I’ve always been a fan of the InterCity 125 High Speed Train (HST), ever since I received a Hornby HST train set for Christmas back in 1978, two years after the full-sized version first appeared on the UK rail network. It was the HST that first really got me interested in railways, and I’ve been completely obsessed with trains - both steam and diesel - ever since.
The HST was an instant hit with the public when it was first launched. The sleek, aerodynamic wedge shape, perhaps recalling Gresley’s A4 Pacifics in some people’s minds… the streak of yellow along the sides of the power cars… the speed at which it suddenly darted from out of cover and shot across one’s vision when you happened to be passing within sight of a stretch of main line somewhere - all these things captured the imagination. And what a joy when I first got to travel on one!
Manufacture of the type ceased in 1982, but most of the original fleet is still in operation with a handful of train operating companies, including Great Western Railway, Grand Central, CrossCountry, East Midland Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast.
Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) operated HSTs for a while on the East Coast Main Line (ECML), before the franchise was taken over by National Express East Coast. The ECML was subsequently taken over and operated under direct Government control, by the Department for Transport’s publicly owned company East Coast. This franchise has now been taken over by Virgin Trains East Coast.
Additionally, Network Rail runs an HST set - painted bright yellow and officially termed the New Measurement Train, but nicknamed ‘The Flying Banana’. This set is currently involved in work on the Great Western Main Line (GWML), assessing the state of the track as part of the electrification programme.
Officially called the InterCity 125 (IC125), the HST holds the world record for diesel rail traction of 148.5mph. This was achieved on November 1 1987, on a run between Darlington and York by power cars 43102 and 43159, working a test train for new Mk 4 coach bogies. The original 125 sets were powered by 2,250 bhp (1,678 kW) Paxman Valenta engines, but all the remaining power cars have since received new engines - most of these are MTU 16V4000 R41 power units, with just the 24 East Midlands Trains (EMT) vehicles having Paxman VP185s.
Thankfully, the HSTs remain popular to this day. But having now reached the grand old age of 40, it is perhaps not too unkind to observe that they are getting a little old. They have served the nation well, but some have speculated whether it will shortly be time for them to retire. So, does this mean that after 40 years of top link service the 125 is soon to disappear completely? The answer, fortunately, is no.
Hitachi units under the Intercity Express Programme (IEP) will replace the HSTs on Great Western services in this year, followed by Virgin Trains East Coast a year later. However, around 27 of the four-car and five-car sets displaced from GWR will be taken on by ScotRail for use on Glasgow/Edinburgh to Aberdeen/Inverness services, while GWR itself plans to retain around 11 four-car sets for use on Cardiff-Penzance secondary services.
So while the current high profile of the IC125 might begin to slip somewhat, with their most arduous duties being worked by the new Hitachi units, the IC125 certainly isn’t going to disappear completely… at least not yet.
And even when it does, a preservation society called the 125 Group is already actively working to preserve the HST’s memory and good reputation, as well as sharing interest and information on the type. Established in 1994, the 125 Group is currently acting as custodian for the HST prototype (41001), thanks to an agreement with the National Railway Museum in 2012. It also has plans to (eventually) acquire and run a set in its original condition, complete with Paxman Valenta engine and with a number of Mk 3 carriages.
After some restoration work, 41001 is currently running in a splendid condition on the Great Central Railway (Nottingham) at Ruddington. The vehicle had arrived at the EMT depot at Neville Hill (Leeds) shortly after negotiations with the NRM had concluded. It was then subjected to some major restoration work, including the removal of the Paxman Valenta engine number S183. This had been sectioned, with parts cut away to illustrate to NRM visitors how a diesel engine works.
Other work on 41001 included a new coat of paint and a full internal rewire to replace all the tired 1970s wiring that was still in situ. The next task was to find an alternative power train, and this duly arrived in the form of power unit S508, which was fired up on July 1 2013.