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British Rail Class 50
The British Rail Class 50 is a diesel locomotive built from 1967-68 by English Electric at their Vulcan Foundry Works in Newton-le-Willows. Fifty of these locomotives were built to haul express passenger trains on the northern half of the West Coast Main Line. Under the pre-1968 classification system these locomotives were known as the English Electric Type 4. The class were affectionately nicknamed "Hoovers" by rail enthusiasts because of their distinctive engine sound.
The Class 50 fleet was developed following trials with the prototype Deltic-bodied DP2 locomotive. In many ways, the locomotives were a more powerful version of the earlier Class 40, and also included a host of complex electronic control gear, which to some extent was their downfall.
Fifty locomotives were built, initially numbered D400-D449. In 1968, with the introduction of the TOPS classification, the locomotives were reclassified as Class 50. From 1973 onwards, the locomotives were renumbered into the range 50001-50050, to conform with the TOPS system. With the exception of the first-built locomotive, which was renumbered to 50050, the rest of the fleet retained the last two digits of their number, such that D431 would become no. 50031.
The class were built for working passenger services on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) north of Crewe, to Preston, Lancaster, Carlisle and Glasgow. Services south of Crewe would generally be worked by an electric locomotive, with the Class 50s taking over for the journies that continued north. Trains were often double-headed to deal with the steep gradients, such as Shap summit and Beattock summit .
In 1974 the northern WCML was electrified, and the Class 50 fleet was displaced by new Class 87 electrics. The fleet was transferred en-masse to the Western Region , working mainline passenger services from London Paddington along the Great Western Main Line to destinations such as Oxford, Cheltenham Spa, Bristol Temple Meads, Plymouth and Penzance. It was not unusual for locomotives to work services on other routes, such as the Birmingham New Street to Bristol Temple Meads corridor. The introduction of the Class 50s on these routes enabled the last remaining diesel hydraulic "Hymeks" , "Warships" and "Westerns" to be withdrawn. These locomotives were non-standard in the BR fleet, and the final "Western" was withdrawn in 1977.
In the late-1970s following the withdrawal of the last of the "Warships" , BR decided to continue this naming policy, and as a result the Class 50 fleet were all named after Royal Navy warships. The first locomotive naming occurred in January 1978, when no. 50035 was named "Ark Royal" in honour of the aircraft carrier "HMS Ark Royal". The rest of the fleet was named during the course of 1978, concluding in October with no. 50029, which was named "Renown" after the Resolution-class nuclear submarine "HMS Renown" .
In 1977, British Rail introduced the Class 253 High Speed Trains onto the Great Western Main Line. The Class 50 fleet was therefore partially redeployed onto other routes, such as services to Birmingham New Street from London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads. The class also found work on services along the West of England Main Line from London Waterloo to Salibury, Exeter and Plymouth. However, due in part to the over-complexity of the design, the class was plagued with reliability problems. As a result, the decision was taken in the late 1970s to refurbish the entire fleet, removing much of the complex electrical gear.
Between 1979 and 1984, the Class 50 fleet was refurbished at Doncaster Works. The work involved simplifying the complex electronics and removed many redundant features. In addition, modifications took place to the air intake fan arrangement. Externally, the locomotives all received high-intensity headlights, which changed the appearance of the front end. The first locomotives were outshopped in the standard BR Blue livery. However, in 1980, no. 50023 "Howe" became the first to be outshopped in a revised livery with wrap around yellow cabs, large boyside numerals and BR logo, in a livery that became known as BR Blue Large Logo.
Following refurbishment, the fleet was concentrated at two depots; and Laira in Plymouth, and Old Oak Common in West London. The class were again used for Western Region services on the GWML out of Paddington, and on the West of England Main Line from Waterloo to Salisbury and Exeter. In 1986, this latter route came under the control of the Network SouthEast (NSE) sector, which saw the introduction of their bright blue, red and white livery. The first locomotive in this livery was again no. 50023 "Howe". The NSE livery had two versions; the original had upswept red and white stripes and the ends, with a white cab surround; the revised livery introduced in 1988 had the red and white stripes continue to the body ends, with a blue cab surround.
In 1984, no. 50007 "Hercules" was repainted into lined Brunswick green livery and renamed "Sir Edward Elgar, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Great Western Railway. Four Class 47 locomotives were similarly treated, and a Class 117 diesel multiple unit was repainted in chocolate and cream livery. As a result, no. 50007 quickly became a favourite with rail enthusiasts. Another locomotive repainted in a special livery was no. 50019 "Ramillies", which was repainted in a variation of BR Blue by staff at Plymouth Laira depot.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the fleet could be found mostly on the West of England route, as well as fast services from Paddington to Oxford. Some locomotives were also transferred to the civil engineers department to work maintenance and engineering trains. Around this time, the first locomotives started to be withdrawn, starting with no. 50011 "Centurion" in early 1987. This locomotive's names were later transferred to no. 50040, which was previously named "Leviathan". A futher two locomotives, nos. 50006 "Neptune" and 50014 "Warspite" were withdrawn in 1987, followed by a further five locomotives (nos. 50010/13/22/38/47) in 1988.
In 1987, consideration was given to using the class on freight trains. To this end, no. 50049 "Defiance" was renumbered to no. 50149, and outshopped in the new trainload grey livery with raifreight decals. It was based at Plymouth Laira depot, and tested on local china clay trains in Cornwall. The project was, however, not an outstanding success, and by 1989, the locomotive had returned to its original identity.
At the dawn of the 1990s, reliability of the Class 50s was still an issue. By this time, the class was solely used on the West of England route, having been replaced on the Oxford route by Class 47/7 locomotives. Arguably, the Class 50s were not suitable for the stop-start service pattern of Waterloo-Exeter services, nor to the extended single-line sections of this route, where a single locomotive failure could cause chaos. Therefore the decision was taken to retire the fleet, temporarily replacing them with Class 47 locomotives, which were in turn replaced by new diesel multiple units. From 1992, the Oxford route was worked by Class 165 and Class 166 units, whilst Class 159 units were introduced onto the West of England route in 1993.
By 1992, just eight locomotives remained in services, these being nos. 50007/008/015/029/030/033/046/050. Several of these locomotives were specially repainted to cemmemorate the run-down of the fleet. The first-built locomtive, no. 50050 "Fearless" was renumbered D400 and painted in its original BR Blue livery. Two other locomotives, nos. 50008 "Thunderer" and 50015 "Valiant" were also repainted, the former in a variation of BR Blue (the same as no. 50019 had previously carried), and the latter in "Dutch" civil-engineers grey/yellow livery. Of the final eight locomotives, three were retained until 1994 for use on special railtours, these being nos. 50007 "Sir Edward Elgar, 50033 "Glorious" and 50050 "Fearless". By this time, no. 50050 had been repainted into Blue Largo Logo livery. The final railtours operated in March 1994, during one of which no. 50033 was delivered for preservation at the National Railway Museum. The final railtour operated with nos. 50007 and 50050 from London Waterloo to Penzance and returning to London Paddington. Both locomotives were later preserved.
Class 50 locomotives proved popular, with many saved for preservation. Several of the preserved locomotives have been registered for use on the mainline, including nos. 50031 "Hood" and 50049 "Defiance". One locomotive, no. 50017, was previously hired to Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE) to work the "Northern Belle" service from Bath to Manchester Victoria. As part of the contract it was painted in LMS-style maroon livery. However, it is now undergoing restoration having suffered a serious mechanical failure.
In recent years, several locomotives previously regarded as 'preserved' have been scrapped as unrestorable. These include nos. 50023 "Howe" and 50043 "Eagle". The remaining preserved locomotives are listed below:
- Manchester Class 50 Group - Owners of preserved locomotive no. 50015 "Valiant".
- Project Defiance - Owners of preserved locomotive no. 50049/50149 "Defiance".
- Railways online - Class 50 profile.
- Renown Repulse Restoration Group - Owners of preserved locomotives nos. 50029 and 50030, which are currently undergoing extensive restoration.
- The 50's - information website.
- The Fifty Fund - Owners of preserved locomotives nos. 50031, 50035 and 50044. Includes class history, specfications and more information.
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