Here’s why the Class 43 High-Speed Train is literally the best train ever

A BR Class 43. Image: Geof Shepphad/Wikimedia Commons.

The Class 43, or the  High-Speed Train (HST) as it is more commonly known, has been a ubiquitous sight on Britain's railways for over 40 years. All good things must come to an end however, and the HST is about to retire from the East Coast Main Line (although they will be staying for a little while longer on the Midland Mainline, in Scotland and on routes to Cornwall).

The HST also happens to still hold the record for the world’s fastest diesel train – a record unbeaten since 1987. But any train can be fast. What makes this one so special I felt the need to write a whole article about it?

Well, aside from being called Britain’s favourite locomotive, it’s also my favourite train. Here’s why.

It looks fantastic

Sleek, aerodynamic, instantly recognisable. Ask anyone to draw a picture of a train and chances are, it’s going to look vaguely identifiable as an HST.

The man responsible, Sir Kenneth Grange, was given a brief to design the livery of the new train. Not one to miss an opportunity however, Grange decided to redesign the whole power car and successfully persuaded British Rail to adopt the now iconic design.

It literally changed rail travel in Britain

The HST was initially intended as a stop-gap solution (just like the distinctly non-highs-speed Pacers that dominate the north). However, it instantly proved a hit with passengers

The last serious attempt at developing a high-speed intercity train had resulted in frequent breakdowns and passengers complaining of nausea – so by the 1970s, British Rail was almost universally hated and facing serious financial trouble.

From 1976, the HSTs began running on the Western Region routes from London Paddington. Towns such as Swindon and Didcot began to transform into commuter towns, as job opportunities in London became far more accessible.

Business travellers could now easily hop between cities in a single day in comfort. Plug sockets and large, armchair like seats turned the train into a comfortable office, travelling at 125mph. Former British Rail chairman Peter Parker proclaimed: “Within ten years, the number of passenger journeys on the Inter-City routes had increased by 30 per cent, proving that people react dramatically and positively to faster, more comfortable services.”

Train nerd tip: most train operators reconfigured the internal layout over the years to squeeze in more passengers. East Midlands Railway still operate HSTs with the original generous legroom (and the British Rail logo etched into the bathroom mirrors, which I have definitely not taken a selfie in).


It has distinctive branding

There’s no use having a great product if no-one knows about it. Thankfully, British Rail ran an extensive marketing campaign to promote “The Age of the Train”. Unfortunately, one particular strand happened to be fronted by Jimmy Saville, so it’s probably best we just say it was effective at the time and leave it there.

What is worth watching however, is a fantastic video featuring an HST, a “police train” and a scantily clad woman (yes, really). Slightly bizarre for sure, but definitely memorable.

Of course, the launch of the HST was also promoted with a series of eye-catching posters featuring bright colours and simple text. One such example heralded the arrival of “The Journey Shrinker”, now running between London and Edinburgh, which cut journey times by a full hour.

Now you may think I’m being nostalgic (I admit it, I am). But there is no sight quite as distinctive, nor sound quite as pleasing as the roar of a Valenta engine HST. Maybe it’s because I binge-watched Thomas the Tank Engine every day as a child, but I can’t help but feeling the modern Pendolinos, Azumas and Aventras lack personality.  

Of course, I hope to be proven wrong that there will be another train which is equally revolutionary as the HST. For now though, I’ll be making some more trips to the National Railway Museum in York to see the HST in all its glory.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.