Once upon a time, the British national rail operator, British Rail, suffered from a bit of an image problem among its customers. A major factor of the image problem was the myriad of ageing intercity rolling stock it operated. This together with other factors, such as the quality of the catering, contributed to declining passenger numbers. Clearly, British Rail needed a solution to impress the travelling people.
The solution came in the form of the Intercity 125, a set of Mark 3 passenger coaches with two Class 43 diesel locomotives also given the designation “High Speed Train” (HST). Launched in 1975 and capable of a service top speed of 201 km/h (125 mph), the Intercity 125 was a huge success for British Rail, and it helped to usher in a new era of intercity rail travel in Great Britain. Gone were the old and slow locomotive drawn trains, and here were their new fast and modern replacements. The fact that the set’s leading Class 43 locomotives, still the fastest diesel locomotive in the world, had a record top speed of 238 km/h also didn’t hurt.
One of the more enduring reminders of the Intercity 125 was the ad campaign BR invested in for their new toys - including this delightful ad featuring the Flying Scotsman, backed by Coronation Scot as written by Vivian Ellis.
These venerable units are still running around Britain some 40 over years after their introduction. Unlike its newer counterparts, the Intercity 125 is still looked upon fondly by many due to its associations with the glory days of British Rail, and simply because it is a marvel of British engineering.
As a BPTC student in 2017, I was required to attend a total of 12 qualifying sessions, which more often than not were held in London. This meant a great deal of travelling on the Virgin Trains Class 390 Pendolinos between Manchester and London Euston. Now the Pendolinos are fast, but they did get stale after a while. I felt it was about time I spiced up my travel routine.
First posted 28 December 2017. Updated 4 March 2023
2023 Update: The Intercity 125 is no longer operated by Virgin Trains East Coast, who in turn have been replaced by the London North Eastern Railway (LNER)
Buying my tickets
A variety of operators still operate the Intercity 125, but the closest and most convenient one was Virgin Trains East Coast running on the East Coast Main Line.
The only snag was that I would have to make my way over to Leeds to catch the train. I also had to cross check with the fleet movements listed out by online railfan websites as most VTEC services between Leeds and King’s Cross are run by the electric Intercity 225 sets.
After some careful checking of the fleet movement table, I bought my tickets for the 12:45 pm departure from Leeds on the VTEC website for £14.50.
Departure experience from Leeds railway station
The day before my travel I had the misfortune of coming down with a mild throat infection which resulted in my head feeling very blocked. Unfortunately, as I were to find out on the National Express bus ride to Leeds, it made for a very nauseating ride as the bus kept swaying about whenever the driver stepped on the brakes.
A brisk 10 minute walk from the Leeds City Bus Station and a Burger King lunch later, I was at Leeds station. Despite being the 3rd busiest railway station in the UK it felt a lot smaller than it should be, with the concourse being a small, well lit enclosed area with centrally placed information boards and shops.
A rather annoying bit about rail travel in the UK, is that train platforms are announced 10 minutes before departure time, leading to a mad dash for the ticket barriers once announced. In hindsight I suppose I didn’t have to wait for announcemenets – There was only one Intercity 125 set idling in the entire station, and it was very much my train.
A full Intercity 125 unit consists of 2 Class 43 diesel locomotives at each end, hauling 9 Mark 3 passenger coaches Rare for trains these days are the “slam door” coach doors – They have to be swung closed manually with a loud slam, hence the name.
Our departure was announced with the slams of the carriage doors closing, and with a tug from the leading Class 43 locomotive. The train’s acceleration was not as fast as the more modern EMUs and DMUs, but they did pick up faster than conventional locomotives like the IE Class 201 in Ireland hauling the Enterprise and Cork services.
It was also a quieter ride, courtesy of the engines being located at the front and back rather than under each carriages. All these combined to create the impression that we were zipping over the tracks rather than roaring over them.
We were soon speeding out of Leeds along the unfamiliar countryside, all while I occupied myself with some reading material I brought along. I did notice that the East Coast Main Line had less curves than its western counterpart. This allowed for a higher average speed than the West Coast Main Line, and translated into shorter travel times: Leeds is further North than Manchester is, but yet travelling to London from Leeds by train consumes less time than travelling from Manchester by train.
Cabin & Onboard Amenities
My first impression upon boarding were the higher ceilings and slightly greater width compared to the Pendolinos. It felt a lot less claustrophobic and a lot more inviting – It genuinely felt like you were boarding a train rather than some generic mode of commuting.
The windows were also huge, which really underscored how tiny the Pendolinos’ windows are.
The VTEC Intercity 125 Standard Class seats
All of VTEC’s Intercity 125s have been refurbished. The standard class seats are arranged in an open carriage with a 2-2 seat layout. The seats are decked out in a bright red colour covering.
All seats featured a pair of power sockets, something that wasn’t part of the original interior when the trains were first launched back in the 80s. Seat reservations are where it got a little bit low tech, as they were denoted by a slip of paper inserted into a groove on the top of every seat.
Compared to the seats on the Pendolinos, these seats had a lot more padding, and were generally comfortable to sit in. Unfortunately mine had a weird creak every time I moved in the seat, which proved to be mildly annoying.
Onboard Amenities – the WiFi
Wifi is available on VTEC, and Free if you booked First Class, or if you booked your Standard Class ticket directly through VTEC’s own website. Else, you get 15 minutes free before having to pay. This is a different setup than Virgin Trains’ West Coast services, where if you’re not in First, you’ll have to pay for your Wifi regardless!
Arrival at London King’s Cross
We gradually slowed our speed as we approached London and zipped by the outlying suburban stations, before pulling into King’s Cross just over 2 hours and 15 minutes after departure.
An idling train on the platform makes for a great photo opportunity, one which I made use of liberally. After all, this was an Intercity 125.
I went through the gates after a photo-taking spree, before emerging onto the paved plaza just outside the station, and then headed down into the bowels of the Underground for my onward travel.
I went through quite a bit of trouble coordinating this tiny trip of mine, precisely because I wanted to experience a ride on what is widely regarded as a British icon. I also wanted to see how they fared after 40+ years of service. At that time, the 125s were still going strong with engine and cabin refurbishments having been done by most of the operators.
I’m a fan of VTEC’s refurbishment of their Intercity 125, though if you’re looking to reenact the 1980s you should know that the modern interior is nothing near the original 70s-80s era interior.
It was quite a geeky treat riding the 125, but given the inconvenience i went through just to arrange such an itinerary, its doubtful i would do it again on VTEC.
2023 Update: Virgin Trains East Coast was later replaced by the London North Eastern Railway (LNER) in May 2018.