Early Withdrawals (1960's & 1970's)
The class 104's were considered generally to be a successful first generation type. Early withdrawal of vehicles was therefore rare and normally as a result of collisions and fires that had caused enough damage to write them off.
The 1960's saw six vehicles condemned, four powercars and two centre trailers (equivalent to two sets). A further seven vehicles, three powercars and four centre trailers, would follow throughout the 1970's. Coincidentally it would seem that there were "13 unlucky" class members to meet an early demise!
In 1980, the first year of planned withdrawals, a respectable 289 vehicles were in traffic, of the 302 built. Despite extensive regional depot-to-depot transfers as work patterns changed, in they main the fleet were still operating in the regions and areas to which they were originally delivered to.
The Failure to Refurbish
During the mid 1970's, the main decision which was to eventually lead to the 104's demise ahead of some other DMU classes was made: the decision not to put class 104 vehicles through BR's mid life refurbishment programme. The main reason cited for this was BRCW's poor choice of window design, which did not contain rubbers or a separate aluminium frame. This had led to water ingress and the vehicles, although well maintained, suffered an increased level of body corrosion compared with other classes.
However, despite the lack of a serious interior refurbishment, the Midland region were intending to retain their fleet into the 1990's so set about putting them through a heavy overhaul programme which crucially involved the removal of the original asbestos insulation. Unlike refurbished vehicles however, all the original fittings were retained, which later proved to be a massive bonus for preservationists. The Eastern Region's decision not to overhaul the majority of their fleet in the same manner would lead to their fleets being the first to go into decline.
The Eastern Region Cull (Early 1980's)
A significant part of the North Eastern 4-car sets' workload was the Newcastle suburban services. In 1980, the area was transformed for passengers with the conversion of several heavy rail lines to the Tyne & Wear Metro. Whilst it was without doubt a huge step forward for the area, it would have serious repercussions for the Eastern Region's 104 fleet. Most of the Newcastle based sets were transferred to Leeds Neville Hill after the Metro conversion but, having been made surplus, their tenure there was to prove short lived.
In the early 1980's the Midland region had been taking in a good selection of Eastern 104's to augment and replace some of their poorer examples. However in 1981 & 1982 the Eastern Region withdrew 64 vehicles in a mass cull, quickly ending the use of 104s's on the Eastern following 24 years service.
At the same time as the Eastern cull, the Midland made serious inroads into its centre trailer cars, with 20 being withdrawn in 1981, 16 in 1982 and nine in 1983.
Start of the Midland Region Decline
From 1983 onwards the Midland region was steadily withdrawing its own powercars as well as the inherited Eastern ones, some of the latter only having been used a few years as a stop gap. Examples that had not been through the overhaul/asbestos stripping programme were the first to be withdrawn, the programme itself stopping in 1987. Reasons for the steady reduction in the Midland 104 fleet were the transfer of refurbished classes of first generation DMU's (displaced elsewhere) as well as the introduction of second generation units such as Pacer and Sprinter families.
A number of surplus Midland & ex Eastern vehicles were transferred north of the border to cover for unit shortages in the 1980's, a move which no doubt extended their lives. Whilst some of the Scottish centre cars were a quick stop-gap and withdrawn quickly, most vehicles would stay up there for several years.
At the start of 1985 the Midland/Scottish regions combined had just over 50 sets in service, 19 of which were still in their original 3-car format (on paper - in reality many of the 123 surviving vehicles were split up and in
sets mixed in with other classes).
Late 1980's Withdrawals
Each year of the second half of the 1980's would see more and more vehicles steadily withdrawn on both the Midland and Scottish regions. Teething problems with the newly introduced second generation DMU's would slow down this process, but not stop it. The last ex-Eastern powercar admirably lasted until May 1989. The transfer of refurbished class 101's saw the last of the 104's in Scotland condemned.
By 1990 remaining in traffic were 25 vehicles: six sets at Chester, four at Old Oak Common (London) and two at Newton Heath (Manchester). All the survivors were Midland powercars either running in 2-car "power-twin" formations or separately in hybrid sets. Whilst the last of the 15 driving trailers had gone in 1989, two centre cars survived into 1990 in the London area (at Reading at Bletchley), albeit running in other hybrid sets and not as 104 3-car sets. One of these centre cars was remarkably an Eastern region example, and would prove to be the last of its kind having been evicted in 1980, impressively lasting a further ten years in exile on the Midland.
The Final Countdown: 1990's
25 vehicles doesn't sound too bad to hit the 1990's with: however later the same year the two centre cars and the Newton Heath/Chester fleets were withdrawn. The last two Chester sets were CH610 M53447/M53531 (later preserved) and CH611 (M53451/M53529) which saw out their final days on Chester-Helsby services during June 1990.
From 1991 the sole survivors were the Network SouthEast, London based, vehicles, which were all of the Midland DMBS type. Towards the end of their working lives the fact that they all had brake vans meant that they were often to be found running in separate sets with other classes.
53429 was the first of "the final eight" to be withdrawn, in December 1991, with 53437/53479 quickly following in January 1992. The remaining five, nominally for the Gospel Oak-Barking route, were then replaced by refurbished class 115's so transferred to Reading where they carried on for several more months. 53455 was then withdrawn September 1992, followed by 53470/53539 in the December, having been displaced by the new class 165 units.
53477 just made it into 1993 (withdrawn in February), leaving 53540 as the very last 104 in passenger in traffic. It last late enough to become the only vehicle to be properly fitted with a high density halogen headlamp (the "Mexican Bean's" was fitted on the roof domes). 53540 was finally condemned in October 1993, 36 years and 6 months after the first 104's were introduced.