In 1965 British Rail (BR) needed a high-powered diesel locomotive to speed-up services on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) between Crewe and Glasgow prior to completion of the electrification work. The relatively new Brush Sulzer Type 4 locomotives (later designated Class 47s) would have been an obvious choice but were proving unreliable at the time due to engine problems. In the meantime, English Electric had been experiencing great success with a private venture in the form of DP2 (Diesel Prototype 2), a EE16CSVT engine test bed. First deployed in May 1962, DP2 found itself on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) alongside the production-line Deltic locomotives, where it proved popular with locomotive crews and a very capable performer. The prototype used the last production-line Deltic bodyshell since the order total had been reduced by one after the bodyshell had been manufactured. As a result of its success, an order for a fleet of fifty locomotives was placed with English Electric based on the DP2 power unit and mechanicals but with a BR-designed bodyshell and additional electronic systems. English Electric were not pleased that their proven electrical systems were to be compromised by the insertion of unproven additional systems which were untested in locomotives at that time. These systems included dynamic braking, wheelslip protection, electronic power control with automatic control of tractive effort and slow speed control for merry-go-round (MGR) coal train working.
The fifty English Electric Type 4 Co-Co locomotives, initially numbered in the range D400-D449, were built at the English Electric Vulcan Foundry in Newton-le-Willows between September 1967 and November 1968. BR initially leased the fleet from English Electric and it was not until 1973 that BR finally bought the locomotives. Upon introduction, there were initial problems with their engines resulting in poor availability and as a result new cylinder heads were fitted. Between 1969 and 1970 track improvements on the WCML permitted higher speeds so the locomotives were required to work in multiple. Although all were wired for multiple working, only D400 and D401 had been fitted with their external font-mounted jumper cables from new. The remainder of the class had them fitted on a retrospective basis. Also around this time, having divested itself of the remaining steam locomotives, BR began to drop the 'D' prefix from the numbers of its diesel locomotives. The class thus became numbered 400-449, although some members were still seen carrying the old prefix until as late as 1974.
By 1974, the entire WCML had been electrified so the locomotives were redeployed as planned. Fifteen were initially retained by the London Midland Region for secondary passenger duties in North Wales and the North West. The remainder were allocated to Bristol Bath Road, Laira and Old Oak Common depots on the Western Region as part of the drive to replace the non-standard but popular diesel hydraulics (Class 42/43 'Warships' and Class 52 'Westerns'). With the introduction of the BR Total Operations Processing System (TOPS), the locomotives were designated Class 50 and renumbered accordingly in the range 50001-50050. The year 1978 saw an interesting development for the class with the application of British warship names to the fleet, reflecting a decision made by the British Railways Board taken the previous year. The names chosen were those of warships which had been part of the World War One or World War Two battle fleets, excluding those with associations to the empire or royalty. Whilst the 'Warship' class name never stuck, the actual names themselves met with general approval and went a long way to diminish the anonymity of the class.
By the mid-1970s the class was again suffering from unreliability primarily due to the poor design of the internal air-management arrangements. The inertial air filters had been positioned in such a way that they sucked-in fumes from the exhaust ports which were located nearby. In addition, there were problems with the newly-introduced and un-proven electronic systems. This being the case, a refurbishment programme of the whole class was undertaken at British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) Doncaster works between 1979 and 1983.
During refurbishment the headcode boxes were plated over although a number of the class had had this work done prior to their refurbishment. In addition, the bodyside window closest to the number 1 end was replaced by a grille and a high intensity headlight was fitted to each cab end. The bulk of the work however concentrated on improving the engine room airflow, which included modifications to the roof, removal of the sanding apparatus and complex electronic equipment. It also resulted in the change of the inertial air filter by the main generator which had produced the classic Class 50 sound which had earnt them the nickname of 'Hoovers' or 'vacs'. The most visible difference however was that of the new British Rail large logo style of livery, which was applied to the seventh locomotive refurbished and to all subsequent class members. This new, bold livery with its wrap-around yellow ends, grey roof, full height BR logo and large TOPS numerals transformed their appearance.
The refurbishment programme generally cured the common Class 50 ailments and they settled down to provide a reliable service. The introduction of High Speed Trains on Western Region services in the late 1970s saw the Class 50s again relegated to secondary duties and this is where the class became associated with the Southern Region. The class replaced the native Class 33s, which themselves had replaced the original Class 42 'Warships', on the Waterloo-Exeter services. The majority of the fleet were inherited by Network SouthEast when BR underwent sectorisation in 1986, the remainder going to the Departmental Sector. The transfer to Network SouthEast was accompanied by another change in livery to an unpopular lighter blue body with white, red and grey body stripes which many would argue did not suit the locomotives. The class continued on the Waterloo-West of England, Paddington-Thames and Chiltern workings until being replaced in the early 1990s. These latter days were again plagued by reliability issues due to a combination of poor maintenance and the punishing nature of running at full power on a stop-start service pattern over heavily-worn track.
In 1987 an experiment took place which involved modifying 50049 Defiance to become a dedicated heavy freight locomotive. Railfreight had previously rejected the class on account of the its low tractive effort, high maintenance costs and poor reliability and these trials were an attempt to convince the sector otherwise. In this modification, 50049 gained re-geared bogies, was renumbered 50149 and repainted in Railfreight livery. The experiment was not a success due partly to the absence of sanding gear which had been removed as part of the refurbishment programme but useful when working heavy freight trains. 50149 was thus converted back to a standard Class 50 specification in early 1989. It regained its original TOPS numbering and finished its days working for Network SouthEast.
Rundown & Withdrawal
1987 saw a shift in class overhaul duties from British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) Doncaster works to BREL Crewe works. This presented the issue of a different workforce having to learn about the class. Withdrawals started in the same year, the first being 50011 Centurion which was sent to BREL Crewe to act as a static engine test bed for overhauled power units. The locomotive had had less than four years active service since its refurbishment. BREL Crewe overhauled separate components of the locomotives and subsequently had them dispatched to Laira depot for fitting. Problems were often experienced when attempting to re-attach delivered parts to locomotives thereby increasing maintenance costs and worsening their availability rate. At a time when costs were being minimized to the extreme, it was the end of the line for the class under BR InterCity sector auspices. By 1989 this sector had removed all its Class 50-hauled diagrams. From here onwards class members were slowly taken out of service as they failed or became too expensive to repair, their parts robbed to keep other members running. The final use of Class 50s in regular BR service was on 24 May 1992 with 50007 Sir Edward Elgar (previously Hercules) and 50050 Fearless. This pair plus 50033 Glorious were retained until early 1994 for use on railtours.
Many of the Class 50 fleet met their demise at scrap yards; a few just cut-up on site at their depot. Some however, thanks to numerous dedicated enthusiasts, have been preserved or are currently being restored for future generations at the many private railways across the country. Currently, eighteen examples from the original total of fifty survive in various states of repair from operational and certified for use on the national mainline to others requiring years of restoration work. A list showing the current status of all the remaining class members is also featured within the website.
Note: Photographs displayed on this website not taken by the author have been used by kind permission of their respective owners.