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Last Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
The 125 at 30
By Julian May
Producer, Changing Trains

InterCity 125
Happy birthday, High Speed Train
The workhorse of intercity rail network, the 125, turns 30 this year. Why do those who work with the train love it so much?

The InterCity 125 has cast its spell over Alison Forster, the forthright managing director of First Great Western. Post-privatisation executive she may be, even she can't escape the emotional thrall of big trains.

"I can absolutely identify with those steam [train enthusiasts] because I will be like that with the High Speed Train when it is no longer in passenger service. I think they're absolutely fabulous and I so want one in my garden when they come out of service."

Earlier this year the government announced that the 125 is to be phased out.

Nevertheless, First Great Western and other companies are investing millions, making them greener, more economical and, with internet access, more like mobile offices. They plan to keep the trains in service for another decade at least.

Elegant lines

The first 125 passenger service left Paddington for Bristol Temple Meads at 8.03 on 3 October, 1976 (return fare a fiver, it arrived three minutes early).

InterCity 125

The designer of this modernist classic, who also brought us the angle-poise lamp, the Kenwood Chef mixer and the parking meter, was Kenneth Grange. He remembers the immediate impact it had.

"There wasn't a sign of modernism in Paddington station. So I think the workforce - let alone the passengers - was mightily affected. This was a real symbol of hope for the future. I believe that most fervently. Porters, guards, everybody were themselves buying little badges of this train."

The 125 still looks modern. Crucial to its elegance is its wedge-shaped nose, necessary aerodynamically to prevent damage when entering tunnels at high speed. Yet the freedom to create this shape sprang from a chance remark to Grange by an engineer.

"He said that buffers were not there to prevent trains crashing into platforms but for shunting carriages around. These trains were never going to do that. So we didn't need the buffers. I was ecstatic."

Place of work

Today 125s still travel 1,000 miles a day or more, seven days a week. Some have travelled the equivalent of going to the moon and back a dozen times. There are few spare, so they are cleaned and maintained overnight.

Sprouts - well, we don't do them very often. And all our peas are sugar-snap - they don't roll
Janice Aspinal
Dining car attendant
In Great Western's depot on the edge of Bristol, they line up like patient cows in a vast milking parlour, wisps of exhaust shimmering like breath in the arc lights. Mechanic Steve Melhuish descends into the pit underneath one of the engines.

"The wheels are a metre in diameter. If they get damaged we can re-profile them down to about 970mm. After that we have to change the wheel for a new one. We disconnect them and lift the whole power unit [engine]. We can change a wheel in six to eight hours."

But what about those who work aboard the train? Janice Aspinal and Sean Anthony Garrett provide proper meals with wine and real cutlery in the restaurant car.

"Sometimes serving breakfast can be tricky," says Janice, in charge of the silver service. "The fried eggs. I've known them end up on people's laps. Sprouts. Well, we don't do them very often. And all our peas are sugar-snap - they don't roll."

Chef Sean Anthony's galley is tiny, and very hot. The racket of lamb is roasting, the steaks sizzling in the pan. This is high speed dining, but certainly not fast food.

"All main courses cooked to order. And all the veg. I work with very sharp knives, but I've not had a serious accident in four-and-a-half years. I've burnt myself. Then the air's blue. But, you know, I love this job."

Changing Trains: The 125 At 30 is on BBC Radio 4 at 1030 BST on Saturday 16 September or afterwards on the Listen again page.



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