Insecure Beginnings: 1979 - 1990
In the late 'seventies and early 'eighties, diesel loco preservation had only really just started to develop. Much of the preservation world was geared towards saving Barry steam locos, and, with far fewer heritage lines than at present, there was much less opportunity to buy a loco and find a home. Diesels rescued up to that time included a number of Western Region diesel hydraulics and passions were high amongst enthusiasts for the Deltics, living out their last year or so in traffic. It was neither expected, nor probably considered, that an AC electric class then being withdrawn and scrapped, would merit preservation. The first withdrawals for Class 84 started in 1975, and by 1981 all ten had gone from traffic. It was wholly fortunate, then, that in 1979 the world was celebrating the 100th Anniversary of electric traction.
The National Railway Museum required an electric locomotive to complete its planned display to celebrate this event, and borrowed 84001 from British Rail. At the time the ideal loco would have been an 86, but these were all needed for traffic, so a withdrawn example had to do! The 84 moved to York in May 1979, on loan, and remained there for the next twenty-one years.
Two years later, in 1981, the 'Shenfield' units (Class 306) were withdrawn from service, having operated from London Liverpool Street since 1949. One three-car set plus a number of odd vehicles were held back at Ilford Depot, the set ostensibly for training purposes, and the other odd vehicles for internal stores and movements. Of course, the complete set, 306017, had actually been retained by a small number of depot staff purely to ensure that one of the LNER-designed units survived! The rest of the fleet was scrapped, however someone in the BR Accounts Department noticed that the scrapping total was three vehicles short and sent word to Ilford to dispatch the 'missing' 306 coaches for scrap at once. Again, Ilford staff did a little conniving and duly dispatched three of the internal user coaches, thus satisfying the money men! Through a bizarre and ongoing series of similar diversions, the 306 remains in capital stock, based at Ilford and owned by a leasing company to this day!
Before the end of the decade a third item of AC equipment would reach some sort of security - the APT-P. With almost the whole fleet scrapped, one 8-car rake remained on special tests until 1986. With an experimental vehicle removed from the rake, the remaining seven vehicles, including two power cars, were sent to the new Crewe Heritage Centre. It is believed that the whole rake was originally claimed for the National Collection, but that later this was reduced to one of the power cars, the remainder becoming the property of the Crewe establishment.
Bleak Outlook: 1991
So at the start of 1991, the future of the early British Rail AC electric locomotive types looked bleak. The last Class 81s had been withdrawn from service and put into store, awaiting scrapping. Classes 82 and 83 were extinct, aside from three examples of each, awaiting disposal at Crewe. The last Class 84 had been withdrawn ten years earlier, but two survived - one (84001) on loan to the National Railway Museum, and another (84009) converted as a Mobile Load Bank test vehicle. Class 85s still operated on the main line, but in rapidly decreasing numbers.
Main-line electric locomotive preservation was confined to the National Collection - with examples of a 700V DC third-rail Class 71, and a 1500V DC overhead Class 76; and the EM2 Society / Manchester Museum of Science and Industry who had each repatriated a 1500V DC Class 77 from "exile" in Holland. On the AC side, though, with the 84 seemingly on borrowed time at York, the only AC traction preserved was the two AC electric units already mentioned; the APT and the Class 306. There seemed little interest in saving the early pioneers of main-line AC Traction as their numbers became fewer.
Things started to change when Peter Holt took the brave step of saving an example of Class 81, no. 81002. For some time, however, it looked as if this would be the only other survivor of the five early designs aside from 84001. The loco was repainted at Crewe Electric Depot into near-original "Electric Blue" livery, and made several appearances at open-days and rail-fairs around the country.
Then, in 1992 and 1993, pop-music producer Pete Waterman began to create a collection of rolling stock that most enthusiasts could only dream about. Many popular diesel types were acquired, including a "Western" and a Class 50, a pair of Class 20s and a Class 46, but most surprising of all was the purchase of an example each from electric Classes 82, 83 and 85. Of these, Class 83 no. 83012 was given a full cosmetic overhaul, while Mr Waterman had plans to return Class 85 no. 85101 to main line use on charter and excursion trains. Within a few months, Peter Holt had sold 81002 to Pete Waterman, bringing the electric collection to four locomotives; but at the same time the remainder of Classes 81 to 85 had been disposed of by British Rail, meaning that the examples in the Waterman Collection had become unique survivors of their types.
Also during 1992, another interesting development occurred, as the 1986-built Brush Class 89 prototype, no. 89001 was sold and moved to the Midland Railway Centre, Butterley. This unique 125 mph loco had lost favour with BR and was saved from scrapping by a team of Brush engineers who believed that the loco had much more to offer. This has since been borne out by its return to service with GNER on the London Kings Cross - Leeds / Bradford InterCity services.
By the end of 1993, BR had only two early AC locomotives on its books, and both were Class 84: the Mobile Load Bank ADB968021 (84009), and 84001, on loan to the National Railway Museum. While the fate of the latter was sealed in 1994, when the Museum finally claimed it for the National Collection, that of 84009 was less secure.
84009: 1995 - 1996
Withdrawn from its duties as a Mobile Load Bank, BR offered 84009 for sale. Having outlived the rest of the class by fifteen years, and having spent so long as a "celebrity" of sorts among enthusiasts, it was widely assumed that this loco would be preserved, however no-one actually did anything about it! While a diesel locomotive in the same position would most likely have been the subject of a major rescue attempt, the only known interest in 84009 was from Pete Waterman, who for a time considered acquiring it to complete his collection. This was not to be, though, and in the absence of any other offers, it was sold for scrap to Gwent Demolition, South Wales. The loco survived until the end of 1995, when, with no further offers of preservation, and no other stock to dismantle, Gwent Demolition began cutting. On hearing the news, however, one enthusiast who had been following the plight of 84009 took swift action.
Glenn Edwards, from Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, drove to South Wales immediately and purchased one of the driving cabs as they were detached from the rest of the body. The cab, together with many spares from the other end of the loco, were moved to back Milton Keynes where Glenn began a solo restoration project. The story might have ended there, but, less than a year later, Pete Waterman put his entire collection of railway vehicles up for sale - including the only surviving examples of Classes 81, 82, 83 and 85.
There was much surprise in the preservation world and, not-unexpectedly, a great deal of interest was shown in purchasing the 200+ items that Mr Waterman had collected. With the heritage market already flooded with recently withdrawn locomotives, the addition of so many other popular diesel types meant that somewhere, something had to be lost. Most expected the first casualties to be the AC electrics.
Having witnessed the scrapping of 84009, and being determined that the same fate should not befall the other four locos, Glenn made an appeal through the railway press to raise funds to purchase all four locos. With an asking price of some £10,000 each, this was no easy task. Many "enthusiasts" made contact to find out whether they could have a cab or number panel when the locos were cut up, or whether they could make a nice profit by selling the scrap; needless to say, this response was not very encouraging, nor welcome. However, among the dross were genuine offers of help, and by early 1997, with only six members, the locomotives were purchased and The AC Locomotive Group was formed.