In 1984 I was employed as an engineer at Derby and visited BREL York Works on a business trip. With formalities completed I was asked if I would like to see the Works latest product. To one side of the workshop were some large plastic curtains that stretched from floor to roof. As these were pulled back I got my first sight of a Class 150 DMU. It was 150001. This was the first of what would become 137 train sets that were built by BREL York primarily to replace many 1950’s built DMU classes that were suffering from reliability problems.
I think that the Class 150 styling is pleasing on the eye. Perhaps because of this first encounter I have always been interested in the fortunes of 150001.
150001 and 150002 were the only two in the fleet which were built as 3 car units.
The remainder were built as 2 car sets with the second batch equipped with cab end gangways that would allow passengers to pass between units.
Although externally the same, the two prototypes differed in their power train. 150001 one was fitted with Cummings engines and Voith hydraulic transmission. 150002 had a Perkins engines and Self Changing Gears (SCG) gearboxes.
SCG gearboxes had been fitted to a number of BR DMU types as well as Class 03 and 04 diesel shunters. However in the case of 150002, this power train proved to be its Achilles heel.
Class 150 Trials
150001 had been trialed on the Midland Main Line and reached St Pancras on at least one occasion. However in May 1985 BR are allowed the operation of these two prototype units on the Wirksworth branch.
This line to Wirksworth which deviates from the Midland Main Line at Duffield had been closed to passengers in 1947 by the London Midland & Scottish Railway. Freight traffic was withdrawn in 1964 with the exception of Limestone trains. These were operated until the early 1990s.
Operation of the two Class 150 prototypes were marketed under the title ‘Wirksworth Pheonix’. Staff from British Railways Derby Headquarters were asked to volunteer to check tickets on the trains and luckily, I was selected. This was to be my first run over the Wirksworth Branch.
At the time I lived in Belper just North of Derby and I used to commute into Derby on the Matlock services. On many occasions the two Class 150 prototypes, and indeed the two Metropolitan Camell Class 151 prototypes, were used on these services. The 150 prototypes project engineers were based at Derby so it was an ideal test situation. They could monitor the performance of these units and attend any issues relatively quickly.
Are Prototypes Needed?
Over the years many have questioned the need for prototypes. Cynically one could say that those opposed are driven by financial concerns. There have been successful prototypes such as English Electric’s ‘Deltic’ and DP2 and of course the High Speed Train.
There are also examples of failures. It could be argued that the failures are a blessing because without them perhaps vehicles could have been produced which are an abject failure.
Even when prototypes have been produced, subsequent production batches have proved to be unreliable and have had major expensive modifications to keep them in service. The Pacer fleet is an example of this.
As an engineer I believe a prototype should be produced. This is particularly so in the current advanced technological age where the complex on board systems need to be comprehensively tested to iron out issues. Not doing this could lead to not only costly repairs but a loss of face to the railway industry. Experience has shown that equipment which work fines in a static situation can fail when on board a moving train. To make equipment operate reliably on board has been referred to as ‘Tractionising’ it!
With the two Class 150 prototypes 150001 one proved in the main to be the successful one of the pair. I believe 150002 was eventually modified to mirror that on 150001.
Class 150 Fleet Today
In my view the 150 fleet has been a success. My only criticisms are the 3×2 seating arrangement and that some of the seats don’t line up fully with the windows. I seem to remember a statistic that was bandied about by British Rail in the early 1980s that it required two new DMU vehicles to replace three old ones. This was probably because the seating capacity on each new vehicle was increased together with there being no need for a parcels compartment.
It’s also a shame that passengers travelling on Class 150’s are no longer able to see out through the front of the train. This was such an attractive feature of what are now termed Heritage DMU’s.
Over the years I have come across the prototype Class 150’s in service and had the opportunity to travel on them. For many years they were based in the Midlands where I suspect the differences in their equipment from the production batches of 150’s may have caused maintenance challenges.
Great Western Railway
Great Western Railway now operates these two 150 prototypes. The train company were looking to increase their fleet of trains to meet passenger demand for seats. With the massive increase in passenger journeys on the National network since privatisation although new trains have been built and indeed continued to be so, Great Western Railway scoured the country for any surplus units. It was possible that the previous lessor of the 150 prototypes was glad to get shot of them but Great Western Railway recognised that to use these units primarily on the captive Reading to Basingstoke services would release class 16X units to increase train capacity passenger elsewhere on GWR services was excellent thinking in my view.
Although ostensibly for the Reading-Basingstoke line, these units can and are used to cover services as required.
It is a credit to the engineers that 34 years since coming into service these two prototype units are still in traffic.
The Wirksworth Branch is now a successful heritage railway namely the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway.