- Up The Revolution! (Part 1)
In the mid 1960s many countries were developing high-speed trains and new infrastructure to get the best out of them, but in the UK BR recognised that such investment was unlikely to be forthcoming from an anti-rail Government so, in order to fight off competition from road and domestic air travel a programme of improvements to the existing main line network was initiated to raise line speeds. However 95-100mph was the best that could be achieved with the rolling stock available at the time, and that even with new trains 125mph was the limit of possibility without new lines.
It is a sobering thought that the HST seeds were first sown as far back as 1967, when the five D600 Warships, an everyday sight in Cornwall, were in their final year. The Advanced Passenger Train (APT) was on the radar but was a long way off and was not the solution to all rail passenger requirements – something more traditionally diesel-powered was also needed, and it had to be something special. During 1968/9 plans were refined and in August 1970 the British Railways Board (BRB) increased the £70,000 development funding authorised in May to £800,000, a decision which was almost certainly the most important the BRB ever made, as many claimed the UK’s railway network may not have survived without it! In late 1970 it was announced that a fully operational train would be ready to go in 1972 (assisted by development of Mark 3 coaching stock being already underway), and that was achieved in June, only to immediately run into trouble with the railway trade unions (as did the also newly-completed gas turbine APT-E). This was resolved in December and testing on the East Coast Main Line commenced in early 1973. Inevitably with any new form of traction and especially one pushing the limits of conventional technology there were a number of issues, but these were eventually resolved. On 6th June 1973 a 5-vehicle formation achieved a new UK speed record of 133mph, only to break it 4 days later with 141mph then 143mph the following day, clearly demonstrating what the new-generation hardware was capable of!
In May 1974 the train, which had been designated as Class 41 locomotives (41 001/2) with coaching stock trailers, became set 252001 with power cars renumbered into the carriage series as 43000/1 (I first saw it departing Newcastle-upon-Tyne from a vantage point overlooking Gateshead depot on the 25th of that month so it could have been numbered either way at the time).
On 4th December 1974 with construction of production HSTs for the Western Region underway, the prototype was transferred to Old Oak Common for crew and technical training. 252001 entered passenger service on 5th May 1975 (7 weeks after its jolly to Penzance). Working between Bristol Parkway, Paddington and Weston-super-Mare it was an instant hit with passengers, many of whom changed their travel plans to ride in it (this sounds familiar - the same phenomenon is happening now as the ‘Castle’ sets are winding down!) During this period the train was limited to 100mph and it was frequently removed from passenger diagrams to undertake significant testing. On 5th November 1975 252001 was diagrammed to Swansea for the first time. It continued racking up the miles in WR passenger service until October 1976, by which time the production trains were entering traffic so the prototype was returned to the Railway Technical Centre at Derby, where after a little more local testing it was disbanded, its vehicles finding other purposes. Whatever its WR diagrams were during 1976 photographs seem to be uncommon, perhaps because attention was by then focussed on the arrival of the production trains and also it was possibly limited to weekday running. My notebooks show just two sightings that year – on 20th March while awaiting a train to London for the day the two power cars coupled back-to-back passed through Swindon, direction not recorded and I can’t recall this notable event at all now (nor the reason for my visit to the capital which was accomplished behind none other than Class 50 50042, now preserved at Bodmin). A final record of the full 252001 set was made also at Swindon on the evening of 31st October – I was so surprised at its arrival I wrote “Long time no see!” and underlined the second ‘2’ to avoid confusion with 253001 which was making multiple appearances by then! I may have inadvertently seen the prototype's last working on the WR.....
As an interesting aside, on the day of 252001’s visit to Penzance, the last Class 35 Hymek in service, D7018, worked its last train, the 5A06 11.35 Didcot – Old Oak Common; it was officially withdrawn the following day, bringing the curtain down on my favourite class of locomotive.
Part 2 will be a look at the first few months of Class 253 operation.
It’s sad to think that by this time next year, the HSTs, the semaphores and the use of the signal box as a signal box will be no more.
Some images are attached for you to use as you please.
All the best, Jon Hird
Cornish Branch Lines
North Wales Railway Circle