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.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

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With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

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While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

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Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).