Curtains Close on the “Clactons” – 1963 to 1994.

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309603 and 309622 at the buffer stops at Clacton. This was in the 1970s/early 1980s ‘Rail Blue’ era. When new, the ‘309s were finished in maroon. In the mid ’80s they went into orange/grey Network Southeast (NSE) ‘Jaffa Cake’ livery, before receiving NSE “standard” re/white/blue.

The “Clacton” Class 309 electric multiple units (emus) ran between the Essex coastal resort and London, from 1963 to 1994. They were the first British emus capable of 100 mph, and were based on the Mk I carriage design. Busmopolitan presents a nostalgic account of their final days in Essex, although several had second lives in north west England, up to 2000. The text is by John Podgorski MSc, CMILT – (reproduced below).

I was keen to ride on the Class 309 EMUs before their demise, as I fondly remembered travelling on them when I was at college at Clacton in 1984 to 1986.

Arriving at Colchester North on the evening of 21st January, 1994; I found several other people there waiting to pay their last respects to the “Clactons”.

Camera flashes and videos recorded nos 606 + 607, packed with commuters, arrive at Platform 2, and ten more minutes elapsed before the final scheduled Class 309 working; the 1822 London Liverpool Street to Clacton, pulled into Platform one – formed of units 626 + 613 + 616. There was a small group of enthusiasts on this train and further “bashers” (alternative name for enthusiasts), got on at Wivenhoe and Thorpe Le Soken.

At Clacton, a TV crew was waiting to film the event; although they first had to overcome the annoyance of a British Rail official, who claimed the cameraman’s work light had dazzled the driver on his approach into the platform. After that little problem had been smoothed over, the initial attempt to record the motorman leaving the cab, needed a second take when the door window jammed !

Returning to Colchester on (appropriately) Class 321 no 309, another “Clacton” unit formation was waiting at North Station; this being nos 624 + 618 + 623, which had just arrived as the 2023 from Ipswich and was awaiting a clear road, as ecs (empty coaching stock) to its home depot. Once the green signal showed, the ‘309 accelerated away into the darkness, under the watchful eye of further spectators.

The final day ………..

Saturday 22nd January dawned overcast, although the sun broke through at times later in the day. Arriving at Colchester North Station, to join the 1200 from Clacton ‘309 special, enthusiasts easily outnumbered the travelling public on Platform 4. As the train hoved into view, it turned out to be the same rake of stock, which had performed the final regular 1822 run the previous evening, but this time sporting a headboard proclaiming ‘309 Farewell 22nd January 1994’!

I took a seat upfront in unit no 616, and enjoyed an effortless journey via Chelmsford to London; the old lady defying her 31 years of age, with plenty of high speed running. As we descended Brentwood Bank, I was engaged in conversation with Daniel, a Cheshire enthusiast; who told me that a lot of North Wales Class 37 (diesel locomotive) “bashers”, were seeing off the “Clactons” that day.

Arrival at Liverpool Street was bang on time at 1323; the same train leaving at 1400 – with many of the enthusiasts who had been on the outward trip, again on board. For the sortie back into Essex, 309626 led us up Bethnal Green Bank, as cameras and videos were aimed out of every available droplight; much to the bemusement of one “normal” passenger, who eventually conceded defeat and fell asleep !

There was a great deal of trackside interest, as the penultimate Class 309 traversed the suburban slow lines and the Ilford flyover. The signaller at Goodmayes took photos from his in-built vantage point and a man with a Land Rover, (at Brentwood) panned a shot of us as we sped by. Arriving at Chelmsford, there was much platform end activity, with amongst the throng – one Michael J Collins, (well known contemporary local rail photographer). And then came a perfect run to Colchester, again arriving on time.

The last run …………………

At 1845 on a chilly January night, there were but two hardy souls on the end of Colchester Platform one. Could this have been, because the announcer stated twice in succession, that it was the first four coaches only for the 1855 to Clacton ?

A horn sounded in the distance, and out of the gloom loomed the familiar shape of a Class 309. Climbing aboard unit no 626 again and settling in Driving Trailer car no 75974; I felt an air of anticipation as I was seeing the end of an era.

As it pulled away from Colchester, a small gathering waved the Class 309 farewell. After taking the underpass beneath the Great Eastern Main Line, 626 + 613 + 616 headed towards the coast through East Gates and Hythe, and on into the darkness of the marshes alongside the River Colne, with only shipping navigation lights showing the way. The familiar whirring noise of the reheostatic brakes brought us to a halt at Wivenhoe. Once on the move again, it was up the grade past the site of the long closed branch to Brightlingsea, which would still have (just) been open when the ‘309s were brand new. Back to 1994, the venerable electric stock was “opened up”, through Alresford and then on past the former station at Thorrington – by then a scrapyard, (and still so in 2015). Great Bentley came and went, before Weeley was reached.

There was a good turnout of enthusiasts on the final ‘309 working; many of whom were chatting away in the forward section of car no 75974, as we decelerated into Thorpe Le Soken. There, a class 312 emu awaited passengers for Walton on the Naze, but activity was very much focused on the ‘309, as the refreshments trolley did its rounds.

Two rings of the conductor’s starting signal, and it was time for the final leg of the journey. For the first quarter of a mile, the tracks to Clacton and Walton ran side by side, before the latter curved sharply to the right. At this stage, the lights of the seaside town could be seen on the horizon.

Over Burrsville level crossing and Valley Road bridge, and the end was now in sight as the last Class 309 in Great Eastern service slowed down, past the darkened outline of sister unit no 604. As the “Clacton” drew to a standstill in Platform 3, a cheer rose from the occupants of the front carriage, followed by a photo call. However, the sense of occasion felt 24 hours previously was sadly lacking, with no obvious tribute to the retirement of the Class 309s, except for a scrum of photographers. In fact it was not long, before the train was shunted away to the sidings, without ceremony.

And so that was it; one more British Rail traction class consigned to the history books. Riding out of Clacton on 321357, one last glimpse of the ‘309 Farewell’ was afforded; stabled will all lights on as the Class 321 glided silently past. A fellow passenger commented, “These new ones won’t last 31 years”. We shall see.

The “Clacton sunset” had receded into a deep winter’s night.

312711 FGE LST 11-99
Above: One of the Class 309’s successors was the Class 312.
312711 was pictured at London Liverpool Street, in November 1999.
(John Podgorski).

321329 KIRBY CROSS 5-09
Above: A Class 321 emu. 321329 at Kirby Cross, bound for Walton on the Naze, in May 2009. This, and the previously illustrated Class 312, are in post privatisation Great Eastern colours.
Class 309s used to run up this branch, as well as to Clacton.
(John Podgorski).

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