The InterCity 125 train has just – and finally – been withdrawn from service.
At 10 o’clock last night, an era in British transport “terminated”, as they say in railway circles, when the last InterCity 125 to leave London’s Paddington station pulled into Exeter St Davids for the final time. At every bridge, on every station platform, for most of the past week there have been people taking pictures, the kind of fan club normally reserved for some celebrity steam locomotive. But the High Speed Train was special. It will be missed, and not just by trainspotters.
It was the train that saved British railways. In October 1976, when it entered service out of Paddington, the network, like the country, was presumed to be in terminal decline. Long-distance travel on many lines was shabby and slow. There was open discussion of another Beeching report only a few years after the first, reducing the service to a commuter rump. Then along came this racehorse, with its two pointy ends, its air-conditioning, its automatic doors between the carriages and its spectacular acceleration, cutting the time from Cardiff to London by a quarter.
It was indeed pretty spiffy for its time. I recall one late night – last train out of London – trip back out west which ended up with a large contingent of single women on it. The speed – and presumably price – of the train had enabled the working girls of South Wales to ply their trade in Swindon.
But a happier story about the train.
There’s something called the chicken gun. If you’ve a jet engine then you want to make sure that it doesn’t fall apart in a bird strike. Shards of sharp metal flying around at hundreds of miles an hour are not known to be good for aluminium skinned modes of transport hundreds or thousands of feet off the ground.
So, you set up a cannon, spin the jet engine up and fire a chicken into it. See what happens.
No, really, those are chickens, that is a jet engine, that is a cannon.
Great. So, bright sparks at British Rail noted that their train was going to be hurtling through the countryside at 125 miles per hour. There would be cuttings and embankments and birdies flying around and the possibility of bird strikes. Better test this out.
So, borrow the chicken gun. Load chicken, fire. The carcass goes straight through the reinforced glass, through the steel back of the driver’s seat and embeds itself in the back wall of the engine compartment.
Umm, is it supposed to do that? No, it bloody well isn’t.
So, long pondering, they enlist the help of the Americans they’d borrowed the chicken gun from. Big report finally arrives, hundreds of pages of analysis, tensor strengths, bits of Fortran coding, the lot.
On the first page it reads
“In order to use the chicken gun, first defrost your chicken”.