Trackside Classic: 1989 British Rail / GEC Class 91 – Britain’s Last Express Locomotive Retires

Britain has a long and proud history of locomotives designed solely to haul passengers at high speed, from Rocket to Flying Scotsman, Coronation and Mallard in the steam days to the mighty Deltics and HSTs of the diesel era. But now the last of that long line is coming to the buffer stops – the Class 91 electrics that have pounded up and down the East Coast Main Line for over 30 years are fading away, and, after 175 years, the last Anglo-Scottish locomotive hauled express has run. That is a milestone in railway history.

The 91s are interesting engines with an interesting backstory. Developed from the remains of the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) programme, imaginatively engineered and uniquely styled, they were launched with a fanfare but struggled to deliver, before an extensive rebuild turned them in to the powerful and reliable machines they should always have been. And, surprise, surprise, over ambition perhaps played a part in that too.

By the early 1980s, it was obvious that the APT programme was running into the sand – it was over ambitious, under resourced and lacked both effective support in British Rail and friends in government. While new 110mph electric locomotives, the Class 90, would buy time on the West Coast Main Line to Scotland via Birmingham and Manchester, they would not suffice for the East Coast where long overdue electrification at 25kv was at last happening – passengers lucky enough to live in Yorkshire and the North East had fallen in love with their 125mph HSTs, so BR would have to develop a 125mph electric train that would actually work for the wires to bring any benefit.

So they decided to develop a 140mph one.

Actually, the brief was a bit more complicated than that. Alongside electrification, It was planned that sections of the ECML would be resignalled to allow 140mph running, and that speeds in other places could be increased by using the tilt capability that the APT was eventually showing could work reliably, so the new power had to be capable of hauling an express that cruised at 140mph and tilted on the corners. And, to help justify the investment, it would need to have the power to haul heavy sleeping car expresses and mail trains overnight (which, you won’t be surprised to hear, never came to pass). This requirement gave rise to the 91’s distinctive profile, with a streamlined cab at one end and a blunt one at the other, to give flexibility for the slower overnight trains. As well as being asymmetrically styled (very unusual in Europe), speed is also asymmetrical – 125mph pointy end leading, but only 100mph blunt end first, because of the aerodynamics around a trailing pointy end.

The spec settled down at 6,500 hp, powering two axle bogies with the motors mounted in the body and not on the bogies, which significantly reduces the unsprung weight, thereby reducing the impact on the track. In addition, the transformer is mounted below the body, between the bogies, lowering the centre of gravity and freeing up internal space. These features were drawn from the APT experience, as was the decision to run the 91s in a fixed formation with nine matching coaches, designated Mark 4, and a Driving Van Trailer at the rear; operation would be push-pull, with the locomotives almost always at the northern end of the train, and the coaches marshalled in a fixed set with first class at the southern end, and the train driven from the DVT when heading southwards. Both engine and coaches are designed to tilt, with equipment derived from the APT fitted and the body narrowing above the waist to allow tilting. And you must admit, done properly, it looks great – here’s York Minster, at speed near York.

The tender to build the 91s was won by GEC, descendants of the English Electric Company of Deltic fame, with the mechanical aspects subcontracted to BR Engineering at Crewe. GEC were understandably proud of the commission, as this advert shows – which features the initially planned but never used Electra branding. (And, let’s remember the first British electrified mainline had had an Electra of its own since 1951)

GEC (in full, the General Electric Company plc, and unrelated to the American GE) was a conglomerate of British industry that included some famous names, including Plessey, Marconi, Metro-Cammell and Metropolitan-Vickers as well as  English Electric and many others, with significant interests in telecoms, television and domestic appliances, plus defence electronics, shipbuilding, submarines and nuclear power. At one point in the mid 1980s it was Britain’s largest company, with 250,000 staff, but then collapsed through a series of strategic missteps, and was dismembered in the early 2000s.

The first 91, numbered 91001, emerged from Crewe in February 1988; the last, 91031, completed in March 1991, was the last engine built at Crewe after almost 150 years. A period of intensive testing began while the electrification project progressed to completion by 1991, with Leeds reached in August 1988. It wasn’t just the 91s that were under the testing microscope – the new Mark 4 coaches and DVTs, from our old friends Metro-Cammell, and the integrated system formed from the locomotives and coaches together all needed to be proven.

Testing meant test and laboratory cars, like this, with sleeping cars added for weight. And that led on to a such strange sights as a Class 91 hauling an HST set, with the trailing power car acting as the DVT (and giving the train a combined 9,000 hp!)

Once the Mark 4s were available, they needed testing too, including, on route sections not yet electrified. Here, two HST power cars get ready to haul a 91 and Mark 4 set from Edinburgh to Newcastle two years before the wires went up.

And that revealed a problem – one BR had had before, with the Blue Pullman – the fancy Swiss SIG bogies under the passenger coaches gave a terrible ride. Much reengineering was required to get anything remotely acceptable – the bogies were even turned by 180 degrees! – but the ride of the Mark 4s never matched the smoothness and quietness of the HST’s Mark 3s. On the plus side, they were the first InterCity coaches with power operated, centrally locked doors – no more risk of opening the door unsafely, at last – and have exceptionally good crashworthiness – much better than the Mark 3 of the HST sets. And, apart from the ride and the cramped space (resulting from the never used tilting profile), they’re a decent way to travel still, although I still prefer a well maintained Mark 3 over a Mark 4 any day.

Fleet service finally began in March 1989, marketed as InterCity225 rather than Electra, with electric trains reaching Edinburgh and then Glasgow from 1991, with a fleet of 31 locomotives – a typically British Treasury pared back number.

Before full service began, 91010 had already entered the record books. The 91s and Mark 4s were designed to be capable of 140mph, which translates as 225km/h (hence the InetrCity225 brand), and although the necessary cab signalling wasn’t yet installed (and in fact never would be), BR needed to test to that speed and beyond. A temporary approach of using a flashing green aspect for signals to allow 140mph was tried, but never fully adopted.

And, in September 1989, 91010 with a shortened set of five Mark 4s was unleashed on the southbound descent from Stoke to Peterborough, where Mallard had set the steam record of 126 mph 51 years before. A top speed of 162 mph was achieved, and is now recorded on a plaque on the engine which deliberately matches the style of Mallard’s. Apart from Eurostar trains that cheat by going to abroad, that remains a British speed record still.

Fleet service to Edinburgh began in May 1991, with some pretty good advertising. Soon, the fastest Edinburgh expresses were scheduled at 4 hours to and from King’s Cross, an average of 100mph, but that was only possible for one or two trains per day because of the volume of traffic on the ECML; the normal journey time is around 4½ hours.

But there were problems – the ride of the Mark 4s never got any better for a start. But it got worse. The Class 91 proved to be unreliable, with problems concentrated in the control electronics. Privatised operator GNER found the resources (or finally lost patience, perhaps) and in 2001-03 all 31 underwent such significant modifications that they were renumbered from 910xx to 911xx – in effect, recognising the rebuilt engines as a new sub-class. This solved the reliability issues.

And in 2005-07, GNER completed an interior refit programme which transformed the interiors – compare the original and refurbished first class accommodation (but note how the curving sides cut down shoulder room!).

The exterior of the 91 has gone through even more transformations than the interior. The original livery was this classy and dramatic InterCity scheme. The livery seems, to me, to work with the styling – emphasising the length of the train and the sharp nose angle.

Then, with privatisation, we had the classy and understated GNER blue.

And after that, the standard went a bit meh, with National Express and East Coast giving us successive designs in what looks like undercoat – not helped by the former’s financial difficulties leading to delayed repainting and reduced maintenance spending.

Replacement private operator Virgin perhaps overdid it with this red and white scheme, but can’t be criticised for trying, and new state owned operator LNER has had to adopt it (to save the cost of fully rebranding trains with only two years left). And, yes, the succession of operator name changes does suggest that the privatisation of British Rail has not been an unqualified success.

The livery story is however redeemed by the succession of special liveries (ok, vinyl wraps) that have been used over the last years. I’ll spare you the ones adverting TV channels and James Bond (91007, of course), and show you the ones that matter, starting with 91114 Durham Cathedral promoting the long overdue and far too short return of the Lindisfarne Gospels (perhaps the most spectacular survivor of Anglo-Saxon English literature) to the North East.

There are three liveries that really command attention however; firstly, record breaker 91110, now named Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in honour of the RAF’s memorial squadron, and liveried with images of the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster in tribute and remembrance.

91111 was named For The Fallen in 2014, and is now earmarked for preservation at the NRM in that condition. She carries images of the trenches of the Western Front and references to regiments based along the ECML, with a dramatic poppy design to serve as a mobile war memorial.

And 91119, which we saw before, has been restored to the classic InterCity grey for her final years, which still looks the best of the standard schemes.

And let’s not forget 91101 in her Flying Scotsman purple scheme.

But now the East Coast 91 is gone, replaced by the Azumas. A few will remain, relegated to London – Leeds semi-fasts, but the bulk of the fleet is being dispersed, some to secondary services in north Wales, some to a continental provider of chartered power, and some to oblivion. No more locomotive hauled expresses between our capital cities, alas. (Can anyone name two other national capitals linked by half hourly trains cruising at 125mph?)

This was the last one, the 1330 from Edinburgh to London on 4 September, pausing at York with a proud driver, powered by 91109 Sir Bobby Robson, named for the football legend and north east England hero – which, as 91009, hauled the first electric East Coast express to Edinburgh in 1991. Not a coincidence.

This is railway history and railways love their history, as this specially printed window sticker shows.

Feature picture is 91106 crossing the King Edward Bridge over the Tyne at Newcastle