British Rail’s Quest for Speed: The Journey Shrinker

Written by: TrainSim-Steve

Above: All Eastern Region HSTs were classified as Class 254 and here set number 254012 awaits the road at York on an unknown date. Photograph copyright Phil Sangwell

4th October 1976 became synonymous with speed lovers as the dawn of high speed rail travel in the UK, HSTs were for the first time able to reach their 125mph potential and went on to kick-start an era of success for British Rail. Little was it known at the time that the HST would go on for forty years, succeeding where no other train was able. No other train in the history of Britain’s railways has ever achieved so much.

HSTs were introduced to revenue earning service in August 1976. However, restrictive diagrams meant that HST (High Speed Train) services were unable to exceed 100mph running – no better than most loco-hauled trains at the time. HST services displaced many iconic, and much loved, first generation diesels such as the ‘Westerns’ and ‘Deltics’ and, as such, were not readily accepted by many a rail enthusiast. They were widely taken to by the public however, as the HST afforded not only a considerable upgrade in comfort over the ageing coaching stock offered with loco-hauled services but, from the public’s perspective, by far the largest benefit was shorter journey times.

The story of the HST really begins in 1972 when British Rail submitted their order for 27 HST sets. These sets would be used on the Western Region, operating out of London Paddington toward Bristol and Swansea. The then Minister for Transport signed off on this in October 1973 and, early in 1974, BREL received the order to construct 54 DMBs (Driving Motor Brake/Power Cars), 54 TF (Trailer First), 81 TS (Trailer Second), 27 TSRB (Trailer Second Restaurant Buffet) and 27 TRUK (Trailer Restaurant). The order also included an additional pair of DMB power cars which would serve as spares in case of failure. However, the impact of the downturn in the British economy of 1975 meant that the demand for meal provisions on inter-city services was significantly reduced and the order was amended, replacing 7 TRUK vehicles with TS vehicles, amending the order to 20 TRUK and 88 TS vehicles.

All 27 trains were designated as Class 253 DEMUs (Diesel Electric Multiple Units) and were fixed formation sets. This meant that the entire train would be permanently coupled with initial formations to be DMB-TF-TF-TRUK-TS-TSRB-TS-TS-DMB for the first 20 sets and DMB-TF-TF-TSRB-TS-TS-TS-TS-DMB for the remaining 7.

Throughout 1975 saw the completion of the infrastructure work and the dedicated purpose-built HST maintenance facilities at Old Oak Common, on the approach to London Paddington station, and St Philip’s Marsh, opposite Bristol’s Temple Meads station.

With the phased introduction of HSTs over some fifteen-month period on the Western Region, a plan was formulated for a partial 125mph timetable from 1976 which would be formed of sixteen services between London and Weston-Super-Mare, via Bristol (eight each direction) and thirty such services between London and Southern Wales to Swansea (fifteen each direction). This plan would therefore require up to 17 sets which would work the 12 daily diagrams, requiring two standby sets to serve as cover for maintenance work.

In early 1976, the first of the power cars and trailers were nearing completion, all under construction at Crewe Works and Derby Litchurch Lane. A process of production was adopted that would allow the proportionally higher volume of second class vehicles to be built, with first class and restaurant vehicles commencing construction some time later. The first of such vehicles began rolling off the production line in April 1976. Unfortunately, due to the staggered nature of this process, it resulted in HST sets that were delivered in improper formations, often resulting in a random collection of vehicles.

18th February 1976 saw the first of the DMB power car vehicles delivered to Derby and were joined to the first complete rake of trailers and on 2nd March, the first trial took place. However, due to a traction motor failure, the run was prematurely abandoned as the train reached Thirsk. A successful run was repeated three days later with a replacement power car. This commissioned set was moved to Gosforth Depot on March 9th for a two-week period of further testing and training of Eastern Region drivers. One vehicle from the rake was sent on to St Philip’s Marsh to allow CM&EE (Chief Mechanical & Electrical Engineer) training to commence on the new Mk3 stock.

On March 22nd, as the training programme was nearing completion at Gosforth, the southbound run from Newcastle was struck by an open door on the passing 1210 King’s Cross to Aberdeen, causing damage to several of the trailers. The damage was so severe on two of the vehicles that they were removed from the train at York and required additional works to repair. Two days later the set completed its training operations and the set returned to Derby.

While this first set was utilised for training in the North East, a second set consisting of seven trailers was formed at Derby and trialled on March 19. Commissioning at Derby improved throughout April and a second set delivered to Old Oak Common on the 5th and further relocated to St Philip’s Marsh on the 15th – providing a set at each of the two depots for static driver training. On 3rd May, a third set of six trailers arrived at Old Oak Common and this was added to the existing short formation to make a 9 vehicle set and allowing crew training to begin at London, Bristol and Cardiff.

Mid-May of 1976 BREL announced a revised delivery schedule that would mean a maximum of 15 trains would be delivered by the end of September that year, two short of the 17 required. This revised schedule also indicated that only two TRUK vehicles would be completed instead of the eight planned. However, the plan was further revised by mid-June with further reductions to only 14 sets and BR’s management exerted pressure on BREL to deliver the plan as agreed. BREL ultimately were unable to fulfil the order as expected and this forced a revision of the HST timetable for October. Western Region’s General Manager wrote to BR’s Chief Executive advising that he would be covering the shortfall with loco-hauled trains from 4th October. Consequently, driver training was further complicated by the slow delivery rate which resulted in affecting staff resources beyond the October 4th deadline.

On August 9th, 1976, the first HST service was introduced in public revenue earning service on the London Paddington to Bristol route, Set No. 253003 formed the first diagram with No. 253001 taking up the second. A third set was held on standby. This allowed staff the opportunity to gain operating and maintenance experience of the new trains and gave the public a chance to experience what was to come.

As three additional sets were delivered, two diagrams on the South Wales route was converted to HST operation from September 13th. As September progressed, preparations were under way for the start of 125mph operation.

As planned, the launch of 125mph operation commenced on 4th October 1976 with BR’s flagship branding ‘Inter-City 125’ and Set No. 253009 was the first production HST to run a scheduled 125mph service on the 1A02 – 0625 Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington service. 1B06 – 0825 formed of Set No. 253002 was the first in the other direction and the 0800 service to Swansea was assigned to the Prototype HST Class 252. This first day of 125mph operation continued without incident hailing a success for British Rail. As the month of October progressed, pressure was eased on these initial services as additional sets were delivered and, by the end of the month, the prototype HST was stood down.

By the end of 1976 the Western Region reported an increase in passenger revenue ahead of projected targets and these early returns provided BR with the proof they needed to confirm success of the HST project. However, there was still much to be learned as to how the HST would withstand consistent 125mph running and therefore wear and tear, whether the cost of maintenance would outweigh the benefits. As the HSTs continued onward throughout 1977, it was not without issue. Several power cars suffered technical difficulties and deliveries were delayed by several weeks as Crewe Works entered a period of uncertainty caused by industrial action.

Despite many of the early teething problems, the HST continued onward to prove itself as a high speed platform and it became the envy of the World. As we all know, the HST became a staple of high speed travel in the UK and, forty years on, it was clear that no-one could have foreseen that the HST would build a legacy of being the most successful train on Britain’s rails, nor that it would still be doing the job that it was designed for so well.

This article is influenced and inspired by “The Journey Shrinker” by authors David Russell & Kevin Daniel published in Rail Express October 2016. Credit is therefore gratefully and respectfully given to David and Kevin for many of the key facts provided here.

I’d really like to hear all of your HST stories, post a comment below with your first HST experience, what was it like for you? 

Above: An Ex-Works set passes near to Chesterfield. Photograph copyright Phil Sangwell

Above: An Ex-Works set passes near to Chesterfield on an unknown date. HSTs travelled an average of 1,000,000 miles a year (approx 2,000 miles a day) in the early years of service. It is estimated that most HST sets today have travelled some 60,000,000 miles – almost two thirds of the way to the Sun! Photograph copyright Phil Sangwell

Above: Set 253026 stands at London Paddington alongside 50007 in 1st June 1981. Photograph copyright Crewcastrian

Above: Set 253026 stands at London Paddington alongside 50007 on 1st June 1981. It would not be long before loco hauled services on the Western Region, typically hauled by Class 50 locomotives, would be phased out and replaced with HST sets. Photograph copyright Crewcastrian

Above: Sets 253 018 & 253 029 pause at Salisbury on the 22nd March 1981. Photo Copyright David Mant

Above: Sets 253 018 & 253 029 pause at Salisbury on the 22nd March 1981. Photo Copyright David Mant


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