Published: 28th January 2015
Most people interested in railways know that in 1938 the steam locomotive Mallard created a new world steam record of 126mph on a special test train while descending Stoke Bank between Grantham and Peterborough. This record still stands today.
The UK rail speed record today is 203mph held by a Eurostar train being tested on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link as it was known then, now it is HS1. Before this first stretch of high speed line was opened, the official UK rail speed record stood at 162mph achieved by a Class 91 on a short train of Mark 4 carriages on the same section of track on September 17, 1989. Today this electric locomotive is still in operation on the East Coast Main Line and has carried a special Battle of Britain commemorative livery.
A decade earlier in December 1979, the British Rail experimental tilting BR Advanced Passenger Train reached the same speed between Beattock and Lockerbie but this train never went into passenger service.
But did the record really stand at 162mph? In 1996 and 1997, the Regional Eurostar trains were being tested under controlled conditions between Welwyn Garden City and Newark and these trains had a top speed of 186mph. They were to be operated at up to 125mph on the regional services and had to go through the same safety acceptance and approval process.
There were whispers at the time of testing, that the 162mph had unofficially been exceeded under controlled conditions. The existing UK rail speed record of 203mph made on HS1 was created by a similar train – as part of the acceptance trials. How fast did it go on the ECML? No-one will let on, even now!
The design speed for the Class 91 hauled trains was 140mph and the normal safety acceptance process demands that the trains are tested at 10% faster than their normal maximum speed. This meant they had to be operated under test conditions at 154mph but was pushed that little bit further while the APT had a design speed of 155mph and in theory should have reached 170mph under test and taken the record.
Planning to reach 170mph started in the Autumn of 2001 using a Virgin Trains leased Class 390 ‘Pendolino’ as part of that trains acceptance process. This was also to take place between Grantham and Peterborough decsending Stoke Bank as it was signalled for 140mph operation.
Pendolinos were designed for 140mph running, as was the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line (WCML) but as we know, the upgrade only ever reached 125mph.
Because this speed could not be safely operated on the WCML it was proposed to carry out the overspeed trials on the same stretch of track as in 1938 and 1979. The Pendolino was to be diesel hauled to and from its depot to Grantham sidings for the testing and the diesel would have been kept running while the tests were on in case a rescue was needed.
As the Pendolino tilts, its tilting mechanism was to be turned off to make sure the train was not foul of any lineside infrastructure and the required gauging envelope. The overhead wires were to be isolated for just over a mile at each end of the test site to make sure there were no electrical issues beyond the test site.
It was proposed to carry these tests out on the night of 15/16 December 2001 but a contingency date the next month was planned if weather conditions were wrong. In essence, if it was wet, the potential for adhesion problems on slippery rails would have precluded the trials going ahead and it was not known how the windscreen wipers would perform at high speeds in rain.
The plan was for the train to initially run at 90mph and then increase the speed by around 10mph with each run up to the 154mph required for safety approval. Once this had been achieved, a decision would have been made to try for the 170mph record over two more runs thus creating the new UK rail speed record.
The opposite line in Stoke tunnel was to be used to measure high speed pressure pulses which were also needed for the acceptance tests. All public crossings were to be staffed and no railway staff were to be allowed on the track as further safety precautions. No other trains would have been on any track in the test area.
But at this time, Railtrack was struggling and in Railway Administration following the Hatfield fatal accident and there were doubts that it was the right time for such a PR exercise, especially using a Virgin train on the ECML, its rival line. There were further concerns about the state of the infrastructure which may have not been robust enough to withstand the stresses of several fast runs leading to a potentially huge commercial risk.
The file also warns of confidentiality given the propensity for the tests, if successful in creating a new record, for advertising. This would have meant a Virgin train had taken the record on its rival’s route. This was not the message the rail industry needed in the aftermath of the Hatfield accident so the runs were quietly dropped.
But of course, Virgin branded Class 91 trains will commence ECML operations in a few weeks when they start operating the franchise with their 10% stake and Stagecoach holding the other 90%.