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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006, 11:34 GMT
The little train that could
By Russell Hollowood

The announcement of plans to replace the InterCity 125 with a new fleet of express trains will be welcomed by rail passengers tired of creaky old rolling stock. But this unlikely train has been a rare success story amid the lows and lows of Britain's railways over the past 30 years.

Somehow it still looks modern. Nearly 30 years after it started powering its way up and down the UK, the InterCity 125 doesn't feel like it belongs in the 1970s.

And yet now its time has come. Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has announced that this train, so well recognised throughout the country, is to begin being phased out. He is inviting bids for its replacement - but it's worth considering for a few moments the contribution this train has made.

In the early 1960s, the infamous Dr Beeching introduced enormous reforms to the rail network. In many people's memories, these are characterised by swingeing cuts to the network and closure of hundreds of branch lines and stations. But the real thrust of Beeching was to turn the idea of the railway away from being "everything to everyone" towards being focused on the parts that actually worked.

APT pic courtesy of Rob Latham
The APT (left) morphed into the Italian-built Pendolino (right)
He was passionate about the railways being seen as a modern transport provider - one of the reasons he was keen to see the end of steam was that it just so old-fashioned. He wanted a totally electrified network, and part of that was a high speed service between cities. Inter-city was born.

The years that followed were times of bold attempts at innovation - supersonic air travel, even going to the Moon. The equivalent for Britain's railways was the attempt to develop the APT, the Advanced Passenger Train, a hi-tech train which would tilt round corners and achieve speeds well in excess of the then typical 80mph maximum.

In as much as the worlds of trains and glamour coincide, this was it. The APT attracted the funding, the hype, and the respect. But all the while, a group of British Rail engineers in Derby had a notion that they could find a simpler, cheaper solution. Some looked down on these engineers. Others even sneered. But the boys from Derby were not distracted.

Technical setbacks

What if, they thought, instead of developing whole new technologies, we simply go with what we know? What if we use tried and tested methods? What if we got really powerful diesel engines, strapped them on lightweight chassis, and put one at each end of a train? Would that not deliver high speeds at a fraction of the cost of electrifying the entire network?

The simple touch of having an engine at either end meant the "turnaround" was slashed - a train could be put back in service almost as quickly as it took a driver to walk to the buffet car
The answer was yes. Workshops in Derby and Crewe set to work building the engines and the result was the InterCity 125.

While the APT - beset by insurmountable technical setbacks - barely left the sidings, the InterCity loco has been dutifully ferrying passengers - latterly, of course, customers - between cities across the UK for the past 30 years.

The prototype 125 began running between Paddington and Bristol in 1975. And in October 1976, the first scheduled 125mph services started. And, unlike the high-speed trains in France or Japan, passengers on the 125 did not have to pay a premium for the express service.

Age of the train

The simple touch of having an engine at either end meant the "turnaround" for trains was slashed. Now complicated sidings manoeuvres were eliminated, and a train could be put back in service almost as quickly as it took a driver to walk to the buffet car.

Steam train
Beeching's plans was to modernise - ditch steam for electric
The 125 became one of BR's few great success stories. It boosted morale in the industry. Passengers had the comfort of air conditioning, proper suspension, and double glazing.

Inspired marketing - take a bow Sir Jimmy Savile - made it a huge hit. And, before long, the UK could claim to have a higher proportion of its rail network travelling at more than 100mph than any other country. InterCity started making profits. This was indeed the age of the train.

You could even make a case that it saved the railway - the 1970s was a time of massive expansion in the motorway network, and without a huge investment in electrification, the rail network would have found it very difficult to compete.

But this is a tale not just of interest to those with a passion for trains, as it had far-reaching effects.

Not least was the "Peterborough effect". Suddenly it became possible for people to live well outside London and to commute on a weekly or daily basis to the capital.

Mind the stop-gap

Cities which had been two hours or more away suddenly became, in effect, suburbs. Property prices saw the impact. And even for non-commuters, it became realistic to go from Newcastle to London in three hours.

Beeching would not have entirely approved - 125s are diesel, not electric - and there are tales of some in the industry taking a time to get used to the new order. At first, for instance, some insisted a traditional oil lamp be hung on both ends of the train.

But the dream of a modern rail network lived on, thanks in no small part to this stop-gap solution which cost hundreds of thousands rather than millions. And now each of those 125s still in service has travelled the equivalent of going to the moon and back three times.

One consolation for those, like me, who love the train is that it's going to be a long goodbye - anything up to 10 years. Ironically, in the world of designing and building high-speed trains, nothing moves fast.

(Russell Hollowood is project developer at the National Railway Museum, York - see internet links, above right.)

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

One of my grandfathers last works for BR was working on the InterCity 125's and everytime I see an image of the train I remember the pride that my grandfather felt for this piece of engineering.
David Forster, Switzerland

I can remember when I was 11 (in 1983) going to London on a day trip from Sunderland taking the new defunct coast route and leaving at an unearthly 0525. On the way back the 125 broke down and it just happened that it was the carriage I was in. The thing I remember was the BR engineers kicking the brakes to try and unstick them. It took them around 30 mins but who cares. They were great trains of the time I will miss them once they go.
Mark Kennedy, London

Great article. The 125's are the greatest trains ever built in this country, and still better than anything produced since. Those who designed and built them deserve great credit - their replacements will have a lot to live up to. In the meantime, we should enjoy them while we can!
Chris Harvey, Bodmin

A fantastic train. Still modern, comfortable and reliable thirty years on.
Jason Marshall, Cardiff

Passing through Paddington station, watching a HST start - all noise, power and smoke - is impressive. There is a sense of raw muscle and energy to a machine that electric trains don't have. Mind you, Eurostar trains....
Lewis Graham, Hitchin, UK

Is it true that they had intended replacing them last year, but they were delayed !
Jonathan, UK

I don't know why people complain about "creaky rolling stock" on the 125s. Compared with the "advanced" rolling stock used by First Great Western on its new Adelante trains, the 125 carriages are great - much more spacious and comfy!
Tim Haveron Jones, Henley on Thames, UK

I've enjoyed using the 125 but I hope they'll take the opportunity to make its successor a lot quieter for those standing on the platform when the train departs. My daughter has to cover her ears because of the screech from the power cars.
Chris Ware, Barry UK

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Currently ONE railways is proudly heralding a new era on the Norwich to London line, by rolling out refurbished rolling stock from these soon to be decommissioned 125 sets.
Adrian Topple, Ipswich

Yes, the IC125 was, and still is, the best train in the country for its job of long distance passenger transport. Let's hope the replacement is at least as good, unlike recent offerings with their noisy engines under every carriage, cramped seating which doesn't line up with the tiny windows, smelly toilets and rocketing fares! And, of course, not be so outrageously expensive that other stations and lines are closed to pay for them. Otherwise we'll just see even more people getting in their cars instead.
Dave Burbridge, Derby, UK

The InterCity 125 is, without doubt, one of the finest trains ever built in Britain. It was a phenomenal commercial success, and it is a fitting tribute to its designers that it has had a long and successful career. However, it is a little long in the tooth now, and it is time to move on. What I really hope is that its replacement is a faster train. 125mph was radical in 1976, but speeds have failed to increase on Britain's railways since then, and we've been overtaken by much of Europe. The replacement of the 125 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really radically upgrade our rail network, and I sincerely hope we don't miss it.
Lee Osborne, London

Living near Inverness, we have a daily IC125 service run by GNER and a regular service to Glasgow or Edinburgh operated by First Scotrail using Turbostars. Many people I know will get up an hour earlier to catch the GNER IC125 rather than stay in bed and catch the Turbostar - which is much newer.
John Wright, Scotland

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