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<< Profile 27 >> VAA/VBA/VCA/VDA Air-Braked Vans
Build Details: 1969-1977 BR Ashford & Shildon
Numbering: 200000-201099, 210100-210399
Bogies / Suspension:
Dimensions: 11251mm (36ft 11in) LOB , 6325mm (20ft 9in) wheelbase
Published Drawings: British Railways Wagons - The First Half Million (Don Rowland, David & Charles, 1985)
Areas of operation: Nationwide
Main liveries: Bauxite, Railfreight red/grey, EWS maroon plus others
Summary: These 1400 wagons, built between 1969 and 1978, were BR's first general-purpose air-braked vans, their main use being on the new Air-Braked Network (later Speedlink) services. Although similar in appearance, there were numerous detail differences between and within each batch. The decline in wagonload traffic and the appearance of newer types have seen most of the fleet either condemned or modified for other uses.

History: The design of goods vans was transformed during the 1960s. Two types appeared that overnight made the standard 12ton 10ft wheelbase vans look antiquated. The first were for international traffic, rated initially at 20tons and featuring dual-braked underframes with a 26ft 3in wheelbase. The second were 22ton pallet vans built to carry car parts for Ford, with large sliding doors, 20ft 9in wheelbase underframes and (on the later batches) air brakes. The configuration of the Ford vans was developed for more general use and, combined with developments in chassis technology, resulted in a new design known initially as the COV AB.

Four lot numbers were initially issued, covering 220 standard vans and 3 batches of 10 each with experimental suspension. Numbers allocated were as follows:

Numbers Lot Diagram Suspension type
B787480-B787699 3685 1/248 Double Link
B787700-B787709 3696 1/257 Single Link
B787710-B787719 3686 1/253 Taperlite
B787720-B787729 3687 1/254 DOD Mk.1

Construction got underway at Ashford Works but before any were completed there was a change of plan. A new numbering sequence for air-braked wagons was envisaged, dropping the traditional B prefix. Within this sequence, the block of numbers starting at 200000 was set aside for general merchandise vans and new numbers were allocated to the vans as follows:
Lot 3685 was cut back to 209 wagons numbered 200000 to 200208.
Lot 3696 took numbers 200240 to 200249
Lot 3686 took numbers 200220 to 200228
Lot 3687 took numbers 200230 to 200239
The balance of lot 3685 was split across two new lots as below.
Lot 3739 for wagon 200209 with experimental doors
Lot 3725 for wagons 200210 to 200219 with experimental suspension.

The first to emerge were the lot 3685 wagons, starting in June 1969. Their appearance was unlike earlier vans due mainly to the flush-fitting doors and the horizontal ribs that ran the full length of the sides. Each side was formed of two doors, the left hand of which had three recessed handles. When operated, this door could be pulled foward allowing either door to slide open. The ends were plain and the wagons were painted in freight brown with the BR double arrow logo in white. To allow the number to be visible at all times, the first wagons carried the TOPS panel, complete with COV AB code, at each end. Some early wagons also received Air Braked Network markings, this being a yellow disc with the letters ABN on it.

Additional notes on construction and early service to be added soon.

With general merchandise traffic in short supply, transfers to departmental use commenced in the early 1980s. Most affected was the VCA fleet, with all but 48 becoming ZRAs with ADC prefixes. The prototype (200209) was also converted, though sources differ as to whether it was still a VCB and became a ZRB, or had already become a VCA before being recoded ZRA. Other transfers to the CMEE fleet (with appropriate ADC prefixes) were five VABs that became ZRBs, and most of the first 30-odd VDAs. The S&T engineers took 7 VDAs including the two protoypes (200077 and 200165), all becoming ZRAs. Many additional vans became ZRAs over the next few years, while 1985 saw the recoding of 15 ZRAs back to VCA for use on tinplate traffic in South Wales.

Also in the early 1980s, 21 vans that had damaged bodywork were converted to runners. The work involved removing all bodywork above floor level and the resulting wagon was recoded RRA. Three VCAs were treated (one ex VC010A becoming RR037B and two ex VC010D becoming RR037A), the remainder being former VDAs to various design codes, all coming under RR038A. In 1984 these 21 wagons were returned to Derby Litchurch Lane for the fitting of additional ballast weights. Upon release they were renumbered with DC prefixes, ZEA TOPS codes and ‘Bream’ fishkinds. The design codes were changed to ZE002A (ex RR037A), ZE002B (ex RR037B) and ZE001A (ex RR038A). The ZEA fleet was soon increased to 40 by the addition of 19 VDAs converted at Doncaster in 1985.

By March 1986, 1,088 vans remained in revenue use. Included in this total was the prototype VHA and 94 VABs and 50 VBBs, although the programme to remove through vacuum pipes was underway again. All the VABs had been recoded as VAAs by the end of the year, with the VBB to VBA programme being completed by the following April. The VHA was condemned in February 1987 but quickly reinstated and put in store.

The VCAs with their unique door arrangement continued to be unpopular in revenue use, and many were employed instead as barrier wagons (without official recoding). In mid-1987, 29 VCAs had their bodywork removed and container mounting lugs fitted. As such they were recoded FPA and they joined earlier such conversions from SAA wagons on coal traffic in Scotland. A further use for former VCAs was on building block traffic for Plasmor. One wagon (200533) was sold to them in 1987. It was temporarily renumbered PLAS6330 with TOPS code PVA and moved to W H Davis at Langwith Junction for modification. A futher 29 ZRAs (ex VCAs) were sold to Plasmor in 1988. The conversion involved removing the bodywork and fitting low mesh sides that could be folded flat on the floor when the wagon was empty. PVA PLAS6330 became POA PLAS5417 upon completion in June, with the former VCA/ZRAs quickly following as PLAS5418 to PLAS5446. An additional 15 VCA/ZRA vans were sold and converted in late 1988 and early 1989, these being renumbered PLAS5269 to PLAS5283. Design code PO019A was applied to both batches.

There were still more vans in stock than was needed and a total of 50 VDAs (including the prototype VHA) were set aside for possible conversion to OTA timber wagons. The first emerged from Cardiff Cathays in April 1988, retaining the van ends and floors, with tall stanchions along either side. Many were first used in Kent, following the great storm of October 1987, while others worked from Hexham. It is thought that the ex VDAs gained new design code OT002A while the former VHA (still recognisable due to its distinctive end panels, as illustrated in Rail issue 172) became an OT002B but an alternative source suggests that the VDAs were spread across OT002A to OT002D, with the VHA taking OT002E. In any case, the former VHA lasted only a few years as an OTA, being transferred to the departmental fleet as a ZDA (and possibly used as a sleeper carrier). Later in 1988 another 35 VDAs were sidelined awaiting similar conversion.

Meanwhile 26 VCAs that had become ZRAs were further recoded to ZYA and given LDC prefixes in 1988 upon transfer to the Electrification Engineer.

By the start of 1989, 999 wagons remained coded as revenue vans, reducing to 909 a year later. The remainder were now spread across a variety of other codes including FPA, OTA, POA, ZRA, ZXA and ZYA.

A new use for redundant vans was found in 1989 when an initial 4 VDAs were recoded as REAs. These were fitted with low-level couplings at one end and were used in connection with the moves of London Underground (LUL) tube stock between London and Crewe or Derby works. Another four were converted in 1990, and most (if not all) were repainted in LUL livery or red with a broad white band at low level, on which was a thin blue stripe. Design codes were RE002A (for ex VD001A) and RE002B (ex VD001C).

The TOPS code changes of 1990 had limited impact on the van fleet but it is worth mentioning that the Plasmor POAs became PNAs to PN019A. The withdrawal of revenue vans increased during the year, and a large batch of VAA, VBA and VDA wagons was sold to the Ministry of Defence for internal use at Bicester. By the end of the year, the number of wagons still coded as vans stood at 861 (195 VAA, 196 VBA, 34 VCA and 436 VDA). Transfer to departmental use was still the main fate of redundant vans, most becoming ZRA stores vehicles. However, a few were modified for special uses such as generator vehicles (to provide power for ballast hoppers fitted with lights) and these were generally recoded ZXA or ZXB. Transfers to the internal user fleet also started, some such vehicles being grounded. The use of spare vans as barrier wagons was officially recognised with about 30 being recoded RBA (RBA-V with design codes RB043A, RB044A and RB046A). A handful of these reverted to their revenue coding in 1992 and 1993.

During 1991 a new TOPS code of RLA (RLA-A) was applied to four former VDAs modified as LUL adaptors by GEC Alsthom. Design codes RL001A, RL001B and RL001C were issued to cover minor variations. The difference between these and the earlier REA wagons is not known, but the RLAs carried a light grey livery with yellow and blue stripes, and had RFS and LUL logos applied.

By the start of 1992, the fleet stood at 685 revenue vans (143 VAA, 182 VBA, 3 VCA and 357 VDA). There were also 33 RBAs, 8 REAs and 4 RLAs, together with an indeterminate number of FPA conflats, OTA timber wagons and various departmental wagons. During the year, the final 3 VCAs were withdrawn and the code was deleted. The number of RBA barriers increased to 64 by the end of the year, although quite a few recodings from RBA back to original also took place. The latter continued into 1993. Finally, 1992 saw the conversion of 2 more RLAs (work done at Derby Litchurch Lane to design code RL001D and wearing a plainer grey livery than the earlier RLAs) and 8 REAs.The surplus of vans remained and in late 1992, a start was made on converting 400 VDAs (and former VDAs) to ZCA-P Sea Urchin ballast wagons. The work was divided equally between four contractors (ABB Transportation, Marcroft Engineering, Prorail Bombadier and RFS Doncaster) and involved the removal of the van bodywork and replacing with a low-sided open body with heavy vertical reinforcment and angled top capping. The bodies were painted in departmental grey with the capping in yellow. The original plan was for 300 wagons to be allocated to Network Southeast (NSE) and the remainder to the West Coast Main Line. Deliveries commenced in March 1993 and the first batch replaced YCV Turbots in the South West of the NSE area. Design codes of ZC014A and ZC014B were assigned.

Later in 1993, more ZCA Sea Urchins were produced using VBA vans as source wagons. These were converted at RFS Doncaster and given design codes ZC015A (ex VB003F) and ZC018A (ex VB003C).

Also in 1993, four more RLAs were converted (two each to RL001D and RL001E) and there were additional recodings to and from RBA (including new codes of RBA-W and RB048A/RB049A for brake force vehicles). A new design code of VB003Z was curiously assigned when VAA 200033 was recoded as a VBA. By the start of 1994 there were 41 RBAs, 8 REAs, 10 RLAs, 121 VAAs, 96 VBAs and 101 VDAs.

Two more REAs appeared in 1994, both ex VDAs becoming REA-H, while perhaps the most interesting conversions of the year were a number of ZDAs (ZDA-D) for BR Telecomms (BRT). These retained their roofs and most of the ends but had the sides replaced with low drop-side doors. The result was a covered open wagon, if that is not an oxymoron, and the wagons were painted in light grey with yellow ends and prominent BRT logos. At least 17 such conversions were undertaken, with design code ZD164A allocated.

An SCT fleetbook for 1994 lists the BR owned fleet as at August, broken down as follows:

Code ex VAA/VBA ex VCA ex VDA Total
FPA 0 24 0 24
OTA 0 0 42 42
RBA 42 0 0 42
REA 0 0 10 10
RLA 0 0 10 10
RRA 0 0 1 1
VAA 122 0 0 122
VBA 76 0 0 76
VDA 0 0 97 97
ZCA 69 0 335 404
ZDA 11 0 8 19
ZEA 0 3 88 91
ZRA 12 63 60 135
ZRB 2 0 0 2
ZXA 1 0 9 10
ZYA 0 70 0 70
Total 335 160 660 1155

The formation of the three regional railfreight companies in 1994 had little impact on this fleet. A couple of vans were repainted in Loadhaul or Transrail livery, usually with prominent lettering, but this was more for promotional purposes than anything else. The only consistent employment for the van fleet now came from Ministry of Defence traffic, all other flows being handled by newer VGAs vans or privately-owned wagons. A number of vans (and former vans) received new prefixes to their stock numbers, these either being M (for Mainline Freight) or T (for Transrail).

In late 1995, one of the OTAs rebuilt from a VDA van was further recoded as an OSA (OSA-A). Wagon 200721 had design code OS001A assigned, and was intended for use carrying railway sleepers. It was given an unofficial fishkind name of Stickleback, but was placed in store within a few months and later reverted to an OTA (although the OSA code was later used for a similar conversion from RRA runners).

English Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS) was formed in 1996 and soon made it clear that it intended to increase the amount of freight being moved by rail. In order to cater for an expected resurgence of general merchandise traffic, a number of long-term stored vans were overhauled in 1997 and repainted in the new maroon livery (usually with a thin yellow stripe around the top). Another change was the recoding of some barrier wagons (RBA) back to the van series.

Within its first year, EWS placed orders for more Sea Urchin conversions. 66 vans formed part of this, the source wagons being former VCAs, which were not suitable for return to revenue use due to their unsatisfactory door arrangement. The wagons had been coded ZRA or ZYA for several years but were now recoded as ZCA (ZCA-C). At some point the earlier ZCA conversions were recoded such that former VBAs became ZCA-B and former VDAs, ZCA-D. Another modification job was the rebuilding of 50 (later increased to 67) former VDAs as OTAs, to a slightly revised design using codes in the OT003x series. The source wagons were a mix of VDAs and ZRAs.

In 1998 a former VDA was modified with curtain sides in place of the doors, although it retained its ZRA TOPS code (ZRA-A to ZR600A). It was withdrawn within a couple of years and no further wagons were converted. One ZRA (ex VCA) was recoded as a VXA-D to design code VX002A, for reasons unknown.

Spring 1999 saw the remaining 1,213 wagons coded as follows: 24 FPA (all ex VCA), 113 OTA (ex VDA), 8 RBA (ex VAA/VBA), 14 REA (ex VDA), 8 RLA (ex VDA), 78 RRA (ex VCA and VDA), 141 VAA, 98 VBA, 1 VCA (withdrawn), 65 VDA, 1 VXA, 479 ZCA, 30 ZDA, 11 ZEA, 2 ZEB, 54 ZRA, 1 ZRB, 10 ZXA, 1 ZXB, 22 ZYA and 22 ZYB.

24 vans were sold to the Ministry of Defence for mainline use in 1999, comprising former VCAs transferred to the electrification engineers as ZYAs, then to contractor Fastline. Most had been fitted with vacuum pipes at some point, being recoded ZYB accordingly. They were overhauled at Marcroft Engineering and renumbered in the range MODA7450 to MODA7473 as PDA (PDA-A). The design codes reflected the former ZYA/ZYB codes, ZY126A-D becoming PD006A-D respectively. An addition was former VDA 200677, which became a PDA-D to design code PD007A. The vans were repainted but retained their original doors, and were used for general MoD traffic. Codes PDA-B and PDA-C were intended for former ferry vans but these were taken into internal use instead.

The next few years saw the fleet reduce as large scale scrapping commenced. All variants were affected, including the ZCA Sea Urchins, which were largely replaced on ballast duties by new build bogie box wagons. By early 2008, just 542 wagons remained and many were in store as detailed below.

Code Active Stored Total
FPA 0 7 7
OTA 0 63 63
RBA 0 2 2
REA 0 6 6
RLA 0 8 8
RRA 5 20 25
VAA 0 13 13
VBA 0 9 9
VDA 1 1 2
VXA 4 4 8
VYA 0 5 5
ZCA 283 91 374
ZDA 0 5 5
ZEA 0 1 1
ZRA 0 9 9
ZXA 0 2 2
ZYB 0 3 3
Total 293 249 542

Many more wagons were dispatched for scrapping during the year.



Links: Photos of VAA/VBA BR Cov AB non-ventilated vans on Paul Bartlett's website

Photos of BR Cov AB Ventilated vans 200100 - 200119 on Paul Bartlett's website

Photos of VCA wagons and variants on Paul Bartlett's website

Photos of VDA wagons and variants on Paul Bartlett's website

Photos of VAA wagons on Martyn Read's website

Photos of VBA wagons on Martyn Read's website

Photos of VDA wagons on Martyn Read's website

Photos of VXA (ex VDA) wagons on Martyn Read's website

Photos of VAA wagons on Andy Jupe's website

Photos of VBA wagons on Andy Jupe's website

Photos of VDA wagons on Andy Jupe's website

Updates: 15/03/2013: Photo links (finally) updated.
For more pictures see the Links section at the bottom

VAA 200116 (with vent) in Railfreight livery, Tees Yard, 25th September 1988.
Paul Bartlett

VBA 200586 at Stewarts Lane, 12th April 1988.
Tom Young

VCA 200359 in original livery. Warrington, 11th April 1980.
Paul Bartlett

ZRA (ex VCA) DC200523 at Stewarts Lane, 12th April 1988.
Tom Young

VDA 200687 showing the cupboard doors open. Kidderminster, 7th July 1977.
Paul Bartlett

Page added: 22/12/2007 Spotted an error? Got some additional info?
Please e-mail me at tom (at)
Last edited: 30/09/2008