Flying Bananas: InterCity 125, a Transport Icon

There was a time in school playgrounds of the late 1970s and into the 1980s when children played at being trains. This was before smartphones, you see. And there was only one train you wanted to be if you had any self-respect: an InterCity 125. That was the measure of the impact of the train that saved British Rail, its name known well beyond the rail industry. It achieved a widespread cultural recognition to match famous train names like Flying Scotsman and, erm, very little else.

This year, the InterCity 125 turned 40. Sort of. The story actually started a few years earlier, with the development of a stop-gap train to be used until the widespread introduction of the Advanced Passenger Train, or APT. While the APT was a project destined for failure, the High Speed Diesel Train (HSDT) was destined for greatness.

The prototype HSDT. Photo by By Max Batten (http://www.thebattens.ndonet.com/diesel02.html) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
The prototype HST in 1975. Photo by Max Batten (http://www.thebattens.ndonet.com/diesel02.html) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons. While the later production InterCity 125s are generally considered to be an aesthetic improvement, I retain a soft spot for the prototype, probably because I saw it before I ever saw a production version of the train.

Under the aegis of British Rail’s chief engineer, Terry Miller, the concept developed around two lightweight, but high-power locomotives sandwiching several carriages of a very sleek and up-to-date design. The aim was a more-or-less go anywhere train that could transport passengers at previously unheard-of speeds. The prototype HSDT (later, just HST) debuted in 1972 and looked like little else the British railway network had ever seen, apart perhaps from the earlier Blue Pullman trains, which also had powered driving carriages at both ends. It was finished in the reversed Pullman version of the British Rail corporate identity, then only a few years old.

And it flew. Unlike the troubled APT with its suite of radical technologies, the HST was built on well-proven technologies. It did what it set out to do with a minimum of fuss and it seems that everyone loved it from the beginning. Except, this being Britain in the 1970s, the unions.

With its central driving position, and narrow cab window at the front (its aerodynamic proposition was that air would flow sideways around the cab), the HST was designed for a single driver. The unions promptly blacklisted the train because they wanted two members of staff in the cab. One to drive, and one to…well, I don’t know, mutter, “My union says this train isn’t going anywhere wi’out two of us in the cab,” in the manner of an early Carry On film, I guess.

The British Railways Board was rather more impressed and ordered the train into full production. What emerged in 1975 looked somewhat different from the prototype HST, and looked like no other British train ever. For creating this design icon, which had (and has) an enormous recognition factor, industrial designer Kenneth Grange takes the credit. Designer of countless stylish household objects, he was originally brought in to design the production train’s colour scheme, but took it on himself to redesign the front end too. He worked with an aerodynamic engineer, testing models of his new design in a wind tunnel, an innovative process for the railway industry of the time.

The union-imposed requirement for two drivers meant that a wider front windscreen was needed. That gave a wider, flatter front to the train with sharper corners, losing the prototype’s aerodynamic solution of letting air flow around the cab sideways. Famously however, Grange questioned Miller as to what the buffers (a standard feature of practically all British trains) were for. For the HST the answer was, in essence, nothing. It wasn’t designed to pull additional carriages behind it, nor to be regularly towed by another locomotive. Out went the buffers. That solved the aerodynamics problem: the air now went up and over the train (Jackson: 2013, p122). Grange also reorganised the warning horn and head/tail light arrangement, putting them all in a neat strip across the nose. He created one of the best looking bits of railway machinery ever made, and certainly the most attractive since the days of the LNER’s and LMS’s inter-war streamlined steam trains.

A production InterCity 125 in its original livery. Photo by By Phil Sangwell from United Kingdom (Chesterfield) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A production InterCity 125 in its original livery. Photo by Phil Sangwell from United Kingdom (Chesterfield) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a lot less clear who came up with the name “Inter-City 125”, but when the production trains arrived, that’s what they were called. Thanks to losing the buffers, they had a sharply angled nosecone that looked fast and distinctive. Grange’s adaptation of British Rail’s standard express livery, with a wrap-around band of yellow, added to the speedy look (as well as earning the trains their nickname “Flying Bananas”). It was arguably the most succesful application of British Rail’s corporate identity, and the legend “Inter-City 125” was emblazoned in large Rail Alphabet letters on each power car (the hyphen was later phased out). Fortunately for posterity, an initial bumblebee-like black and yellow version of the colour scheme was abandoned before the trains entered service, despite at least one power car being painted thus and having to be swiftly repainted into blue (Haresnape: 1983, p51). You can see one of Grange’s early black and yellow designs for the train’s livery on this website.

The first InterCity 125 power car, repainted into its original colour scheme and named "Sir Kenneth Grange" in May this year. Photo by Geof Sheppard (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
The first production InterCity 125 power car, repainted into its original colour scheme and named “Sir Kenneth Grange” in May this year. Photo by Geof Sheppard (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The InterCity 125 began passenger service in 1976. It’s the 40th anniversary of that we’re celebrating this year, and the first production power car has just been repainted in its Flying Banana colours, and named “Sir Kenneth Grange”. It was so successful because it was a total brand. The name of the train described what it did; its chief selling-point. At least 15mph faster than anything else on the British railway network, it had broken an important marketing barrier. At 125mph, it covered more than two miles every single minute. It was a game changer for British Rail, suddenly and unexpectedly making train travel a really marketable proposition, with a serious speed advantage over road-borne rivals. Meanwhile, Grange’s livery and wedge-shaped front end were the visual elements of the brand, making the train look faster than anything British Rail passengers had seen before. Not only that, but it even sounded the part…

The scream of two Paxman Valenta engines, working hard to get a fully laden train moving, really was quite sensational. I doubt it was deliberate, but the sustained banshee wail of a 125 leaving a station further reinforced the fact that British Rail had got itself a pocket rocket. The Valentas have long since been replaced with quieter, and more neighbourly, modern engines, less likely to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, but also less likely to lead to temporary hearing loss.

The 125 was a brilliant and simple brand to promote and boy, did British Rail promote it, albeit with the embarrassed humour that typified public transport adverts until very recently:

That said, there was a degree of concern that not all passengers might appreciate the possibilities of being blasted across Britain at one-sixth the speed of sound. The brand might have been speed but, explained one distinctly patronising British Rail note to its staff, “Not every 70-year-old granny likes the idea of travelling at 125mph. But…it’s quicker, smoother and less tiring.”(Jackson: 2013, p133). Well, that’s one to remember next time someone tells you British Rail was an unalloyed golden age. My granny is a complete speed-freak, and at exactly the same time as this briefing note, she was prone to zooming around the Peak District at impressive speeds in her immaculate Triumph Stag. She loved the idea of fast trains too.

The Intercity 125 was everywhere. I can remember a time when every travel agent’s window had a model of one (see an example here). It was the star of Overture 125, the very last 35mm film to be made by British Rail’s in-house marketing films department, the Transport Films Unit, and given a general cinema release. After this, Transport Films Unit productions were made for in-house purposes only, and before long the unit was wound up. With a specially-composed piece of music by David Gow to accompany it, it was quite a swansong:

The InterCity 125 remains the fastest diesel train in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Others have claimed higher speeds but have never been properly verified. It was in 1987 that an InterCity 125 recorded that record speed of 148mph. Not bad for a stop-gap.

The InterCity 125 design represented an unusual export success for British railway vehicle design. The XPT trains of New South Wales in Australia utilised power cars of a slightly modified design, built under license. There might have been a bigger overseas market for the 125 except that most sensible countries had already realised that electrified main lines and electric traction were a better solution than thrashing diesel trains up and down the tracks at high speed.

Like the InterCity 125s, the Australian XPTs are still going strong. Here's one in 2015. Photo by Kabelleger / David Gubler [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Like the InterCity 125s, the Australian XPTs are still going strong. Here’s one in 2015. Photo by Kabelleger / David Gubler [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The 125s lost their Flying Banana colours and InterCity 125 branding when InterCity itself rebranded in 1987. Yet InterCity not only continued to refer to the trains as 125s, but took the nomenclature and transferred it to other train fleets; such was the name recognition the 125s had achieved. With the British government having belatedly realised that main line electrification was the future, InterCity’s new electric East Coast Main Line trains were called InterCity 225s. Though it sounded like they were 100mph faster, in fact the name referred to their 225kph (140mph) top speed, which has never actually been achieved in regular passenger service. Existing InterCity trains on the West Coast Main Line were called InterCity 175s (175kph/110mph) and a planned new train for the West Coast Main Line was called the InterCity 250 – its planned 155mph top speed translating to a kph figure that was neatly double that of the 125. It never saw the light of day, butting up against the privatisation of British Rail which scuppered the project.

The electric locomotives destined to form the power cars of the Intercity 225s were ready long before the carriages. Instead they were hitched up to several Intercity 125 sets, replacing one of the diesel power cars. The 125 power cars at the other end of these electro-diesel hybrid trains (at 8,000hp or so, vastly over-powered they were, too) were modified for this work, gaining a set of buffers in the process. All Kenneth Grange’s hard work in the wind tunnel turned out to have been unnecessary. The 125s could shift along quite happily with a set of buffers on the front, after all. But they wouldn’t have looked quite so special, which in the end turned out to be the point.

Buffer-fitted InterCity 125. © Copyright TheTurfBurner and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Buffer-fitted InterCity 125 seen in 1993, by which time the trains had lost their “InterCity 125” branding. © Copyright TheTurfBurner and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
After privatisation, the 125s went to various different train operators, rebranded and refurbished again and again. Some of them looked amazing (Midland Mainline’s first corporate identity), some looked sinister (GNER’s ‘stealth bombers’), some looked like 1980s cigarette packets (First Great Western), some looked boring (National Express achieving the almost impossible in making their 125s appear staid) and recently some have appeared flamboyantly sexy, for want of a better term (Virgin Trains East Coast).

An InterCity 125 / HST in the livery of Virgin Trains East Coast. Photo by Stephen Craven [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
An InterCity 125 / HST in the livery of Virgin Trains East Coast. Photo by Stephen Craven [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

None of them have been branded InterCity 125s, a name associated too strongly with the nationalised predecessor of today’s railway. The words “InterCity 125” were only seen on InterCity 125 power cars for about 12 years. It’s been nearly 30 years since the name vanished from the sides of the trains themselves. Yet it sticks around, such is the name recognition it attained. When the BBC News recently compared them to their replacements, Hitachi’s new Intercity Express trains, the article was headlined “InterCity 125 v Hitachi”. They’re more generally referred to as HSTs in the rail industry now.

They have their quirks, of course. The air intake for the air-conditioned carriages of the InterCity 125s was placed too near the wheels, and under heavy braking the distinctive smell of brake dust got into the carriages. Pressure pad-operated internal doors at the ends of the carriages caused a degree of confusion at first, and led to doors sticking open when large luggage protruding from the adjacent rack rested on the edge of the pad. Like all British trains at the time, the toilets emptied directly onto the track (apparently the reason for the widespread growth of tomato plants on railway tracks at the time; think about it…). As such they were fitted with the then-ubiquitous signs warning passengers not to flush the toilet while the train was at the station. While all other trains of their vintage have been replaced by ones with retention toilet tanks, the indomitable and hard-to-better HSTs soldier on, complete with on-track sewage release. This was branded “disgusting” by a top politician in 2013, but the Association of Train Operating Companies said they would be replaced by 2017 with new models, not exactly solving the problem so much as just waiting for it go away. Not a chance. Hitachi’s Intercity Express trains will displace them on many routes but other train operators remain desperate to get their hands on them. Some of them are off to Scotland next where, after refurbishment (which one fervently hopes includes fitting retention tanks for the toilets) they’ll serve a new Scottish Intercity network.

But for the final, unequivocal proof of the cultural impact of the InterCity 125, I give you this: there’s one in the Railway Series of books by the father and son Awdrys. Alongside Thomas the Tank Engine, you can find Pip and Emma (two power cars, two characters, one train) providing through services from Sodor to the mainland, resplendent in Keith Grange’s flying banana blue and yellow colour scheme.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Haresnape, Brian (1983): British Rail Fleet Survey 5 – High Speed Trains. Shepperton: Ian Allan

Jackson, Tanya (2013): British Rail: The Nation’s Railway. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press

An interview with Kenneth Grange, here

Another interview with Kenneth Grange, here

The 125 Group looks after the prototype HSDT’s power car and generally promotes interest in InterCity 125s, here

…and anything else linked to in the text above will undoubtedly have helped provide information for this article

 

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