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