This page was published on 20 August 2009, and
last modified on 12 March 2016.
The Southern Region’s “Hastings” diesel-electric trains were conceived in the late 1950s as an interim response to an urgent need. In the event they provided extremely intensive and reliable service under British Rail for three times as long as was ever envisaged—and of course the vehicles which HDL has preserved are still operating now! Their existence is owed to a remarkable sequence of events which began at the start of the railway age.
It is only comparatively recently that the part of England which lies between the North Downs and the Sussex Coast was transformed into the countryside we now know. The Weald of Sussex had been a wild place, a dense hilly jungle inhabited only by wolves and bandits. The forest was tamed and the wolves displaced by the activity of medieval iron-workers, but even by 1765 when the last foundry closed, the region was still sparsely populated apart from the new and fashionable spa town of Tunbridge Wells.
The area was far from attractive to the early railway-builders, who managed to avoid it. The South Eastern Railway (SER) opened its Redhill – Dover route along the north side of the Weald in 1844, with a branch from Tonbridge to Tunbridge Wells in 1845. The first railway to reach the increasingly-popular seaside resorts of Hastings and St. Leonards was the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) route from Eastbourne and Lewes, which was completed in 1846.
The Kentrail website has a map of the area which readers may find useful.
In the spirit of “Railway Mania” the SER sought its own connection to Hastings and in 1845 it obtained Parliamentary powers to build a line from Ashford across the Romney Marsh, along a route which would be near-level and easy for all but the last few miles. The LBSCR, their bitter rivals, had already seen the commercial attraction of promoting a direct route from London to Hastings by extending the Tunbridge Wells branch across the Weald, and it obtained the necessary powers in 1846. The SER were so keen for the business that would be opened up by such a plan that they offered to build the line across the Weald themselves.
Unfortunately for the SER, Parliament believed the line across the Romney Marsh to be of strategic significance, and obliged the SER to complete that before beginning work on the new line southwards from Tunbridge Wells. Construction of the Marsh line actually required a large amount of heavy earthwork and four sizeable tunnels near Hastings (to Bopeep Junction and West Marina station), and so by the time the company came to build across the Weald its resources were somewhat depleted.
The Tunbridge Wells – Hastings route had therefore to be constructed as cheaply as possible, and through terrain which would already have made it difficult enough. Because of this the line had to take some sharp curves and it was severely graded. Despite all economies, some tunnelling was inevitable at Tunbridge Wells, Wadhurst and Mountfield. The line to Bopeep Junction finally opened in 1853, and almost immediately it was discovered that the tunnels had been bored to the minimum possible dimensions and lined so poorly that there was danger of collapse. The only practical solution was to add several extra layers of brick lining, which kept the line open at the price of making the tunnels too narrow to accept standard-size stock. From then on, the “Hastings” line had to be worked with specially-built stock of restricted dimensions.
Electrification of the Hastings line was considered a number of times from as early as 1921, but for various reasons the proposals never reached maturity. The Southern Railway began to electrify its main routes in the 1930s, including those to Brighton, Portsmouth and Eastbourne. The Eastbourne scheme included the “Coastway” route to Hastings, thus lowering the priority of the Hastings Line. After the Second World War, the Southern announced a large schedule of modernisation works, in which the Hastings line featured at the third and final stage. In the event, the railway network was nationalised long before that point in the plan would have been reached. By the time of British Railways’ 1955 Modernisation Plan, the Maunsell “8-foot” stock (hauled by Schools-class 4-4-0s) was not going to be able to last much longer, despite some refurbishment in the early 1950s.
Continued operation of the Hastings route posed serious difficulties: in order for the line to be operated by standard trains, the double track within several tunnels would have to be singled or interlaced. The remote-control technology for working the junctions at both ends of all such tunnels did not exist in a form that was acceptable to the operating department; and to equip and staff the junctions in the conventional way would have been impossibly expensive. The cost of electrifying the route and building special non-standard electric stock for it could not be met either, and there was no other long-term solution which could be implemented within the necessary timescale. An urgent order was therefore placed for a fleet of new carriages, of restricted width once more, with the intention that steam haulage would eventually give way to another form of motive power.
It was whilst the first underframes were actually under construction at Ashford shortly afterwards that the idea of Diesel Electrification was conceived. Plans were hastily made to build the new carriages essentially as electric trains which would carry their own electrical power-supply. Instead of taking current from a third rail, they would draw it from an on-board dynamo driven by a suitable diesel engine. These Diesel-Electric Multiple Units (DEMUs) would be intended to have as much equipment as possible in common with the Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) then being built for use throughout the Southern Region of BR, which would make for much cost-saving and ease of maintenance. The anticipated ten-year lifespan of the DEMUs was expected to keep the Hastings service running until such time as the preferred long-term option of electrification could be realised. The strokes of genius which led to this solution are attributed to the Southern’s then Chief Mechanical and Electrical Engineer, W.J.Arnold Sykes, and in particular to his deputy, a man named Hugh Smyth.
Twenty-three narrow-bodied 6-coach DEMUs, each consisting of a motor-coach at either end of a rake of four trailers, were introduced between January 1957 and June 1958; the first revenue service was on 6 May 1957, and operation to Charing Cross began on 17 June 1957. The DEMUs replaced steam-hauled stock on all services from London to Hastings via Battle; they were based at a new purpose-built depot at St. Leonards-on-sea, near Hastings.
It might seem strange to us, now, that the units entered service without inauguration for they were considered an embarrassment to the (then new) BR Design Panel. It is true that they were unlike some of the more luxurious creations from the BR 1955 Modernisation Plan, such as the Midland Blue Pullman sets; but it is far more noteworthy that in service the Hastings units were amongst the most intensively-used stock on the system, and yet they survived three times as long as was ever intended and gave no serious technical trouble in all of that time!
One of the features of the extraordinary durability of these machines
lay in the use of the English Electric
engine, which had already been proven on the Egyptian State Railways.
This version of the
4K, coupled with an English
Type 824 generator, formed the power unit for
all of the DEMU stock on the
Southern and on the Northern Irish Railways; it is amongst the most
successful single-entity power units ever designed for mainline rail
The narrow-bodied Hastings units had a long and illustrious career. Once their value was appreciated they were used on many special workings and railtours in addition to working the Hastings service, particularly towards the end of their lives; destinations included places as far afield as Lowestoft, Gunnislake and Carlisle. BR also used them for a regular Saturdays-only Brighton – Exeter diagram in the years 1972–1977, using a 12-car train in summer and a 6-car in winter, always incorporating a buffet-car unit.
There were various unit reformations associated with the creation of the three-car “Tadpole” units which worked the Reading – Tonbridge service for a long period in the 1960s and 1970s, and at times there were also several of the many possible hybrid formations involving Hastings vehicles in the closely-related “Hampshire” and “Oxted” units. Most sets were refurbished internally during the mid-1960s, and their sycamore-veneer internal panelling was covered with laminate. The comfy seating in the open saloons was retrimmed in the classic Trojan moquette.
Seven sets, 1031 – 1037, were originally built with buffet cars, of which five survived all but the last few years of operation.
Of the other two cars, one became the Southern Region General Manager’s Saloon (see photos, another photo); among other duties it conveyed TRHs the Prince and Princess of Wales to their honeymoon, and it carried Pope John Paul II from Gatwick to London on his visit in 1982; it also formed part of the first-ever standard-gauge passenger train to enter the Channel Tunnel (in March 1993?); it is still in use.
The other remaining car was moved to Derby where it was converted into a test bed for tilting-bogie technology, among other things; the research which was done with it made a valuable contribution to the development of the Class 91 locomotives. Known as Lab 4, it eventually returned to St. Leonards depot where it was stored until 2003, when it was sold for further use.
As the units continued to provide sterling service it eventually became clear that their days were numbered by problems associated with corrosion of the bodywork, and this was no doubt worsened by the nature of the sea air—St. Leonards depot is literally beside the beach. With the usage they were getting it would have been impractical to repair the damage on a fleet-wide scale, and in any case the next major round of investment had long been earmarked for electrification of the route.
In 1983 the £23M upgrading of the Hastings line was announced; it was to include single-tracking of the substandard tunnels, with remotely-operated turnouts, along with electrification and resignalling of the whole route. In the spring of 1986 the operation of the London – Hastings service began to be taken over by standard EMUs. A carefully-managed programme of unit reformations took place as the fleet was gradually run down.
The final “slimline” Hastings DEMUs ran on Sunday 11 May 1986. The very last was the concluding leg of the “farewell” railtour, which left Charing Cross with much ceremony at 22:45, carrying a large number of devotees. The entire surviving fleet was withdrawn that night, apart from two units which were briefly reprieved and shortened for use on the Ashford – Hastings and Oxted – Uckfield/East Grinstead routes. Used carriages were left to await their fate at various localities including Ashford, Sevenoaks, Ore, and Mountfield sidings.
The era of tailor-made carriages, lasting for more than 120 years, had finally reached its end.
But not quite!
The Hastings Diesel Group (HDG) was formed in July 1986, with the aim of preserving one or more “Hastings” DEMU coaches. Initial interest was encouraging and, one year later, a limited company Hastings Diesel Preservation Limited (HDPL) was set up by the HDG, to buy vehicles from BR. The aim was now to buy a whole 6-car train. In March 1989, HDPL bought not one but two entire 6-car units, numbers 1001 and 1013; in all, it acquired 15 withdrawn “Hastings” DEMU vehicles including five motor-coaches and three of the beautiful corridor firsts. They were housed at their then-disused home depot at St. Leonards, to which access was already granted by BR for HDG members gathering spare parts from condemned stock.
In 1990 matters were formalised when a separate but closely-affiliated company St. Leonards Railway Engineering Limited (SLREL) was set up to hold a lease and operate the depot. HDG was wound up, and Hastings Diesel Preservation Limited became Hastings Diesels Limited (HDL).
Through the skill, enthusiasm and financial support of its members—and not forgetting an enormous amount of very hard work from its small core of assistants—HDL was able to make a three-coach unit (formed 60016-60527-60018) available for use on the Swanage Railway from June 1990, where it lived until January 1993; motor-coach 60016 was named Mountfield by Ian Allan in a ceremony at Swanage on 30 June 1990.
At the depot, restoration work continued with trailer-second 60529, and motor-coach 60000 which was named Hastings by the Mayoress of Hastings on 28 September 1991. It also won the ARPS’s Best Restored Coach award in 1992, a fitting tribute to the work involved.
The Kent & East Sussex Railway hired a three-car unit from HDL (formed 60000-60529-60016, initially without the trailer) from April 1993 until winter 1995/6. Meanwhile, heavy restoration work continued apace with trailer-second 60501, and with motor-coach 60018 which was named Tunbridge Wells at a ceremony in that town by its Mayor on 12 May 1995.
HDL had by this time developed an ambition to return a train to main-line operation. Two motor-coaches (Hastings & Tunbridge Wells) and two trailer cars (60501 & 60529) were turned out to a high standard at St. Leonards; they were taken to Eastleigh Works where their axles and running gear were checked & overhauled as necessary, door locks were changed, AWS was fitted, and many other tasks completed to ready the train for inspection. This it duly passed, and our four-coach restored train was numbered 1001 and certified for use on the main line railway.
HDL and 1001 operated their first railtour on Saturday 11 May 1996, exactly ten years after the original withdrawal of the fleet. The trip covered a number of routes around Kent, including the Folkestone Harbour Branch, before running up to London for a re-enactment of the final non-stop run from Charing Cross to Hastings.
This sell-out Phoenix railtour was a triumph and attracted some well-deserved publicity; to help meet demand for seating, prior to our second railtour we augmented our train by adding a centre-trailer (70262) from a 4-CEP electric unit. Subsequently a buffet-car (69337) from a 4-BIG electric unit underwent considerable alteration to be made compatible with our DEMU, and has been part of our train since June 2000. In October 2002 our third motor-coach Mountfield gained its certification for main-line running, and has been used to replace either of, or complement, the other two motor-coaches in our train. Restoration continues, with a fourth motor coach nearly completed and a third DEMU trailer car well under way.
Our train clocked up 200,000 miles on railtours and hires to Train Operating Companies (TOCs) around the country in its first 5 years of main-line preservation; that figure is now well above half a million miles(1).
The highlights of its extraordinary second career have included:
A fourteen-month hire to Anglia Railways TOC, for use on local services between Norwich and Yarmouth/Lowestoft; this ran from July 1998 to September 1999;
A sell-out railtour nearly 24 hours long, which ran to Devon to witness the total eclipse of the sun on 11 August 1999;
Four-dozen other railtours to many parts of the country, for enthusiasts and the general public alike.
Several hires to Wales & West TOC for use between Portsmouth & Cardiff, for rugby-match traffic and for the Glastonbury festival;
Over six weeks’ work on its original route of Hastings to London Charing Cross, for Connex;
Over four years’ regular (sometimes daily) service for Connex South Central (later Southern) operating “Marsh Link” services between Ashford and Hastings/Eastbourne.
(1) – Motor-coach 60118 Tunbridge Wells had accrued 475,618 miles in preservation, as at 7 December 2007, and as of 5 March 2016 the figure stood at 632,144 miles!
For the definitive version of the Hastings Diesels Story, readers are advised to consult the fascinating and superbly-written book of that name by Gregory Beecroft, published by the Southern Electric Group (1986) (ISBN 0 906988 20 9, out of print).