18 March 2021 · The High Speed Train’s impact on the Railways

Presenter: Andrew McLean – Assistant Director and Chief Archivist, National Railway Museum

RCTS Surrey Branch organised the evening as a joint meeting with the Southern Friends of the National Railway Museum (NRM) and their chair James Baldwin introduced Andrew McLean our speaker for the evening. Born in Edinburgh, he was introduced to trains from day 2 and remembered visiting the NRM when it first opened in 1975 to celebrate 150 years of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. The first photograph showed Prince Philip at the official opening of the NRM with locomotive Boxhill in the background.

In the 1960s rail was still suffering the after effects of WWII, struggling to compete with road, and there were doubts about the future. However, a high speed train could help rail to compete. Freight and wagon development had not kept up so BR began research, design and testing of high speed freight wagons. The next question was, if freight, why not high speed passenger services too, and this led to the development of the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) – an early model of a high speed train with many exciting innovations that could provide competition for both air and road travel using revolutionary new ideas and technology.

Terry Miller, with his background and experience, become Chief Engineer for Traction and Rolling Stock for BR at just the right time to take this forward. However, the APT was facing technological problems, and BR needed something in the meantime, hence the development of the conventional high speed train (HST) which became the InterCity 125 (IC125). Andrew provided background historical detail to the production of the IC125 that first came into service in 1976, and its versatile designer Sir Kenneth Grange after whom power car 43002 is named, and which is now on display in the main hall at the NRM. Sir Kenneth used a wind tunnel to test models to help design the front end of the prototype APT and APT-E and also the IC125. Design principles were applied to the carriages as well as the power cars with the striking design and livery giving an illusion of speed.

Diagrams and technical drawings provided further detail of the development work including Mk III carriage construction with its excellent and well-deserved reputation for comfort. Production got underway at Derby and Crewe and the train not only looked good, it also performed well and could go faster than the specified 125 mph. There was muted media coverage for the official introduction into service partly, it seems, because some only wanted to report disaster rather than to celebrate success! BR celebrated the success story of IC125, showing the shape of things to come with fantastic design and branding at a time when railways were struggling with their profile. The effective marketing campaign was well illustrated using photographs of the facilities on board and some of the original advertising from the NRM collection. The IC125 was re-liveried in the 1980s with the advertising and marketing campaigns clearly aimed at the business market. They also had some success in selling the concept abroad, most notably in Australia.

It seems that British innovation and success are often downplayed but at the time the IC125 was introduced in 1976, the only high speed train that could beat it was the Japanese Shinkansen running on special tracks whereas the IC125 ran on the existing network. The pre-production APT-P made its first foray into regular use in 1981 but was withdrawn after a relatively short period because of technical problems. The situation with regards to high speed rail services has changed in recent years but, as Andrew showed, we were not always behind in developing high speed trains – consider too the earlier high speed Deltic diesel locomotives and the record breaking steam locomotive Mallard.

The subsequent 225 adapted much of the technology and provides something that the modern Azuma has to live up to. Although the HST has now been withdrawn from much of the UK rail network after more than 40 years of good and reliable service, some remain in use and we were treated to a really interesting mix of various liveries and operators including the ‘Flying Banana’ test train used by Network Rail, some EMR and Cross Country services, and a recent photograph of a ScotRail example with livery representing a face-mask on the front – appropriate for the pandemic!

The national collection continues to expand and, with help, the NRM has located an original buffet car with the original seats. They have also acquired the Terry Miller nameplates from a power car. Andrew said that it is hard to do justice to this wonderful train that was value for money, provided great service and that proved to be very popular with both staff and passengers.

As a bonus, Andrew was invited to provide an outline of current developments at the NRM so he gave a quick rundown for both York and Shildon. The current programme is the biggest change in the museum’s history although the pandemic has now made both the work and the fundraising more difficult. There is a lot going on with restoration and repurposing of unused historic buildings as well as rebuilding and new build. There are plans to increase visitor numbers and encourage children to become much more engaged with engineering. There will also be improvements in accessibility as the whole area around the York site is being redeveloped and Leeman Road is being re-routed. New gallery spaces will take the story into the future as well as the past and present, and there will be opportunities to display parts of the collection where there was previously no space to put them on show. Railways are not just about the technology but also the impact on society and many small artefacts will be displayed to tell the stories. At Shildon too, there are new developments with an improved layout as well as a large new building to enable the display of more locomotives and other items in the collection. This will enable the museum to include a lot more of the history of railways in the Shildon area and the associated industrial heritage.

An informal straw poll was taken to see if the audience would appreciate Andrew returning for a full evening talking about the NRM – the vote was resoundingly in favour.

Guest ‘question master’ for the evening was Dr Melvyn Draper of the Southern Friends of the NRM who mentioned very briefly what they are about. Questions included the design of trains and locomotives over time and how this could be exhibited; the availability of skills and spares; other trains/locomotives with an equally long lifetime; HST charters; how do you select which power cars and carriages to collect; railway infrastructure more generally eg catenary samples etc; coal supplies; and finally what about getting rid of things no longer considered useful. All questions were answered with the same knowledge and enthusiasm as the presentation itself.

The vote of thanks highlighted the excellent presentation both on the main subject and the impromptu update on the NRM. The HSTs are rightly a part of the history of railways and it is good to see them being covered in the NRM collections.