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The Class 323 EMU

After months of waiting for a decision on whether to electrify the Cross City rail line from Redditch to Lichfield it was made on 7th February 1990 by the then Transport Minister Cecil Parkinson coincidentally during the campaign for a by-election in the Lichfield constituency. With this agreement the Regional Railways sector of British Rail needed to order new electrical multiple units, both to replace older electric units around Birmingham and Manchester, and to work services on the newly electrified Birmingham Cross-City Line. Significantly with the plan for most of the new trains to be used in the West Midlands the members of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority were very keen the trains were built in the West Midlands.

 New Trains Ordered 

In June 1990, the contract to build the new trains was awarded to Hunslet Transportation Projects of Birmingham, a new company set up by a team of engineers and managers who had left the Birmingham based Metro-Cammell when it closed. It won the contract in competition with six other European train builders. The trains were designed at offices in South Birmingham. With the company having a Birmingham head office the new trains could have made in Birmingham builders plates despite the trains actually being built and fitted out at the Hunslet works in Leeds.

Initially 37 units were ordered, with the option for fourteen more. Eighteen would be needed for the Cross-City Line, while the remainder would replace older units (such as the Class 304 and Class 310 units). Utimately a total of 43 three-car units were actually built. When the electrification of the Leeds/Bradford Skipton/Ilkley Airedale/Wharfedale Lines was confirmed in the early 1990s, Regional Railways and West Yorkshire PTE applied to the government for 14 units to add to those already on order. At the time, government spending on the railways was restricted due to the impending privatisation of British Rail and eventually, when funding was not forthcoming, the follow on order was cancelled. Instead, 21 second-hand Class 308 units from Network South East were used until new Class 333 EMUs entered service in 2001. 

Problems with the trains when they were delivered  

Significantly some of these Class 308 unites would see use in the West Midlands when there were mechanical issues with the Class 323 units going into service. Units 323201323222 and 323240323243 entered service in the West Midlands and 323223-323239 entering service in the Manchester area. The final four West Midlands units were known as the growth units and were paid for directly by Centro and they had plaques in the entrance vestibules to that effect. When the ownership of the units was transferred to Porterbrook at privatisation the four units were sold to them. The Class 323s were initially beset with a number of technical problems related to their traction motors, doors, traction converters, gearbox and vibration at high speed which took several years to resolve, preventing them from entering service. The first unit finally entered revenue-earning service on 7 February 1994.

A mixed fleet of elderly diesels which the 323s had been intended to replace as well as some elderly Class 304, Class 308 and Class 310 electric units were drafted in to operate Cross-City Line services until the problems were resolved. Electric services began on 26 November 1992 on the northern section of the Cross-City Line, before the entire route was energised in June the following year. The 323s became reliable enough to operate a full service to Longbridge and Redditch in 1995.

The Railways are privatised

The West Midlands Class 323 units were operated by the Central division of Regional Railways and with the privatisation of British Rail it passed into the private sector as Central Trains on 2 March 1997. The franchise was awarded to National Express, who maintained control of the company until its eventual demise in 2007. In terms of Class 323 operation, it was very much carrying on as before with the trains remaining in their Centro Regional Railways livery. The trains did on occasions stray out of the West Midlands with it not unheard for them to be used on the Birmingham to Liverpool services. 

The Central Trains  operation came to an end on 11th November 2007 when a new operator London Midland owned by Govia took over the running of local rail services in the West Midlands and the fleet of Class 323 units. London Midland had a franchise commitment of running all 6 car trains on the Cross City line. This was to be achieved by transferring the Manchester based units to the West Midlands. This never happened and 6 car trains on all Cross City services was not achieved. During the franchise all of the Class 323 units were given a much needed external repaint (using vinyls and not actual paint). 

The current franchise that since December 2022 has been a direct award is with West Midlands Trains that started on 10th December 2017 and is due to run until at least 26th September 2026. The operator was a joint venture between  Abellio, JR East, and Mitsui & Co. In August 2022, Abellio agreed terms to sell it UK operations to the Transport UK Group, a management buyout led by managing director Dominic Booth. The deal was completed in February 2023. This franchise looks to replacing all of the Class 323 units in the West Midlands by new Class 730 which are due for introduction during 2024. With the general reduction of train frequencies during Covid the frequency of a 20 minute frequency to Redditch and to Bromsgrove and a core frequency of every 10 minutes between Longbridge and Four Oaks was reduced to every 30 minutes on the Redditch and Bromsgrove legs and every 15 minutes on the core service. This has finally meant there is enough Class 323 units to run all the trains as 6 car formations.  The first Class 730 went into service on Monday 15th April 2024.

The Train Specification

The trains operate in the following formations:

Class Operator Quanity Built Cars Per Unit Set Numbers
323 West Midlands Trains 21 1992-1995 3 323201-22
323 Northern Trains 17 3 323223-39
323 West Midlands Trains 4 3 323240-43

The coaches take the following running numbers the outer coaches which are Driving Motor Seconds (DMS) have the running numbers 6400164043 and 6500165043. The centre cars which are Trailer Seconds (TS) take the numbers 7220172239 then 7234072343

Train Refurbished

Between 2018 and 2022 all of the class 323 units operated by both Northern Trains and West Midlands Trains received a full refurbishment. The first unit refurbished units were delivered to West Midlands Trains in February 2019 and the first Arriva Rail North on 22nd October 2019. These works involved the replacement of seat covers, interior and exterior repainting (into the new livery of their respective operators), the installation of a new passenger information system and wheelchair call-for-aid buttons, and the addition of an accessible toilet in place of the original small toilet cubicles  The last Class 323 unit to be refurbished (323224) returned to Northern Trains on 23 January 2021, while the last West Midlands Trains 323 unit (323226) was returned in 2020.

Train Names

In the last years operation with West Midlands Trains many of the units now carry names of stations that are served by the Cross City line. Significantly 323221 was named Northfield but this was removed when it was repainted into Centro livery and 323241 carries a name to mark service of a significant fleet engineer in keeping the units operating in the West Midlands. 323217/8 have not been named and significantly no unit is named Lichfield City.

Unit Number Name Unit Number Name Unit Number Name
323201 Duddeston 323209 Birmingham New Street 323219 Kings Norton
323202 Butler Lane 323210 Shenstone 323220 Lichfield Trent Valley
323203 Aston 323211 Four Oaks 323221 Northfield
323204 Selly Oak 323212 Bromsgrove 323222 Redditch
323205 Blake Street 323213 Sutton Coldfield 323240 Erdington
323206 Barnt Green 323214 Wylde Green 323241 Dave Pomroy 323 Fleet Engineer 40 Years Service
323207 Bournville 323215 Gravellly Hill 323242 Alvechurch
323208 Five Ways 323216 University 323243 Longbridge

Back dating a Unit

On December 19th, 2022, 323221 re-entered service with West Midlands Trains after it had been returned to the variation of the Regional Railways Centro green, blue and grey livery, as carried by the fleet when first delivered to BR in the West Midlands 30 years ago. 323221 emerged from Soho depot in Centro livery, although the design is slightly different to the original to comply with modern regulations. West Midland Trains is the latest operator to return a train into a modern variation of a now defunct colour scheme within the fleet. The main differences from the original version are that the doors are now finished in yellow (originally the doors matched the body sides, but the upper sections of the doors were later painted yellow), the grey band at the top of the bodywork is slightly narrower than on the original, and the lighting clusters on the cab fronts are yellow rather than black.

Redditch becomes a depot once again

As a throw back that has not happened at Redditch since the 1960s when the former shed at the station closed trains were stabled at Redditch during the rail strikes in 2022 and 2023. It became customary for the last train on the day before a strike to be left at Redditch station in the platform so that when the train service restarted the day after the strike finished West Midlands Trains was able to ensure the first train of the day could operate. This way of working also meant the driver and conductor for the train had to be ferried to and from Redditch Station and the depot in a taxi. 

Spin off units

When Hunslet TPL designed the Class 323 in the early 1990s they always had an eye on more orders than just for the Birmingham and Manchester local services. As outlined above there were moves to purchase some for the West Yorkshire electrification project around Bradford which came to nothing. The 323 actually was given clearance to theoretically subject to availability of electric power to be used on any line in Great Britain which certainly has not happened with trains produced more recently. Hunslet TPL did go onto produce a potential diesel version of the Class 323 that was provisionally given the Class 157 designation. The plan was 21 units of what was know as the Strathclyde Sprinter  would be built for use in the Glasgow area. In the end Class 170 unit were purchased instead.

Looking for export potential from the Class 323 Hunslet TPL landed a contract with KTM Komuter who are a commuter rail system in Malaysia. 18 sets were ordered,  designed by Hunslet TPL and built by Ganz Works between 1993 and 1994. KTM Komuter designated the units as Class 81 in the fleet. The KTM Class 81 design is derived from the British Rail Class 323, with the main alteration being that it has single leaf swing-plug doors instead of a double leaf type. The units entered service on 3rd August 1995 and were built to run on metre gauge track. These 3 car sets were often run in the peak periods in 9 car formations.  Spare parts for the units soon became a problem with many of the units ending up being hauled by diesel locomotives. All had been taken out of service by 2012 as new trains came into service. However, in 2018 five of the 18 units were refurbished and put back into service. The units have a total seating capacity of 224 passengers.