The Class 90’s were among the last British Rail designs to be built prior to privatisation in 1994. The locomotives, developed largely from the previous Class 87’s, became the primary form of motive power across the UK’s electric network, and while many continue to earn their keep, a large number can be found rotting away in storage, a sad fate for these nearly new and extremely powerful locomotives.
Development of the Class 90’s dates back to the mid-1980’s, by which time the motive power on the West Coast Mainline, then Britain’s only fully electric mainline, between London and Glasgow were showing themselves to be rather tired. In 1985, the fleet consisted of the early electrics from the late 1950’s, the Class 81’s and 85’s, together with a ragtag selection of miscellaneous engines comprised of fleets that were never taken up for mass production due to their unreliability, namely the Class 82’s, 83’s and 84’s. The most numerous of the electric classes was the 100 strong fleet of Class 86’s, while primary passenger operations on the route were handled by the Electric Scot Class 87’s, introduced in 1974. Intentions had been made previously to improve the service on the West Coast with the introduction of the ill fated APT or Advanced Passenger Train. Designated Class 370, the APT operated between 1980 and 1986, where, after numerous failures and an inability to get the tilting technology to work effectively, the project was scrapped.
With British Rail nearly always strapped for cash, and with much of their investment going into the electrification of the East Coast Mainline between London and Edinburgh, as well as a new fleet of Networker units for the London commuter belt, the company was forced to essentially come up with a new locomotive for the West Coast on a strict budget. Originally, the class was to be designated Class 87/2, given the fact that much of the technology behind the fleet comes from the previous Class 87’s. The primary intention of the new fleet was to compliment the Class 87’s on the top express services between London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow, as well as replace the older Class 81 to 85’s on freight workings as well. The locomotives, however, did have their own unique development that wasn’t derived from Class 87 technology, the traction motors were upgraded and the design was altered to give it a more streamlined look. As such, the locomotive was designated Class 90 in view of these differences.
Class 90’s were built by BREL (British Rail Engineering Limited) at their Crewe Works between 1987 and 1990. They are capable of 110mph and weight 84.5 tonnes, operating via 25kv AC electric power picked up by a Bracknell Willis High Speed Pantograph. The locomotives are powered by four GEC 412 BZ and four GEC G-412CY Traction Motors, each giving a combined output of 5,000hp. Perhaps the most interesting additions to the 90’s over the 87’s were the addition of rheostatic brakes in addition to standard Westinghouse air brake equipment, and a Time-Division Multiplexer, which allowed the locomotives to either work in unison with other locomotives, or for the operation of Class 82 Driving Van Trailers which were being specifically developed as part of the Class 90 project for WCML operations. The use of DVT’s removed the need for multiple locomotives to have to drag trains in and out of terminus stations. Acceleration for the 90, hauling a standard passenger load of eight carriages and a DVT, could be achieved at a rate of 60mph in 1 mile, and 100mph in 1.5 miles.
In total, a fleet of 50 locomotives were ordered by British Rail, with the first 16 locomotives to be operated by passenger operator InterCity, 5 to be operated by the parcels sector Rail Express Systems, and the remainder to work for freight division Railfreight Distribution.
In May 1988, prior to the introduction of the 90’s into service, 90008 was hauled, together with a new Class 91, a Class 150 DMU and prototype Class 89, 89001, to Hamburg for the IVA 88 transport exhibition, using the Dover to Dunkirk train ferry to get to the near continent before being dragged through Belgium and Holland to get to Germany. The intention of the trip was to show BREL’s construction abilities at creating new rolling stock, with the hope that other European operators may be interesting buying British. Sadly, the Class 90 never caught the eye of foreign operation, and all locomotives were built solely for the UK network.
The first official Class 90 hauled passenger service was behind 90003 on July 12th, 1988, hauling the 13:46 Blackpool North to London Euston from Preston (standing in for a failed Class 86). Upon their widespread introduction into service between 1988 and 1991, the locomotives revolutionised services on the WCML. On the passenger sector, the locomotives complimented the Class 87’s on mainline expresses between London Euston and the north, resulting in Class 86’s being relegated either to freight and parcels workings, or onto Cross Country trains between Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. On the freight side, the 90’s saw an end to the last of the early electrics, with the final Class 85’s bowing out in 1993 after over 40 years of work. Freight operated Class 90’s differed from passenger ones by the lowering of their maximum speed to 75mph and the isolation of their electric train supply, these engines being distinguished by their redesignation as Class 90/1 and 90/2.
In 1992, three Class 90’s were repainted as part of the Freightconnection event to highlight the upcoming Channel Tunnel link with Europe. 90128 was painted in the blue and yellow colours of the Belgian operator SNCB, 90129 was painted into the red of German operator Deutsche Bundesbahn, and 90130 into the grey and orange of French operator SNCF. At around the same time, the 5 postal Class 90’s were repainted into the dark grey and red of Rail Express Systems as part of the launch of the Railnet mail train system. Railnet introduced a network of sorting and distribution offices across the UK network, usually located in the suburbs of the nation’s larger cities such as Bristol, Glasgow, London, Newcastle and Warrington (for the Greater Manchester and Liverpool area). From there, mail could be easily transferred from truck to train and vice versa without trains having to travel to main train stations, thereby causing an inconvenience to passenger operations. The Class 90’s, together with the new Class 325 postal units, were the flagships of this operation on the West and East Coast Mainlines from their base at Willesden Railnet depot in West London to Glasgow Shieldmuir, Warrington RMT, Stafford and Newcastle Lowfell.
Upon privatisation in 1994, the fleet continued to stay very much as they were, with the passenger 90’s becoming part of the Virgin Trains fleet, the postal engines working for EWS, and freight engines being split between EWS and Freightliner. Some locomotives were hired out to other operators as and when necessary, with one engine repainted in GNER colours to work on the East Coast while the operator was short on Class 91’s, while several Class 90’s were painted into the colours of Scotrail to work the Caledonian Sleeper from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London. Some 90’s were also hired out to the Great Eastern operator Anglia, working trains out of London Liverpool Street.
However, things turned very bad, very quickly for the Class 90’s come the new millennium. First to suffer was the freight sector as, following the introduction of the Class 66 freight locomotives, the Class 90’s quickly became non-standard and by 2004 many were placed into storage, usually at Crewe, not helped by a slump in railfreight
demand during the mid-2000’s following both the loss of the mail train contract and the recession of 2008.
The biggest loss for the Class 90’s, however, came following the introduction of the Class 390 Pendolino tilting units on the West Coast Mainline in 2002. These 125mph capable units quickly became the standard for the Virgin Trains fleet, and thus the 90’s paled in comparison. The first locomotives to go were the Class 86’s, which hauled their last passenger trains in 2003, followed by some of the less reliable Class 87’s. Withdrawal of Class 90’s commenced in March 2004, and on August 27th of the same year, the last Class 90 hauled service on the West Coast Mainline took place between London and Glasgow.
This, thankfully, wasn’t the end for the 90’s, as most were transferred to National Express owned operator ‘One’, which served the Great Eastern Mainline from London Liverpool Street to Norwich and Ipswich. The fleet was used to replace the company’s ageing Class 86’s, which were seen off by Class 90’s by the middle of 2005.
Class 90’s did eventually return to the West Coast Mainline, not just operating railtours, but also in mainline passenger service. Following the derailment and subsequent loss of Class 390, 390033, Virgin Trains required an additional set to cover for it, and thus brought in Class 90’s hired from DB Schenker and Freightliner together with redundant stock and a DVT. The set, nicknamed the Pretendolino, was refurbished into a fully fledged Virgin Trains set in 2009, complete with wifi access, new seating, power points and a repaint into the Pendolino livery, though locomotives remained in the colours of whichever operator they were hired from. The service operated usually between London and Birmingham, but would sometimes head north to Glasgow if required. Pretendolino operations eventually ceased on October 25th, 2014, with a final working to Birmingham
and back. The set was transferred to Anglia operations and has since been repainted and refurbished into their livery and interior.
At present, only one Class 90 has been written off, that being the final member of the Class 90050. 90050 was involved in a fire during 2004 and was subsequently stored. While its operator, Freightliner, discussed the possibilities of returning the locomotive to service, the engine was stripped for spares and is now beyond repair, having languished around the Crewe railyards for the past 13 years. Aside from 90050, it is most likely that many of the stored DB Schenker Class 90’s are also beyond economic repair, not helped by possible further losses of work with the introduction of new rolling stock on the Great Eastern Mainline to replace the Class 90’s on their last passenger workings.
Today, of the 50 Class 90’s originally built, only 38 are still in service. 15 of these work for Greater Anglia out of London Liverpool Street, 10 work for Freightliner, and the remaining 13 work for DB Schenker. The future for the Class 90’s, however, does seem a touch bleak, especially when it comes to passenger trains. As mentioned, Greater Anglia has announced the introduction of new Class 745 Intercity units to replace Class 90 services from 2019, thus bringing an end to these fantastic locomotives on passenger services, unless, of course, another opportunity opens up for them. Freight operations for the 90’s remain somewhat promising, but with the constant fluctuation of the railfreight market, their demand for use is very hit and miss, thus meaning their work could disappear overnight if circumstances turned that way.
Whatever the case, one hopes that the future for these fantastic locomotives still sees them working for years to come, as these versatile and powerful engines have more than proven themselves capable of even the toughest tasks.