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Speed on steel wheels: High speed rail


Forty years ago British Rail launched the world’s first diesel-powered passenger trains to run in regular service at 125mph (201km/h). Marketed as InterCity 125, the High Speed Train quickly became a national icon, speeding passengers over the Great Western main line between London, Bristol and South Wales.

Within a year the HST allowed Britain to claim second place behind Japan in the league table of world train speeds: four HSTs a day sprinted at an average of 166.2km/h (103.3mph) between Swindon and Reading, outpacing the fastest services in France and Germany.

Developed from a prototype built in 1972, the HST was a resounding success. So much so that much of the fleet, re-engined, refurbished and sporting the smart branding of today’s private operating companies, is still in front-line service. What better tribute could there be to the engineers who conceived such a famous train?

Today, the UK rail speed record is held by Eurostar set 373 313/14 which reached 208mph (334.7km/h) near Boxley on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, now known as HS1, on 30 July 2003. The previous UK record was held by an electric version of the Advanced Passenger Train which attained 160mph (257.5km/h) between Beattock and Lockerbie on 20 December 1979. The APT suffered from too much innovation on a single train, plus more than its fair share of bad luck, but the idea of trains that tilt when rounding curves on the West Coast Main Line from London to Glasgow has in hindsight proved to be correct – today’s Pendolinos operated by Virgin Trains on the same route are testimony to the concept.

Tilting trains were tested in France, home of the famous TGV, but the French chose instead to build completely new lines for their high-speed trains, and the first of these opened over part of the route between Paris and Lyon in 1981. In that year the TGV earned its place in history when a specially-doctored version reached 380.4km/h (236.4mph). Nine years later another modified TGV pulverised the previous record with a spectacular dash that peaked at 515.3km/h (320.2mph) on a new line from Paris to western France. The most stunning achievement of all came on 3 April 2007 when a TGV derivative called the V150 rocketed up to 574.8km/h (357.2 mph) on the first part of the Paris – Strasbourg high-speed line.

Perhaps the most audacious rail speed record of all time was the 331km/h (205.7mph) achieved by French electric locomotive BB9004 on 29 March 1955 on the Bordeaux – Hendaye main line. It was a daring attempt to test the limits of 1950s railway technology – when there were no computers to simulate what happened if machines were pushed beyond their design limits. And it was nearly a disaster – the forces exerted by the train on the track were so high that the rails were bent. Miraculously, the train did not derail.

Since then most rail speed records have set out to demonstrate the safety of steel wheels on steel rails at very high speeds and to explore the limits of that technology. Clearly, there were publicity gains to be made too, but more importantly, testing trains at ultra-high speed was an essential part of the process of engineering trains that could compete against airlines and motorways. Today, trains in 11 countries travel safely at 300km/h (186.4mph) in timetabled service, with two railways attaining 320km/h (198.8mph) – the maximum speed of the new Eurostar trains that entered service on 20 November 2015 between London and Paris.

Railway professionals view Japan as the true home of high-speed rail. Its legendary bullet trains first ran in 1964, and today the country has a national network of high-speed lines. Japanese high-speed technology has meanwhile earned an unrivalled reputation for safety and punctuality. Small wonder that the Japanese were consulted about some design aspects of HS2, the project for a high-speed line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds that is expected to receive Royal Assent before the end of 2016. Before the Birmingham – London section opens in 2026 an HS2 test train will surely set a new UK rail speed record – the railway is being designed for 360km/h (223.7mph).

By Murray Hughes

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