Network Rail Employs The ‘Minions’
73951 at Eastleigh Works - Photo by Carl Watson
Having arrived the previous day from Derby, 73951 is seen at Eastleigh Works on 13th October 2015 as third rail testing gets underway within the confines of the site. The bodywork alterations carried out on the RVEL pair were extensive and not particularly attractive while the cab fronts were also considerably cleaned up, leaving just lights, lamp brackets and repositioned windscreen wipers in place.
Running more or less concurrently with the GB Railfreight/Brush Class 73/9 re-engineering programme was another project to rebuild the electro-diesels into a virtually new locomotive. Developed by Derby-based Railway Vehicle Engineering Ltd (RVEL) with funding coming from Network Rail, this scheme was first announced in the summer of 2011 with the resultant locos intended for use on the latter’s test trains.
The key element of the extensive rebuild was the installation of two 750hp Cummins QSK19 engines, the same type as found in several modern DMU classes, including the ‘Voyager’ family. In this case though, each engine would be mounted vertically in a raft instead of horizontally to give ease of removal. Each was coupled to an alternator to create a ‘gen set’ with the assemblies being supplied by the National Railway Equipment Corporation, the American company specialising in such technology.
Other alterations included the fitting of new electronic control equipment, cooling systems and brakes while the cab desks were completely redesigned. A computer management system was installed to balance out the use of the two engines with the loco capable of operating on just one ‘gen set’ until the power demand requires the second to start and assist. Like the Brush conversions, the proven English Electric traction motors were retained.
The first donor was 73104, this arriving at Derby in March 2011 after its acquisition from British American Railway Services, while 73211 followed at the end of that year, having been purchased from Transmart Trains after a long stint as a spares donor. The next two years were spent stripping the locos down to empty shells in order to make the substantial structural changes required before installing all of the new equipment. Due to the size of the engine rafts, most maintenance on them would have to be undertaken from the outside, leading to the addition of the rather unsightly bodyside access hatches alongside the ventilation grilles.
73952 at Kidderminster SVR - Photo by Jim Scott
May 2015 saw 73952 dispatched to the Severn Valley Railway to undertake running trials at speeds of up to 50mph, this occurring in the evenings after passenger services had finished. The loco is seen stabled at Kidderminster between tests on the 15th. Visible on the rear bodywork are the ‘Ultra 73’ branding, company logos and green-credential slogans that were carried during 2014/15.
Due to the complexities of the project, it was not until 13th June 2014 that a largely complete 73952 was unveiled, two years later than planned, with the former 73211 being finished in Network Rail yellow and sporting ‘Ultra 73’ branding on one side. By October, the loco was ready for initial testing, this taking place across the road at Bombardier’s Derby test track. After more modification, 73952 was next trialled at Network Rail’s High Marnham test track in March 2015 and then on the Severn Valley Railway two months later. The second of the locos, 73951 (ex 73104) did not make a main line appearance until October 2015, being hauled to Eastleigh Works for two months of third rail testing within the confines of the site.
Main Line Debut
The first run of one of the pair under its own power on Network Rail metals finally occurred on 14th January 2016 when 73952 ran light from Derby to Crewe and back, initially with 37057 for company before a second trip on its own. The loco was now devoid of its ‘Ultra 73’ and other associated brandings, just carrying Network Rail logos on both sides in the same manner as its sister.
Joined by 73951, more light engine trips followed over the winter, mainly to Crewe but also reaching Kettering and Whitemoor, the latter location seeing the duo named as Malcolm Brinded and Janis Kong on 22nd February after two Network Rail non-executive directors. The locos visited the Severn Valley once again in May to take part in the line’s diesel gala and made sporadic main line outings throughout the summer, usually hauling other locos as a load. October saw 73951 head to Weymouth for overnight third rail testing but reliability was an issue. Around this time, the locos acquired the nickname of ‘minions’ after the characters from the Despicable Me movies, being both yellow and odd-looking!
73952 + 73951 at Bewdley - Photo by Martin Loader
The RVEL Class 73s brighten up a dull afternoon at the Severn Valley diesel gala on 19th May 2016 as 73952 Janis Kong and 73951 Malcolm Brinded approach Bewdley. In tow is the London Underground-owned 4-TC set, the train being the 15.01 shuttle from Kidderminster. As can be seen from the completely redesigned roof layout, the two Cummins power packs are fitted in line at one end of the loco.
2017 was much the same story for the pair with assorted test runs, including a mileage accumulation outing to Plymouth in February where they once again played up. When available, an assortment of other notable workings including moving new rail grinders to and from High Marnham, fetching test train stock from the Southern and assisting with Colas driver training on Class 67s by working at the other end of a set of Mk. 3 DVTs.
A similar story has been discernible in 2018 with the duo seeing some use on test trains, including visiting Merseyside, north Derbyshire and parts of Yorkshire, while there have also been stints out-based at Ashford for third rail tests around Kent. Unsurprisingly, plans for two further conversions using 73101 and 73139 have been dropped. These two were acquired from preservation in 2012 and BARS in 2011 respectively and moved to Derby but left largely untouched. Both were sold to GB Railfreight in July 2018 and taken to Eastleigh for further storage. So, while the two ‘Ultra 73s’ are up and about, full utilisation on a regular basis still eludes them.
73952 + 73951 at Chesterfield - Photo by Derek Wilson
2018 has seen the two ‘minions’ enjoy several spells on Network Rail test trains, the role for which they were originally converted. Seen at Hasland, near Chesterfield, 73952 Janis Kong brings up the rear of the 1Q41 11.38 Burton Wetmore-Crewe Carriage Sidings on 24th September 2018 with its sister loco at the front. This working was routed via the Hope Valley and Peak Forest and was a combined track recording and plain line pattern recognition formation.