High Speed Trains
With a new fleet of Hitachi-built Azumas due to enter service from December 4, HST operation on the East Coast Main Line is drawing to a close. DAVID CLOUGH looks back at the HSTs’ procurement and introduction
RAIL recalls the procurement and introduction of the High Speed Trains, as they enter their final months of service.
AS President John F Kennedy once put it, in a speech about the Cuban Missile Crisis, success has a hundred fathers but failure is an orphan. This much-borrowed Italian proverb can also be applied to taking credit for the concept of the extraordinarily successful High Speed Train (HST). If it had failed, few would have accepted responsibility.
In 1968, BR reluctantly committed itself to the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) project but there were more than sufficient people in senior posts who wanted the insurance of a less ‘techy’ option and in a shorter timescale in order to compete with the growth of air travel.
At the BR Chairman’s Conference, held on February 21 1969, the view was expressed that there was a high priority for the design of a high-speed diesel multiple unit (DMU) as an alternative to APT or as an intermediate stage before APT became available. At the time, Terry Miller, the Chief Mechanical & Electrical Engineer (CM&EE), was considering options for new locomotives, including one of 4,500hp that would be capable of speeds up to 125mph.
On March 18 1969, a meeting chaired by Miller was still considering options for new high-speed locomotives, though someone who had attended the Chairman’s Conference mentioned the discussion concerning the use of a high-speed DMU.
Concurrently, the BRB Member for BR’s workshops wrote to Miller to express his view that the latter should work up proposals for an alternative to APT. On June 30, BR’s Chief Planning Manager proposed an option to introduce a pre-APT intermediate multiple unit solution of 40 sets per year from 1974.
The Eastern Region’s General Manager also weighed into the discussion by showing that his studies suggested an unacceptable loss of traffic between London and the North East if the route had to wait for APT. He also favoured an intermediate phase that would involve a new design of DMU for high speed. It is therefore clear that a number of senior officers had concluded that some form of 100+ mph trainset would be an advisable, perhaps essential, interim traction option before APT became available.
On July 1 1969, a working party was set up to evaluate the use of a DMU instead of
a locomotive-and-stock formation as a pre-APT high-speed trainset. Interestingly, its proposals, one of which was for a trainset with lightweight powered vehicles at each end, did not come from Miller, while the meeting on November 7 at which it was discussed was chaired by one of BR’s deputy chairmen, with Miller as an attendee.
A 4,500hp locomotive, favoured by Miller earlier in the year, was one of the options considered, as was a 3,000hp machine that could be used in multiple, if necessary.
The problem was the practicality of designing a suitable unit with an axle load low enough to permit speeds up to 125mph. The working party proposed instead a trainset with a lightweight 2,250hp traction unit at each end. This proposal went successfully through the BR committee mill and the 125mph HST was born.
It had, at this time, been intended that the East Coast Main Line (ECML) would be the first recipient of APT, which would be gasturbine powered but this changed when a suitable turbine proved elusive. Now the ECML had to stand behind the Western Region (WR) for an allocation of the new HSTs.
A national HST programme envisaged the production of sets for WR, ECML and North East to South West (hereinafter termed CrossCountry) services, with other routes to follow. Sets would have a Bo-Bo power car at each end, with a quick-running Paxman Valenta diesel of 2,250bhp at 1,500rpm as prime mover.
There would not be uniformity in set formations, however, with seven trailer cars for the WR and CrossCountry (Class 253) and eight trailers for the ECML (Class 254). WR ‘253s’ would have two First Class cars, whereas those for CrossCountry would only have one.
On April 11 1974, BR authorised the building of 42 Class 254s and four spare Class 43 power cars for the East Coast, together with associated track and signalling upgrades and new depot facilities. The Department of the Environment (which included Transport at the time, DTp) disagreed with both the forecast growth in demand that would come from the HSTs and also the revenue benefit claimed from the displaced coaching stock. It approved only 32 sets but all the depot and infrastructure proposals on August 28.
Despite this setback, BR prepared a fresh submission in August 1975 for an additional ten sets to replace the remaining Class 47-hauled rakes that would have to be deployed on the semi-fast services south of York. There was no proposal to life-extend the Class 55s beyond 1981 for these duties.
This submission was not sent to the DTp because the latter signalled a review of investment arising from the poor state of the country’s finances. BR also did not want to
The Department of the Environment (which included Transport at the time) disagreed with the forecast growth in demand that would come from the HSTs.
jeopardise its bids for West of England and CrossCountry HST programmes.
The latest BR Traction Plan had been based on the release of seven Class 47s from the ECML for freight work, following implementation of a 42-set HST service on the route. If these seven were not now to be cascaded, then an equal number of Class 56s would have to be built in substitution.
The option of running the entire ECML timetable with just 32 HSTs was evaluated. Not only would this cause a reduction in capacity from the prevailing total seat-miles but also the route had seen a continuous, albeit modest, traffic growth since 1968. With that year as a baseline of 100, the 1974 figure represented a rise of 32%. There would be absolutely no capacity to cater for growth following HST introduction if the total rolling stock provision was just 32 ‘254s’.
The original submission for 42 sets had forecast first introduction in May 1976, with all commissioned by April 1977 and the smaller authorised programme brought forward the anticipated full delivery to January. Slippage in the national HST programme up to June 1975 meant that the reduced quantity was not now scheduled until April 1978. Several factors had caused this.
First, there had been a delay in obtaining authority for the 27 ‘253s’ for the WR. Then a Review in 1974 cut the number of sets that could be built annually from 40 to 30. Finally, provision had been made in the construction programme between completion of the WR and start of the ECML sets for export business.
Rolling stock design work had been completed, in the main, by May 1974. Progress on the four East Coast HST maintenance facilities was patchy. Only Craigentinny was under way, contracts had not been let for Heaton, only just signed for Neville Hill, while Bounds Green had seen only limited ground clearance. Nothing had been approved for the servicing facilities at Aberdeen, or the fuelling bay at York. The same was true for station shore supply equipment.
The state of play concerning infrastructure improvements in June 1975 was the following: while track work would be finished by May 1978, the full high-speed timetable would have to wait until May 1979 when resignalling the route had been completed. Work on track improvements was under way, albeit hitting problems.
The Sandy to Stoke (between Peterborough and Grantham) section had insufficient available manpower and train resources.
Aerodynamic work in Stoke and Peasecliffe (north of Grantham) Tunnels to raise speed limits had been found to be too costly and abandoned. The consequential impact on journey times was put at one minute.
Between Stoke and Selby, several minor re-alignments associated with resignalling had been completed, but the project had been slow to get going because of recruitment restrictions.
Realignment of the curve at Relly Mill, Durham, was done, with trackwork near Tyne Yard the next major task.
Upgrading the track between Newcastle and Berwick was expected to be sanctioned by the end of 1975. Apart from some minor
Rolling stock design work had been completed, in the main, by May 1974. Progress on the four East Coast HST maintenance facilities was patchy.
Forty years on, HSTs have proved to be probably the best trainset ever designed for the UK’s railways.
work, trackwork in Berwick station had been re-aligned and the same applied in the Scottish Region (ScR).
Level crossing replacement was either planned or under way at Tuxford, Lincoln Road, Newham, Beal and Christon Bank. Ulgham Lane was no longer being charged to the HST scheme, while Widdrington was to be unaltered. Of 227 private crossings on the ER, only 34 were expected to remain open.
Onboard catering was being reviewed across the national HST fleet to address losses in its provision and in response to a fall in demand for full-meals services. This led to catering vehicles provided for the WR transferred to the ECML, with simplified provision substituted on the former.
Authority for the route upgrade between Newcastle and Berwick, together with the servicing facilities at Aberdeen, came in August 1976. The Investment Review that year had caused the delay and the trackwork north of Newcastle, as well as between Stoke and Selby, were not expected to be completed until 1979 and 1980 respectively. The cost of substituting a bridge for the level crossing at Christon Bank caused this work to be cancelled.
Heaton Depot was selected as the base for commissioning the sets. The first did not arrive until August 11 1977, delayed by slippage in the HST programme for the WR. A formal handover took place at York on September 7.
Availability problems on the WR brought the decision to loan the third ECML set to the Region for several months. This affected East Coast staff training in consequence. The plan remained, however, to introduce four sets at conventional speed between King’s Cross, Newcastle and Edinburgh from January 1978 and eight at 125mph by May. May 1979 was the date for the full HST timetable, which would comprise 25 daily diagrams.
Consequent on Class 254 having an extra coach, consideration was given to pushing the rating of the Paxman Valenta engine up from 2,250hp to 2,500hp to cope with the extra train weight. Mindful of how highly rated the Valenta was at the lower setting, the BR Board Member for Engineering queried with the CM&EE whether such a decision was wise. In the event, a uniform engine rating of 2,250hp was adopted across the fleet.
A progress report in March 1977 revealed that Mk 3 vehicle construction for the WR was complete and six TRUK kitchen cars would go direct to the ECML. The critical path for the East Coast sets initially was power car availability. From Set 13, however, this changed to whether the WR had received TRUB buffet cars, so releasing TRUK and TRSB buffet vehicles for the East Coast. The change in vehicle type on the WR followed the review of the demand for a full-meal service.
A minor dispute arose in July 1977 over ECML Set 3, which was on loan to the WR. The Region wanted to keep the set until fleet availability improved but the ER general manager weighed in to argue that the loan had been limited to the end of the year. He claimed the absence of the set on the ECML would jeopardise the start of the planned timetable in May 1978.
By the end of 1977, nine sets had been delivered but construction of buffet cars for the WR was six weeks behind programme and affecting the release of catering cars from the Region to the ER. It wouldn’t be BR, if the introduction of something new didn’t spark an industrial dispute. In the case of ECML HSTs, it was Carriage & Wagon staff on the ER, and this delayed driver training.
As 1978 dawned, the completion of the four maintenance depots was behind schedule, as also was dealing with some level crossings on stretches passed for 125mph.
The first set entered revenue service on March 20 1978, covering the 0745 King’s Cross to Edinburgh and 1500 return at conventional speeds. At the May 8 timetable change, six HSTs were diagrammed between London,
Newcastle and Edinburgh. With Class 254 construction in full swing, Paxman Diesels, the engine manufacturer, was hit by strike action. This caused a break in the supply of Valentas to British Rail Engineering’s (BREL) Crewe Works, where the Class 43 power cars were being built. In addition, engines were failing across the entire fleet at an average rate of more than four per month during 1977 and 1978 and many needed repair beyond what was possible at depots. As 1978 wore on, an engine shortage loomed.
When Penmanshiel Tunnel, north of Berwick, collapsed on March 13 1979, all services north of Newcastle were diverted via Carlisle. Introduction of the full, 32-set service planned for May was postponed until the route re-opened on August 20, though ‘254’ deliveries had been completed by May.
The start of 1979 brought a fresh attempt to get extra HST capacity. Overcrowding soon emerged on certain trains and two options were put forward, adding an extra Second Class car and building more sets or both. Services to be turned over to the extra HSTs were the morning business trains from Middlesbrough, Hull and Sheffield to London and the balancing evening workings.
Retaining locomotive-hauled sets on the London to York semi-fast services, and also on the London to Cleethorpes diagram, meant the new application need only be for seven ‘254s’. Refurbishing stock from the prototype Class 252 HST would save money. One view believed that adding an extra coach to make 2+9 sets would create surplus capacity and offer only a “marginal” increase in seats. Just why moving from four to five Second Class trailers could be considered to be marginal was not explained!
Not all BR Board members gave unqualified support to the proposal, which was appraised in June 1979. Together with the DTp, there was concern over the reliability of the additional revenue forecast that would result from the extra seven Class 254s. The case was not helped because the WR fleet was averaging only 34% occupancy and a transfer of some of these to the ECML was mooted.
Meanwhile, the BREL managing director expressed concern about orders for 1980-1, especially at Crewe Works, in the absence of additional HSTs being authorised. There was a cost to be borne somewhere, funded by the DTp, if no work was forthcoming.
Finally, in February 1980, the BRB agreed, supported by the DTp, to four extra ‘254s’ and one set destined for the WR West of England scheme was assigned to the ECML instead. Then the ER and WR squabbled over which Region should receive its requirements first.
The ER wanted ‘254s’ for the business-targeted trains from Middlesbrough and Hull to London; Sheffield had been abandoned for a service because of doubts concerning its viability. The WR wanted its sets for the West of England line, where the retention of locomotive-hauled rakes was viewed as reducing credibility. Higher authority opined that the ER received three sets from August, the WR its five next and the last two went to the ER in 1981. It was the CrossCountry programme that lost ground so that the ER queue-jumped to receive its five sets quickly.
Hull joined the InterCity 125 (as HSTs were now known officially) network on January 2 1981, Middlesbrough following later that month. There were now 29 diagrams for 37 ‘254s’, of which 15 required sets with both buffet and kitchen cars, and 14 with just buffet cars. While there had been a desire to standardise all ECML sets with both a Second Class buffet and Restaurant Kitchen car, by 1980 experience on the ECML showed just a buffet car fulfilled most requirements because a full meals service was largely demanded only by business travellers. This is why there was differing catering provision and two sets of trainset diagrams.
The debate and arguments over procurement just described took place in one part of BR, but technical issues were causing further delay on the engineering side. BR pursued a dual sourcing policy for equipment whenever possible and this applied to Class 43 power car electrical equipment. While Brush Electrical Machines had won early orders, subsequently a contract was awarded to GEC Traction. Unfortunately, its traction motors quickly proved to be unreliable on the WR, affecting deliveries by 1980 because GEC struggled to resolve the problem and therefore could not provide the equipment.
Ten sets with GEC motors for both the WR and ER were being held up and a switch to Brush equipment for the ECML ‘254s’ aimed at speeding up deliveries. It was only partially successful because a dispute between BR and Brush over gearboxes meant sufficient
"There was an admission of shortcomings by BR staff in design and understanding the cost implications of moving from 100mph to 125mph."
components were not to hand when needed.
The above interruption to Class 43 construction meant Second Class trailers were available at BREL workshops and in order to deal with overcrowding during the Summer 1980 timetable, eight ECML sets were strengthened to 2+9 for Anglo Scottish diagrams. Neville Hill depot, Leeds, could not handle the longer rakes and so these were confined to operation between London, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
Reviewing the results of 2+9 operation, no problems with engine reliability from the higher load factor and no impact on punctuality had emerged. Short platform lengths north of Aberdeen had been an issue for parcels traffic. Up Aberdeen trains had, however, been among the most overcrowded with the 2+8 formation.
The final report on the ECML HST project was dated January 27 1981, though the project completion certificate was delayed for more than two years awaiting figures. The latter admitted that broad assumptions in the original investment submission made it very difficult to ascertain the impact. The argument used was that only 55% of the forecast mileage in the 1974 submission had been run, while passenger growth had been 52%. Just why BR assumed a direct correlation between these figures lacked explanation.
Conversely, when loaded train miles in 1980 dropped 2.5% and revenue by 25% from the year before, this was ascribed fully to economic recession and not incorrect BR forecasting which was claimed to have been accurate (see table).
BR admitted that the 1973 baseline figures had understated the true position, which then made the growth look more favourable than it was. The actual train working costs were 20% higher than those used in the investment submissions. This is a large disparity, even allowing for the uncertainty of operating a new trainset, maintenance charges having seen the biggest overshoot.
Some blame was fairly placed on the performance of manufacturers in dealing with component issues but there was an admission of shortcomings by BR staff in design, understanding the cost implications of moving from 100mph to 125mph and insufficient experience with the Class 252 prototype. In view of these under-estimates, it was worrying that BR had to say that its CM&EE was “confident” maintenance costs would be reduced and so not jeopardise the viability of the HST project. In summary, great trains but uneconomic commercially on early experience.
No wonder the DTp and HM Treasury usually distrusted BR’s financial estimates in investment submissions! Indeed, as seen above, the DTp had cut BR’s bid from 42 to 32 ‘254s’ and seven to four more because it doubted the financial forecasts put up for some of the proposed services.
Forty years on, HSTs have proved to be probably the best trainset ever designed for the UK’s railways. Conceived as a stop-gap insurance against the failure of the APT, the early technical difficulties settled down and ensured reliable running. As InterCity struggled to break even during the 1980s, one wonders whether the financial forecasts made to justify their procurement did materialise eventually.
Heaton depot handled ECML HST commissioning. Snow picked up on the run to York obliterates the set number in this February 1978 view.
Led by 43115, the 1215 Edinburgh-King’s Cross service approaches Doncaster on July 27 1981.
Berwick-upon-Tweed’s station trackwork was revised as part of route upgrading for HST operation. 43074 and 43084 arrive at the station with an Edinburgh-King’s Cross service on March 7 1980.
Before the opening of the Selby diversion, 43079 passes through the now removed centre road at the head of an Up service for King’s Cross on April 14 1981.
Forty years old and still going strong. On March 9, Virgin Trains East Coast 43318 accelerates away from Newark Northgate with the 1202 York-King’s Cross.
On June 30 1978, set 254012 approaches journey’s end at King’s Cross as it drops down the bank under the North London Line.
David Clough has been writing forRAIL on traction-related topics since January 1983. He is the author of 14 books about Britain’s railways.