High-speed designer

Sheffield Midland Station (1985): British Rail High Speed Train 253 001

It’s an interesting challenge to name ten modern British designers – almost as difficult as naming ten modern British engineers or, notoriously, ten famous Belgians http://www.famousbelgians.net.

One of the greatest modern British designers, still very much alive and working, is Kenneth Grange (b 1929), who is celebrated by an exhibition, ‘Kenneth Grange:  making Britain modern’ at the Design Museum in London until the end of October:  http://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/2011/kenneth-grange.

His first major commission was the original British parking-meter, now a rare artefact, in 1958.  He went on to design the Kenwood Chef food-mixer, the Kodak Instamatic camera (1968), the Adshel bus-shelter (1993) – another great British bus-shelter designer was the late David Mellor (1930-2009) – and an acclaimed new version of the London black taxi (1997).

Kenneth Grange’s own favourite is the biggest of all his designs – the InterCity 125 High Speed Train, introduced by British Railways in the early 1970s.  He didn’t engineer the entire train;  indeed, he was originally commissioned only to design the livery, but as he explained to Rachel Cooke [The Observer, July 17th 2011], “…I decided to have a go at the aerodynamics, testing it in wind tunnels with the help of an engineer I was employing.  I showed it to [the British Railway Board] with some trepidation.  It was a bloody nerve, to be honest…But they weren’t difficult to persuade in the end because the argument was sound:  the design made the train more efficient.”  It’s instructive to compare the prototype – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_252 – with Kenneth Grange’s more familiar production model, illustrated above.

Train passengers take the HST for granted:  after all, it’s been around for thirty-five years now, upgraded, re-engined, rebadged, and still going strong.  Some operators have replaced it with newer models, not all of them fully satisfactory, while others have indicated that with further modifications these trains could run until at least 2035 when they will be approaching sixty years old.

The High Speed Train is a credit to British engineering:  the prototype broke the world speed record for diesel traction (143 mph) which is now held by a production-version HST (148 mph).  Introducing the HST to the Western and East Coast main-lines and other routes in the late 1970s and early 1980s significantly increased passenger numbers and pushed up house-prices in such towns as Reading, Swindon, Huntingdon and Peterborough.

The design was exported to Australia as the basis for the XPT train [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XPT_(Train)], introduced in 1982 and still operating on five routes out of Sydney.  It’s oddly reassuring for a Brit to stand on an Australian station platform as one of these instantly recognisable beasts glides in.

Back home, its proudest passenger is its long-lived designer, who continues to travel on HSTs regularly from his home in Devon to work in London.

Update:  Kenneth Grange was awarded a knighthood in the 2013 New Year Honours.  He features in this BBC News clip celebrating forty years of HST operation:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/video_and_audio/headlines/36188805.

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