Class 91 Electric at Leeds

British Rail Class 91 Electric Locomotive

Get to know more about the Class 91.

The Class 91 “Electra” Locomotives

When British Rail gave the go ahead to Electrify the full length of the East Coast Main Line from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh and Leeds it was obvious that new trains would need to be built to operate fast and regular services, these in turn would replace the High Speed Train Diesel units that had been running up and down on services since the late 1970’s.

The original intention was that trains would be timed to operate up to a maximum of 140 mph (225 Kmh) although in practice they have been restricted to the same speed as the trains they replaced (the Inter City 125) due to a number of infrastructure constraints.

GEC Successful Bidders

31 Locos were ordered and built and after going through the tendering process GEC were the successful bidders to complete the order. This order was split in to two batches, a smaller batch of ten locos 91001-91010 and then a larger batch of 21 locos 91011-91031. The reason behind this was to enable test running to commence and help to identify any faults in running. The initial batch was completed in 1988-89 and the follow on batch were all accepted into traffic before the end of 1991.

Most Powerful Locos

BREL at Crewe Locomotive works constructed the locos which at the time were the most powerful locos in the UK at 6,300 hp. Initially, as new rolling stock was not ready, they ran in a surrogate formation on Kings Cross-Leeds services with the very coaches they were replacing being used during the initial “running in” period, these coaches from Intercity 125 trains were complimented by a DVT Class 43 power car, which was effectively one end of an Inter City 125 diesel unit which would continue to provide the train heating and electrical supply to these “modified” trains. However in practice break downs were common and it was not unusual to see the HST power car towing the formation with the electric locomotive totally powerless on the rear.

In time a large number of teething problems were ironed out and the new Mark 4 carriages were introduced into service, the first passenger run had been on a Kings Cross-Peterborough commuter service in March 1989 and to this day a record for a British Locomotive hauled train remains unbroken at 162 mph set in September 1989 whilst pushing a mark 4 set near Little Bytham, not far from where the steam locomotive Mallard achieved it’s world record 126 mph run at Essendine in 1938.


The locos were delivered in the once familiar white Inter City livery as new with a swallow on the side, which coincided with the first loco 91001 being named Swallow, although the nameplate was not of the traditional cast type carried by locos previously in the UK and was quite inconspicuous in its looks.

With the advent of Rail privatisation, GNER (Great North Eastern Railway) were awarded the franchise to operate trains on the East Coast and this resulted in the locos and the stock being reliveried in a dark blue livery with a waist high red stripe. During the tenure of GNER the fleet received reliability modifications in Doncaster Works and this resulted in the locos being renumbered to 91101-91122 and 91124-91132 (91023 became 91132 more about this later).

Rail Accidents

Unfortunately 91023 was involved in two serious rail accidents involving loss of life, one at Hatfield and one at Great Heck, it was decided after the second accident to avoid the loco being referred to as a jinx to renumber the loco during its reliability mods overhaul to 91132.

A Re-brand

In 2007 GNER lost the East Coast Franchise and the new incumbents National Express East Coast (NXEC) rebranded the trains. The attractive blue livery remained with a white stripe being applied over the red stripe literally overnight, it was quite common to arrive at Kings Cross on the days surrounding the ownership change and find a team of Rail workers apply the white stripe on one side only before the trains next departure, quite unique in your compilers opinion on any rail network in Europe at least.

NXEC gave up the operation of the East Coast franchise in 2009 and as an interim measure, this has been run by Directly Operated Railways calling itself East Coast trains. The stock is currently being reliveried in a silver and then grey livery with East Coast branding, currently about a third of the locos have been reliveried and one (91101) has recently had further vinyls applied promoting the Flying Scotsman in conjunction with the significant changes to the May 2011 timetable change.

The Future

The locos continue to rack up large daily mileage with diagrams usually seeing them work at least 1000 miles on a normal day, all 31 locos remain in service and currently all of the fleet is one by one returning to works for an 8 yearly overhaul, which includes the repainting into the East Coast Silver/Grey livery.

No obvious replacement for these 20 odd year old locos is in sight, the chances are they will continue to work East Coast Main Line services for another ten years or more. Destinations where the class can be found are Edinburgh, Leeds and Kings Cross, with one daily diagram to and from Glasgow and Bradford and one evening diagram to Skipton, a location that had never seen one diagrammed until May 2011. One class member was taken to Hamburg for a Railway exhibition in the late 1980s, failing that they have never strayed far, 91005 worked a Hertfordshire Railtour from Kings Cross to Glasgow returning to Kings Cross and other than a couple of appearances from Edinburgh to Carlisle in the classes British rail years they have remained constantly anchored to the East Coast Main Line.


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