The AC Locomotive Group

86213 at Barrow Hill


86401at Crewe Electric Traction Depot

to 1969

The AL6 design was produced ostensibly from the experience gained with the first five designs in the early years of the WCML electrification. It featured a general construction design and bogies closely following those of the AL5, high-tension tap changing (power control) pioneered on the AL2 and a completely modular interior based around the concept of four 'power packs', one for each traction motor.

In a departure from the styling of the AL1-AL5 fleet, the AL6s featured squared-off front ends, as opposed to the raked back noses of the earlier designs. The three window arrangement was retained, as was the headcode box. Another significant change was the lack of a second pantograph when built.

Two builders were responsible for the construction of the 100 locomotives. BR Doncaster was given the job of completing 60 locomotives, while Vulcan Foundry was to build 40. Eventually the numbers were reversed with VF building the majority due to capacity problems at Doncaster. Electrical equipment was supplied by AEI and English Electric, and one area that received special attention was that of noise levels. The cooling fans on the AL6 were specially designed to avoid the sometimes deafening roar produced by the earlier locos!

The first locomotives from each manufacturer were noted on test in January 1965, however build dates, first testing dates, first passenger traffic dates and introduction dates for the AL6s were so varied that it is almost impossible to state which locomotives came first. E3101 and E3161 were amongst the first locos sighted, and E3173 (of which more later) is often quoted as the first delivered, though two locos became the first to haul passenger trains, both being charged with football specials in May 1965. Official introduction didn't come until August of the same year.

In a change of livery form the earlier classes, the AL6s all emerged painted in Rail Blue (Monastral Blue), with white cab window surrounds and and white cab roof (this latter being slightly debatable as some photographic evidence tents to suggest that cab roofs were either perpetually filthy or a very light Dove Grey) and not the Electric Blue of the early classes. The first AL6s entered traffic without yellow warning panels, though these were not absent from the locomotives for long. When first introduced the AL6s built at Doncaster featured red bufferbeams and Vulcan Foundry built locomotives Rail Blue  The original number series was E3101 - E3200.

The whole fleet was delivered within 24 months, however, and the class soon settled down to regular service on a variety of trains, including pick-up goods! Two designs of traction motor were used on the fleet, with slightly different gear ratios, but with little impact on performance in the early years.

One significant failure of the AL6 design was that of the traction motor mounting and bogie design. In the early designs, bogie-frame-mounted motors had been used with flexible drives to the axles. To reduce costs on the AL6 the motors were mounted directly on the axles, the justification for this being that 'dipped joint' tests on the East Coast Mainline where diesel locomotives with axle hung traction motors operated had shown there to be no issues with excessive track forces. Unfortunately the testing had actually shown that even the considerably lighter motors on the diesel locomotives did could cause excessive forces, the 'high force' result had been dismissed as an instrumentation error. It was soon found that the excess of unsprung weight and inadequate damping on the bogies lead to terrible riding and serious track damage at high speed. By the late 1960s the AL6s were causing serious concerns and the RTC in Derby started experiments to investigate if the bogie design could be improved, before the investigations had progressed too far reports came back from staff that they did not need instruments to analyse how rough the ride was on the locmotives, anything loose in the cab being thrown on to the floor at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour. The rough riding of the AL6s ultimately lead to serious consequences for the locomotives with weld fractures and other mechanical damage leading to an increasing number of bogies being sidelined for repair at Crewe works.

In 1969, one locomotive, E3173, was fitted experimentally with additional suspension in the form of large helical 'flexicoil' springs in groups of three on each side of each bogie, supporting the body. The trials with the loco, which was nicknamed 'Zebedee', were a success, and eventually led to the design being fitted to the whole fleet. Following on from E3173 the Bogie Design section at Derby undertook an extensive redesign of the AL6 bogie to produce the 86/2 bogie; the bogie frames were completely redesigned and rebuilt to incorporate 'flexicoil' springs, new lateral and vertical dampers and the fitting of SAB Resilient wheels. With the benefit of computer simulation programmes such as BR Researchs VAMPIRE the dynamics of the revised bogie were analysed and the resulting locomotives were a revelation.

1970 to 1979

E3173 went on to perform an important role in the development of the HST or InterCity 125. Prior to the prototype of this train being built, E3173 was fitted with an aerodynamic nose and ran a series of high-speed tests in the Tring area, measuring air resistance and pressure effects in tunnels. It is reported that the loco reached 129 mph during these tests, becoming the first UK loco to beat Mallard's record! BR chose not to publicise the event, however, as they were expecting better things from their HST, and didn't want to overshadow the new train.

The first significant change to the Class 86 fleet (as it became known in the early 70s) was the separation of the class into two principle sub classes, determined by the traction motor type. The 86/0s were the standard loco, essentially as built, and were generally restricted to freight and slower passenger duties, with their maximum speed dropped from 100 mph to 80 mph. The 86/2s became the high-speed passenger locomotives, all being fitted with revised bogies. Forty-nine locomotives were originally converted, increased soon afterwards to 58. As traction motor types were distributed amongst the fleet seemingly at random, renumbering from the original E3XXX series to the new TOPS series was also essentially random, so, for instance, 86001 was not previously E3101.

In addition, three further locos were modified. Initially numbered with the 86/2s (86201-203), these were modified with new bogies of a design developed for use in the Class 87s, then under development. They were renumbered as Class 86/1s, taking the series 86101 - 86103, and undertook special testing, particularly on the northern stretches of the WCML as the line was electrified, in preparation for the new locos.

By the mid 1970s, all the 86s were in Rail Blue livery with aluminium BR double-arrows on each side, however in the late 1970s and early 1980s, several 86/2s were selected to receive names following the change in BR policy towards named locomotives. Two 86/2s were treated to a special livery to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Rainhill Trials in 1979; 86214 Sans Pareil and 86235 Novelty (both named after locomotives that took part in the original trials), were given large bodyside numbers and a full height emblem marking the event. They also received full yellow cabs and black window surrounds after a short time, being the first locos to carry the style that later developed into Large Logo Blue.

Eventually all the 86/1s and 86/2s received names, and many of the freight fleet have also been named as the years have passed. A number of the freight locos were fitted with multiple working equipment compatible with the Class 87s during this period, the addition of hefty jumper cables to the nose end being especially obvious.

By the late 1970s, the 86/0 fleet were still causing problems due to bad riding and track damage. In addition, there was a need for more 100 mph-capable locomotives. Nineteen 86/0s were modified by the use of SAB resilient wheels - a new design of wheel in two sections separated by a rubber bearing. The converted locos (86011 - 86029) were renumbered into the 86/3 series (86311 - 86329).

1980 to 1989

Still more 100 mph locos were needed, however, and a further conversion programme was undertaken, fitting all the 86/3s and 86/0s with flexicoil suspension, and fitting the 86/0s with SAB wheels, standardising the whole lot as Class 86/4, renumbered appropriately. Thus by the mid 1980s, all 100 locos were a near-standard interchangeable fleet. A number of 86/2s were moved to the Great Eastern for use on the newly electrified line to Ipswich and later Norwich. The fleet was flexible and saw locos move back and forth from the WCML at irregular intervals.

In 1986 two Class 86s locos were written off in the fatal Colwich crash. These were 86211 City of Milton Keynes (the only 86 never to receive a version of InterCity livery) and 86429 The Times (originally E3200 - the last numbered loco).

Sectorisation in the late 1980s then split the fleet up once again, with the 86/4s moving to dedicated parcels and freight use, and the 86/2s remaining on InterCity passenger services. Many 86/4s had their train heating capabilities removed, with other modifications, and became Class 86/6s, with a reduced maximum speed of 75 mph. These generally operated in pairs on long-distance freight services.

At the end of the 1980s, the Freightliner subsector required a fleet of electric locomotives for dedicated Freightliner use, and so ten 86/2s were earmarked for regearing and removal of train heating. Nine of these were renumbered into a new Class 86/5 series before the InterCity sector demanded the locos back and they reverted to their 86/2 identities!

The increased use of fixed-formation trainsets, coupled with the delivery of new DVT (Driving Van Trailer) vehicles, saw the 86s modified with Time Division Multiplex (TDM) multiple working equipment. Railway Clearing House (RCH)-style jumpers were added to the cab fronts of all locos, used to control the loco whilst propelling for the 86/2s, and for general multiple working amongst the other sub-classes. The 86/4s and 86/6s lost their original multiple-working equipment soon afterwards.

1990 to 1999

At the dawn of Privatisation, the 86 fleet was divested to a number of owners and operators. The 86/1s and the majority of 86/2s passed to Eversholt Leasing Company (later Forward Trust, and later still HSBC) and hired to InterCity West Coast and InterCity Cross Country (later Virgin West Coast and Virgin Cross Country). A small fleet of seven 86/2s passed to Rail Express Systems and later EWS, together with the eight remaining 86/4s. Ten 86/6s moved to the Freightliner business, with the remainder becoming the property of Porterbrook Leasing, leased back to Freightliner.

The third loss to the fleet came in 1997 when 86239 L S Lowry was written off in the Stafford crash, however a number of locos began to be stored in the late 1990s as strategic reserves or unofficially as 'Christmas Trees' for spare parts. Some eventually returned to service, while others did not.

2000 to 2009

Freightliner chose one of their locomotives for special re-gearing trials in 2000, and 86608 was renumbered 86501, just to confuse anyone who thought that 86258 had been 86501 for a while in 1989. This loco re-entered service but remained a one-off conversion.

In mid 2002, Virgin Trains replaced all its Cross Country loco-hauled services with new stock, displacing the dedicated 86/2s which were placed into store. On a more positive note, however, Virgin, Alstom (who maintained the fleet) and HSBC agreed to repaint one of the remaining West Coast 86/2s into a good approximation of original Electric Blue livery. 86233 (E3172) was the chosen loco, renamed Alstom Heritage on the occasion of its unveiling.

2002 also saw the start of disposals, with 86219 Phoenix having the dubious distinction of being the first to be cut up. Several other locos, including numerical pioneer E3101 (86252), 86103 and 86204 (E3173 - 'Zebedee') also met their end during the year.

86s on West Coast Main Line passenger services all but ceased in 2003, leaving Anglia to continue alone until the end of 2004 when their last three locos were due to be taken out of service. Many off-lease locos were stored during 2003, however a good number were sent almost immediately for scrap. By the end of 2004 no less than 25 locos had been disposed of or sold for scrap. Meanwhile The AC Locomotive Group purchased 86401 from EWS in June 2004.

Anglia surprised everyone by retaining a couple of 86/2s for most of 2005, but the end finally came on 17th September when 86235 ran its last diagram. In the meantime, two further 86/2s (86210 and 86253) gained a new lease of life, being converted into new Mobile Load Bank machines numbered 86902 and 86901 respectively. A third 86/2 took on a new aspect as 86258 was moved to Brush Loughborough for conversion to a battery powered short-haul locomotive.

86213 had been on loan from HSBC to The AC Locomotive Group since November 2002 and, along with 86101, was purchased by the Group in 2005. Initially stored at Barrow Hill, 86213 was moved in 2005 to Wembley for use as a train supply locomotive. 86101 had been stored unused for some years but was moved to Barrow Hill in 2006 for restoration to start. 86101 became the first preserved AC electric locomotive to operate on the main line on 15th March 2007, and it became the first preserved AC electric locomotive to operate a charter train on 24th March 2007, from Carlisle to Crewe and back.

West Midlands radio presenter Les Ross purchased 86259 from HSBC in 2007, and it was restored to main line running order in 2008.

86101 was hired to Hull Trains in late 2007 for use on weekend services between London Kings Cross and Doncaster. These services ran from 11th January 2008 to 20th April 2008. Thus 86101 became the first preserved AC electric locomotive to work scheduled passenger services. The services required use of the Time Division Multiplex (TDM) remote control system, and sustained running at 110 mph.

In 2008 Europhoenix Ltd. completed a deal to purchase the remaining HSBC Class 86/2 fleet, numbering 23 locomotives, with the intention of overhauling some of them for use in Europe and the UK. 86248 and 86250 were sold to Hungarian private open access freight operator Floyd, and were delivered in February and May 2009, becoming Hungarian class 450. Trials with these locos were successful and up to eight further locos will be exported: delivered so far are 86232 (April 2010), 86218 (February 2011), 86215 (May 2012) and 86217 (February 2013).

Also during 2009, Europhoenix prepared 86205 and 86260 for use by Electric Traction Ltd as "commercial" locomotives to supplement "preserved" locomotives 86101 and 87002. Becoming 86701 and 86702 respectively, they have been approved for use at 110 mph.

Since general withdrawal from service in 2005, a number of the poorest quality 86/2s have been scrapped, including 86258, the conversion project being abandoned. The Class 86 situation in July 2012 was as follows:

  • 86/1: 1 in traffic with The AC Locomotive Group/Electric Traction (86101)
  • 86/2: 1 in traffic with Les Ross (86259), 1 preserved by The AC Locomotive Group/Electric Traction (86213), 8 stored (of which 4 are expected to be exported to Hungary), 1 being used as a spares source
  • 86/4: 1 preserved by The AC Locomotive Group/Electric Traction (86401), 1 being used as a spares source by Electric Traction (86424)
  • 86/5: 1 in traffic with Freightliner
  • 86/6: 16 in traffic with Freightliner
  • 86/7: 2 in traffic with Electric Traction
  • 86/9: 2 stored, not being used

2010 to 2019

86233 was sent to Bulgaria in October 2012 for use by open access freight operator Bulmarket as a spares donor for 87009, 87017, 87023 and 87025.

86621 was scrapped at LNWR Crewe in April 2013.

Hungarian open access freight operator Floyd received two further operational locomotives in August 2013 (86228 and 86242) and also 86424 for use as a spares donor.

86401 was selected for preparation for mainline operation for the Serco Caledonian Sleeper contract, moving to Leicester TMD in February 2015, then via Loughborough (for repainting) and on to Willesden in June 2015.

86246 was moved to Willesden TMD in June 2015 to act as a spares donor.

The Class 86 situation in June 2015 was as follows:

  • 86/1: 1 in traffic with The AC Locomotive Group/Electric Traction (86101)
  • 86/2: 1 in traffic with Les Ross (86259), 1 preserved by The AC Locomotive Group/Electric Traction (86213), 5 stored, 2 being used as spares donors.
  • 86/4: 1 being prepared for mainline use by The AC Locomotive Group/Electric Traction (86401)
  • 86/5: 1 in traffic with Freightliner
  • 86/6: 15 in traffic with Freightliner
  • 86/7: 2 in traffic with Electric Traction
  • 86/9: 2 stored, not being used

86401 performed a solo main line test run from Willesden TMD to Watford Junction, Euston and back to Willesden on 4th August 2015. After a further test run, from Willesden to Bletchley and back, 86401 worked its first commercial train in preservation, 5M16 empty coaches from the Lowland Caledonian Sleeper, from London Euston to Wembley Inter City Depot on the morning of 8th August 2015.

The 2000 re-gearing conversion 86501 was converted back to standard 86/6 86608 in March 2016.

In March 2016 a further series of sales of Class 86 locomotives was announced. 86213, 86231, 86234, 86235, 86701 and 86702 were sold to Bulmarket in Bulgaria. 86229 and 86251 were sold to Freightliner for spares. 86246 remained at Willesden TMD as a spares donor.

The Class 86 situation in early April 2016 was as follows:

  • 86/1: 1 in traffic with The AC Locomotive Group/Electric Traction (86101)
  • 86/2: 1 in traffic with Les Ross (86259); 4 sold for export; 3 being used as spares donors
  • 86/4: 1 in traffic with The AC Locomotive Group/Electric Traction (86401)
  • 86/6: 16 in traffic with Freightliner
  • 86/7: 2 sold for export
  • 86/9: 2 stored, not being used

In November 2016, 86246 was moved from Willesden TMD via Wembley to the C.F.Booth scrapyard at Rotherham. 86902, resident at the same scrapyard since January 2014, was cut up there in November 2016.

In Bulgaria, some of the class 86 exports for Bulmarket completed their conversions. This included replacement of their SAB resliient wheels with solid wheel pans, and fitting of the "freight" (22/65) gear ratio. To avoid conflict with the former Danish EA Class locomotives, which already use the Bulgarian Class 86 series, initially the UK exports took the number series from 87701 onwards. First to be converted were 86701 (to 87701), 86702 (to 87702), 86213 (to 87703) and 86235 (to 87704). However by early 2017 there had been a change of heart, and the former class 86s started to be renumbered again as Bulgarian Class 85. 87701 (former 86701) became 85001, 87702 (former 86702) became 85002, 87703 (former 86213) became 85003 and 87704 (former 86235) became 85004; all retained their nameplates as exported. In addition, the conversion of 86231 was completed, the loco becoming 85006 and carrying the "Lady of the Lake" nameplates, completing what British Rail failed to do many years ago. Later in 2017, the former 86234 was also converted, to 85006, but remaining un-named.

In Hungary, during 2018, the former 86424 was put into working order as 450 009.

86901 was moved to Sandbach and scrapped there in June 2018.

2020 onwards

Following completion of the Caledonian Sleeper contract in October 2019, there was little prospect of further work for 86101 (and 87002), and both were sold to Locomotive Services Ltd (LSL) in November 2019. 86401 was sold to West Coast Railways in February 2020.

The Class 86 situation in early May 2020 was as follows:

  • 86/1: 1 in traffic with Locomotive Services Ltd (86101)
  • 86/2: 1 in traffic with Les Ross (86259)
  • 86/4: 1 in traffic with West Coast Railways (86401)
  • 86/6: 14 in traffic and 2 stored with Freightliner

There are 9 operational 86s in Hungary, plus 6 operational 86s in Bulgaria (and one as a spares donor). All these are now using solid wheel pans and have the freight gear ratio, so are effectively 86/6s; most also have two pantographs. By way of a summary, the exported 86s have been renumbered as follows. Note that in Bulgaria class 86 had already been used for the former Danish EA class locomotives, hence the initial use of class 87 (which was then seen to be a mistake) then class 85.

Last UK Number Country First Export Number Later Export Number Latest UIC Number Name Carried
86213 Bulgaria 87 703 85 003 91 52 00 85 003-9 Lancashire Witch
86215 Hungary 450 005  - 91 55 0450 005-8 -
86217 Hungary 450 006 - 91 55 0450 006-6  -
86218 Hungary 450 004 - 91 55 0450 004-1 -
86228 Hungary 450 007 - 91 55 0450 007-4 -
86231 Bulgaria 85 005  - 91 52 00 85 005-4 Lady of the Lake
86232 Hungary 450 003 - 91 55 0450 003-3  -
86234 Bulgaria 85 006 - 91 52 00 85 006-2 -
86235 Bulgaria 87 704 85 004 91 52 00 85 004-7 Novelty
86242 Hungary 450 008 - 91 55 0450 008-2 -
86248 Hungary 450 001 - 91 55 0450 001-7 -
86250 Hungary 450 002 - 91 55 0450 002-5 -
86424 Hungary 450 009 - 91 55 0450 009-0 -
86701 Bulgaria 87 701 85 001 91 52 00 85 001-3 Orion
86702 Bulgaria 87 702 85 002 91 52 00 85 002-1 Cassiopeia


In February 2021, Freightliner stored all their 86/6 locomotives in sidings in Basford Hall yard. That ended the regular usage in the UK of this class of locomotives.

In mid 2023 all 16 stored Freightliner 86/6 locomotives were exported to Bulgaria:

  • In July 2023: 86608, 86609, 86610, 86622, 86632, 86638 and 86639.
  • In August 2023: 86604, 86605, 86607, 86612, 86613, 86614, 86627, 86628 and 86637.

The best examples of the exported 86/6s have been overhauled and converted (as required) to the same basic specification as the older exports by Express Service at Ruse, and returned to working order:

  • Former 86632, now 85632 (UIC 91 52 00 85 632-5) in Express Service livery in March 2024.
  • Former 86637, now 85637 (UIC 91 52 00 85 637-4) in Rail Net Cargo livery in March 2024.

86101, 86259 and 86401 continue to operate occasional charter trains with LSL, Les Ross (for WCRC) and WCRC respectively.