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The Class 309

The inspiration for our logo, name and the reason for our inception, What exactly makes these units so special?


Photo By Phil Richards from London, UK - 21.03.81 London Liverpool Street 309.625, CC BY-SA 2.0,

A History Of The Units:

Written By Ruairidh MacVeigh With assistance by the CEPG:

In a manner similar to high speed multiple units being introduced on the near Continent, the Class 309s were a revolutionary series of express passenger electric trainsets which were put to work on between London, Colchester and Clacton, their stylish design and formidable performance, as the first electric multiple units to run at a sustained 100mph on British railways, making them an icon of the UK's early forays into electric traction during the 1960s and 70s.

The existance of the Class 309s is owed to the 1955 Modernisation Plan, which proposed, under the original outline by the British Railways Board, electrification of most mainline routes out of London with 25kv AC overhead wires, but with the intervention of the British Transport Commission or BTC, this was trimmed down to just three routes, the West Coast Mainline to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, the East Coast Mainline to Cambridge and Leeds, and the Kent Mainline to Dover and Folkestone, the latter being electrified with the standard 750v DC third rail system of the Southern Region.

To correspond with the proposed electrification of the East Coast Mainline, the BR Board desired a specialised unit capable of 100mph, the first of its kind, to work semi-fast and outer suburban express services out of King's Cross to Hitchin, Cambridge and Peterborough, and turned to their own York Works to develop an electric multiple unit which would become the standard for outer-surburban services across the electrified network outlined by the modernisation plan, and were to be designated the AM9 or AC Multiple Unit 9.

Built at the York Works, the sets would be delivered in three variations, including a four-car set which played host to what was known as the griddle car, a proxy kitchen car which included a hot plate (or griddle) for the service of hot food on long-distance expresses, although the seating arrangements in these cars did not accommodate an at-seat restaurant service as per loco-hauled equivalents, the griddle car being a unique feature to the AM9s as other outer-suburban and long distance express units of the time opted for conventional seating.

Beyond the griddle units, the other two variations of the AM9 included a regular four-car set with no griddle car, and a specialised series of two-car sets which would be used to strengthen peak-hour services by extending multiple units to ten-cars, these units distinguishable by the fitting of the pantograph above one of the cabs, the general underpinnings of the three variants incorporating Commonwealth bogies manufactured by the English Steel Corporation which were used instead of regular BR1 bogies from the Mark I coach in order to provide a more robust design for the AM9's high speed operations, while the front end styling of the units presented a drivers cab with passenger gangways so as to allow access to the griddle unit from any other units coupled, the general design being based on the front end of the AM3 Blue Train sets being introduced in Glasgow.

Painted in BR standard maroon, a unique choice for these multiple units as other contemporary EMUs wore either blue or green, the AM9s were to have been introduced from 1962 on outer-suburban and semi-fast express services from Kings Cross, with an ideal peak-hour formation being a four-car griddle unit, a four-car non-griddle unit and a two-car unit for extra capacity, one of only a few instances where all three variants of a unit class could be found in the same consist, but before the AM9s could enter operations on the East Coast Mainline, this electrification project was abandoned due to the expense of modernising the roof at King's Cross station to accommodate the overhead wires, and thus the units were left without a purpose before even turning a wheel in revenue earning service.

However, their redundancy would thankfully be short-lived, as in April 1959, the Sunshine Coast Line, an 18 mile route which diverges from the Great Eastern Mainline between London Liverpool Street and Norwich at Colchester, and serves the Essex resort towns of Clacton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze, was electrified with 25kv AC overhead wires, making it, togehter with the Great Eastern Mainline as far as Colchester, the first mainline railway to energized at this voltage and current in the UK, but required suitable electric traction to operate both summer resort trains and high capacity commuter services on the trunk mainline between London and Colchester, a task to which the AM9s were perfectly suited.

With 76 cars forming 24 sets, comprising 7 two-car units, 7 four-car with griddle units, and 10 four-car non-griddle units, the first AM9s entered service on the Great Eastern Mainline between London Liverpool Street and Clacton in August 1962, with express services operating in ten-car formation non-stop from London to Colchester before diverging down the Sunshine Coast Line to the junction at Thorpe-Le-Soken, whereupon the front four-car unit, usually the non-griddle set, would split and head to Walton-on-the-Naze, while the remaining six cars would continue down to Clacton-On-Sea, requiring the use of small destination boards fitted to the sides of the coaches in order to notify passengers of the correct section.

With a power output of 3,384hp for a ten-car set, the AM9s presented far superior acceleration and speed than the previous Britannia pacific steam locomotives which had been the flagships of the Great Eastern Mainline since the previous decade, their introduction quickly replacing many of the outer-suburban loco-hauled services and setting a precident for the Great Eastern that would see a majority of passenger operations out of Liverpool Street replaced by units by the end of the 1970s.

Later designated Class 309 under the TOPS classification system, these units quickly garnered a sturdy reputation among passengers and crew for their speed, comfort and reliability, although in order to fully exploit their performance, the units were reformed from 1971 to include an additional two-car set to expresses, and thereby extended the consists to twelve-cars, as well as providing a power output of 4,512hp, and from 1973, the two-car units were augmented to four-car units with the addition of former Mk1 loco-hauled coaches, although a unique formation could be found with 309616, which, due to metal fatigue issues being found in its griddle car as early as 1970, saw this vehicle removed and later scrapped in 1972, being replaced by the former buffet car of a diesel-powered Class 127 Derby lightweight unit, even retaining its as-built B4 bogie sets in difference to the regular Commonwealths found on the rest of the Class 309 fleet.

One bugbear of the Class 309s was the use of stylish wrap-around windows for the cab windscreens, a piece of design flare which was a common feature on many of the early EMUs and DMUs of the 1960s, but were difficult to repair and maintain due to them being comprised of a single wrap-around sheet of glass, exacerbated by the units being frequent victims of stone-throwing and other vandalism, thus requiring their gradual replacement with an additional pillar that seperated the front and side windows, the final examples being replaced during a full refurbishment of the class between 1985 and 1987.

Under this refurbishment, which was carried out at Wolverton Works, and coincided with the formation of the Network Southeast sector of British Rail, all of the sets were reformed into four-coaches, although the former two-car units retained their cab-roof pantographs, and sets were outshopped into the attractive Network Southeast red, white and blue livery, replacing the BR corporate blue of the 1970s, and the short-lived London & South Eastern black and grey with orange waistband livery, affectionately dubbed the 'Jaffa Cake' livery, while internally, the previous second-class compartments were replaced by an open saloon with two-abreast seating in order to increase capacity, and, as the justification for using the griddle hot-plate service fell away against a requirement for more seating on peak-hour expresses, the final griddle units were replaced by regular seating, bringing an end to hot-food services on Clacton expresses out of Liverpool Street.

At the same time, British Rail extended the electric wires on the Great Eastern Mainline from Colchester to Ipswich and Norwich, and from 1986, despite the fact that Network Southeast operations only extended as far as Manningtree, certain services were lengthened to Ipswich, Norwich and Harwich, the latter connecting with ferry services from Harwich International to the Netherlands, with Class 309s being introduced on certain London to Ipswich and Stowmarket fast trains, Saturdays-only through trains to Norwich, and the Harwich boat trains, officially named the 'Essex Continental', with onward connections from the cross-channel ferry on train D344 to Berlin, Hamburg and Copenhagen.

Despite seeing an expansion of their operations further into Anglia, and a major refurbishment during the latter half of the decade, the Class 309s were highlighted by Network Southeast, alongside other first generation units, for immediate replacement by a new breed of electric traction, resulting in the introduction of the Class 321s of 1989 which rapidly took over on both high capacity commuter services and Network Southeast expresses to Clacton, Ipswich and Norwich, spelling the end for many of the early slam-door units of the 1960s, including the Class 305, 307, 308 and Class 309.

Units began to be withdrawn from as early as 1992, and in May 1993, after 31 years, the Class 309s were removed from their flagship Clacton services, retired sets being immediately sent to the scrapyard, while the remainder were put to work on a number of rush hour diagrams until January 22nd, 1994, whereupon the final three units ran a twelve-car set on the 1800 Liverpool Street to Clacton, closing the curtain on the 309's Great Eastern operations despite the expensive refurbishment conducted only six years earlier, although regardless of their age, seven sets were retained for possible reuse in the Manchester area on suburban trains, these units being stored at the Blackpool carriage sidings pending entry into service with the Regional Railways northwest division.

Entering service in 1995, the seven Class 309s were used to fill gaps in the provision of electric units due to delays in delivering the brand new Class 323 units, the ex-Clacton sets being painted in Regional Railways livery and put to work on stopping trains from Manchester Piccadilly to Stockport, Crewe, Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester Airport, with 309624 adopting a unique overall blue livery to highlight the opening of the Manchester Airport raillink in 1996, these units falling under the control of North Western Trains upon privatisation in March 1997, and later First North Western from November 1998.

Again, despite their 35-years of age, the 309's services were expanded to include regular diagrams between Manchester and Birmingham International, and even saw brief use on North Western Trains' short-lived express service between London Euston and Manchester Airport, usually deputising for ex-Stansted Express Class 322 units, with proposals being to put these trains to work on stopping trains between Crewe and Carlisle, although under the committments of the First North Western franchise, slam-door units were to be replaced on the Manchester commuter belt with new trains, and in May 2000, the last examples were withdrawn as Class 175s and 323s took over on their regular workings, these sets being put into storage at MoD Pig's Bay near Shoeburyness, Essex.

Prior to their final withdrawal, the 309s operated a number of railtours, including one run on the East Coast Mainline that saw these units obtain a top speed of 108mph near Hitchin, while on May 27th, 2000, the last operational units ran a special between London and Clacton with the hopes of raising funds to preserve at least one of the sets, but this unfortunately never materialised, although once again, the units managed to gain a reprieve as three examples were transferred to Eastleigh works for conversion into Class 960 departmental sets for cab-signalling tests at the Old Dalby test track prior to a major refurbishment of the West Coast Mainline, two of these sets being converted to three and painted into a departmental blue and white livery, while the last set was retained as a spares donor, before the two 960 units were eventually withdrawn in 2004 and stored at MoD Pig's Bay.

This short lived departmental work did, however, allow for preservation efforts to come to fruition and see the two Class 960 units, ex-309616 and 309624, rescued for static display at the Electric Railway Museum, adjacent to Coventry Airport, in 2009, these sets remaining at this location, where 309616 received a cosmetic refresh into the London & Southeastern Jaffa Cake livery, until the museum was closed in October 2017 under a planned commercial development for the area, 309616 being sent to the Tanat Valley Light Railway near Oswestry, and 309624 sold to the Lavender Line near Uckfield in East Sussex, although the latter was put up for sale in July 2021 and is now part of a further preservation attempt by the CEPG.

Overall, the Class 309s represented a major advancement in modern multiple unit traction during the era following the 1955 Modernisation Plan, and introduced revolutionary speed and comfort for passengers travelling upon the Great Eastern Mainline for over thirty years, their robust and sturdy nature seeing their continued reuse even after the end of their Clacton express days, and should therefore be remembered favourably alongside other famous locomotives and stock of the 1960s as the new face of Britain's railways in the post-steam age.

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