When introduced they were the most powerful locomotives in Australia with a rating of 2,880 kW. Based at Lithgow depot they were purchased principally to haul coal trains over the Blue Mountains line. They also hauled other freight trains and on occasions passenger services including the Indian Pacific.
A combination of National Rail electing to use diesel locomotives on electrified lines and a move to an open access model in New South Wales resulting in electric traction being priced out of the market saw the need for electric traction drop. In April 1998, the 85 class were withdrawn and stored at Lithgow.