For a time it was the flagship of those early days of Electric traction on the Midland Region, but today few remain in nocturnal freight operations. The 100mph Class 86’s were by far the most numerous of the original electric traction for British Rail, but their decline has been pronounced as many now languish in silent storage or have met their end at the cutter’s torch.
The Class 86 was a culmination of developments pioneered by the original AC electric locomotives that formed the backbone of British Rail’s Modernisation Plan in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. As part of the electrification of the West Coast Mainline, a new fleet of electric locomotives were commissioned to various manufacturers, these being the Class 81, 82, 83, 84 and 85. While the Class 81 and 85 were quite successful, and would
see active service in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Class 82, 83 and 84 were noted for their unreliability, largely due to their manufacturer’s inexperience at building electric locomotives.
The Class 86, originally dubbed the AL6, took elements from each to create the perfect flagship locomotive, including the bodyshape and wheel design. The AL6 however also brought to the table its own innovative design features, including quieter cooling fans, the lack of a second pantograph and the fitting of four AEI 282AZ 900hp Traction Motors, with an overall power output of 3,600hp on the original locomotives.
The Class 86’s made their first official appearance on the West Coast in August 1965, and eventually all 100 locomotives would be in service with BR after a 24 month construction run, making it the most numerous class of electric locomotive in the UK, an unbeaten record. However, initial problems came with regard to the AL6, largely due to the position of the axle-hung traction motors, which would cause damage to the tracks due to the additional unsprung mass. To solve this, new flexicoil springs were added in 1969 to help support the traction motors, this eventually being placed onto all members of the class.
By 1970, several variants of the class had been created for various purposes. 86/0 locomotives were unmodified members without flexicoil springs, and were restricted to 80mph; while 86/2 were modified with flexicoil springs, and could operate at the locomotive’s top speed of 100mph, putting them in good stead for passenger services. A later variant was the Class 86/1, modified with 5,000hp traction motors as a testbed for
the upcoming Class 87’s, which would be the flagship electric locomotives for passenger trains out of London Euston.
Even following the introduction of the Class 87’s in 1974, the Class 86’s still held a prominent role on the West Coast Mainline for both passenger and freight operations. Their influence was widened in time thanks to the electrification of routes out of London Liverpool Street towards Cambridge, Harwich, Norwich and Ipswich. Class 86’s began operations there during the mid to late 1980’s, and became the prime motive power for express services along the Great Eastern route towards Anglia. This coincided with the addition of TDM or Time-Division Multiplexing, which allowed the locomotives to be controlled by cab-control cars. On the West Coast Mainline, streamlined Class 82 Driving Van Trailers made an appearance after 1988, while on the Great Eastern, converted MkII carriages called DBSO’s, or Driving Brake Standard Only, were brought in from Scotland after they were displaced from Edinburgh to Glasgow expresses by Class 158 DMU’s.
By the 1990’s, a majority of the Class 86’s were still in service on freight and passenger workings. Class 86/2’s worked express passenger services, whilst Class 86/4’s were reclassified into 86/6’s for use on freight as part of the new Freightliner and Railfreight Distribution services. For a brief time, several 86/2’s were allocated to freight, and these were renumbered 86/5’s, but were quickly returned to InterCity. By the mid-1990’s, the Class 86’s were truly at the peak of their powers, operating InterCity services out of two major London terminals, and being the backbone of both freight and parcels services on the West Coast Mainline north of London, as well as on the Great Eastern to the east.
However, as privatisation began in the late 1990’s, new operators were quick to outline their new plan for replacing the nearly 40 year old locomotives with newer stock. The Class 86’s were split into several companies, with passenger 86/2’s being divided amongst Anglia Railways, Virgin West Coast and Virgin Cross Country. Freight operator EWS inherited 15 locomotives from the Parcels sector, whilst 30 locomotives went to the
newly formed Freightliner company.
As mentioned however, commitments to the new franchising system meant that old stock had to be replaced in order to improve service reliability, and the Class 86’s were singled out for retirement more than the other classes. Virgin Cross Country were the first to retire the locomotives, their fleet of 19 locomotives used between Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland being retired in September 2002 along with all loco-hauled Cross-Country services. Some Class 86’s would continue to find service with Virgin’s West Coast Mainline arm, but the end was nigh for these locomotives as well, the last being retired in September 2003.
Anglia’s Class 86’s held on for another year, but as Virgin replaced its loco-hauled stock with new Class 390 Pendolino units, displaced Class 90’s, which were much younger and more reliable, began working on Anglia’s services out of London Liverpool Street. Coupled with the change in franchise from Anglia to National Express’ ‘One’, and by September 2005 nothing remained of the Class 86, the very last Class 86 hauled intercity
train taking place on September 17th, 2005, with 86235 doing the honours.
EWS also quickly retired the Class 86’s, due largely to the removal of the Mail Train contract in 2003, but also due to the introduction of Class 66’s to operate most freight diagrams.
Freightliner however continue to maintain a sizable fleet of locomotives for their freight operations on the West Coast and Great Eastern Mainlines, with 14 of these 52 year old locomotives still in active service with the company. Today they’re quite hard to find in the daytime, but in rare instances you may be lucky enough to catch one running very late or very early.
Other Class 86’s include ones exported to Bulgaria, of which 6 have currently been so far together with several Class 87’s. Many Class 86’s however continue to languish in storage, mostly at Long Marston base in Worcestershire, as well as many having been scrapped or stripped for spares donors.
Class 86’s have also had their fair share of accidents, perhaps more so than other UK locomotive classes. The first such accident was in January 1975, when 86209 collided head-on with Class 83, 83003, killing one, though the 86 was eventually recovered and returned to work. Also in 1975, 86006 and 86242 suffered a devastating crash at Nuneaton, when the two electric locomotives entered a temporary speed restriction at high speed causing a derailment that killed 6 and injured 38.
Another very serious incident was the Colwich rail crash of September 19th, 1986, when 86211 and 86429 collided head-on, resulting in the death of one of the drivers and the destruction of both locomotives.
In 1996, 86239, hauling a Mail Train, collided with the rear of a freight train near Stafford and ended up in a back garden, writing off the locomotive and killing two Royal Mail staff aboard the mail train.
The last major crash of the Class 86 was in 2003, when 86631 and 86611 crashed into a stationary freight train at Norton Bridge, the force of the impact snapping the leading locomotive in half. Thankfully there were no fatalities, but both locomotives were written off.
Officially, three locomotives have been preserved here in the UK, but even these still see regular revenue earning work. 86259 ‘Les Ross’ was purchased by the eponymous owner in 2008, and is a regular operator on the mainline working railtours for Vintage Trains. Two other Class 86’s, 86101 and 86401, have been returned from preservation to help operate the Caledonian Sleeper service from London to Scotland. Though mostly used for Empty Carriage workings, they do sometimes operate the full route between London and Glasgow/Edinburgh.
Today, the Class 86’s, though over 50 years old, still prove themselves reliable and charming electric locomotives, and true pioneers in their own right. A design that may date back to the late 1950’s, the flexible nature of these engines has helped them stand the test of time, and one hopes they see continued use well into the future.