A Surprising Return – The NSW 86 Class

Electrifying Event

In October 2018, Sydney Electric Train Society locomotive 8606 surprised enthusiasts by running a railset from Clyde to North Sydney. Crewed by Pacific National as part of their Sydney Trains maintenance contract, this was the first electric traction on freight traffic since 2004. Before we can look too far towards the future however, perhaps it’s important to first look at a brief history of electric traction within NSW.

An Early Experiment

A desire to eliminate steam on the steeply graded line between Lithgow and Sydney given increasing coal production in the region saw electrification to Lithgow by 1957. Forty 46 Class locomotives were ordered from Metropolitan Vickers in the UK to run these new electric freight and passenger trains, although prior to their delivery and introduction the NSW Government Railways (NSWGR) sought to produce an engine locally to assist with crew training and familiarisation with the new technology.

4501 was built using the 46 Class plans at the NSWGR Chullora workshops using parts from Commonwealth Engineering. 4501 was used to assist steam-hauled trains up the grades from North Strathfield to Hornsby to aid in crew training. It was renumbered to 7100 to free up the 45 Class number series for the diesel-electric locos built by A.E. Goodwin from 1962.

Towards the end of its working life, 7100 was used to haul coal trains between Glenlee and Rozelle before a series of reliability issues saw the unit withdrawn in mid-1974, after which it was donated to the NSW Rail Transport Museum, Thirlmere.

The 46 Class arrived in NSW from mid-1956 and were an instant success. The 40-strong class immediately set to work hauling trains between Sydney and Lithgow, and between Sydney and Gosford (later, Newcastle). Unfortunate 4620 was the first to be scrapped following the tragic accident at Granville that would claim 83 lives and injure countless more. By the 1990’s the class was being superceded by more modern diesel and electric traction, and the bulk of the class was out of service by 1996, with scrapping commencing at Lithgow in 1998. Several of the class have been preserved although none are operational at the present day (see below).

With an aging fleet of 46 Class, the NSWGR purchased ten 85-Class electric locomotives from Commonwealth Engineering in 1979 specifically designed for heavy coal traffic on the western line from Lithgow.

The 86 Class

Following the success of the 85 Class, the NSW State Rail Authority (SRA) placed an order with Commonwealth Engineering for 50 86 Class locomotives in 1983. Despite being theoretically the most powerful locomotives in the country at the time, the 1500v DC overhead supply and a lack of traction control often held the locomotives back.

8650 would be unique amongst the class – rather than being built with the standard Co-Co wheel arrangement, it would instead debut as a Bo-Bo-Bo (or Tri-Bo) locomotive. Commonwealth Engineering had approached the SRA about using the locomotive as a test bed for this new wheel arrangement ahead of construction of the 3100 and 3200 class electric locomotives for coal haulage in Queensland. The SRA agreed, at the time believing that if the wheel arrangement was successful it would be useful in further orders for local electric traction.

Despite being designed as mixed traffic engines for passenger and express freight haulage, the class often ended up running in four-unit combinations on heavy coal trains alongside the older 85 Class. By 1998, this heavy workload took its toll on the locomotives with almost half the fleet set aside with cracked frames.

The formation of National Rail to take over interstate intermodal traffic from February 1992 saw a reduction in demand for the NSW electric locomotives as National Rail opted for an all-diesel roster to avoid the changing of motive power at Broadmeadow (trains to/from Brisbane) or Lithgow (trains to/from Adelaide or Perth). As the introduction of the U and V Set interurban multiple units and the XPT had reduced the need for locomotive hauled passenger trains, this left the 85 and 86 Class with a much reduced scope of operation, pushing them further towards bulk coal haulage from Lithgow.

Privatisation & Withdrawl

When FreightCorp (the freight arm of the SRA) was privatised in February 2002, the surviving 85 and 86 class transferred to Pacific National and were quickly withdrawn from service as their new owners favoured the through running of trains without changing motive power. Aside from Clarence Colliery, the western coalfields all remained beyond the grasp of electric traction, with the wires ending in Lithgow and the mines being located west of Lithgow along the line to Mudgee.

In 2003 the surviving 85 and 86 Class were sold to Silverton Rail/Allco Finance, although two 86 Class were spared for preservation – 8606 to the Sydney Electric Train Society and 8646 to the NSW Rail Transport Museum at Thirlmere. The bulk of the electric locomotives were transferred to Broken Hill for storage.

Four of the 86 Class would see reactivation for hire to RailCorp during 2004 on the Bondi Junction Turnback project although they would again be stored out of use following the completion of construction.

Sadly it would seem that the copper inside the redundant locomotives would be more valuable to their new owners than their potential capacity to haul trains, and mass scrapping of the 85 and 86 Class started in 2005.

Seven of the 86 Class would survive the mass culling to be sold by Allco Finance to other operators in 2006 (along with 8501 and 8507, see table below). 8619 was sold to SCT for conversion to a crew car/remote driving station, although this was later abandoned and it was scrapped at Islington (SA) in 2009. 8644 was secured by SETS to join 8606 in preservation, whilst 8601 and 8650 went to Dorrigo Steam Railway & Museum (DSR&M). 8609, 8622 and 8649 were obtained by El Zorro (later transferring to NREC ownership following the failure of El Zorro in 2013) with the idea of using a genset wagon to power the locos when operating outside of overhead electric wiring. 8609 and 8622 would remain in storage at Lithgow until their scrapping in 2017. 8649 would be obtained by SETS for preservation at Werris Creek.

Front Row Seat

Return To Service

In mid-2018, the SETS stock (which had previously been stored on display at the Junee Roundhouse Museum) was transferred to Lithgow for reactivation. Extensive work was performed on 8606 including new batteries and pantographs and the fitting of an ICE radio at Pacific Natonals Lithgow works. 8606 was trialled between Lithgow and Mt Victoria in October 2018 and was transferred to Clyde for training and hire to Pacific National.

On October 29, 8606 hauled the Robel railset from Clyde to North Sydney to drop rail at Milsons Point in the first example of electric traction since withdrawal of the class in 2004. Since then, the loco has hauled railsets around the city circle line and to Bondi Junction on the ESR.

Despite the scrapping of the former El Zorro units 8609 and 8622 at Lithgow, SETS managed to inspect 8649 at Werris Creek and subsequently purchase the unit for preservation in mid-2018. 8649 was transferred to Progress Rail at Cardiff in late 2019 for inspection before being returned to Werris Creek for overhaul and return to service. At the time of writing, SETS plan to repaint the locomotive in the SRA Candy scheme.

A fundraiser towards the repainting of 8649 can be found here.

LocoOwnerStatus/Notes
7100Transport Heritage NSWStored at Broadmeadow. Indian Red livery.
4601Transport Heritage NSWPreserved, on static display at Valley Heights Roundhouse. Indian Red livery.
4602DSR&MStored at Dorrigo.
4615SETSPreserved, stored at Lithgow. Indian Red livery.
4627SETSStored at North Rothbury. Freightrail Blue livery.
4638Transport Heritage NSWStored at Broadmeadow. Two-tone Red livery.
8501SETSStored at Werris Creek. Freightrail Blue livery.
8507DSR&MStored at West Tamworth. Freightrail Blue livery.
8601DSR&MStored at West Tamworth. Freightrail Blue livery.
8606SETSOperational, on hire to Pacific National for Sydney Trains infrastructure work. Freightrail Blue livery.
8644SETSStored at Chullora. Freightrail Blue livery.
8646Transport Heritage NSWPreserved, on static display at Trainworks, Thirlmere. Freightrail Blue livery.
8649SETSOverhaul for hire to Pacific National for Sydney Trains infrastructure work. Freightrail Blue livery.
8650DSR&MStored at West Tamworth. Freightrail Blue livery.
New Year, Same Train

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