Through the window on one of Britain’s longest train journeys
The Highland Chieftain
Since 1984 British Rail and its successors have run a daytime train between London Kings Cross and Inverness. The service, one of the longest train journeys in the UK, passes through York, Newcastle and Edinburgh. It is named “The Highland Chieftain”.
The northbound train leaves London every day at 12 noon and travels the 581 miles to the “Highland Capital”, arriving there around 8pm. The southbound service leaves Inverness at 7:55am and is due back in London just before 4pm.
“High Speed Trains” (HSTs) have operated the “Highland Chieftain” for all of its 35 year existence. In early December 2019, however, these forty year old trains will finally be replaced by new rolling stock built by Hitachi.
In mid-November, just a few weeks before the changeover, I took the opportunity to ride on one of the last HST-operated Highland Chieftain services all the way from Inverness to London. I found an excellent deal online and decided to travel in first class.
The High Speed Train (HST) needs no real introduction. It was developed in the early 1970s and became just about the most successful train ever built in the UK. Originally marketed as “Inter City 125” and often referred to as the “train that saved Britain’s railways”, the design is still used as a benchmark against which much newer rolling stock is measured.
The concept was simple: two streamlined Class 43 diesel power cars, one at either end of a rake of Mk3 air conditioned coaches. First introduced in 1976 on routes from London Paddington, the train’s top speed of 125mph enabled Britain to join Japan and France as only the third country in the world to operate regular services at speeds in excess of 100mph.
Almost 100 sets were built and they were put to work on services from Paddington to Bristol, South Wales and the West Country, from Kings Cross to Leeds, Newcastle and Scotland, and on cross country lines via Birmingham. Later they were also introduced between St Pancras, Nottingham and Sheffield. The trains were incredibly popular with the travelling public and helped to increase ridership across the network.
When the East Coast Main Line (ECML) from Kings Cross to Edinburgh and Leeds was electrified in the early 1990s many of the trains were replaced by the electric “Inter City 225” design. Nevertheless, around 15 “125’s” were retained to work on through services that ventured beyond the electrified area such as those heading to Hull, Aberdeen and, of course, Inverness.
Now though, after more than 40 years in front line service, time for the HST is almost up. The trains were withdrawn from Paddington in May 2019 and the last ever service HST is scheduled to depart Kings Cross on 15th December 2019. In a year or so they will be gone from St Pancras too.
Two important (but very positive) developments have also helped to hasten the trains’ withdrawal from service; disability legislation means that the train’s manually opening doors will be illegal from 2020; health and safety concerns mean that the toilets, which flush directly on to the track, are to be outlawed too.
A small number of modified (new doors and new toilets) trains have been retained by Cross Country Trains and a larger number of shortened sets are being introduced on slower services in Cornwall and Scotland.
On the ECML from Kings Cross the HSTs (as well as the later electric 225s) are being replaced by the Inter City Express Train (IET). Specified by the Department for Transport and built by Hitachi in Japan, the UK and Italy, these new trains are almost identical to those recently introduced out of Paddington. Here they will be known as Azuma: a word meaning “east” in Japanese.
There are all-electric versions of the “Azuma” but those that will run to Inverness will be hybrids. They will run on power from electric wires (which now stretch from London all the way to Edinburgh and on past Stirling) for most of the way and only resort to diesel power on the final section. To be fair, this is a much more environmentally-friendly solution than the old HST running for more than 400 miles on diesel power under the wires.
Nevertheless, the old trains are still much loved by passengers and staff alike and will certainly be missed. After 41 years of continuous operation, it is difficult to imagine Kings Cross without them.
After it passed from the control of British Rail in 1996, the Highland Chieftain, in common with all other long distance trains on the ECML, has had five operators. The first privatised services were operated by GNER: one of the most popular of the original private companies. GNER’s parent company hit financial problems and in 2007 it was forced to quit. The next private operator was National Express: formerly the UK’s largest long distance bus operator.
National Express soon had its own problems and in 2009 it had to be replaced by a government-run company: East Coast. In 2015 Virgin East Coast eventually brought back private ownership to the ECML and quickly turned out all the trains in its signature red colours.
However, just like its two private predecessors, Virgin also had issues and so in 2018 it was also forced to “hand the keys back”. For the last 12 months services have been back in the hands of a new state-operated unit: LNER. The new organisation has quickly pasted over the Virgin logo but, for now at least, kept the red livery. It is set to run the trains on the ECML for a few more years yet.
At 7:25am on 13th November 2019 it was only just coming light as I walked through the near-deserted streets of Inverness to the station. As I entered the concourse I glanced up at the train indicator board and was relieved to see that the 07:55 to London was listed as being on time.
I strolled over to Platform 1 and saw that the train was already there. The rear power car, 43 316, was rumbling away providing light and heat to the train, but the doors were still locked. There were quite a few people standing around waiting to board. It was a bit chilly and some of them were grumbling about the doors not being open.
I walked the whole length of the 9 coach train. It was in regular formation: 6 standard class carriages at the rear; a buffet and kitchen coach which also had 17 first class seats (one of which would be mine) and then 2 first class coaches at the “London end”. Right at the front: power car 43 206 was still silent and deserted.
Peering in through the windows I noticed that (with the exception of the buffet vehicle) all the carriages had the original 1976-vintage “IC70” seats. Knowing something of these matters, I quickly deduced that we were going to be treated to a trip on “EC64”: infamous as the only coaching set left in LNER’s fleet that does not feature more modern seats. (All 9 carriages were taken out of service within a week of this trip)
I walked up and down a bit to try to keep warm. There were now more people on the platform standing around waiting. I reckoned there were around seventy in total. There was a quite a mixture too: everything from elderly couples to young Chinese tourists.
Finally at 7:40am the lights to indicate the doors were unlocked came on and everyone made a dash to climb on board.
Inside it was welcoming and warm.
I walked past the buffet counter to get to my seat. The crew were still busy with their preparations. The buffet would serve the standard class part of the train during the trip; selling hot and cold drinks and snacks. There would also be a trolley service in standard and as I walked past a lady was just finishing stocking it.
As I passed down the corridor, I caught a glimpse of the chef starting work in the kitchen. Everything on the HST, from a bacon sandwich to a full meal, can be cooked from scratch. The new Azuma trains retain some of this but there is also more microwaving and precooked food.
I took my seat. The first class seats, here of the usual more modern design, were arranged in a “1-2 across” pattern. On one side there were twelve seats arranged around three tables of four. On the other there was a single table of two (where I was sitting) and three single seats in “airline style” behind.
On LNER all the food and drink is complimentary in first class and there were colourful menus already placed on each table describing what was on offer. On most services there is only time for a single meal, but the London-bound passenger on the eight-hour “Chieftain” can eat twice.
The guard came on the public address and welcomed us aboard. In his relaxing Scottish accent he listed all the 13 stations that we would be stopping at and then finished by telling us we would arrive in London at around ten to four in the afternoon.
I wondered how many of my fellow passengers were actually making the whole trip.
The train is popular among people just travelling within Scotland on account of it being more comfortable than many of the local Scotrail services. I chatted briefly with the only two other passengers in my carriage. The guy opposite me confirmed that he was heading to Edinburgh and the lady behind me admitted she was going to be getting off at Pitlochry.
At 07:55 we were ready for the off.
The following timings have been created by using data from the excellent Real Time Trains App and from my own observations on the day. Any errors are mine.
The format shows the actual time against the working timetable (except the final arrival time which is the public timetable) and the degree to which the train is running on time (RT) late (+) or early (–). All half minutes have been either rounded up or down, so some of the calculations may look odd.
The actual time is listed first in bold. It is followed by the scheduled time for the passing points (pass) en route. For each of the thirteen stops both arrival and departures times are listed.
07:56 / 07:55 / +1 = INVERNESS (Platform 1)
We left Inverness a minute down and picked up the Highland Main Line heading south towards Aviemore, Kingussie, Pitlocry and Perth.
This first part of this journey is among the most scenic rail trips in Britain and would take us through beautiful highland landscapes. It began with the steep climb out of Inverness to the first of two summits on the line: Slochd. On the way we crossed two impressive viaducts at Culloden and Tomatin.
As we left Inverness the friendly first class catering crew of four were already taking breakfast orders. The service was impressive and fast. Within 5 minutes I had been provided with toast and marmalade and within 15 minutes I was looking at a “full LNER” breakfast in front of me. The food, freshly cooked, was excellent.
As we headed south I could see that there was still a thick frost on the fields outside. They almost looked as they were covered with snow. The sun was just starting to come up and it was amazing to think that at this time of year the sun would rise and then almost set again in the 8 hours it would take us to reach London.
08:03 / 08:03 / RT = Culloden (pass)
08:11 / 08:11 / RT = Moy (pass)
08:16 / 08:14 / +2 = Tomatin (pass)
08:20 / 08:18 / +2 = Slochd (pass)
08:26 / 08:23 / +2 = Carrbridge (pass)
08:31 / 08:29 / +2 = AVIEMORE (Platform 1) ARR
08:35 / 08:31 / +4 = AVIEMORE (Platform 1) DEP
After 35 minutes we stopped at Aviemore. The friendly breakfast crew were really working hard and after my plates had been cleared away they were back several times over the next few hours to offer endless coffee and biscuits. All the while they were still serving breakfast to passengers who had joined the train later. The whole carriage, being close to the kitchen, was filled with the not unpleasant aroma of bacon.
08:37 / 08:41 / +4 = Kincraig (pass)
08:46 / 08:41 / +5 = KINGUSSIE (Platform 2) ARR
08:49 / 08:43 / +5 = KINGUSSIE (Platform 2) DEP
We picked up some more passengers at Kingussie. The guard came around to check the tickets. He stamped them with the train’s headcode: 1E13. I noted the significance of my lucky number here. We were also making 13 stops and it was the 13th of the month. What on earth could go wrong?
After we left Kingussie we started the climb up towards Drumochter Summit (1480ft): the highest place on the whole UK rail network. The scenery here was absolutely outstanding.
08:51 / 08:46 / +4 = Newtonmore (pass)
09:01 / 08:55 / +4 = Dalwhinnie (pass)
09:12 / 09:07 / +5 = Dalnacardoch (pass)
09:20 / 09:15 / +5 = Blair Atholl (pass)
09:26 / 09:23 / +3 = PITLOCHRY (Platform 1) ARR
09:28 / 09:25 / +3 = PITLOCHRY (Platform 1) DEP
Having descended gently down through Blair Atholl, we made a brief stop at the picturesque Victorian station at Pitlochry. There was a lovely little book shop on the platform here. As we we pulled out I got a nice view of the little town. It certainly looked worth another visit.
09:43 / 09:36 / +6 = Dunkeld & Burnham (pass)
09:59 / 09:54 / +4 = PERTH (Platform 4) ARR
10:02 / 09:57 / +4 = PERTH (Platform 4) DEP
We reached Perth, 118 miles from Inverness, just before 10:00. We had averaged only about 60 miles per hour so far. We picked up a decent amount of people at Perth including one elderly lady who struggled putting her heavy suitcase into the luggage rack. I helped her and as she sat behind me she told me she was going all the way to London to see her daughter.
Perth sits at an “X” in the local railway system: lines from Inverness and Aberdeen merge in the station and then diverge again shortly after at Hilton junction for Edinburgh (direct) and Stirling and on to Glasgow. We followed the latter path, continuing through ever more gentle and pastoral scenery towards another stop at Gleneagles.
10:06 / 10:01 / +4 = Hilton Junction (pass)
10:17 / 10:13/ +4 = Auchterarder (pass)
10:17 / 10:11 / +5 = GLENEAGLES ARR
10:19 / 10:13 / +5 = GLENEAGLES DEP
Gleneagles seemed quite deserted and I couldn’t see anyone waiting to get on.
We were now five minutes late for no apparent reason.
10:29 / 10:23 / +5 = Dunblane (pass)
10:34 / 10:28 / +5 = STIRLING (Platform 3) ARR
10:37 / 10:32 / +5 = STIRLING (Platform 3) DEP
We arrived at Stirling still 5 minutes “down”.
A travelling cleaner got on and after a bit of a chat with the catering crew about his flu symptoms, he proceeded to go through the train tidying up and removing waste. There was a great camaraderie between all the staff and it was fun to watch.
10:45 / 10:40 / +5 = Larbert Junction (pass)
10:48 / 10:46 / +2 = FALKIRK GRAHAMSTON (Platform 1) ARR
10:50 / 10:48 / +2 = FALKIRK GRAHAMSTON (Platform 1) DEP
We stopped at Falkirk Grahamston Station. The platforms here were a little too short for the “Chieftain” so there were important announcements about where to get off. Our own carriage drew up alongside large signs that warned – “Do not alight here”
As we approached Scotland’s capital the impressive Murrayfield Stadium was visible on the left side of the tracks. Trams from Edinburgh’s recently opened system could also be seen running parallel to us.
11:09 / 11:03 / +6 = Winchburgh Junction (pass)
11:15 / 11:10 / +4 = Edinburgh Park (pass)
11:16 / 11:13 / +3 = Haymarket West Junction (pass)
11:18 / 11:15 / +3 = HAYMARKET (Platform 3) ARR
11:20 / 11:17 / +3 = HAYMARKET (Platform 3 DEP
We stopped at Haymarket in Edinburgh’s west end and then passed through the Mound Tunnel, under the artificial slope that connects the old and new parts of the city, to reach Waverley Station.
11:24 / 11:21 / +2 = EDINBURGH (Platform 2) ARR
11:32 / 11:30 / +2 = EDINBURGH (Platform 2) DEP
There was a scheduled 8 minute layover at Edinburgh.
The train changed “personality” here: so far it had been a bit of a leisurely wanderer; now it would become more of a determined sprinter. It had taken us almost 4 hours to cover the 180 miles from Inverness and we hadn’t exactly had much in the way of “a sense of urgency”. Over the next 4 and a bit hours we were going to cover almost 400 miles; much of the remaining part of the journey to London would be spent cruising at 125mph.
A lot of people got off here, but a lot more got on. I was now sat opposite two female Chinese tourists who were using railpasses to see the UK. There were also two business men armed with laptops sat behind them. Everyone in the carriage now seemed to be bound for London.
The guard changed too and, as he announced the remaining stops, it was clear the new guy was from England.
The original Inverness catering team stayed on board but, as the train was going to be a lot busier now, they were supplemented by two extra girls who would work as far as York. As the new duo came on to the train there were lovely smiles and jokes: everyone seemed to know each other and it created a nice atmosphere.
We left Edinburgh two minutes late at 11:32. Now we followed the East Coast Main Line, route of the famous Flying Scotsman train, south. First we caught distant glimpses of the North Sea and then eventually headed closer along the top of the cliffs at Burnmouth.
Pretty soon the smell of lunch came wafting through the carriage. I was tempted but as it was not even noon, I settled for a beer from the drinks trolley. LNER were pushing their own brand of golden ale. I got a can and found it quite pleasant to drink.
We crossed into England and headed over the Border Bridge across the Tweed at Berwick. On our way south through Northumberland we could see the mystical island of Lindisfarne in the distance.
11:37/ 11:35 / +2 = Musselburgh (pass)
11:56 / 11:56 / RT = Cockburnpath (pass)
11:58 / 11:58 / RT = Grantshouse (pass)
12:02 / 12:02 / RT = Reston (pass)
12:06 / 12:06 / RT = Burnmouth (pass)
12:11 / 12:11 / RT = Berwick (England)
12:15 / 12:15 / +2 = Beal (pass)
12:28 / 12:28 / RT = Alnmouth (pass)
12:40 / 12:40 / RT = Morpeth (pass)
12:54 / 12:53 / +1 = NEWCASTLE (Platform 4) ARR
12:57 / 12:56 / +1 = NEWCASTLE (Platform 4) DEP
We passed the castle at Newcastle as we entered the city’s vast Central Station. It was now exactly five hours since we had started and we had less than three to go. Now the catering team who had worked all the way from Inverness finally left the train.
They would return home on the northbound “Highland Chieftain” due to arrive here in 2 hours. Their total shift was more than 12 hours. It seems like a long hard day, but they all seemed to be in really good spirits as they bade us farewell.
We left Newcastle and, as we crossed the King Edward Bridge, we caught a glimpse of several of the other Tyne bridges. Not long afterwards we passed through Durham and its impressive cathedral was visible in the background.
12:59 / 12:57 / +2 = King Edward Bridge S Jn. (pass)
13:05 / 13:04 / +1 = Chester Le Street (pass)
13:08 / 13:07/ +1 = Durham (pass)
13:15 / 13:14 / +1 = Ferryhill Sth Junction (pass)
13:23 / 13:23 / RT = DARLINGTON (Platform 1) ARR
13:26 / 13:26 / RT = DARLINGTON (Platform 1) DEP
Thirty minutes after Newcastle we paused at Darlington.
The new catering crew, based in Tyneside and speaking with warm north eastern accents, had taken hardly any time at all to set up.
I decided it was at last time for lunch and ordered a Yorkshire pudding and beef dish from the menu. It was quite delicious and I enjoyed it with another can of beer as we raced along through the Vale of York.
13:37 / 13:37 / RT = Northallerton (pass)
13:40 / 13:40 / RT = Thirsk (pass)
13:50 / 13:50 / RT = Skelton Bridge Junction (pass)
13:54 / 13:54 / RT = YORK (Platform 5) ARR
13:58 / 13:58 / RT = YORK (Platform 5) DEP
Finally York Minster came into view and we made our final stop at York’s impressive station.
The train was on time leaving York and now began a non-stop dash to the capital. As we went south we made excellent progress. As we approached London we got earlier and earlier and it was eventually obvious that we wouldn’t be needing any of the recovery time built into the schedule.
Bar the odd speed restriction, we cruised mostly at 125mph. The ride was incredibly smooth. It is amazing to think that I first made my first York-to-London trip on one of these HSTs back in 1979. The trains have been in continuous service ever since.
It really is the smooth quiet ride that has helped to set these trains apart. Many later trains never managed to quite match it; more recent trains have often had noisy and intrusive diesel engines mounted beneath the floor.
It seemed I was not alone in my appreciation; a businessman who had boarded at York was telling one of the crew how much he would miss the old trains. He had been on the Azuma already and he had not been all that impressed with the comfort of the seats. The crew member was sympathetic and complained that the lack of luggage space on the new trains was causing problems too. To be fair, both issues are solvable and not strictly the fault of the new train itself.
We raced through Yorkshire coalfields and flashed past power stations before heading through Doncaster and towards the flat (but sadly very flooded at that moment) land of Lincolnshire. We continued on through Grantham and Peterborough and across the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens.
The crew served a few late lunches and then came around a couple more times with drinks. After Peterborough they began to tidy up and set up for the next service. The train was due to return north as the 17:00 to Edinburgh. It was incredible to think that by the time it finished its day it would have covered almost 1000 miles.
Finally the flat countryside started to disappear and we passed through a series of tunnels to reach the outer London suburbs. The sun was almost setting as we slowed and passed by Alexandra Palace. We went through Finsbury Park, usually the cue for the guard to begin his/her farewell remarks, and then dived into Gasworks tunnel to emerge slowly into Kings Cross.
14:03 / 14:03 / RT = Colton Jn. (pass)
14:07 / 14:07 / RT = Hambleton Jn. (pass)
14:15 / 14:15 / RT = Shaftholme Junction (pass)
14:17 / 14:18 / -1 = Doncaster (pass)
14:32 / 14:35 / -3 = Carlton on Trent (pass)
14:43 / 14:46 / -3 = Grantham (pass)
14:58 / 15:01 / -3 = Peterborough (pass)
15:01 / 15:05 / -4 = Holme Junction (pass)
15:08 / 15:11 / -3 = Huntingdon (pass)
15:17 / 15:20 / -3 = Biggleswade (pass)
15:26 / 15:30 / -4 = Welwyn North (pass)
15:37 / 15:40 / -3 = Alexandra Palace (pass)
15:39 / 15:42 / -3 = Finsbury Park (pass)
15:43 / 15:49 / -6 = KINGS CROSS (Platform 0) ARR
We had arrived 6 minutes earlier than scheduled. It had been quite an impressive end to the run with a start-to-stop average of over 107mph from York.
I watched all the passengers disembark and head off toward the underground, the bus stops and the taxi rank. I wondered again how many of them had started their journeys with me back in Inverness.
As I walked out of the famous terminus, I reflected on the whole experience. Since 8am I had travelled almost 600 miles in total comfort, I had eaten and drunk my fill, had received excellent friendly customer service and I had seen some of the best scenery it was possible to see from a train window in Britain.
I really couldn’t think of too many better ways to spend a day !
Nor could there have been a more fitting personal celebration to mark the end of the HST on the East Coast Main Line.
It will be interesting to see how the new Azuma trains fare on the “Chieftain”. They should do well and despite a few grumbles, early indications seem reasonably positive. Nevertheless, their predecessors are certainly going to be a difficult act to follow.