mk3 coaches can perform in high-speed collisions!), the reason they are still running is because nobody has ever come up with anything better!

  4. Also, with all respect to Richard Davies, the Class 86/ 87 had nothing like the technical challenge of the HSTs – they were basically just a transformer attached to some traction motors; the HST was a full power station on the move. And it’s not like the early AC electrics weren’t prone to occasionally bursting into flames either. By the mid 80s it seemed like one was spontaneously combusting every week!

    Great machines in their own rights, but nothing like an HST!

    • Thanks for your insights David!

      I was introduced to an elderly gentleman by a few years back when I was visitng Neville Hill traction depot (Leeds) who told me a smashing tale that still makes me smile and wince with equal measure.

      He accounted a time when he was also TRI on the ECML back in the mid `70s who had been asked to jump on a 55 that had a report of one of its engine’s was misfiring and failing to proceed to full line speed thus slowly losing time. Not keen on failing the train he had made notes to advise its London deopt (Finsbury Park???) and made preparations to jump off at Peterborough and inform operational control.

      He said he shared a fag and a chat with the driver and out of curiosity had another looks-see in the engine room a while before being signal checked down for Peterborough where he would bid the driver farewell and jump off. After a quick glance at the two-stroke Napier’s hammering away, the train hit a rough joint and his biro fell from his ear.

      Here’s the best bit… Stooping down to rummage around to find said pen on his hands and knees, one of the engines suffered a massive trauma and threw a rod and piston along with all sorts of boilng coolant / oil & shrapnel all over the engine room.

      He said if that pen had not have fallen on the engine room floor – he would have been a very dead inspector!

      The up bound semi fast was declared a fail at Peterborough he summarised to me…. Lovely stuff eh?

      • I have heard several stories of spectacular engine failures and tried to minimise the time I spent in the engine compartments of anything when it was moving. We weren’t supposed to do anything other than ‘pass through’ the HST compartments when they were running because of the risk to hearing.

        Of course, that wasn’t always possible. I was once sent to track down a fault with the AWS (audible warning system) on an HST with an intermittent fault that didn’t allow it to be reset. About once a week this would happen with this power car leading and the brakes would come hard on and the set would grind to a halt. The fitters at Bounds Green could not replicate it under testing had replaced almost the entire system, so muggins here was sent out to try and track it down on the move.

        This meant standing between the driver and the secondman (there were only two seats in the cab) for hours at a time, and every time we approached a caution signal or permanent AWS magnet that would set off the system I would rush back into the engine compartment to test the “drop” over various relays mounted on the inside wall. I spent three days “on the case” and, of course, it never displayed the fault. (The only upside was that the power car was only leading half the time, so I got to ride back “on the cushions!”)

        By the fourth day I had a splitting headache from the fumes and the noise and phoned in sick (which was very unusual for me). Of course, the fault then happened when this HST was leading an up fast into Kings Cross, getting it stuck inside Gasworks tunnel…

        Weeks later I learned the ultimate cause, the wiring inside the driver’s desk had been partially eaten by something, causing an intermittent fault. So a mouse had stopped an HST, several times.

        Definitely the most fun I had on the railways though. By my reckoning I once did over 120,000 miles in one year and yet I still love them!

    • In the late 60s/early 70s collecting 25000 Volts whilst travelling at 100 – 110 mph, transforming it, rectifying it and then controlling power to the traction motors was quite a feat! – The early Electrics where delivering 4500 hp 10 years before the HST, through a single locomotive. The HST by comparison was just 2 big engines, or in effect a double headed train. What’s clever about that? The clever part of the HST was of course the Mk3 carriage. Fit some power doors and retention toilets and it would be as capable as anything that has been built since. Although of course, travellers on the West Coast mainline in the 70s and 80s could enjoy exactly the same ambience in a loco hauled Mk3 behind an AC Electric.

      • The clever bit was the fact the HSTs were doing 125mph and the AC electrics weren’t! Also, although I have huge respect for the blokes who drove the ‘leccys they were hardly the most sophisticated beasts, the tap changer control system and the need to “run down” every time power was switched off always struck me as being practically steam aged.

        Still, I did once get a cab ride on an 87 light engine which had been testing the OHLE installation into Leeds. On dry track from a standing start the driver just gave it the lot and “ran up” as fast as the taps would change; we were doing 100mph inside a minute!

  5. The technology was actaully more off the shelf than this excellent article suggests.

    The Coach design was standard the BR Mk3 coach design and the protypes coaches were then placed into the BR coach fleet with the rest of the MK 3 stock when it was finished with.

    Due to some rather stupid thinking one of the prototype Power car’s was scrapped in 1990. But the other has been recently run pulling a couple of BR Mk2 coaches with a class 52 locomotive at the other end because of the locomotives using standard BR control systems, couplings etc.

  6. The problem with HST is it was too good, when it was introduced it on the old GWR lines it was the second fastest service in the world, beaten by the bullet trains. In the same way clever British engineers let bad management get away with underinvestment in the car industry. HST allowed the government to underinvest in the railways.

    If only the APT hadn’t been cancelled, and the engineers had been given more time. That train was a potential world beater, and could have generated millions in export orders.

    What is really depressing is nothing on the privatised network has matched BR’s effors. The HST and the 225 trains are far nicer to travel on than the cramped and dingy pendolinos and voyager trains bought for high speed work after privatisation.

    • Totally agree. Pendos and voyagers are horribly cramped and uncomfortable, never mind the awful automated toilets taking up even more space. The fundamental rightness of the HST design has been borne out by the massive mileages travelled and their success even on the twisting lines west of Exeter, for which they were never designed. I must admit that I miss the sound of the Paxman Valenta being spooled up as the new MTU engines just don’t have the same noise.

      I have been in the remaining APT-E at Crewe museum and it is a remarkable machine that had the potential to be a world class design with a bit more effort.

    • APT had to be cancelled for some interesting reasons:

      1: The cost for both E & P format could have paid for 3 fresh locomotive designs and 30% of the East Coast Electrification programme (which never commenced until 1988 because of cash shortage)

      2: The motor car divided the train and had no corridor facility so you needed 2 x train crew 2 x buffet / restaurant cars – huge staffing costs.

      3: Funding was coming via BR’s own coffers and the Government point blank refused to sanction more tax payers money into a company that was funded by tax payers money – Inter City / BR would have to invest their own money.

      4: The board grew tired and angry at the constant failures and negative press coverage. Whereby the HST was universally praised for its success and single handed turnabout for image, the APT was also universally seen as a bit of a joke.

      5: It came to a crashing end when Sir Bob Reid hauled in Derby engineering management for “tea & biscuits” in 1986 and tore strips for yet another bout of unreliability and when it was suggested that more time and yet more money would be needed to re-work a critical braking component Sir Bob slammed his hand on the desk and barked “right… let’s stop this nonsense here and now” – APT was then… dead!

      An interesting remark came from a very senior British Rail manager who was quoted as saying:

      “It was never questioned that the APT was maybe too advanced for BR. It was more the case that British Rail and its board were no where near advanced enough for the train”

      • APT as you rightly point out was a dead end for BR and I see it as a classic case of British Engineering setting out to develop a ground breaking solution with only minimal available resources.

        It joins things like TSR2, RB211’s Hyfil fan blades and Norton Rotary motorcycles along with many other British projects that should not have been started because the resources simply did not exist to develop these ground breaking solutions no matter how brilliant the concepts.

        I also doubt if it had been made work in service, it would have had much of an export success. The Swedes with their X2000 tilting train which was introduced in 1990 which has the advantage of being engineered to the wider European gauge as well as not needing two buffet cars etc did not find an export market despite it being successfully demonstrated across the world.

        APT would also have suffered the same capacity problems as the Pendalino now suffers, because the problem is that in the UK have a restricted gauge which is further restricted by the need make the carriages narrower on a tilting train to accommodate the risk of two trains meeting with their tilt mechanisms jammed down on the converging sides.

        The right solution of course was an Electric HST, which was what they ended up with, a set of BR Mk3 Coaches with a driving coach at one end and a powerful electric locomotive at the other. Some of which down do service with Chiltern railways with a Class 68 diesel loco doing the work instead.

          • I forget of course for this site the ultimate “over engineered” solution to a problem.

            Dunlop’s solution to the lack of P6 boot space, the Denovo reflating and run flat tyre system.

            Took over a decade to bring to market, a market which was quite happy with the interim solution of simply putting the tyre on top of the boot lid.

            4 years later the problem went away with the SD1.

  7. What magnificent machines they are – testament to what British designers and engineers can do when they put their minds to it. Who are the big four suppliers of traction to our railways today? Alstom (French), Siemens (German), Bombardier (Canadian) and Hitachi (Japanese). Yes, I know they all have operations in Britain – having snaffled up ex-BR operations on the cheap – but they are a shadow of their predecessors.

    How lovely to see the original prototype – 41001 – back in service, having being sent on its way earlier this year by none other than Sir Kenneth Grange himself. Search for ‘Project Miller’.

    Happy Birthday indeed, HST.

    • “testament to what British designers and engineers can do when they put their minds to it”

      I don’t see HST as that, its

      “testament to what British designers and engineers should do when they put their minds to it”

      Because too often the temptation in British Engineering is to attempt to do things that you simply don’t have the resources to deliver.

      APT was so much a case of the former, British Rail an organisation with all its funding and resource issues setting out to develop a train that could challenge the fastest in the world whilst running on Victorian track beds intended for 40 mph trains and a pre-war automatic signal technology. They nearly succeeded but had it entered service it would have been impossibly expensive to run with duplicate Buffet cars and under developed tilting and braking mechanisms.

      HST instead was exactly what BR should have gone for from the outset, a logical development from proven coach and locomotive designs.

      • Oh-so-easy to come up with statements like that after the event; if you go through life saying what shouldn’t be done, you’ll get nowhere.

        In any case, today’s Pendolinos are based on pendulum technology bought up by Fiat from… BR’s APT! Even Fiat recognised a winner when they saw one.

        Whatever; I’ll be raising a can of McEwan’s Export and a curled cheese and tomato sandwich on a paper plate – probably while watching the all-time classic “Intercity 125 Comedy Ad” on a certain video site…

        • You are correct that in 1982 Fiat bought the rights to the APT tilting mechanism and built the 450 emu.

          However in 94 they built the 2nd generation tilting train the 460 which uses a design based on the Swedish X2000 system. Unlike the APT and 450 this system has the tilt mechanism built in the bogie rather than the carriage. It was chosen because it saves space in the carriage and is easier to service as well as proving more reliable in service.

          It is this system that Fiat and now Alstrom has used with success in exporting tilting trains including the UK Pendolinos.

  8. Brilliant article – more on trains please. I was on a 125 only last week. 10 mins late out of Kings Cross it scorched down the ECML to Doncaster in what seemed like a very short order. Does anyone else think the original front end has a more than passing resemblance to a Triumph 2000?

  9. It stopped quite a lot of British Rail jokes and proved British trains could be fast, reliable and comfortable. Also the catering, which was a national joke in the seventies, seemed far better on Inter City 125s due to using the latest microwave technology.
    Remember, the fastest Newcastle- London journey in Deltic times was 3 h 45m, the Inter City 125 reduced this by an hour, a big achievement at the time. It’s not to say the Deltics were poor, they were the best locomotives of their era, it’s just the 125s were far better and modern with air conditioning throughout, a more comfortable ride and better catering. I’m amazed that nearly all have survived and following GWML electrification, some are to be cascaded to Scotland for use on long distance Scottish trains.

  10. Happy Birthday HST. As iconic as the original Mini in my humble opinion. For those interested in the APT, I recommend the book ‘APT a promise unfulfilled’, which is an excellent read. Also shows that the ‘problems’ involved with a power car(s) in the middle of the rake would not have existed in the series production APT, as there was a plan to put the power cars at one or both ends, as per the 225 sets still running on the East Coast Main Line. I also believe that the mk4 coach, as hauled by the 91’s was designed to have tilt capability fitted at a later date (for the WCML), hence its scalloped body side profile, and these coaches are relatively spacious, so tilt within the UK loading gauge perhaps doesn’t necessarily have to mean cramped.

  11. I always preferred using the ECML to the WCML in the eighties. The trains seemed faster, more reliable and modern than the ageing electric trains on the WCML, which were 25 mph slower, and by the end of the decade were developing a reputation for delays and breakdowns, which were largely non existent on the ECML. While class 86/87 locomotives have faded away, probably due to reliability issues, which became chronic in the early Virgin era, almost all of the HSTs are still running and performing well and many will live on in Scotland when they are replaced in England.

  12. The HST was another example of the Britsih “make do and mend” but which actually turned out to be a world-beater – think Range Rover, the Mini, the original Land Rover. That the HST was born out of a need to find an alternative to the APT-E is beyond reproach. However, it should not disguised the fact that HST should by now be a footnote in history of no more relevance than the class 125. The fact that a locomotive designed in the seventies is still running today is a testament to just how right the design was. Indeed once the current ones are replaced by the new Hitachi IEP units they will transfer to Scotland where they replace DMU’s on the longer services between the Central Belt and Inverness/Aberdeen. So some will see over fifty years service potentially. Not bad for an interim design.

    Fascinating article Mike. Always enjoy articles on the heavy engineering – more of the same please. There’s still a wealth of trains as well I assume as most of the early DMU’s such as the class 101/104 featured engines and transmissions built by Leyland and AEC. Be good to see other stuff such as farm equipment, road building equipment and military stuff which was built by BL.

  13. Brilliant article Mike, really enjoyed that!
    Whilst I’m fully aware that the original Valenta engine were worn out by the time they were re-engined, not to mention the emissions, fuel economy and reliability improvements that have come from the fitment of the MTU engines, it was still FAR more exciting to see a Paxman equipped unit departing amidst clouds of smoke, engines roaring and turbochargers screaming! In comparison, a Hoover is more exciting than the MTU units – but I know which I would rather maintain.
    Cheers, David

  14. Amazing the HST came out the same time as another advanced 125 mph design, the 1976 Rover 3500, which moved the luxury car market forwards in the same way the HST changed train travel.

  15. Can’t fault the 125s, the feeling of power when they were running flat out between York and Doncaster was amazing and also you could hear the Valenta engine note from your seat. Think of an Italian supercar or a Rover SD1 Vitesse on rails and this was the 125. Also the comfort and spaciousness of the Mark 3 coaches made the journey a pleasure.
    I quite like the look of the Pendolino and its achievements in providing a 125 mph service on the WCML, but in terms of comfort its hard seats( more like a cheap city car than a long distance train) and poorer vision from the windows mark it down for me.

  16. The HST was well ahead of its time and has therefore aged well. I remember travelling along the Hope Valley (Manchester to Sheffield) in a reclining first class seat about 2005 (special EMT “Rio” service while Notwork Rail were carving up the regular route to Manchester), thinking how quiet and smooth an HST is, unlike DMU’s with engines under the floor of every coach. Back in the 70’s they were a revelation – though I clearly remember that somewhere about Dundee, the London-Aberdeen HST’s had to stop and reverse over a crossover before heading North again. A bunch of local lads racing the train in a Mini couldn’t believe thier luck.
    Anyone who thinks HST’s are behind the times should try the latest First Great Western update, with disabled access toilets and airline-style moving maps on seatback screens.

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