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.
Usual fascinating journey, Mr BigP.
It was a very good-looking in that livery, which seems to have been the best thing about it. If you’re being out-sped by steam, you have not advanced.
You’ll forgive me, but it does seem a very British tale from the era, what with different kitchens and such. Plenty of bright potential but not at all integrated (and why was Pullman still separate 10 years on?). Had anyone actually researched if such a limited car set had the ability to make a profit, for example? Unlike a posh version of a car, they built an entire train for a handful of services for the better-off: was that really necessary? Again, forgive me, but in England, wouldn’t some really effective ventilation be as useful as Rolls-Royce powered aircon for 90% of the time, especially with 1960 expectations? Why chose an unproven bogie set? And a tech riding with several drivers gets pricey pretty fast.
I wonder if a lot of the misfiring and messiness here is a product of nationalized thinking in BR, so to speak? The subsequent Intercity 125 might tend to say not, but you have to wonder.
Think I’ll settle back with a gin, and then dinner from the First-class only kitchen now. Cheers.
Oh, and here’s to the NHS, (or to Medicare, as the universal health care system is called in Australia). All power to them, especially in the NHS staff in the UK right now.
Speed wasn’t the issue with steam trains. They could be brutally fast, especially in the UK. And in the US too.
It was all about reduced costs from cutting out all the intensive maintenance, as well as the image of diesel being more modern and cleaner.
Diesel trainsets like these had been in widespread use all over Europe, especially in Germany, Netherlands, Austria, etc.. They were the backbone of the post war TEE (Trans Europe Express) system, as they could traverse tracks with or without electricity, and serve countries with different currents.
My comment about speed and steam was intended a bit drily, especially as Mr Paws mentions that the journey is a whole 15 minutes less 55 years later! I meant really that the prominently-advertised modernity of diesel (which you mention) wasn’t cementing its futurism when it was slower than the old tech.
And yes, as to efficiency, I’d wager that even an expensive, failed diesel train that was out of service in just 13 years probably cost less than keeping any steam service going across the same timeframe.
I was an apprentice at Metro in the machine shop toolroom from 1956/62. I was given the job of fabricating the nose frame on the original locomotive.
Loved the essay! Thank you. Of note is that the first Diesel powered passenger train, and the first Diesel-powered locomotive made the first run in 1934 from Denver, Colorado to Chicago, Illinois. It ran on $13.65 of fuel and, thus, heralded the demise of steam power. The Diesel was developed by the Scottish immigrant to the United States, Alexander Winton who built luxury automobiles through 1923. However, in 1913, his interest changed to Diesel engines. He did in 1932, at age 70, in his adopted home city of Cleveland, Ohio. The name of the company was changed from Winton Diesel to Cleveland Diesel. The valve covers reflect that name on the 1934 introductory run. Eventually, the company became Detroit Diesel.
On the auto side, Alexander Winton was the largest manufacturer of automobiles in 1904 in The U.S. That year his company produced 802 Wintons. While the electric started was patented in 1911 and introduced on the 1912 Cadillac, ladies could easily drive a Winton for a decade or more before then because the Winton had an air starter!
I understand that Packard had its beginnings when James Packard was unhappy with his Winton and told Mr. Winton so. Winton challenged him to build a better car, and Packard took him up on it.
I’m afraid you’ve got a few key details of your story wrong or mixed up. Winton, an early pioneer car maker, was located in Cleveland. And after the car business went into decline Winton Engine Company became the main business, which was large stationary gasoline, distillate and diesel engines, as used in yachts and such. But these 4 cycle diesels were very heavy and had too low of a power to weight ratio to be used in trains.
In 1930, Winton Engine Co. was sold to GM. This was because Charles Kettering, head of the famous GM Kettering Labs had decided to try to design a lighter diesel engine, and designed the famous two-stroke diesel that later became known as the Detroit Diesel. Winton had nothing to do with this, except to build it, and this was of course after GM bought the company.
That first trial run of the Pioneer Zephyr was the first use of the Detroit Diesel in a train. The “Cleveland” name wasn’t used until 1938 when GM reorganized the company, and switched it from “Winton” to “Cleveland Division” to build the large 567 Series diesel engines.
We covered this story here:
The only coaches that were common between the 6 and 8 car units were the two Parlour Firsts in the middle. The main reason for this was that the power bogies were under the rear of the driving car and the outer bogie of the first inner car. On an 8 car that’s a Parlour 2nd (like the bare body shell photo), but the Kitchen First in the 6 car units. The outer bogie under the cab was of the same appearance as the driving bogies but didn’t have motors in them.
I just saw the end of these in service, train spotting at Paddington, must have been 1972, then again after they were withdrawn at Old Oak Common depot.
UK “bogies” = US “trucks.”
Interesting story. I find its face to be a bit sad, with those drooping eyes.
Diesel trainsets were a big thing for a few decades, starting with the famous “Flying Hamburger” in Germany, which set incredible speed records.
The Americans of course then built their, the early Zephyrs and UP Streamliners. But they very quickly realized the limitations of train sets, and moved on to streamlined diesel locos and cars. Much more flexibility and redundancy.
In Europe the diesel trainset was still a hot item well into the ’60s though, and there were many famous trainsets used on the TEE (Trans Europa Express), like the one below. They were essential, as they covered long trips over tracks that were often not yet electrified, or had different current in different countries.
Most of these were quite successful, and some were used for decades, and are still around for nostalgia runs. But generally speaking, they required high maintenance, which was a German specialty, But in the US, that was anathema.
Mein gott man, you find the Blue Pullman face a bit sad but then offer us barely-concealed orange rhinoceros?
Blue Pullman looks sad? What about the Warship diesel hydraulics?
The Government of Ontario, Canada acquired two diesel Trans Europe Express trainsets for use on their train in northern Ontario, the Ontario Northlander. It had a diesel on one end and a control cab on the other. The customers liked it and being lightweight, it was easy on the track and economical. But the European trains were designed for high-cost, government-subsidized maintenance and the original power cars were aging. The Canadians replaced the power cars with standard General Motors Diesel Division passenger locomotives, modified to couple to the TEE draft gear and couplers. The TEE control cabs were modified to control the GM diesels. The TEEs ran that way for many years until retirement.
I enjoyed the telling of this bit of UK rail history. Euston station itself is undergoing massive redevelopment to accommodate high speed rail, and at one point I saw very creative plans to better incorporate the station with mixed-uses into the surrounding neighborhood – although I can only imagine from afar (US) how that is proceeding…
I remember travelling down to London on the Birmingham pullman in 1962 to see off my brother who was going to live in australia. Excellent trip on the pullman then over to Heathrow to see him depart on a comet4!!
Very enjoyable article.
Thanks for this great piece BP. I’m just too young to remember these; though I hankered for the Triang-Hornby set, I never properly understood their story, and why they’d looked like the future yet disappeared so quickly. The interiors don’t look as special as one might have hoped. BR spent so much money and time trying out diesel and electric options before they settled on solutions that worked.