LIKE MOST GOOD IDEAS, THE SETG WAS THE PRODUCT OF A FEW FRIENDS IN A PUB AND A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF SHANDY…
… but its roots stretch back to the impending withdrawal of slam door trains from the railways of Southern England in 2005.
In the early 2000s South West Trains decided to mark the passing of their slam door fleet by repainting and refurbishing one of their 4VEP units into as near delivery condition as possible. The man tasked with overseeing this operation was Chris Buckland, a Fleet production manager based at Wimbledon Park depot in South West London. His first task was to select a unit from the fleet. With a mind to history, 4VEPs having been the first electric units to take over the London to Bournemouth route in the 1960s, Chris ideally wanted to use the first unit to be delivered: No. 3401. However, in Chris’s own words, 3401 was “a bit knackered”. Looking through the reams of history on each of the first 20 units it soon became obvious that of all of them No. 3417 was the best candidate. It was the freshest from overhaul, it had suffered very few mechanical failures and the state of its bodywork and upholstery was acceptable. It was a good ‘un.
Once in the shed at Wimbledon Park, Chris masterminded the work needed to turn the clock back to 1967. Fresh paint, a refreshed interior – everything possible was done to ensure that when the unit arrived at London Waterloo for its grand relaunch on 2nd June 2004 the unit would look fresh from the factory. Not everything went smoothly: not many people know, for example, that on that journey from Wimbledon to Waterloo there were two fitters feverishly attaching new mirrors to the walls of the toilets. The contractors who had fitted them the first time had used double-sided tape instead of screws. When the toilet doors were closed, the new (and rather expensive) mirrors fell off the wall.
Until withdrawal a year later, No. 3417 became something of a celebrity and was looked after accordingly and after withdrawal the celebrity status continued. The unit become the first push-pull slam door train to work over the Swanage branch since 1972, the last slam door train to work on the London & South Western mainline unpiloted, the first multiple unit to work south from the Bluebell Railway’s new station at East Grinstead, the only multiple unit ever to shunt the brand new steam locomotive No. 60163 “Tornado”… Retirement was unexpectedly but gratifyingly busy! Having moved from the ownership of South West Trains to the Bluebell Railway in 2009, it quickly became clear that as the last remaining representative of its class No. 3417 would require specialised attention to ensure that it remained not only presentable but able to work.
Since the initial refurbishment work carried out in 2004, No. 3417 had been looked after by a core of staff at Wimbledon Park depot co-ordinated by Chris Buckland. After retirement from front line service, Chris and a small band of fitters and drivers from Wimbledon Park continued to ensure that the VEP was kept in good condition. This small group of enthusiastic railwaymen, now supplemented by generous support from individuals from across the erstwhile Southern Region of British Rail as well as from outside the railway industry, are now the backbone of the Southern Electric Traction Group. We are working to ensure that the Bluebell Railway’s most modern item of rolling stock is well looked after!