Trackside Classic: 1960 British Railways Metro Cammell ‘Blue Pullman’ – Another Forgotten Pioneer

This poster dates from 1960. It depicts the Peak District of northern England, an area of moors and limestone – a vital lung for Sheffield and Manchester, and from 1951 England’s first National Park. The train is an enigma – it’s the Midland Pullman, one of a very small fleet of diesel units personifying a time of new optimism and faith in the future in Britain. It was designed for luxury and speed but excelled at neither, and had a short and unsuccessful life, before disappearing with minimal fanfare. You’d think that would be it, but the train set the template for what followed, which was the best conventional train in the world.

Pullman originated in America, of course, as George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897), an engineer who had grown rich by lifting and moving buildings, grew frustrated at the discomforts of overnight travel on early railroads. His eponymous company was founded in 1867, and at its height in the mid-1920s it operated over 9,000 railroad cars across the USA, employing 30,000 travelling staff, and another 4,000 in the company’s works at Pullman, now part of Chicago, where  the company built railroad cars for itself and the railroads. Pullman was famous for employing freed African-American slaves as porters, but his liberalism only went so far – his staff were poorly paid and dependent on tips for a decent income – and in 1894, a 30% cut in wages that wasn’t matched by rent cuts in company owned housing triggered the famous Pullman strike.

There were Pullman cars in Britain (always cars, not carriages, reflecting the American origins) from 1874, when the Midland Railway introduced luxurious parlour cars operated by George Pullman’s company in a contemporary American style to their expresses linking London to Yorkshire. Not surprisingly, given the famous self-confidence and image consciousness of the Midland, it was called ‘Midland’. The (British) Pullman Car Company was formed in 1882, to operate premium fare parlour and dining cars on selected trains for the Midland and other companies, and from 1907 it was independent of its American parent.

British Pullman cars were always parlour cars in Pullman-speak – luxurious vehicles for daytime travel, often with a dedicated kitchen and dining car attached – rather than the American focus on sleeping cars. Notable all Pullman trains at the company’s pre-WW2 height, painted in the famous umber and cream livery, included the ‘Brighton Belle’ (London Victoria to Brighton), using purpose built third rail electric units, and the London – Edinburgh ‘Queen of Scots’, which was marketed on luxury but not speed – the London and North Eastern Railway kept the fast trains for itself!

But by the early 1950s, with the rest of the railways nationalised, the still independent Pullman company had fallen on hard times, and it surrendered to nationalisation in 1954. The Brighton Belle electric units, for example, dated from 1932, and were then Pullman’s newest vehicles. This ‘Queen of Scots’ may look like a luxury train, but it’s traditional vehicles are hardly cutting edge for 1955, nor is it in the best of condition. So Pullman had to change to survive.

Building a Pullman diesel multiple unit (DMU) to do just that represented the belated adoption of an idea from America. In 1955, just twenty years after the Burlington Route’s Pioneer Zephyr, and after American passenger train development and construction had virtually stopped, Britain decided to copy the idea – a diesel train specified and performing to Pullman standards of luxury and catering, in a modern style.  The concept was pure Zephyr, however – modern construction, a diesel engine in a leading power and driving vehicle with passenger vehicles behind, all designed and operated as a self-contained set.

The Blue Pullman (officially, BR class 251) was designed by a team assembled from within BR and Pullman (yes, it may have been nationalised, but it wasn’t integrated into BR until 1962) and built by the venerable train and bus body builder Metropolitan Cammell, at the Washwood Heath plant in Birmingham that eventually closed in 2006 after building the West Coast Pendolini.

Power was to come from two diesels, one at each end in what Pullman called the ‘motor cars’. The engine as a 1,000hp V12 MAN diesel, built under licence by North British Locomotives in Glasgow.

The sets came in two forms – six cars or eight. But, just to be awkward, the eight car was not the six plus two extra cars. The eight car sets comprised two four car half sets, starting with a motor car with a driving cab, the diesel power unit and a second class saloon with 18 seats, followed by a second class Parlour Car, a kitchen car and then a first class parlour car, then the same but in reverse. The six car sets were first class only, with each half set comprising a power car with first class saloon, a kitchen car and a first class saloon. Obviously, as if costs and complexity were not already bad enough, someone decided it made sense for the kitchen cars to be of different layouts and therefore not interchangeable.

Each car was fitted with a roof mounted air conditioning unit – one of the first, if not the first, in Britain. Power for this, plus other on-train systems, came from auxiliary diesel engines mounted underneath the kitchen cars in the six car sets and the second class cars in the eight car sets. Rolls-Royce saw benefit in promoting their role in the Blue Pullman, even if it was just ten auxiliary engines, which says something about the profile of the project.

The appearance of the trains was dramatic, with an aerodynamic nose to the power cars and cohesive modern styling to the passenger cars, and the livery was the visual high point. Gone was stuffy old brown and cream, and in its place bright sparkling Nanking Blue with white detailing around the windows – Britain’s rails had seen nothing like it before.

On the inside, the train didn’t look like a traditional Pullam either. The idiom was definitely 1960s ‘white heat of technology’, with aluminium trim and double glazing, alongside traditional Pullman veneers that matched anything in a contemporary Jaguar. Seats were adjustable, and there were Venetian blinds between the panes of the double glazed windows. Service, of course, was impeccable.

There were just 3 eight car sets and 2 six cars – a total of 36 vehicles. The eight cars sets were built for the Western Region, to run from London to Birmingham and to Bristol, as the ‘Birmingham Pullman’ and ‘Bristol Pullman’ respectively, and the six car sets for the London Midland region, to be the ‘Midland Pullman’ to Manchester – running from the northern showpiece of St Pancras and through the Peak District to Manchester Central.

The first unit was complete, after long delays, in October 1959, but it was July 1960 before the Midland services began; the Western sets didn’t run in service until September 1960.

Timetables on both services were set to suit business traffic to London; the Midland Pullman, for example, left Manchester around 8am and got you to London by 11am. Return was around 6pm, and back to Manchester after a leisurely dinner around 9pm. For all the publicity about sustained high speed, timings were not fast on either the Midland or the Western routes – the Western trains were slower than standard fare steam hauled expresses, and the Midland struggled to exploit the claimed 90mph capability of the Blue Pullman.

Premium fares were charged of course – a first class return on the ‘Bristol Pullman’ was 74 shillings, plus 10 shillings each way Pullman premium – 94 shillings is £4.70 in decimal money, say £100 in today’s prices. Today’s first class tickets are more like £100 each way, such is the crazy world of British train tickets, but the journey is now 15 minutes faster.

So all good then? Modern, stylish, fast, luxurious, well scheduled, and premium fares? What could go wrong? Unfortunately, quite a bit.

The Blue Pullman wasn’t fast enough – slower than steam expresses to Birmingham and Bristol. It wasn’t reliable enough, and with only 3 sets on the Western for two services, and two on the Midland for one, unreliability (even with a technician travelling alongside the driving crew on every train) often meant cancellation or replacement by the old tech steam. Maintenance in depots shared with steam engines probably didn’t help, and the fleet was too small  for anyone to really dedicate themselves to understanding them, making a recipe for underperformance.

And the ride. Not good enough. In fact, not good at all. Right from the start, and probably contributing to the delayed introduction, Metro-Cammell and BR knew the ride was poor, and they never managed to fix it. So while the food and drink was good, there was too high a chance of soup or gin splashing your best suit. The fault was the Swiss built bogies, which were frictionless and hydraulically damped helical springs; they worked beautifully in Switzerland but reasons that were never fully determined or perfected, didn’t like British track.

From this to this

Neither service was a commercial success, but there was a logic to their routing. In the early 1960s, the main route from London to Birmingham and Manchester, the West Coast Main Line from London Euston, was going through a very disruptive but ultimately greatly beneficial process of electrification, with stations including Euston itself, Birmingham New St and Manchester Piccadilly all being extensively rebuilt. The Western Region Pullmans from Paddington to Birmingham Snow Hill and the Midland Pullman from St Pancras to Manchester Central offered, in theory, a disruption free alternative for those prepared to pay for it.

Pretty quickly, it was obvious the Blue Pullman was an orphan. And from 1967, the Midland and Birmingham trains were withdrawn, and service concentrated on Bristol and South Wales; once the West Coast to Manchester was fully electrified, the Midland route through the Peak District was allowed to wither and die. The wonderful bright blue was gone, replaced by the new InterCity blue and grey but reversed, with blue along the windows over a predominantly pale grey train with bright yellow ends – the sense of drama was gone.

The final end came in 1973, when the Western Pullmans were discontinued; few people noticed, and none of these interesting and potentially wonderful trains survived.

So, was the Blue Pullman a failure? Underpowered, too slow, underachieving on the luxury ambition, and a mainline life of barely a decade suggests it was. But BR was not deterred. The lessons of performance and comfort were learned, and the next diesel powered express train with power cars with an aerodynamic nosecone at each end, spacious air conditioned coaches, was a world beater, with a superb  ride and stunning speed – the classic and still unmatched InterCity 125.

Incidentally, Manchester Central, northern terminus of the ‘Midland Pullman’, is now a cracking convention centre, and in April was converted in just 10 days into north west England’s NHS Nightingale hospital, with 750 beds for coronavirus patients. Just one reason why everybody in Britain treasures the NHS.