The Great Western Railway always knew it was better than other British railway companies, and was tremendously proud of its steam locomotives, so expecting its successor the Western Region of British Railways to replace them with underpowered diesel electrics like the rest was a nonstarter. Instead, the Western went its own way as usual, with Britain’s only diesel hydraulic locomotives, culminating in the distinctive but flawed Western class, which is still beloved by its fans 40 years after the last one left the mainline.
British Railways recognised that the days of steam were ending in the famous Modernisation Plan published in 1955, but the planning and development of replacement diesel power left a lot to be desired.
There were some early prototypes, seen in this poster promoting the BR Standard steam designs, but there was no appetite to learn from the likes of GM’s EMD division, whose well proven diesel power had already transformed American railroading, and the pesky Europeans seemed to be concentrating on electrification that Britain couldn’t afford. Britain, it was quickly and easily decided, must have diesels designed and built in Britain.
This led to a Pilot Scheme of diesels from British manufacturers with little if any experience of what they were trying to do. With the honourable exception of English Electric, whose 2000hp Type 4 Class 40 design was ultimately a reliable if unspectacular locomotive, the early designs were mostly underpowered, unreliable or both.
We got things like this – the 105 ton 1,250hp class 31 from Brush –
and this, the 133 ton 2,500hp class 45, which could trace its origins to the very first British mainline diesel engine, the LMS prototypes 10000 and 10001 of 1946. Not exciting, not powerful enough to sustain modern express speeds, and heavy, even if ultimately reliable. But we were stuck with these on the Eastern and London Midland regions respectively for twenty years.
Still it could have been worse. There was this – the Metro-Vick class 28 Co-Bo (three axles at one end, two at the other), and all of 1,200hp from 97 tons, assuming the Crossley diesel worked, which it often didn’t. They lasted just eight years.
The underwhelming Pilot Scheme options left the field open for more imaginative ideas to flourish; you can’t blame the Eastern Region for being wowed by the Deltics, or the Western Region looking further afield for their new express power. CC has already seen the mighty Deltics, which transformed the East Coast Main Line from 1961 – for many years, they were the most powerful single unit diesels in the world, packing 3,300hp into their 100 tons, with the lightweight two stroke opposed piston Deltic diesel derived from a maritime engine with German roots. Just as fascinating were the Western Region’s diesel hydraulics, and they too had a German link.
But, first, what is a diesel hydraulic? Well, instead of being used to generate electricity, the diesel engine drives a torque converter, in one of two variations. The Maybach company offered Mekhydro, where a single torque converter was linked to an automatically shifting mechanical gearbox, while Voith preferred a design with three torque converters operating in sequence. Either way, the great advantage is a significant weight saving over diesel electrical transmissions of the same power, plus simpler maintenance – no complex electrical motors for a workforce raised on steam power to understand.
In 1953, Deutsche Bundesbahn, the nationalised system in West Germany, had introduced its Krauss-Maffei V200 class diesel hydraulic. These distinctively styled engines produced 2,200hp from twin V12 Maybach diesels; the class used both the Mekhydro and Voith hydraulic transmission systems, in both cases fitted to a Krauss-Maffei chassis and running gear. Paul gave us a good summary of them in 2012.
The combination of high power, good speed and low weight appealed to the Western, and after some top quality corporate politics by the WR’s management, BR approved development of a 2,000 hp diesel hydraulic based very closely on the V200, and weighing just 80 tons.
It appears that the WR may have been disingenuous in its approach to the BR Board – it wasn’t just a lightweight, high power locomotive that appealed. There is evidence that the WR deliberately sought to be different to other regions, by having a different type of power that would be unfamiliar to crews outside the WR, as a way of keeping control of its locomotive fleet and of providing a guaranteed maintenance workload for the famous Swindon works.
The engines were to be built in Britain, by the WR itself at Swindon and by the Glasgow locomotive building company North British Locomotives (NBL). Neither understood the complexities of the stressed bodywork functioning as part of the load bearing structure, which led to cost and time overruns – and eliminated the claimed cost saving compared to English Electric’s diesel electric offerings.
In 1958 the first of what became the Warship class appeared from Swindon. The Warship looked like what it was – a V200 squashed to fit the British loading gauge. The distinctive styling was carried over, and it had Maybach diesels (two of 1,035hp each, built under licence by Bristol Siddeley at Coventry) and Mekhydro transmission. There were 38 of them, all named after Royal Navy ships except no 800, named after Sir Brian Robertson, then Chairman of BR.
In 1960, the visually identical NBL version appeared, with diesels by MAN and transmission by Voith, built under licence by NBL. There were 33 of these, giving a total of 71 Warships – the two classes were used interchangeably, although the Swindon built Maybach engined version was more reliable. Originally painted green, to match BR and GWR steam power, they went through a maroon phase before BR blue was imposed from 1965 onwards. But all had gone by 1972, a life of less than 15 years. By then, BR had imposed standardisation and the hydraulics stood out as an expensive anomaly. In addition, there was no room in the cramped body to fit electric train heat equipment, to support the new standard BR Mark 2 coaches. Yes, until the late 1960s, British diesels were built with steam heating boilers to provide heat for passengers, and the brakes were vacuum rather than the more efficient air.
We should also record the 1,700hp hydraulic built in 1961-64, by the great Manchester engine builder Beyer-Peacock in partnership with Bristol Siddeley, using a single Maybach power unit and Mekhydro transmissions, and known as the Hymek. Uniquely among this crop of German and British designs, it was single engined, with the transmission cemntrally located, between the bgoies, with driveshafts going to both bogies, rather than the twin central power units and end mounted transmissions of the other designs .
Which brings us to the last of these intriguing engines, the 2,700hp Western class. These were designed to replace the last of the Great Western express steam, after it had become apparent that the 2,000hp Warships weren’t up to the task. The design was wholly the work of the Swindon drawing office, with no input from others, and used two of the Maybach power units that had proved themselves in the single engine Hymek, each matched to a Voith transmission and driving one of the three axle bogies. Two power units were used for two reasons – redundancy in the event of one failing, and the fact that a hydraulic transmission couldn’t cope with the power output from a single power unit of the size the Western would require – the Western made this an advantage by duplicating the engine and transmission at each end.
The first Western, numbered D1000, appeared in December 1961 from Swindon – here she stands with proud staff outside the Works. After an initial plan to name the 74 members of the class after landmarks of the WR’s territory in western England and south Wales was dropped, she was named Western Enterprise, and the others all followed suit, with Western prefacing a names intended to denote power, speed and strength – see the full list here. The name and number plates were the full Great Western style, albeit now cast in aluminium rather than brass, and thus, when BR moved to a class based numbering scheme in 1970, the class was uniquely not renumbered into its designated 52XXX series.
There was no attempt to make the new class look like the smaller Warships; rather, they had a very clean and stylish look which has aged well. The design was overseen by the BR Design Panel, a group of designers commissioned by BR to modernise its ‘look and feel’. Among its team were Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, who devised the famous Rail Alphabet that is used to this day, as well as the UK’s standard motorway signage (probably the easiest for a driver to understand that I have ever seen). The Panel also reviewed the design of new rolling stock from the late 1950s onwards, and its impact can be seen in the rapid evolution from the traditional styling of a class 40 to something much more in keeping with the 1960s, like the Western. It matches the style evolution from a Morris Minor to a Morris 1100 almost perfectly.
Colours were a matter for debate, however. D1000 emerged in an unusual shade called ‘Desert Sand’ which got mixed reviews. D1001 Western Pathfinder used maroon based on the colours of the old LMS, and matching BR’s standard coaching stock livery of the time (but not the WR’s – it preferred Great Western ‘chocolate and cream’ for its express trains!); and D1002 Western Explorer, D1003 Western Pioneer and D1004 Western Crusader used the same green livery as the Warships.
Finally, D1015 Western Champion briefly carried a livery of ‘golden ochre’ with a unique style for the yellow warning panel deemed compulsory on both ends from the early 1960s onwards.
From then on, maroon became the standard until ‘Rail Blue’ swept away the various schemes used across BR. The last one turned blue in 1971 – D1046 Western Marquis; they were rarely this clean!
By December 1963, and D1029 Western Legionnaire, there were 74 Westerns; D1000 to D1029 were built at Swindon; D1030 to D1074 at the London Midland Region’s Crewe works.
They were based at Old Oak Common in London, where the GWR had serviced locomotives for over a century; Laira depot in Plymouth; and Canton in Cardiff. Their principal role was to replace double headed Warships on the WR’s premier expresses, but the mechanical efficiency of the design failed to match that of diesel electrics with similar headline power, and they rarely maintained their top speed of 90mph for long with heavy trains. Like the Warships, the Westerns lacked electric train heating capability, and were equipped with just a troublesome boiler for train heating – by 1970, an obvious anachronism.
And, realistically, even in 1963 a maximum of 90mph was not enough to stimulate the growth in passenger numbers that the London – Manchester electrification or the carefully developed East Coast Main Line with its 100mph Deltics achieved. They never strayed far from the Western Region – only WR drivers were qualified to drive them, and the thought of them being serviced in a strange place doesn’t bear thinking about. Trips north of Birmingham in BR days could probably be counted on the fingers on one hand, although I did see one in Leeds once.
But the Westerns weren’t just express engines. They were used on express freight as well, and, as recently as 2009, preserved D1015 Western Champion has on occasion been hired by railfreight company Colas to haul Cornish china clay
And the Westerns were flawed. They were approved on the basis of undercutting diesel electrics on build and maintenance costs, but neither saving materialised. They didn’t achieve the greater availability that the simpler design promised, and the drivetrain failed to deliver the promise made for it. So it wasn’t really a surprise that BR curtailed any ambitions for further development of diesel hydraulics after 1963. Ironically, the decision was taken by the new Chairman of the WR, Gerry Fiennes, after his transfer from the Eastern Region where he had driven the introduction of the Deltics in response to the disappointing pilot scheme designs.
So, by 1974, when the electric wires spread north from Manchester to Glasgow and freed up a fleet of 50 English Electric diesels dating from just 1967 with a 2700hp power unit and genuinely capable of 100mph with a heavy express, they moved to the WR and the Westerns began a fairly repaid decline, By February 1977, the last, D1048 Western Lady, had left the mainline, as the wonderful Inter-City 125 took over WR expresses.
But seven Westerns are still active in various places, on preserved lines and at the National Railway Museum – D1023 Western Fusilier flies the hydraulic flag at York (Have I ever mentioned that the NRM is the best of its kind in the world?), and you may come across D1010 Western Campaigner, D1015 Western Champion and D1062 Western Courier working on preserved lines. Here, D1062 graces Edinburgh Waverley station with a railtour– fully 300 miles from any WR rails!
So, were the Westerns a failure? A frontline career of just 10 years, barely adequate speed and hauling power and a flawed drivetrain suggests so. But if you don’t try, you won’t know, and daring to be different can sometimes succeed. Perhaps, with a bit of the continuous development that the Great Western always practiced on its express engines (and the Eastern Region gave the Deltics), these weaknesses would have been addressed. Either way, we had something distinctive and individual to enjoy alongside the many humdrum diesels BR inflicted on us, which was definitely a good thing!