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104's: The East Anglian Story

Regarded by many ​as a backwater, even today, East Anglia has always had its own character, defended by locals and loyal holidaymakers alike. It's slightly isolated nature allowed a rural way of live to survive for longer than in many other areas of the country, it's railways in some respects being no different. Of most relevance to the story of the Class 104 is Norwich depot, situated in and serving the county of Norfolk and the northern regions of East Anglia.

DMU's For The Region

The area was characterised by its rural branch lines, many of which were broadly self sufficient from busy trunk routes, so it was no surprise that it was selected during the early 1950's as one of the areas considered for Diesel Multiple Units at the dawn of their introduction, including the even smaller railbusses. However these early designs were not to include the BRCW 104's, which were still a few years away amongst the production batches that were to follow after the early DMU trials were proven successful.

These early units consisted of 13 Derby Lightweight and 29 Metropolitan


Cammell Lightweight sets, all 2-cars, put to work replacing expensive steam traction on the sprawling network of branch lines. These sets were a self contained fleet, equipped with "yellow diamond" multiple working which was to eventually lead to their downfall as early experience resulted in production DMU's being built to the superior, and later standard, "blue square" system. Many of these sets were allocated to Norwich to be put to work immediately on the branches.


The Double Edged Sword of 1950's Progress

Modernisation would prove to be both positive and negative for the railways of East Anglia. There became no doubt that the new DMU's were cheaper, cleaner and the future of passenger services in the area; and the "passenger experience" was to be transformed by their introduction into service. More sets were swiftly ordered by the Eastern Region of BR to supplement the early Yellow Diamond sets and treble the size of the new diesel unit fleet, with "Cravens" Class 105's being the favoured type. Almost 50 new sets were split between Lincoln and Cambridge depots, the former also receiving a dedicated fleet of 50 "Derby" Class 114 sets.


However the savings made by the introduction of DMU's was still insufficient to make the lightly used routes sustainable, so for reasons documented in great detail elsewhere in railway literature, large parts of the East Anglian system were closed in the 1950's and 1960's, most notably the simultaneous closure of an entire system, the Midland & Great Northern, in 1959. These closures reduced the requirements for DMU sets overnight and many of the brand new Class 105's meant for the M&GN

were transferred away (to Great Northern suburban services out of London). As vehicles transferred, some standardisation was sought and Cambridge received the small fleet of five "Wickham" Class 109 sets.

Norwich's Fleet Prior To The Class 104's

The contraction nationwide of branch lines resulted in a surplus of DMU vehicles, all of which were not more than a decade old. This surplus allowed for non standard vehicles to be withdrawn despite their relatively young age, and the East Anglian Yellow Diamond designs were some of the first on the list. Accordingly, these were replaced in the late 1960's and early 1970's by 16 "Gloucester" Class 100 sets (from Scotland), numerous "Cravens" Class 105's (from Hull) along with some "Metro Cammell" Class 101 vehicles. This created an all Blue Square fleet helping depots to pair vehicles from any class together as maintenance or failures required.

Norwich, Norfolk's central depot, was responsible for serving all of the disparate branches that had survived the modernisation cull. In the early 1970's, despite the best efforts of the blue square standards, the depot presented a rather disparate collection of contrasting classes of vehicle, un-refurbished and built by different manufacturers, a situation possibly created by Norwich being regarded by management and other depots as somewhat second rate due to its geographical location "out on a limb" and rural duties. Calling Norwich home during the early 1970's were Class


100's, 101's, 105's  and 109's. Most were 2-car "Power/Trailer" sets and none were in fixed formations, further adding to the mixed feel. During this period, Norwich made up its first 3-car sets using Class 101 vehicles for longer distance duties. These sets were mainly intended for Norwich-Birmingham services, a duty often requiring multiple sets which were expected to be run by from a mixture provided by Norwich and by Midland Region depots at the other end.


The Norwich Set Numbers

Late 1971 saw all Norwich allocated DMU's receive a set number, which became a characteristic feature and one which could instantly distinguish a Norwich unit from others. The need arose as a result of an industrial dispute. Over a pay and grading claim, the maintenance controllers withdrew their support for DMU maintenance programming. As a result, Norwich depot had to set up its own arrangements. This comprised a telephone call each night shift to each location where Norwich units were stabled, such as Cambridge, Ipswich, Lowestoft, Yarmouth etc. The local supervisor was then asked to allocate units to specific diagrams the following day, the Norwich shift foreman being aware which diagrams ended the day at Norwich and the set could then come in for maintenance. Alongside this was maintained a list of units due and overdue for exams.

There were problems initially because the stabling sidings were sometimes located away from the supervisor’s office so asking for a power car was not helpful if the trailer car was nearer the office! So an easy way of identifying units was needed. Norwich thought a 2-digit number would suffice and these were to be applied at the top centre of the front windows

so as to be easily seen.

BR's Eastern Region HQ demanded they start at 31 as lower numbers may have been needed elsewhere. So a list was drawn up and the number "permanently" allocated to the power car in each unit as this formed the bulk of the maintenance scheduling. The numbers on trailers were transferred when trailer swaps took place, this happened for a number of reasons, the main one being shopping for overhaul as sets were rarely called into works in pairs.

The Metro Cammell 3-car sets (mentioned above) were numbered in the 80 series and the number was linked to the second powercar with lavatory (DMCL) as these were unique to the 3-car sets and the other end (DMBS) were as used on the 2-car sets. Records of which trailer were on which set were kept in depot records. The system had a slight hiccough when one 3-car set (88) appeared with two DMCL cars and the guards compartment in the centre car! This latter formation would later become standard on the arrival of the 3-car Class 104 sets, also to be numbered in the 80 series.

The initial set of number cards, which used stencils, were made in a staff member's garage at home! Assisted by an Engineering Engineer Trainee who was in the depot at the time, the latter helped with the printing. Once implemented, maintenance control was simplicity itself. The station supervisors being easily able to identify units whichever end they looked at!

Basic maintenance was every four days. Some went overdue to five or six days but there were no serious concerns as provided the correct diagram was allocated, the unit would come "home" that night after work. One such diagram was "56 diagram" which started from Cambridge and ended at Norwich and was usually reliable. Once, a 101 unit was at six days but not a problem, being on 56 so Norwich expected it back. It didn’t come and was shown again on 56 the next day. Still no show with it at 8 days going on 9. Some digging was needed and after many phone calls, it turned out it had somehow got off area and was actually on Newcastle's 56 diagram, skulking around in the North East! It


eventually got back to Norwich after 10 days and on checking the driver's repair book in the cab, there was not a single defect report since it left Norwich 10 days earlier. A pleasing result!

The "Norwich set numbers" lasted some 20 years, only being eroded by the arrival of refurbished fixed formation sets in the early 1990's, which had painted set numbers on the cab fronts. These sets mirrored the new fixed-formation second generation DMU's introduced in the late 1980's, which was the end of the practice of reforming of units regularly. Reforming and renumbering of sets after this became much rarer and is today normally a result of long term losses of vehicles due to a serious accident for example.

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Visiting Class 104's

Returning to Class 104's: from the late 1960's sets made occasional visits to the area from elsewhere. As a holiday destination the east coast was always being considered for excursion traffic, which although normally utilising diesel hauled coaching stock due to the distances involved, did throw up Class 104 sets, notably formations sent north from London formed of vehicles allocated to Stratford depot.

Another regular source that brought the London Midland Region 104's across the border into Eastern


Region territory. The Derby-Norwich services were intended to be handled by Derby's Class 120 "Cross Country" sets, which were more suited to these longer distance duties due to the low density nature of their internal seating configuration. However for many years Derby had at least three Class 104 3-car sets for use on their local branch lines, which were on occasion borrowed and sent on the Norwich runs, presumably if the 120 fleet was unavailable for whatever reason. Although the Class 104's were a cut above many other "branchline"  DMU's due to their higher backed seats, nevertheless they would have been a poor substitute for a Cross Country train. The hearts of the regular users of this route would no doubt have sank if they saw a blue liveried 104 arrive in place of their normal Blue/Grey 120! This practice prevailed during the 1970's and 1980's.

Finally, the Birmingham-Norwich route (mentioned in the previous section) also produced Midland Region 104's (amongst others) as there was an expectation for depots at both ends of the route to provide sets required to operate this service, especially during the summer when the formation was often extended in length.


Class 104's Arrive at Norwich: Better or Worse?

The decision to transfer some Class 104 sets to Norwich was made in October 1975 with a total of eight sets moving south from Hull Botanic Gardens. Whilst one of them was in Norwich's favoured power/trailer formation, the other seven were 3-car sets: ex North Eastern 4-cars with one of the centre trailers removed.

The eight 104 sets were directly swapped for Norwich's Class 101 3-car set fleet, which relocated to Hull. The 104 sets were 2/3rds through their working lives and had not yet received heavy mid-life overhauls, so they were therefore as tired as the existing stock already at Norwich! The arrival of the 104's further complicated the depot's already varied fleet.

It is thought that the reasons for the transfer lie in BR's mid 1970's DMU refurbishment programme, which sought to rebuild the poor-condition and dated interiors on 1,800 vehicles. It had been decided that 101's and 108's would be the mainstay of the low density 150hp engined refurbished fleet, class 104's not being selected as there were less of them and they suffered more from water ingress and corrosion due to their lack of proper

window frames. The politics at the time meant that BR had promised the first refurbished sets to the "Passenger Transport Executives" (local government bodies responsible for transport in urban areas), so there was a need for more 101 sets in Hull (South Yorkshire PTE) to be overhauled. The net result was that 104's generally moved to the country and 101's went to northern cities.

Rise & Fall

The Norwich 104 fleet was to slowly grow with more transfers being made. Hull sent a further two 3-car sets four months later, whilst another four 2-car sets were slowly teased out from Hull, Leeds Neville Hill and Manchester over a period between 1975-77. The peak of the Norwich Class 104 allocation was February to April 1977, with 14 sets on the books.

In April 1979 two of the power/trailer sets were loaned to Stratford who required their diesel fleet bolstering due to temporary extra work as a result of the overhead electrification conversion from 6.25kV to 25kV. The two sets were returned to Norwich in October 1979 and June 1980.

April 1977 saw two 3-car sets given back to Leeds with more following on

a fairly slow basis, the final 3-car set departing in February 1981. The five 2-car sets were then picked off one-by-one, the final set closing the curtain in June 1982. The class therefore did seven years service, firmly in the BR blue era.

The downfall of the Class 104's in the area was their exclusion from BR's DMU refurbishment programme, explained above. Five years into the programme, many more Class 101 sets had gone through the refurbishment process, and were no longer solely reserved for the cities.

The 101's were to return to the area in a big way, with both 2 and 3 car sets, freshly refurbished and predominantly in the Blue/Grey colour scheme, finally replacing the mixed fleet that had been a large part of Norwich's signature for decades. The 1980's were to see all the 100's, 104's and 105's either transferred elsewhere, or in many cases withdrawn from service entirely and scrapped.

Cambridge drivers in particular disliked the refurbished Class 101 sets because they were much slower than the Cravens 105's they were used to, 101's being heavier, and their Leyland engines never pulled as well at low revs as the Cravens' AEC's. Cambridge had received a much earlier allocation of refurbished sets than Norwich, intended to be a better offering to connect with the newly built Great Northern electrics at Royston and Hitchin.


As for the Norwich refurbished 101's, they would reign for another ten years before themselves replaced by second generation units, the first new trains for East Anglia since the 1950's.


The Norwich Routes Pictured

Each of the routes that the Norwich allocated 104 sets generally worked will now be described with a small selection of images from the group's collection.

Norwich was the hub where all of the DMU sets were maintained and where a lot of diagrams radiated out from, although there were stabling arrangements elsewhere on the network. By the BR blue era as already mentioned Norwich had been able to withdraw all its non standard types except for a handful of Gloucester 100's, focusing on a (mainly 2-car) Class 101 and 105 fleet. Sets were reformed frequently, it being better to stick the set numbers in the windows rather than the more permanent painting of numbers on the cab fronts! A set list sample from 1973 shows 44 sets formed of 100/101/105 vehicles, 36 of which were 2-cars.

The depot would contain any units undergoing maintenance or repairs following problems in service, photographs of these areas are surprisingly scarce, perhaps it was not of much interest to enthusiasts at the time?

Sheringham Branch

The first route is the Sheringham branch, which runs predominantly northwards from Norwich and is today known as the "Bittern Line". The line serves the prominent towns of Wroxham, North Walsham and Cromer with several smaller stations in between along the original Great Eastern Railway route before diverging just south of Cromer into the ex Midland & Great Northern station at Cromer Beach. Here trains reverse along the final 4 miles of the branch along the only surviving M&GN section left on the national network to Sheringham, the branch's terminus and end-on connection to the preserved North Norfolk Railway.


During the 1970's it was always thought that this "operationally awkward" final 4 miles would itself be closed, and presumably BR had similar thoughts as a cheap and temporary station was provided at Sheringham after they withdrew from the "real" station across the road. History was to prove otherwise however: unexpected rises in usage slowly led to the present day situation of a vibrant hourly service, the closure of Sheringham's link to Norwich being unthinkable. The "temporary" station was finally demolished and upgraded with an improved offering some 50 years later!

Great Yarmouth & Lowestoft

East of Norwich are two lines (with a link line between) serving Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, both coastal towns of importance for different reasons over the years. Older prominence in shipping and fishing have given way to tourism over the years, with neither town being exempt from the common story of the declining British seaside town. The line east of Norwich serves peripheral areas now absorbed into the city such as Brundall before the "upper" route to Yarmouth branches off. This line is sparsely populated, serving Acle before reaching Great Yarmouth. The "lower" route turns south east passing through Reedham before edging into Suffolk to reach Lowestoft. Confusingly there is a remaining link line that joins Reedham returning northeast to Great Yarmouth giving an alternative route to the Acle line. This small diamond shaped network is today known as the "Wherry Line". 

Sadly both Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are now rather sad examples of semi derelict railway installations that previously had great importance and traffic only to suffer from decades of decline. The remains of large sets of sidings for excursion coaching stock rakes at Yarmouth and freight at Lowestoft are still visible, with rusty lighting stanchions, vegetation and disconnected pointwork reigning supreme.

Lowestoft-Ipswich & Felixstowe

The 49 mile line south of Lowestoft to Ipswich is known as the East Suffolk Line, another rural route serving Beccles, Halesworth and Saxmundham. Along this section four smaller branch lines linked up with the East Suffolk in busier times but all are now gone except for a line serving Sizewell nuclear power station. The past importance of these services (both construction traffic and later fuel/waste) probably went some way towards the East Suffolk line itself not succumbing to closure during periods of cuts. The line is probably best known in railway circles as one of only two routes outside of Scotland to have used the Radio Electronic Token Block (RETB) system from 1984 until 2012, allowing the closure of all conventional signalboxes on the route saving costs. This was the last of a series of measures taken that were essential to the line's sustainability; including drastic singling of the previously double track route, de-staffing of stations and the diversions of as many through trains as possible.


The southernmost part of the line, from Westerfield Junction to Ipswich, is however very busy, as the 12 mile Felixstowe line joins at this point bringing with it vast container traffic from the Port of Felixstowe. This latter line has always been freight biased, however there remains to this day a limited passenger service, usually a shuttle to/from Ipswich, which has for many years been operated by a single DMU set.


Norwich units were not so prevalent south of Ipswich as the start of the Great Eastern electrified territories are reached. However there were cross country lines west of Ipswich linking to Cambridge and Ely via Bury St Edmunds. Units serving this route would travel north from Ipswich along the Great Eastern Main Line to Stowmarket, before tuning westward at Haughley Junction for the route to Bury St Edmunds, the largest town served on the route. Near Newmarket (Chippenham Junction), trains can either curve southwest along the single line to Cambridge or northwest to Ely. Newmarket was where British Rail's last shunting horse was retired, as late as 1967.

Like all of the routes featured, this line was originally furnished with several more stations and branch lines than remain at present. One "branch" that was however very much active during the period was near Newmarket, the connection to the infamous scrapyard at Snailwell, more of which later.

Some crossover could be seen at Cambridge on occasion with Midland Region Class 104's, usually Bletchley sets which could be found working up from London.

Norwich-Cambridge via Ely

Norwich to Ely (services often running through to Peterborough) is arguably the main artery in/out of Norfolk from the cross country, as opposed to London, direction. This line is today known as the "Breckland Line". The first 50 mile section runs southwest from Norwich immediately branching off the Great Eastern Mainline onto the diesel-only Breckland Line. Wymondham is the first reasonable sized town reached where several branches once radiated out. Only one of these survives today, preserved as the Mid Norfolk Railway. The main route continues on into the heart of the Thetford Forest, serving the main town on the route, Thetford, another ex-junction.


From Thetford more places are served such as Brandon where the line leaves Norfolk, briefly dipping into Suffolk before entering Cambridgeshire and into Ely. It was on this section in the early 1970's during the holiday season that a Midland Region 104 came to grief on the rear of an 8-car formation that also included Norwich allocated 2-car Gloucester 100 and 3-car Met Camm 101 sets. The 104 had been successfully leading from Birmingham to Ely before the change of direction for the remainder of the run to Norwich. Shortly after departure the 104 caught fire and after a delay investigations were made on arrival at Norwich. The cause was determined to be engine contra-rotation (being forcibly spun around in the opposite direction to normal) which in turn had been caused by that power-train not reversing direction at Ely. With the electrical control signal for this being made at the leading end, the Class 100 trailer car (which was on the front from Ely) was immediately suspected, low voltage being a possible cause for the signal to be "lost" by the time it had traveled eight vehicles down the train. Battery protocol at the time was new batteries onto power cars for two years, then cascaded onto trailers for a further two years life, being withdrawn after four years service. Batteries were exchanged at works overhaul. Each cell was individually dated on both sides. The cells on the 100 trailer were all in date but, suspiciously, one cell had no date marked and on looking at the back of the cell Norwich fitters discovered it was seven years

old! The end result was Norwich depot being blamed for destroying a Midland 104!

Several years later the same section of line was also the location for the most serious incident of all in East Anglia to have involved a class 104. In December 1976 another 3-car London Midland set was working a Norwich-Birmingham service in severe fog when it collided with a lorry loaded with carrots at an occupation crossing between Lakenheath and Shippea Hill. The speed of the collision was around 50mph and sadly the driver of the 104 paid the ultimate price, losing his life when the cab of the leading vehicle, M50495, was effectively demolished. Eight further passengers sustained injuries, with 87 further people (including the driver of the lorry) escaping unharmed. The blame for the accident was placed solely with the misuse of the road user who failed to telephone to ascertain if it was safe to cross, which was the procedure at that time. The results of the accident were that M50495 was withdrawn and scrapped three years later, whilst the crossing was upgraded to an "open crossing" with flashing lights and the line speed lowered.


Returning to the line, Norwich-Cambridge services continue south from Ely a short distance to their destination, whilst Peterborough services often reverse before continuing west. The Ely West Curve does allow for direct trains from Norwich to Peterborough, but this is not favoured by passenger services as it avoids serving Ely itself.

The Western Front: Peterborough

From Ely the land is fairly flat and featureless, with more smaller settlements served in a north westerly direction until March is reached. Extensive sidings existed at March capable of storing many withdrawn items of rolling stock in later years, as they were no longer required for the dropping levels of freight. March was a signifcant traimnghular junction with the route to Spalding, which lasted longer than many other East Anglian branches, not being axed until 1982, the same year as the 104's departed the area.

The mighty Whitemoor marshalling yard was located nearby before itself being run down. Continuing west, it is not much further before the city of Peterborough and the East Coast Mainline is reached, this also serving as the edge of normal operations for the standard Norwich DMU diagrams. 

Miscellaneous Routes & Off Region

Very few depots were privileged enough to always be able to keep their allocation of locomotives or units under their own eyes for all of the time, and they would be expected to provide rolling stock if required on out-of-course duties or to help out if there was an unusual crisis elsewhere. Controllers would also require to "borrow" sets in the heat of the moment when things didn't go to plan around the railway network, and it may be days (or even weeks) before a borrowed set could be returned home. Mechanically standard railcars were particularly suited for being moved around as qualified DMU drivers were available across the land.


This situation led to photographs being occasionally taken showing Norwich sets at work outside of their normal operating sphere, although the photographer would not always be aware what he was capturing. Additionally, Norwich sets could also be used on occasional railtours covering previously closed sections of the East Anglian Rail network, or further afield.


Last Rites

The story for the 104's wasn't quite to end in 1982 however. Three withdrawn powercars (one of them an ex resident) were moved to Norwich later that year for "storage", although parts may well have been used on other units at the depot. They were later moved to Great Yarmouth for a couple of months before final disposal in summer 1983.

The whole of the 1980's were to see large numbers of 104's stored in the area in places such as Cambridge, Peterborough and March before being scrapped at Mayer Newman's at Snailwell. This disposal facility was located south of Ely, in Cambridgeshire and was a large scrapyard that importantly had the facility to "process" condemned rail vehicles contaminated with asbestos insulation. This capability led to a huge number of BR vehicles including DMU's seeing the end of their days there.

Whilst many of the Midland 104's had gone through an asbestos removal programme, most of the Eastern examples did not, so unsuprisingly most


of them were transported to Snailwell and usually disposed of quickly. The asbestos removal was achieved by the use of the infamous "fire tunnel", a sealed building where the vehicles were pushed in and incinerated at extremely high temperatures, the burnt carcasses then being pulled out and the remaining steel scrapped in the conventional way. This process had a chilling resemblance to human cremation, photographs of the fire tunnel are very rare and unfortunately there are no known images of 104's in the fire tunnel.


A total of 59 class 104 driving vehicles were incinerated


at Snailwell between 1981 and 1992, the peak of disposals being in 1983 when 16 (driving) vehicles were lost. 


East Anglia Revival

For many years it was thought that the burning of driving trailer M54181 at Snailwell in February 1992 would be the last time a 104 would be in East Anglia. However 23 years later that changed when sister M56182 (former M54182) returned to the region in 2015, bound for the preserved North Norfolk Railway at Sheringham. Although in derelict condition, M56182 had a brighter future ahead as full restoration immediately commenced under a new faction of the Birmingham RailCar Workgroup dedicated to returning a Class 104 2-car set to service in Norfolk.


This future aim is most fitting as it will recreate one of the five Norwich power/trailer 104 sets allocated there between 1975 and 1982, during this time being frequent visitors to Sheringham. The only difference will be this time the set will work westward to Holt (over the closed M&GN route mentioned above) rather than southward to Norwich. Much like the operating 104 set at the East Lancs Railway, this will be true preservation in the sense of operating a type of vehicle in the heart of the area they once served. The East Anglian 104 story is therefore not over yet.

This article was greatly enhanced with the memories of British Rail staff active during the 1970's & 1980's, who kindly agreed to share some of their personal DMU recollections "in the field" and the BR policies from the time. We are grateful to Nigel Tilly for this information; and in particular to Norwich Depot's Mechanical Foreman Tim Stubbs who organised the collation, on top of supplying his own memories!

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