VTEC’s HSTs: life begins again at 40

Steve Mitchell, from Rosyth, is one of VTEC’s 332 drivers, all of whom are qualified to drive both HSTs and ‘91s’. He has been driving the East Coast route for the past 15 years, and before that spent 12 years with ScotRail. 

“I’ll miss the HSTs when they’re gone. They feel like they’re doing some work and are so reliable for their age. It looks like a high-speed train should do.

“It will always get you home, even if we lose one of the engines. The ‘91s’ have a single point of failure at the pantograph, but we can switch engines if we drop one. 

“You also want to be in one of these during high winds. It doesn’t get any of the speed restrictions like the ‘91’ . 

“I might like the IEP when I see it, but like anything new it will be strange at first and really simple to drive, like a giant Sprinter. When I started out in the 1980s, older drivers talked about the Deltics. When I retire I’ll be talking about the HST.”

The primary difference to the HSTs will be the replacement of separate power and brake sticks by a single combined control stick. The IEP will also be more responsive, requiring less time to build up power when moving off (thus further altering the driving experience). The IEP will also be bi-modal, avoiding the prospect of speed restrictions in high winds and providing diesel and electrical power sources should one be unavailable. The noise in the cab will also be much less, as diesel generators are located beneath carriage frames, and not in power cars at either end. 

Also in the cab Head of Operational Delivery Paul Lyon explains: “The IEP has lots of systems to assist the driver that we don’t currently have. Acceleration is not the HST’s strongpoint, but it’s a grafter and really gallops when it gets going. They are hauling their heaviest loads ever, in their most intensive service. There are no easy jobs for the HST.”  

It is easier to appreciate the relative age of the HST when sitting in the cab. 43272 was introduced in December 1977 and is largely unchanged from its original design, with modifications bolted on to enhance its capabilities over the ensuing decades. 

A forward-facing CCTV box sits on the drivers’ desk, with other newer inventions including the OTMR box, GSM-R signalling equipment, Automatic Warning System and Timetable Advisory System (TAS), which gives the driver on-screen alerts at a distance of 4km (2.5 miles) and then 2km from station stops, tracking the performance of the train against its schedule. 

At Edinburgh and Newcastle the train takes on more passengers. All available seats are filled and many have to stand. It’s the Friday of half-term, and large groups of children and families do their best to settle, giving little thought to the refurbished interior surrounding them. 

It’s perhaps unwise to trouble those in the busiest coaches for their thoughts on the new seats, when such a great many are unable to avail themselves of this convenience. Equally, those taken to sitting on the carpet look sufficiently uncomfortable, without RAIL asking them to venture an opinion on its aesthetics. 

A small child drops crisps within the deep-piled floor of the vestibule area, and pulverises them with his feet in an action likely to draw despair from Messrs Buck and Charles back at Craigentinny. 

This serves to demonstrate the level of punishment that this hardy fleet of HSTs continues to take on a regular basis, more than vindicating VTEC’s decision to improve their condition before phasing them out. 

Despite the incremental improvements made to the customer experience, the HSTs are reaching their limitations for further modification as they enter their fifth decade of service. 

We seem certain to see them in continued service beyond 2020, not only with ScotRail but also with other operators, but their time carrying passengers up and down the route of the Flying Scotsman is now almost up. Will we see the same level of affection for IEPs in 40 years’ time? 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 796 on March 16 2016.


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  • Andrewjgwilt1989 - 02/05/2016 21:34

    Some of the MK3 carriages could be used for AGA's Intercity fleet as there wont be any new trains (except Vivarail Class 230 DEMU's) to be built for AGA and also the Class 230 for Great Western Railway and London Midland and Great Western Railway, Virgin Trains East Coast, Hull Trains and Transpennine Express are ordering the new Hitachi to build the IEP Class 800, Class 801 and Class 802 trains and other new trains such as Class 700 for Govia Thameslink Railway Thameslink Great Northern, Class 707 for South West Trains, Class 707 for London Overground, Class 345 for MTR Crossrail, Class 387/2 for GTR Gatwick Express, Class 387/3 for GWR and c2c and Class 385 for Abellio ScotRail.

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  • Rob Lewis - 23/03/2017 08:11

    Surely the best use for displaced HSTs would be to use them on long distance Cross Country services, so that the dreadful Voyagers could be cascaded to secondary routes.

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  • cobol qanon - 31/05/2021 22:38

    Don't be under an illusion that 50 years of HST working that the frames, roofs and floors of the coaches and power cars are seriously corroded, I worked for a time on the upgrades to the coaches and they were showing there age and needed extensive welding. However on a brighter note? the current crop of new trains seems as their "lightweight" alloy frames are already cracking at the lift points so I would guess that they will never reach 50 or even possibly 10, if you look at the original Eurostar trains - these have already been built and scrapped in the lifetime of the HST. Some times a design is just right and the idea is to repeat and improve not replace with "new design" which has new problems that turn out to be fatal flaws....

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