THE BIRMINGHAM RAILCAR WORKGROUP
The Birmingham RailCar Workgroup has its origins in the early 1980's, when railway enthusiast Kevin Dowd was growing up in the shadow of the Manchester-Buxton line, the premier route for Class 104 diesel railcars since the 1950's. He hoped that one day someone would save one of these trains that he grew up with. By the late 1980's withdrawals were coming thick and fast for the remaining Midland Region allocated Class 104s and Kevin joined the "104 DMU Preservation Group", around the time he was training and qualifying as a BR signalman in south Manchester. Within the 104DMUPG he met Robert Simpson, fellow signalman and 104 enthusiast. Unfortunately the 104DMUPG did not prove itself to be successful or serious enough to enter "real preservation", its activities confined to some limited fund raising and the successful operation of the "Buxton 104 Farewell" special, after 104's were ousted from their spiritual home to eek out their final years in Chester and London.
Upon the demise of the 104DMUPG, Kevin and Robert chose to combine forces and privately fund the tender of a Class 104 set, the original plan being to purchase a Buxton allocated 3-car set. BR were initially opposed to the proposal, their preservation policy at the time being to sell
any group who approached them an aluminium bodied Class 108, the "selected class" for preserved railways. BR found it hard to understand that it was specific 104 vehicles that were required, and that a Class 108 was of no interest. Eventually Kevin and Robert were bidding for 3-car 104
sets via the BR tender system, in which scrapyards were buying 104's in great numbers. Despite offering prices many times that of the scrap merchants' bids, all of the tenders proved unsuccessful and time was running out. It was even considered that the entire amassed funds be offered for just a single 104 powercar (which would have worked out at paying over 30 times what others had sold for) if that's what it came to: anything to see just one saved.
The Eureka moment came when advise from BR staff suggested that the large organisation didn't want the hassle of splitting vehicles up into smaller deals, and that they were only interested in disposal in batches of 12 vehicles, which ensured only the larger scrap companies were interested. The solution, bizarrely, was to offer the same amount of money tendered for a 3-car, but to bid for 12 vehicles, ensuring that the three vehicles desired for the 3-car set were contained within the batch. This was duly done in 1992 and not a moment too soon, with the pool of available vehicles shrinking by the day. In January 1993 the offer was accepted, the sale undertaken, and the problem of two individuals housing 12 vehicles started!
The preservation history of the vehicles is covered elsewhere on this website, however as far as the individuals are concerned, they started a long journey to try and secure the continued future of this new and large collection, even adding a 13th vehicle (the last one surviving on the national network) in 2000. It transpired that no other groups succeeded in preserving any Class 104s. Help was to be essential, so seven vehicles were sent on long term loan to other railways along with the responsibility of maintaining them, leaving the remaining six under direct control of the original founding members. Although we have worked continuously since 1993, the Birmingham RailCar Workgroup was legally formed in 2001, as part of a requirement to formalise.
In 2014, the group started a major upheaval which was to last five years and change the landscape considerably. The previous headquarters of 20 years, the Churnet Valley Railway, along with a major outstation of vehicles, the Telford Steam Railway, both had to be abandoned with a total of ten Class 104 vehicles to rehouse. The rehoming took almost a decade however a new headquarters was established at the East Lancashire Railway and at the same time, a new satellite arm of the group was
formed at the North Norfolk Railway. Both locations took vehicles from the previous two sites and today, both thrive with the original arrangement placing vehicles on long term loan to the Llangollen Railway back in 1993 still going strong.
In its 30 year existence, the Birmingham RailCar Workgroup has been successful in restoring approximately half of the overall collection to passenger carrying standards. However the end goal will always be to raise this figure and rebuild more vehicles for use in the heritage railway sector.