A shot from behind the buffers looking at a GWR HST "Castle Class" train set at Plymouth station

In the UK, the world’s fastest diesels live on

Great Western Railway "Castle Class" HST formation at Plymouth station (Image: Simon Walton) (Image: Simon Walton)

It may no longer be the frontline workhorse of intercity travel, but reports of the demise of the Iconic HST is greatly exaggerated. Ruling the rails has been passed to the next generation, and sets of the ground-breaking 1970s design have been sent abroad or to store. Nevertheless, the High Speed Train, still the fastest diesel in the world, is still offering a comfortable upgrade for passengers from Inverness to Penzance, and in daily service across much of the UK network.

The withdrawal of the last remaining HSTs in the fleet of CrossCountry Trains hit the headlines, and saw long distance operations hit the buffers for the venerable passenger sets. However, the HST is far from done. The topped and tailed sets may no longer be deployed on epic voyages from north east Scotland to south west England, but they can still be found in revenue-earning service in those regions and elsewhere too.

A legacy of speed and innovation

In an era dominated by cutting-edge electric and hybrid trains, a remarkable design from the past continues to defy expectations. The High-Speed Train (HST) was built as a space-age repost to motorway travel and an ever-less competitive railway. In the late 1970s, the sleek streamlined nose of the 125 miles per hour (200kph) trains revived the fortunes of the railway, on prestige services between London and Scotland, South Wales and the West Country.

As electrification has progressed, albeit painfully slowly, successive cascades have seen the HST units serve the Midland Main Line and latterly the extensive route map of CrossCountry Trains. When that operator pulled the plug, all the headlines were of the demise of the most successful design in British railway history.

Three quarter view of Network Rail New Measurement Train - an HST set in yellow under a station canopy
Network Rail has repurposed a High Speed Train set as its New Measurement Train, seen here at London King’s Cross (Network Rail image)

The High-Speed Train first graced the tracks in 1976, setting the standard for high-speed diesel rail travel worldwide. Designed for the nationalised British Rail by Sir Kenneth Grange, the HST revolutionised rail travel with its sleek design and standards of comfort. The revolutionary Paxman Valenta engine, deployed in each of the two power cars and capable of generating a 2,250 horsepower, propelled the HST to a record-breaking speed of 148.5 mph (237.6 kph) in 1987 – a world record that still stands today. In service, notably on the East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh, the units peaked at 125mph.

Fast freight proposals

Last month, in a surprise move, units began being exported to a new life in sunny Mexico, while others were moved to store around the country, in Ely and other locations. However, the marque is far from retiring. In anticipation of the front line withdrawal, operators ScotRail and GWR reformed HST sets into shorter formations, for work replacing overcrowded and slower diesel multiple units. The move has been particularly popular in Scotland, where the units are marketed as “Inter7City”, covering diagrams between the major settlements in the country. GWR deployed similar short formations as “Castle” class trains, echoing the reliable class of steam locomotive, deployed a century ago on the West Country network.

An HST set on the mainline in GWR colours
GWR Castle HST set at Plymouth, leading power car is 43187 Cardiff Castle. The Castle Class concept uses the HST rolling stock in short formations, covering secondary routes. The sets all carry “Castle” names in an echo of the former Great Western Railway’s fleet of “Castle Class” steam locomotives

The entire UK network will however still be visited by an HST, at one time or another. Network Rail, the national infrastructure agency, has been a long-term user, having converted a set for use as its New Measurement Train. Several other operators have HSTs in various guises – including one set for charter purposes which has been liveried to resemble the long-scrapped but equally groundbreaking “Blue Pullman” – a similar concept train which operated express services in the 1960s, most notably between London and Manchester. Some freight operators have expressed interest in converting some trains for use as premium logistics freight trains. The HSTs could still be setting records for years to come.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

7 comments op “In the UK, the world’s fastest diesels live on”

Mark Brock|01.11.23|23:32

Not long before privatisation I arrived at the old Platform 1 at Reading to find an HST set instead of the usual DMU and yes, it called at all stations to Newbury including Reading West, Aldermaston and Newbury Racecourse!

john colman|02.11.23|11:00

The Paxman Valenta made a fantastic sound pulling hard out of a station. Sadly I don’t think the Valenta is fitted to the locomotives doing mainline work now, not the same.

Hywel james|02.11.23|11:14

The HST is likely the best train in the world. It is not the fastest diesel train though. This is a commonly held untruth. The fastest diesel train was built by the USSR in 1980.

Johannes Neumayer|02.11.23|15:50

The fact that the HST ( and the mark III coach) have been delivering the service they had been build for without being relegated to less prestigious duties for more then forty years is maybe unprecedented and a tribute to engineering skills of BREL.
Unfortunately the fact they still can do so because some of the IC lines they serve are still unwired shows how little has been invested into infrastructure and time lost . At least, we can still enjoy travelling on these fantastic trains!

paul storey|02.11.23|22:27

I live by the closed paxmans works Colchester.fantastic engineered. I also live in valenta close. How’s that for a hst train

Harry Whitehouse|03.11.23|10:26

The 197 HST Power Cars were built at BREL (British Rail Engineering Ltd.) Crewe. The first of these left the Works in Spring 1976. I was one of two Chief Foreman that worked on that new build program (having previously been involved with the two prototype HSDT Power Cars).
There were approximately 200 staff that worked on the build the majority of whom were time served tradesman. We had a feeling of pride in working on building them but would never have believed how successful they became.

stephen duguid|03.11.23|13:02

So, you are celebrating the fact that the UK supposidly operates the worlds fastest diesel trains, when all other operators on the entire planet have moved onto electric trains for high speed intercity travel. The article should point out the reality of the situation which is the archaic nature of the poorly managed UK rail network.

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