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The Class 52 Westerns

Diesel locomotives are part of our history and heritage!

The steam locomotive reigned on Britain’s railways from 1825 when George Stephenson developed his Locomotion Number One until 1968 when the last of the steam engines working on British Railways were sent to the scrap yard.

Although Dr Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine in 1892, it was not until 1947 that the London Midland and Scottish Railway developed a successful mainline diesel locomotive. 

The railways were nationalised in 1948 and it was decided by British Railways that they would continue to build steam locomotives to a new standard design. The reason for this was that diesel fuel was very expensive and had to be imported, whereas coal was relatively cheap and plentiful. Very few people had motorcars and the railways were recovering from the damage they had suffered during the Second World War both from enemy action and lack of maintenance.

In the 1950's Britain became more prosperous and the pollution caused by the burning of coal became a real concern. London in particular, suffered from ‘smog’, which was caused when smoke from coal fires mixed with fog to produce a thick choking atmosphere. British Railways had many thousands of steam locomotives. It took many hundreds men to clean and service in this fleet. It was an extremely dirty job and it became very difficult to recruit people to work in such conditions.

In 1955, British Railways produced its modernisation plan whereby its entire fleet of steam locomotives would be replaced by diesel and electric locomotives. The former Great Western Railway lines from London Paddington to the West of England and Wales presented a problem in that the section of line between Exeter and Plymouth is extremely hilly and has many twists and turns whereas the route between Bristol and London is relatively straight and level. 

Western Region engineers looked to Germany where a locomotive had been developed to perform over the steeply graded Black Forest routes. It used a diesel hydraulic transmission to transfer the power from the engine to the wheels and had an excellent power to weight ratio compared to heavy weight diesel electrics being designed and built elsewhere.

The Westerns (also referred to as Thousands by the Drivers and desgnated as Class 52's by British Rail) were built at Swindon and Crewe between 1961 and 1964. Their introduction enabled trains to be run at much higher speeds than had been possible with steam locomotives. The 1960’s were a time of great change on the railways. British Railways was losing large amounts of money despite the modernisation scheme and Lord Beeching was hired by the Government to give the railway a thorough makeover. His remedy was drastic and involved the closure of many secondary and branch lines and the rationalisation of the network.

In 1967, it was realised that the modernisation of the railways had been mishandled. Instead of testing a variety of prototypes and selecting the best as a standard design, British Railways had ordered many different designs from a number of manufacturers. This meant that maintenance was both difficult and expensive. As a result, it was decided to concentrate on a standard diesel-electric design and to send the rest of the fleet for scrap. This policy also meant the closure of a number of locomotive workshops, which eventually included those at Swindon.

The first Westerns were taken out of service in 1974. As a protest at the rundown and eventual closure of Swindon Works, the unions adopted Western Courier as a mascot and refused to break her up on the basis that she had been taken out of service with relatively minor faults and could have easily been repaired. Western Courier was purchased by the WLA for preservation in 1976. Swindon Works closed in 1985, 150 years after the Great Western Railway was incorporated.

The Western Design

Early diesel locomotives had either very American styling with their cab set back looking over a bonnet or were very box like in appearance. British Railways wanted their new fleet of locomotives to be visually attractive and modern in appearance so Misha Black from the Design Research Unit was engaged to work on the design of the Westerns.

Misha Black was born in Russia in 1910 and came to Britain as a refugee. His career started in the 1930s, which were a period of rapid change in established ideas about design and society. Misha Black’s early experience was in poster and exhibition design. He had little formal training, although in 1928, returning from a project in Spain, he was able to spend some months in Paris studying art. 

In 1933 Misha Black joined Bassett Gray, which became the Industrial Design Partnership and later the Industrial Design Unit. When war broke out in 1939 he joined the Ministry of Information, where he was made Principal Exhibitions Designer. The Design Research Unit was set up in 1943, and in 1946 Black was involved in designing the ‘Britain can make it’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

Misha Black is widely credited with developing the profession of Industrial Designer. This is a blend of engineering and art with the aim of producing items which are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. 

The Great Western Railway had always endeavoured to glamorise their most important expresses. British Railways hoped that they could emulate this with their new carriages and diesel locomotives. A lot of time and attention was therefore devoted to the visual appearance of the locomotive, so that its profile matched the coaching stock, and the overall appearance was tidy and symmetrical in every dimension, down to details such as the colour schemes and the names to be applied.

The Western Region wished to link locomotive names with a common theme. This was a long established tradition on the Great Western Railway with different classes of steam locomotives being named after Kings, Castles, Halls and Manors. 

The first of the class, D1000 Western Enterprise was painted in a shade of very light brown described as ‘Desert Sand’. The second, D1001 Western Pathfinder, was painted maroon and the third, D1002 Western Explorer, was painted green. Maroon become the standard livery for the class until 1966 when monastral blue was adopted as the new standard for British Rail. Sir Misha Black was knighted in 1972 and died in 1977, ironically the same year that the last Westerns were finally withdrawn from service.

Building the Westerns

COPYRIGHT: Mary Evans Picture Library 2015

The Westerns were built at Swindon Works in Wiltshire and Crewe Works in Cheshire. A total of 74 were produced between 1961 and 1964, 35 at Swindon and 39 at Crewe. The Westerns employed a stressed skin body shell rather than the heavy frame that had been used previously on earlier diesel locomotives. This comprised two substantial steel tubes running from end to end of the locomotive. A steel honeycomb was built up from these tubes to create a lightweight yet rigid structure very similar to a motorcar chassis. This technique had been pioneered by the American civil engineer Stepan Timoshenko and is based upon the premise that thin metal sheet, if folded and shaped can be made to serve a load bearing function.

The Westerns were essentially a British development of a prototype locomotive built by Krauss-Maffei in 1957. This locomotive, known as ML3000 was an enlarged version of the successful V200 design but with six wheel bogies giving greater traction and braking effort. The design had to be compressed to fit within the British loading gauge and 74 locomotives were ordered in October 1959. The unit cost of each locomotive was given as £115,500. Remarkably no prototype was developed or evaluated. The class was ordered before the detailed design had been finalised.

Structurally, the Westerns were very similar to the earlier Warship design. They were however proportionately longer and heavier.

The first of the class, D1000 Western Enterprise, was delivered in December 1961 and the last one was completed in April 1964. It was no coincidence that the first of the celebrated Great Western King class locomotives was withdrawn in February 1962 with the class being completely withdrawn by the end of the year. The Westerns were initially allocated to Laira Depot in Plymouth, Canton Depot in Cardiff and Old Oak Common Depot in London. Eventually the whole fleet was based at Laira.

What did the Westerns do?

The Westerns were “mixed traffic” locomotives, that is they worked on both passenger and freight trains. For instance, Western could haul the Cornish Riviera Express passenger train on one day and then a 1000 tonne stone train the following day. Modern locomotives are specifically designed for either one role or the other.

In their early days, Westerns worked trains from London Paddington through to Birmingham Snow Hill, Wolverhampton Low Level, Shrewsbury, Chester and Birkenhead. These duties ceased in the late 1960's with the closure of Birmingham Snow Hill, although in later years they regularly worked to Birmingham New Street via Oxford and Reading. Westerns regularly worked on passenger services from London Paddington to and from Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Plymouth and Penzance. It was relatively rare for them to go further afield. Freight duties included working stone trains out of Merehead Quarry in Somerset, China Clay trains to and from Cornwall and Milk trains from the West Country to London.

The reign of the Westerns came to an end with the completion of the electrification of the north part of the West Coast main line between Crewe and Glasgow. This released the fleet of fifty Class 50 diesel electric locomotives, which had worked those services. The plan was to reallocate the Class 50 fleet to the Western Region in 1974 enabling the Western fleet to be made redundant; to be withdrawn from service and scrapped. The first Westerns were withdrawn in 1973 and it was planned to complete the process by 1975. The Warship fleet had been withdrawn by the end of 1972 and the Hymek fleet had been withdrawn by early 1975.

The Class 50 fleet proved to be notoriously unreliable in service, or so it seemed! Amongst Western enthusiasts they were often known as 50/50’s because they previously worked in pairs on occasions or because it was perceived that you had a 50% chance of getting to your destination without a failure! Whilst they were technologically advanced locomotives, the Western Region were initially unfamiliar with their over complicated designs and at one point half the fleet were out of traffic waiting for repairs. This left the Western Region with a locomotive shortage and so the Westerns soldiered on.

In October 1976, the Inter City 125 High Speed Train (HST) entered service and subsequently formed the backbone of Western Region and later First Great Western express passenger services. It was the introduction of HST's that ultimately saw the demise of the Class 52 fleet.

Why preserve a Western?

The Western Locomotive Association was founded in1974, just one year after the first Western had been withdrawn. Railway preservation was in its infancy and most enthusiasts were preoccupied with the rescuing of steam locomotives from Barry Scrapyard in South Wales. The suggestion that a diesel locomotive should be preserved was greeted in some quarters with incredulity and derision. The Westerns were regarded amongst enthusiasts and railwaymen as being different from other diesel locomotives and after a successful public appeal, D1062 was successfully purchased for preservation in 1976. Richard Holdsworth initially purchased D1013 in 1977 and they were originally based on the Paignton and Dartmouth Railway at Kingswear. Although this was a route which Westerns had worked trains on, Kingswear was a residential area where the locomotives were exposed to sea air and so it was decided to move both locomotives to the Severn Valley Railway in 1978.

The reception given to the Westerns at the Severn Valley was mixed. Some ‘die-hard’ steam enthusiasts were openly hostile. However, the Westerns soon proved to be popular and useful locomotives and both of them have worked regularly since arriving. D1062 was the first preserved Western to travel under its own power on the mainline when it took part in the Liverpool and Manchester Railway celebrations in 1980 at Rainhill. D1013 has appeared in a number of television programmes and commercials including ‘L for Lester’ and advertisements for crunchy nut cornflakes and British Gas!

Both of our locomotives have been modelled by Masterpiece Models in O gauge, Dapol & Hornby in OO gauge and Graham Farish in N gauge and D1013 features in the Severn Valley Railway add-on to the Microsoft Train Simulator computer programme. The Western Locomotive Association has successfully operated two of these iconic locomotives for forty years, three times as long as they were operated by British Rail.

The seven Westerns preserved are:

  • D1010 Western Campaigner: preserved by the DEPG on the West Somerset Railway.
  • D1013 Western Ranger: preserved by the WLA on the Severn Valley Railway
  • D1015 Western Champion: preserved by the DTG on the Severn Valley Railway
  • D1023 Western Fusilier: preserved by the NRM at York (currently stored at Didcot)
  • D1041 Western Prince: preserved on the East Lancashire Railway
  • D1048 Western Lady: preserved by the WLA on the Severn Valley Railway
  • D1062 Western Courier: preserved by the WLA on the Severn Valley Railway

The Western Locomotive Association is committed to the preservation of D1013, D1048 and D1062 with the latter as the current working locomotive on the Severn Valley Railway. D1013 is undergoing overhaul and D1048 is currently stored, pending an assessment for possible future running. Many people enjoy the aesthetically pleasing shape of the Western, which never seems dated and the epitome of good design. The power of a Western is something to be experienced especially when driving one yourself with 2,700 bhp and 76,000 lbs of tractive effort on tap – twice the power of a Castle Class steam engine. Then there is the sound – two throaty Maybach MD655 V12 engines that can be heard miles away on full power, not dissimilar to the glorious sound of a Spitfire or Lancaster Bomber. With your help, we certainly intend to be supplying ‘Maybach Music’ for many years to come.

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Western Locomotive Association 50 Years

The WESTERN LOCOMOTIVE ASSOCIATION is a company limited by guarantee - Registered No: 3873466
Registered Address: 5, Prospect Place, Millennium Way, Pride Park, Derby, England DE24 8HG. Charity No. 1115058