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Class 104 Origins

Modernisation and Re-equipment of British Railways

The story of the Class 104’s begins with British Railways during the 1950’s. A six month period of intensive research was undertaken in May 1954 by a planning committee set up by the British Transport Commission, in response to the realisation that British Railways had not been operating at full capacity since its creation in 1948. The culmination of the research was a report entitled the “Modernisation and Re-equipment of British Railways”, more commonly known amongst the railway community as the “Modernisation Plan”, which was published in December 1954. It was viewed that following the Second World War, the railways had not been given their fair share of capital investment, a problem compounded by the poor state of its assets following difficult economic conditions between the two world wars followed by the overstretching of the system during the war years.

The outline of the plan envisaged £1,200 million of investment to transform British Railways into an up-to-date transport system capable of attracting and retaining enough traffic to make the system economically viable for the future. The plan was split into five areas of expenditure. The third area in the plan, amounting to £285 million, was the replacement of much of the steam hauled passenger rolling stock by diesel and electric multiple unit trains to make them reasonably economic. The report also saw cleaner diesel traction as an essential improvement in service that the public would demand in the future. Dieselisation in North America was used as an example to reinforce the claims about the improved acceleration, economy and cleanliness of diesel traction over steam.

The Modernisation Plan found that the substantial engineering works and upgrades required to British Railways’ aging infrastructure meant that electrification was only economically viable if there was a considerable level of traffic operating over such lines. Therefore whilst heavily used suburban and mainlines were recommended for electrification, lesser used or longer routes would require a considerable number of new diesel multiple unit (DMU) trains constructing. The report estimated that a total of 4,300 new vehicles, in single to 6-coach formations, were required to serve diesel operated city-to-city expresses, cross-county routes, secondary routes and branch lines. This represented a huge rise in DMU vehicles, with only 300 in service at the time of the plan. In contrast, the plan saw an eventual requirement for 23,200 locomotive hauled vehicles compared with the 37,200 existing examples in service at the time of publication.

Such a demanding requirement for new diesel traction, electric traction and loco hauled coaches to be constructed quickly lead to all the main British Railways works’ quickly reaching capacity. The two main locations for DMU construction were at Derby and Swindon works, which went on to produce 1175 and 417 vehicles respectively. However from as early as September 1954 (one month before the first BR units were completed) vehicles were entering service purchased from private manufacturers. Early on in the modernisation process, several tenders were let to a selection of carriage building companies that had usually supplied vehicles to BR before, in order to meet the desired introduction dates for the large number of new diesel trains. Amongst the main manufacturers to win tenders were Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon (BRCW), Cravens, Gloucester Railway Carriage & Wagon, Metro Cammell, Park Royal, Pressed Steel and Wickham of Ware. The total numbers of vehicles supplied by these contactors would eventually outnumber those produced “in house” by the BR works’. With the exception of Pressed Steel, all the private companies were to produce their own aesthetic designs of DMU (which all conformed to a standard specification) which created a welcome variety of design and appearance by the end of DMU construction in 1963.

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The Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon Company

BRCW started out life in 1854 as the Birmingham Wagon Company, established by half a dozen Birmingham businessmen wishing to take advantage of the “Railway Mania” that had gripped the UK. Initially, the works successfully built, hired and maintained freight wagons with its main plant at Smethwick, Birmingham, being constructed in 1864. In 1876 the firm progressed to the construction of passenger coaching stock, and was renamed the Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon Company two years later to reflect this diversity. Around this time the company also expanded its portfolio to include oversees stock for export which, along with an increase in the UK market share, created the business demand required to grow the company. Further pre-war developments included: the supply of London Underground cars to the capital in 1903; production of the first all-steel railway coaches in the UK in 1904; and in 1910 the first orders for a long series of luxury/Pullman coaches, which would be produced for the UK and overseas markets alike.

By the First World War, the original practice of renting/maintaining wagons had declined, pure manufacturing becoming the norm. The Great War itself shifted production demand from civilian railway vehicles to military examples and also general war production. Accordingly, the period 1914-18 was characterised by the development of munitions and planes etc to contribute to the general war effort, however railway orders were still completed including military wagons and hospital trains.

The end of hostilities saw the market quickly return to its pre-war characteristics with carriages, wagons, tube stock and exports all being produced in the 1920’s. This period also saw the company move into the supply of road bus and trolleybus bodies. The 1930’s brought with it a move into the self-propelled world when steam and petrol driven railcars were produced for the first time in conjunction with other companies for export, with a UK order for Electric Multiple Units (The LMS Class 503) following in 1936. These developments brought BRCW closer to the position it was to later occupy when tendering for the Diesel Railcar orders which would result in the Class 104. The onset of the Second World War saw the company for the second time in its history rapidly switch production to armaments for six years. This time it was to be tanks, gliders, armoured cars and shells which the company supplied.

After the Second World War, the company returned to its previous business of building carriages, wagons and railcars for both domestic and overseas markets. Business was booming as the maintenance holiday and direct damage caused by the war years prompted a period of renewal and investment. This post-war period further honed BRCW’s skills in producing diesel railcars, with examples being produced for Egypt, New Zealand, Nyasaland and Nigeria. BRCW was therefore a natural choice of BR for outsourcing railcar production when the (already mentioned) in-house BR works’ reached capacity. Consequently, 302 vehicles were ordered from BRCW by BR in June 1956 which were to later become the Class 104’s as we know them today. As was commonplace for BRCW the order was undertaken in association with another, mechanical, company, in this case Drewry. BR went on to order more types of DMU from BRCW, eventual output totalling 437 vehicles, making BRCW the forth prolific producer of DMU’s, and the second of the private companies (behind Metropolitan Cammell).

BRCW produced its last British railcars in 1961, and shortly afterwards the company was to change dramatically. By the early 1960’s, British Railways’ own works capacity had increased to the extent that self sufficiency was becoming close, and the market for private builders supplying rolling stock for railways in Britain was shrinking fast. Meanwhile, the overseas customers were looking closer to home for production, further reducing BRCW’s work. By 1962, orders were at an all time low. It is often believed that BRCW went bankrupt; however this was not the case. In fact, the company was still turning a profit when it was decided by the directors that the best course of action was to shut down the manufacturing works, and gain income by renting out the factory space for other business. This was completed in 1963 and the company continued life as a holding company with diverse interests in property, banking etc. However this point is where the relevance BRCW to railways comes to an end.

The Smethwick factory itself survived for decades in commercial use, however the ravages of time saw buildings incrementally sold off and demolished/redeveloped, and by the 21st century only a percentage of the original complex was still extant/recognisable. The last major section to survive was an erecting shop on Watville Road which was split up into several warehouses and still bore the legend BIRMINGHAM RAILWAY CARRIAGE & WAGON COMPANY LIMITED on its large gable ends. It also had the company’s star logo set into the brickwork. Sadly, this building (and the businesses occupying it) was decimated by fire in December 2014 and the damage was so severe that demolition was the only option. There remain several smaller outbuildings etc that survive, still in industrial use, but the main footprint and original major buildings of the works now only survive in print, photographs and memory.

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