The history of British diesel locomotives is complex – or messy, if you prefer. We had too many experimental designs that failed; some wonderful albeit flawed exotica but also some intriguing but underachieving individuality. We also had, eventually, one size fits all ubiquity in a kaleidoscope of colours – the class 47.
We have previously seen on CC how a plethora of ‘Pilot Scheme’ types had been allowed to underwhelm and confuse the dieselisation of Britain’s rails, and how individualism among the Regions of British Railways had created expensive but flawed masterpieces – the mighty Deltics of the Eastern Region – and unsuccessful innovation – the underdeveloped Western diesel hydraulics – alongside mediocrity (such as the Brush Type 2 class 31) and failure (too many to mention), with a plethora of incompatible types. By the early 1960s, in modern parlance, it was obvious that the centre needed to get a grip.
Fortunately, it did, with a new 2,750hp diesel-electric that would eventually number 512 examples – by some distance, the most numerous BR mainline diesel. As you might have guessed, the solution was a case of doing something straightforward the straightforward no-nonsense way, and not, as before, indulging in fancy stuff, some of it with links to abroad. We call it the Class 47 now, but it was at first known as the Brush-Sulzer Type 4.
It originated in a challenge to the British (and only the British – we really were insular then) loco building industry to design a diesel of 2,500hp, which would be more powerful than the plodding English Electric 2,000hp Class 40; lighter than the Sulzer class 44, 45 and 46 ‘Peaks’ (so known as several were named after significant British mountains); more reliable and faster than the Westerns; and cheaper than the Deltics. A sensible approach was taken to the specification and design process. The builders were challenged to design a diesel-electric, with an axle load of less than 19 tons and capable of hauling pretty much anything – slow and heavy goods trains, faster air braked freights, passenger expresses, heavy sleeping car trains – anywhere, while being straightforward to maintain and operate.
The winning proposal came from the Brush engineering company, then part of our old friends Hawker Siddeley and now part of Wabtec, and a business that can trace its history to Hughes’s Locomotive & Tramway Engine Works Ltd of 1865. Brush’s business was electrical engineering, with a dash of plane building, and the diesel-electric locomotive was a logical diversification. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that, as in the USA (Baldwin, Lima), the great British steam locomotive building companies (Beyer Peacock, North British) failed to make the transition to diesel; instead, the new power came from new suppliers (EMD, GE, English Electric, Brush).
The first Brush-Sulzer Type 4 emerged from Brush’s Falcon Works in Loughborough, Leicestershire in September 1962. It was an unpretentious piece of common-sense engineering – 64 feet long, weighing 112 tons on two three axle bogies, with all axles powered, and capable of 95mph. Power came from a Sulzer 12-cylinder engine, producing 2,750 hp with electrical equipment by Brush, and geared for a maximum of 95mph. The first 20, numbered D1500-D1519, were allocated to the Eastern Region, and based at London King’s Cross to support the Deltics on East Coast Main Line express duties. They were painted in an attractive two-tone green livery which suited their plain and boxy lines, but that was just the first of a myriad of liveries over the next half century, as we will shortly see. The styling showed the influence of BR’s Design Panel – a group of design experts commissioned to deliver a clean. modern look to the railways, in place of a hodgepodge of styles in the first generation of diesels – the visual resemblance between the 47s and the West Coast electrics was not a coincidence.
Pretty much straight out of the box, the new Type 4 (BR code for a 2,000 – 3,000 hp diesel) was a success, delivering the performance and flexibility it was designed for. The original order for 20 was quickly extended to 270, and ultimately to 512. Of these, 310 were built by Brush and 202 by BR at Crewe. The class was numbered originally D1500 to D1999, with the last 12 as D1100 – D1111; all were in service by summer 1967 – almost two a week over 5 years, such was the need for reliable power to eliminate steam by the self-imposed 1968 deadline.
In 1970, BR licenced and began to implement Southern Pacific’s Total Operations Processing System (TOPS) to manage its power, rolling stock and traffic. This brought the need and opportunity to replace the seemingly haphazard and increasingly confusing numbering scheme for electric and diesel locomotives with a structured system. Diesels were given a class number between 03 and 55, with the first digit corresponding to the former ‘Type’ and the second running broadly chronologically– so the Brush Type 4s, as the newest Type 4, became class 47.
The structure allowed for sub-classes to be identified, which was a real boon with something as versatile as the 47.
Class 47/0 was the original standard 47, with steam heating equipment for passenger service. This group numbered 299 at its peak. Over time, most of these were modified to have electric heating as well, becoming a 47/4, or had the equipment removed, to be a 47/3.
The 97 Class 47/3 were freight only power, with no train heating capability. They were fitted with slow speed control (think cruise control) for operating Merry Go Round coal trains. The concept of MGR was simple – with loops at colliery and power station, and slow speed control, a train of hopper wagons could be loaded, hauled to the power station, unloaded automatically, and returned to the colliery for another load without stopping.
This is the loop and coal stocks at the Drax Power Station, in Yorkshire. Drax opened in 1975, fuelled by the newly exploited Selby coalfield and capable of generating the electricity needed for 2 million homes – and its capacity was doubled in 1986, to provide 6% of the UK’s power. Once needing up to 36 coal trains per day, it is now fuelled by biomass pellets, as coal has been virtually eliminated from the UK’s power generation mix.
The 47/4 fleet had both steam and electric heating systems, making them compatible with modern coaching stock, Eventually, over half the class were 47/4 standard.
In 1979, 12 (and later another 4) were converted to power push-pull express trains between Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. As well as the equipment to allow the driver to control the unit from a driving cab built into a coach at the other end of the train, the gearing was adapted to allow 100 mph.
Finally, the 60 class 47/8 were an adapted version of the 47/4 fitted with larger fuel tanks; they mostly worked on the long-distance Cross-Country expresses, and survived on this duty into the 21st century.
Over the 3 decades from 1962 to privatisation, the class 47 proved successful as the versatile and flexible locomotive that BR needed. As well as MGR trains, they were regulars on the Caledonian Sleepers between London and Inverness and the Night Riviera from London Paddington to Cornwall; cross country expresses (many of them not very fast, to be honest, but demanding a powerful and reliable engine to accelerate from numerous station stops and curves) from Plymouth northwards to Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle upon Tyne and Scotland; Freightliner’s container trains to and from the docks at Felixstowe, Tilbury and Immingham; second string expresses on the East Coast Main Line, the Great Western, and to North Wales; the high profile Edinburgh-Glasgow shuttles; and slogging away on permanent way maintenance trains.
In 1964, in a sign of the class’s significance, D1733 (later 47853) was selected to be the guinea pig for BR’s new corporate identity, with a striking turquoise blue livery (later known as Rail Blue), featuring the first appearance of the wonderful and immortal double-arrow symbol, and hauling prototypes of what became the standard BR Mark 2 coach.
But, eventually, even the class 47 started to get old. But significant withdrawals didn’t begin until almost 30 years after the first 47s hit the rails, and even today almost 10% are still in active mainline service with private freight operators.
But some had a second life. Between 1998 and 2004, 33 redundant 47s were rebuilt with an EMD diesel in place of the Sulzer unit and rebuilt electrical equipment. Power was little changed – the goal was reliability.
And in 2002, Virgin Trains, operators of the West Coast Main Line from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, created a dedicated fleet of Class 57s to act as its own first responders. Stationed at key points on the network and ready to travel to assist any failed Virgin Train, they were painted in the Virgin colours and named after Thunderbirds characters, with nameplates using the International Rescue brand from the TV show.
They were also used to haul diverted Pendolinos diverted away from electrified routes, and a back set up of older coaches uniquely painted in Pendolino livery and known, inevitably, as the Pretendolino.
For those not lucky to have experienced it in real time back in the mid 1960s, Thunderbirds was a programme documenting the work of International Rescue, the secret organisation run by the Tracey family from their South Pacific island base, Tracey Island. They operate a fleet of spacecraft and rockets and respond to emergencies that are beyond the capability of the rest of the world to resolve. OK, so it’s puppets and not documentary, but it has remained a British favourite for half a century.
The variety of use and longevity that are particular features of the Class 47 story lie behind the variety of liveries the class has carried over the years. This one was used in safety adverts, focusing on deterring trespassing on the tracks. Here’s a selection of the most common and striking, roughly chronologically.
BR two tone green. Very smart, if a little subdued
Standard BR ‘Rail blue’ – the dominant colour of the 1970s and early 1980s.
From the mid 1980s, variety began to return to the BR palette. An early example was this, known as Large Logo Blue, which suited the 47s pretty well.
We also had the striking InterCity two tone grey, which came with a host of detail differences, designed to work with matching coaches.
And Network SouthEast (the sub-brand established for commuter services in the south east England in 1986 – the first common identity for all the commuter services in all the mainline stations across London) also had a few 47s, for services to Salisbury
The 47/7 had a very smart ScotRail livery, based on the InterCity colours, but with Saltire blue in place of red detailing.
BR’s Railfreight division used a grey with red scheme, which looked great when clean and not when not. This developed into a series of schemes for different freight sectors, with the addition of red, blue and yellow geometric shapes in different patterns to distinguish the coal business from petroleum from metals and more.
Privatisation brought a whole new flood of colour, from both freight and passenger operators. This is Direct Rail Services.
Network Rail uses grey and yellow, known as ‘Dutch’, as it is very close to the livery of the Dutch operator NS.
And the Royal train, with two dedicated engines painted in glossy maroon.
And, finally, International Rescue and the Pretendolino.
Never say railways have no sense of humour.