Rail Ramble: Why the HST still does it for me.

Mike Humble:


By the time you will have read this opening paragraph, your typical High Speed Train (HST) will have covered the best part of a mile mile in double glazed, air suspended, air conditioned, Wi-Fi enabled and restaurant car provided comfort. Of course there are faster trains world wide and the electric Pendolino will accelerate from the blocks like Mr Bolt, but the HST has that magic ingredient that still manages to capture the hearts and minds of many boy and man alike – soul. Now operating for over 35 years, the HST has gone through many re-branding exercises and operating companies since the mid `70s, yet nothing has come close towards providing a long term suitable replacement for long distance and heavy duty rail travel.

Just like Concorde, the HST seems to have cemented its place in the history books as the epitome of fast stylish travel in the UK – an icon. The supersonic plane now remains a museum piece and British Rail echoes in the mind as a fond memory but in the cut and thrust asset stripping world of a privatised rail industry – the HST lives on – and long may it do so. How can you not approve of that streamlined snout as it gently rolls into your platform, your eyes notice the huge cooling grille on the flank subconsciously reminding you of the awesome power. The air suspended carriage bogies emit a solemn sounding cry of escaping air as the train gently comes to a stand – it’s all a wonderful cacophony of sound and vision that can turn even the most grown up of adults into an exited child.

A much missed GNER HST departs from "The Cross" in true style.
A much missed GNER HST departs from “The Cross” in true style.

You pull on the door handle (none of this fangled automatic nonsense) and step up inside into a world of carpet and hushed conversation, the door closes behind you with a vault like thump. The MK3 coach as they are known, represent the high water mark of the British Rail era, subsequent revisions and safety upgrades over the past four decades has kept the HST at the top of its game. The whistles blow, the flags are shown and the train manager gives two strokes on the communication buzzer, the driver replies back and you’re away, only a slight bump sensation confirms forward motion as the slack is taken up by the carriage coupling. As you gaze out of the window and see all the commuters and loved relatives turn into distant memories, the silence is amazing.

The 8:15 to anywhere but here gathers pace and you simply fail to notice you are sitting in a coach that was designed over 40 years ago. The only items to pierce the serene environment is the whirr of steel wheel on rail and the distant sound of Lady Ga Ga via a fellow passengers iPod. The feeling of quality is abundant everywhere you look, the carpet is thick, the seats are supportive and the tables seem to be deep rooted into the floor. British Rail designed the train to stand up to intense usage on a daily basis and this is demonstrated in a way that can only be appreciated by experience. The scenery whooshes by at the rate of two miles a minute in next to no time, and the guard announces the restaurant car is now open serving “hot and cold snacks, tea and coffee or your choice of fine wines”

Tasteful revisions and engineering programmes have kept the trains bang up to date and fresh.
Tasteful revisions and engineering programmes have kept the trains bang up to date and fresh.

Standing in front most coach vestibule is a real treat where you can feel the power of the leading engine vibrating through the floor and if the door window is open, hear the screaming turbo. Other trains may match the HST for speed but not for sheer wonderment and character or indeed – comfort. The original design brief came from a splinter group of engineers who disagreed with the BR board over its plans for a new high speed train. Those on one side thought a tilting gas turbine train was the key, whereby more traditional people thought a high powered diesel train offered a more manageable and simpler solution. The gas turbine APT-E was soon scuppered on the grounds of escalating cost while the HST went from experimental to production format all within a staggering five years.

Amazingly, the HST was only ever conceived as being a “stop-gap” design until the flawed APT came on stream – It was also possibly one the last UK produced transport solutions that was almost spot on from the moment it was designed. Nothing before it on rails (Gresley A4 Pacific locomotive as an exception) or since has captured the hearts of the travelling public or commuter – some say it single-handedly turned around the public image of British Rail. Eventually, Inter-City became a stand alone brand with new livery and sleek advertising as the 80`s progressed. Until the launch of the “Electra 225” Class 91, the HST spearheaded the Inter-City re-birth.

Of course, there some reliability problems with engines (mainly down to maintenance issues) but it soon settled down and truly turned around British Rails public image thanks to some clever marketing and the development of the Inter-City brand into a separate stand alone business unit. Constant revisions and engineering projects have kept the HST fresh, on top of its game and environmentally friendly despite the turbulent recent times of privatisation. Some operators have re-worked the interiors so well… you would almost think they were brand new trains, while the MTU powered locomotives feature state of the art management systems. Engine performance and output is sent via a GPS link to the engineering bases and engine manufacturers in real time – proper 21st century stuff!

So… in next to no time you have reached your destination and departed the train ensuring you have taken all your personal belongings with you. No fuss or stress either, and you wait until the whistle has blown, the communication buzzer confirms the all clear, the noise builds up and its red L.E.D tail lamps fade into the distance before you walk away – feeling like a small child again.

HST Facts:

Produced by: British Rail Engineering Ltd (B.R.E.L) Crewe between 1975 and 1983

Engine: Paxman Valenta 12RP-200L when new, re-engineered to Paxman VP185 or MTU 16V4000 (2 per train)

Braking System: Anti lock disc brakes with conditioning tread parking brake on locomotive

Max Speed: 125mph (limited)

Official holder of the world speed record for diesel rail traction at 148mph

Driver Comfort / Safety: Fully air conditioned cab – ATP system and GPS tracking with “black box” recording facility

Passenger Features: Full air conditioning – Double tinted glazing – automatic air operated corridor connecting doors – 240v socket and Wi-Fi at every seat – restaurant dining facility

Operators: Inter-City – East Coast – First Great Western – East Midlands Trains – Cross Country Trains & Grand Central







  1. Still a wonderful train- hope they go on for a few years yet.

    I am in a minority however in preferring the latest MTU engines to the shrieking kettle ‘banshee wail’ of the original Valentas- not a pleasant experience close up!

  2. HST’s are better than a voyager, no noisy rattling underfloor engines in the HST. Also you can add plug doors to the MK 3 coach, Chiltern are using refurbished MK3’s with these new doors to replace newer diesel units on long distance trains. They’re a big improvement.

    • @ Grant

      Its interesting to note that BR originally wanted sliding entry doors from the drawing board. It was Union reservations towards platform staff reductions and mainly cost reasons the MK3 ended up with slam doors -ED

      • Yes I’d heard that too, with the benefit of hindsight it would have ensured an even longer life span for these trains. It seems that any of these proposed replacements that are being talked about are going to be either hybrids or voyager type trains (i.e cramped). First Great Western seem to have been the one company to ruin the seating layout of the HST by adding more airline style seats to pack the passengers in. If you’re any taller than 5′ 7″ you need to sit with your knees in your face or fight for the few table seats that are available.

  3. Mike I take it you will sample 41001 when it is out to play next year, once again with its Valenta screaming and clagging on the preserved railways? My money’s on the GCR being its next home for a while

  4. There was a write up in the recent Rail Express mag about the resto of 41001, and it is just over 90% complete now, and it was a complete basket case, with an engine sectioned to show how it worked, all the electrics cut through, no brakes, and in a bit of a sorry state with everything else. To get it this far has taken dedication, but sadly funds are not there to get it into a condition for it to be allowed to play on the mainline, due to the costs of all the safety equipment required at the mo, but who knows, in years to come, the plan is to acquire a production power car and re Valenta that too…

  5. Wish I was in a position to contribute to getting a prototype HST up and running- and despite previous comments, it goes without saying that the powerplant would have to be a Valenta- in all its shreaky glory.

    Some things in life are worth sticking your fingers in your ears for…

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