The Class 325’s are yet another one of those Greek tragedies of the British railway scene. These specially built, 100mph units were very capable machines, but sadly the powers that be quickly pulled the rug out from under them, and what would have been the primary motive power for mail traffic across the UK’s electric railway network is now only just starting to make a comeback.
The origins of the Class 325 go back to the early 1990’s. At the time British Rail’s parcels and mail arm, Rail Express Systems, was in the process of phasing out the traditional Travelling Post Office as computer sorting removed the need for sorting by-hand aboard the trains. At the same time RES desired a fleet of units that would be much more flexible, efficient and cost effective than the ageing fleet of Class 86 electrics, Class 47 diesels and MkI based coaching stock of the 1960’s that it was using presently.
Previously, Royal Mail had trialed reusing former London commuter EMU’s and re-purposing them as parcels units. Initially, Class 307’s built in the 1950’s were used on services out of London Liverpool Street, these being designated Class 300. However, these units weren’t particularly reliable, and their age meant that they were only a few years away from being life-expired. In 1994, Rail Express Systems placed an order for a set of 100mph electric multiple units to be built on the underpinnings of the Class 319 dual-voltage Thameslink units used in London. Originally, this class was designated Class 350, but was eventually changed to Class 325.
Construction of these units was done by ABB at their Derby works between 1995 and 1996, with 16 of these trains eventually built. The construction of the Class 325’s coincided with a major refurbishment of the mail-on-rail system, with new distribution centres and sorting offices constructed at major railway locations, this project being dubbed Railnet. For the Class 325’s, these included Railnet terminals at Shieldmuir near Glasgow (to serve the lowlands of Scotland), Warrington (to serve North West England), Low Fell near Newcastle, and Willesden in North London. Additional Railnet terminals off the Class 325’s network included Tonbridge, Bristol Parkway, Doncaster and Stafford. Willesden Railnet terminal is by far the largest, a 7 platform station under a huge barrel roof which is essentially another London terminus just with no passengers, built at a cost of £30m.
The Class 325’s eventually began operations after a short period of trials in 1995. The units are fitted with large round oleo buffers, and have no gangways between carriages. Each set is made up of four cars, with roller doors in place of sliding ones and no windows. Each car has two roller shutter sliding doors on each side and is designed to hold up to 12 tonnes. They have a pantograph to pick up power from the 25 kV AC
overhead lines, and also a shoe to pick up power off the 750 V DC third rail. They cannot work in multiple with any other multiple unit stock, but are fitted with drop-head buck-eye coupling and can therefore be hauled by locomotives. The units were built in such a way that they could easily be converted for passenger use if no longer required for mail services, and cab fronts designed to look similar to the then recently built Networker Class 165/166 and 365/465 commuter units.
Based at Crewe International Electric Maintenance Depot, the Class 325’s effects on the mail services up the West and East Coast Mainlines were profound, with turnaround times and flexibility when it came to shunting being among its many advantages. They were also much more reliable than Class 86’s or 47’s, and could easily be put to work on the 3rd Rail Southern Region without the need for diesels or locomotive changes.
However, their tenure on mail services was seriously short lived, as in 2003, Royal Mail decided to cease the Mail Train contract with freight operator EWS after 166 years of operation. The last mail services under the original Victorian contract ended on January 9th, 2004, and the Class 325’s, along with the hundreds of carriages of stock and locomotives, entered storage at various locations across the network, while the millions of pounds of infrastructure and the Railnet buildings fell silent after less than 10 years of operation.
The Class 325’s were thankfully not out of action for long though, as at Christmas 2004, in light of heavy demand and congestion on the roads in bad weather, Royal Mail
reluctantly awarded GBRf the contract to run a limited number of Class 325’s on services between London and Glasgow over the winter period. GBRf however were not cleared to use the Class 325’s on their own, and thus instead chose to drag the units using Class 86’s and 87’s. After a traction reshuffle the Class 325s resumed service with their power cars and without locomotive haulage.
Eventually, GBRf lost the contract in 2010 to EWS’s successor, DB Schenker, who now operate both Royal Mail services but the continued maintenance of the Class 325 stock. On an average weekday there are 15 diagrammed services out of Willesden Railnet, 5 to and from Warrington, 3 to Shieldmuir and 3 to Low Fell. Today, 15 out of the original 16 units remain in service, 325010 being scrapped in 2012 after years of neglect in storage.
Sadly, like many pieces of the Mail Train puzzle, so many were wasted after less than 10 years of operation, infrastructure built to last for 100 years demolished after no time at all. At least the Class 325’s have found their way back into work, doing a job that makes eminent sense over the road haulage alternative Royal Mail hoped would be the better option over the mail train. Instead the Class 325’s are proof as to why mail-by-rail is the superior option, no traffic jams, no slippery roads, no 60mph speed limiter on the lorries, just 100mph haulage of your valuables and parcels up and down the country all the way!