Trisha Shetty (Editor)

British Rail Class 50

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Power type  Diesel-electric
Total produced  50
UIC class  Co'Co'
Build date  1967–1968
Configuration  Co-Co
British Rail Class 50
Builder  English Electric at Vulcan Foundry

The British Rail (BR) Class 50 was a class of 50 diesel locomotives designed to haul express passenger trains at 100mph. Built by English Electric at their Vulcan Foundry in Newton-le-Willows between 1967 and 1968, the Class 50's were initially on a 10-year lease from English Electric Leasing, and were employed hauling express passenger trains on the, then non-electrified, section of the West Coast Main Line between Crewe and Scotland. Initially numbered D400 - D449 and known as English Electric Type 4s, the locomotives were purchased outright by BR at the end of the lease and became Class 50 in the TOPS renumbering of 1973. The class were nicknamed "Hoovers" (sometimes shortened to "Vacs") by rail enthusiasts because of the distinctive sound made by the cooling fan mechanism. Once the electrification from Crewe to Glasgow was completed the locomotives were moved to the South West of England to allow the retirement of the remaining Diesel-Hydraulic locomotives then in use. As these trains steadily moved to HSTs operation from 1976, the Class 50's moved to hauling trains between London Waterloo and Exeter, and also trains from London Paddington to Hereford and Worcester via Oxford. The class was steadily retired from service in the late 1980s and early 1990s as their services moved to operation by second-generation DMUs.



The origins of the Class 50 lie in an invitation from the British Transport Commission (BTC) to manufacturers to produce a design for a Diesel locomotive with a gross power output of at least 2500hp. In order to produce a prototype quickly, English Electric based their design on that for their Deltic locomotives which were then in production. Other parts related to another current design, the Class 37s were also used. The result was DP2, a 2700hp Diesel-electric locomotive weighing 107 tons and with a top speed of 100mph. The prototype was delivered to British Rail in May 1962

The prototype was deemed successful and negotiations took place with English Electric for a production batch of 50 locomotives for use on the Eastern Region. English Electric intended to build the new batch as similar to DP2 as possible but the British Railways Board (successor to the BTC) had produced a standard locomotive cab with a flat front and headcode box and also had specific requirements relating to the engine room and other equipment. English Electric produced several alternative front-end designs including one with a wrap-around windscreen but the standard front-end design was eventually adopted for the class.


The complete production run of 50 locomotives was built in just over a year and numbered from D400 to D449. D400 entered service in October 1967 and deliveries were completed with D449 in November 1968. Unusually, the ownership of the locomotives remained with the manufacturer and they were operated by British Rail on a 10-year lease which included certain stipulations relating to availability.


The class was built for working passenger services on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) north of Crewe, to Preston, Lancaster, Carlisle and Glasgow Central. Services south of Crewe would generally be worked by an electric locomotive, with the Class 50s taking over for the journeys that continued north. Initially trains were hauled by a single locomotive, but from May 1970 they were paired on most Anglo-Scottish services north of Crewe, allowing greatly accelerated timings to be applied (including a six-hour schedule for the "Royal Scot" London Euston-Glasgow Central and v.v. service). Once the electric service was introduced as far as Preston, this double-heading by Cl.50s transferred there, although poor availability often resulted in single-heading with consequent delays. The ability to operate using multiple working had been part of the locomotive's initial design brief, but only two of the class had the facility from new, but with the introduction of the regular double headed duties, this facility was fitted to the whole class.

By 1974 the northern WCML was electrified, and the Class 50 fleet was displaced by new Class 87 electrics. The fleet was transferred to the Western Region, working mainline passenger services from London Paddington along the Great Western Main Line to destinations such as Oxford, 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, non-standard, diesel hydraulic "Westerns" to be withdrawn.

In the late-1970s, following a period where the policy of locomotive naming had been abandoned, BR were persuaded to name the class 50s after Royal Navy Vessels with notable records in the First and Second World Wars. As a result, the first locomotive naming occurred in January 1978, when 50035 was named Ark Royal by the captain and crew of then current aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. The rest of the fleet was named during the course of the next few years.

From 1977, British Rail introduced the Class 253 High Speed Trains onto the Great Western Main Line which began the displacement of the Class 50 fleet onto other routes, such as services to Birmingham New Street from London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads. The class also found work on the West of England Main Line from London Waterloo to Salisbury, 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.


To deal with increasing reliability problems, the Class 50 fleet was refurbished at Doncaster Works between 1979 and 1984. Doncaster had taken responsibility for the fleet after BR completed the purchase of the locomotives from English Electric. The work involved simplifying the complex electronics and removing redundant features such as slow speed control and rheostatic braking. In addition, the air intake fan arrangement was modified, because the original setup often prevented fresh air from entering the engine room and stale, oil mist-filled air from escaping, leading to many main generator failures. This was in part due to the moisture in the air in the UK: dust and other particles would lodge in the filter system and become 'gummed up' with moisture, preventing circulation which in turn also hampered the intended engine compartment pressure levels which then meant 'filtered' air could not be evacuated by the intended means. The filtration system was fundamentally sound and widely used in other countries; the problems arose because relative humidity had not been taken into account at the design stage. This modification eliminated the characteristic "sucking" noise which had earned the "Hoover" nickname.

Externally, the locomotives all received high-intensity headlights, which changed the appearance of the front end. Starting with 50006, the first six locomotives were outshopped in the standard BR Blue livery. However, in 1980, 50023 Howe became the first to be outshopped in a revised livery with wrap around yellow cabs, large bodyside numerals and BR logo, in a livery that became known as BR Blue Large Logo. The final loco to be refurbished was 50014 which was released to traffic in the latter half of 1983.

Following refurbishment, the fleet was concentrated at two depots; 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 1984, 50007 Hercules was repainted into lined Brunswick green livery and renamed Sir Edward Elgar, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Great Western Railway (GWR). Four Class 47 locomotives were similarly treated, and a Class 117 diesel multiple unit (DMU) was repainted in chocolate and cream livery. As a result, 50007 quickly became a favourite with rail enthusiasts. Another locomotive repainted in a special livery was 50019 Ramillies, which was repainted in a variation of BR Blue by staff at Plymouth Laira depot.

In 1986 the West of England Main Line 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 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 the revised livery the blue became a darker shade.

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 were withdrawn, starting with 50011 Centurion in early 1987. This locomotive's nameplates were later transferred to 50040, which was previously named Leviathan. A further two locomotives, 50006 Neptune and 50014 Warspite were withdrawn in 1987, followed by a further five locomotives in 1988 (50010/13/22/38/47).

In 1987, consideration was given to using the class on freight trains. To this end, 50049 "Defiance" was renumbered to 50149, equipped with modified Class 37, lower-geared bogies and outshopped in the new trainload grey livery with Railfreight General decals. It was based at Plymouth Laira depot, and tested on local china clay trains in Cornwall as well as heavy stone trains to London from Devon quarries. The project was, however, not an outstanding success, and by 1989, the locomotive had returned to its original identity. Ironically, the electronic anti-wheelslip equipment (with which, the entire class had originally been built) which would have been key to the success of this experiment had been removed during the refurbishment process.

At the start of the 1990s, the reliability of the fleet became a problem again. 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 service, these being 50007/008/015/029/030/033/046/050. Several of these locomotives were specially repainted to commemorate the run-down of the fleet. The first-built locomotive, 50050 Fearless was renumbered D400 and painted in its original BR Blue livery. Two other locomotives, 50008 Thunderer and 50015 Valiant were also repainted, the former in a variation of BR Blue (the same as 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 50007 Sir Edward Elgar, 50033 Glorious and 50050 Fearless. 50007 was returned to working order using parts from 50046, which surrendered its recently overhauled power unit and bogies. By this time, 50050 had been repainted into Large Logo livery and 50007 also received a repaint into GWR green as the 1985 paint was wearing very thin. The final railtours operated in March 1994, during one of which 50033 was delivered for preservation at the National Railway Museum. The final railtour operated with 50007 and 50050 from London Waterloo to Penzance and returning to London Paddington. Both locomotives were later preserved.

Accidents and incidents

  • On 23 November 1983, a sleeper train hauled by 50 041 Bulwark was derailed on the approach to Paddington due to excessive speed through a crossover. Three of the seventy passengers were injured.
  • Portuguese locomotives

    The Portuguese Railways, CP, bought ten locomotives similar to the BR Class 50, but built to Iberian track gauge (1,668 mm). These locomotives, designated by CP as "Série 1800" (numbered 1801–1810), entered service in 1968.

    Like the British Class 50s, they were equipped with an English Electric 16 CSVT engine and produced 2700 hp (2020 HP at the wheels). Unlike the BR locomotives upon which electronic control is extensively used, the Portuguese locomotives employ conventional control gear (the only exceptions being stepless control of tractive effort by a solid-state load regulator and the use of a very effective out-of-balance wheel-slip detector). The main generator and the traction motors are identical to those used on the BR Type 3 and Deltic locomotives. Contrary to BR Class 50, the Portuguese Série 1800 locomotives were built to be as much compatible with the smaller Série 1400 (themselves similar to BR Class 20) as possible and also to use as many common components as possible.

    They were the only diesel locomotives in Portugal authorised to run at 140 km/h. The CP Série 1800s were all withdrawn in 2001 and (as of 2012) several have been cut up, and the future of the rest is unclear.

    Locomotive 1805 has been preserved in operational condition by the Portuguese National Railway Museum at Entroncamento. It was repainted at the CP workshop at Contumil near Porto. Since the 1980s it had been painted in CP's corporate orange livery; it has been repainted in its original distinctive blue livery. It is fully functional, and while still an integral part of the National Railway Museum, is set to return to service pulling tourist trains in the Douro River Line.


    Class 50 locomotives proved popular with rail enthusiasts, with eighteen locomotives saved for preservation and several subsequently registered for use on the mainline. The 50's that have operated on the mainline in preservation include: 50007 Hercules, 50017 Royal Oak, 50031 Hood, 50044 Exeter & 50049 Defiance & 50050 Fearless

    An ambitious project involving preserved Class 50s was "Operation Collingwood", an engineering charity established in the early 1990s. The aim had been to train young engineering apprentices by getting them to rebuild railway locomotives and Class 50s were chosen both for the fact that they were a British design throughout and that all were named (so the apprentices would derive some pride from rededication ceremonies at the completion of their work). To this end, Operation Collingwood purchased and stored 50001, 50023, 50029, 50030, 50040 and 50045. All except 50029 and 50030 were heavily stripped examples sold to scrapyards for final cutting up. The intention was to restore them by using industrial sponsorship money to build an engineering centre and overhaul the components, making brand new ones where necessary to overcome lack of availability of some parts unique to the original design. These ambitions failed when sponsorship did not reach the required level and the project lost various key people. The charity was wound up in 2002; 50001/023/040 and 045 were sold back to scrapyards and their state as little more than bodyshells deterred most further preservation attempts. 50045 was scrapped to provide spares for preserved 50026, and 50001 met a similar fate. A private individual made an attempt to restore 50023 using some parts from 50001 but this was abandoned and the shell was cut up a few years after the initial purchase. 50040 could have been suitable for cosmetic restoration, but after many years untouched and in a derelict state at the Coventry Railway Centre, it finally had all remaining parts stripped for spares and was transported to Sims Metals of Halesowen and scrapping. The cutting of the derelict hulk was completed by Wednesday 2 July 2008. 50029 and 50030 were in far better mechanical condition, and were sold to a preservation group for full restoration.

    50043 Eagle was purchased in almost working order (the main generator had failed, a very common Class 50 problem) but it was never intended for restoration. Instead the power unit was gutted to provide parts for preserved Class 40 no. 40118 as the two share a very similar design of diesel engine. Eagle was then subjected to a further bout of stripping when electrical and other parts were sold to various Class 50 preservationists. Although cosmetically very smart, the loco was by this stage unrestorable and although an ambitious private individual did try, this effort soon came to naught and it was scrapped to provide parts for 50026 Indomitable.

    Once preserved, 50002 became the first class 50 to operate a train for a private excursion on the South Devon Railway (April 1992), while 50031 was the first to operate a train for fare paying passengers (Severn Valley Railway May 1992). 50031 was also the first to operate on the mainline, hauling the Past Time Railtours Pilgrim Hoover train from Birmingham International to Plymouth on 1 November 1997. Since then several other members of the class have also been passed for use on Network Rail (was Railtrack) lines (including 50044, 50049 and 50050). However, with changes in the UK's Rail Access regulations (requiring fitment of additional equipment: TPWS/OTMR/GSMR) some of these locos are no longer of a standard to continue mainline operation. At Present, 50007, 50017, 50044, 50049 & 50050 are passed for main line running. The owners of 50008 & 50026 aim to restore the two to mainline use in the near future.

    One locomotive, 50017, was 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. Following this, the loco spent many years dumped at Tyseley locomotive works before being sold to a private individual. The loco has now been restored to working order at the Plym Valley Railway.

    In 2003 the National Railway Museum decided to dispose of 50033, subject to a suitable owner being found due to an inability to commit to maintenance and storage costs. After spending a period on loan to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway in 2004 the locomotive was moved to the Swindon Steam Railway Museum. However, soon after it was sent on to the Tyseley Locomotive Works as part of a proposed move to the RailSchool project and Royal Docks Heritage Railway in North Woolwich, London. When the Crossrail scheme was authorised, this scheme fell by the wayside, and 50033 remains at Tyseley works.

    In 2005, 50031 and 50049 were on long term hire to Arriva Trains Wales (ATW), for use on special services in connection with events at the Millennium Stadium, and over the summer period saw regular use on the Monday to Saturday "Fishguard Flyer" from Cardiff to Fishguard and return, in connection with the ferry sailing to Ireland. One of the two locomotives was used for the service each day, along with 4 Mark 2 coaches, the short formation and high power leading to very good performance. This arrangement lasted for one year. At the end of this period 50031 failed whilst working an ECS (Empty Coaching Stock) train, again for ATW.

    During the summer of 2008 50044 "Exeter" was fitted with OTMR, and the TPWS fitted previously was commissioned. In October 2008 '44 was re-registered for mainline use, and operated its first revenue mainline train on 18 October 2008, when it worked, in multiple with 50049 "Defiance" on a railtour from Manchester Piccadilly to Minehead.

    Several owning groups have ceremonially re-dedicated their locomotives to the warships whose names they carry. The HMS Hood Association rededicated 50031 Hood at the Mid Hants Railway, unveiling new crests. The crew of HMS Exeter re-dedicated D444 Exeter at the Severn Valley Railway a year before the vessel was decommissioned, unveiling a crest and early-BR-style nameplates. The captain of HMS Ark Royal performed the re-dedication ceremony for 50135 Ark Royal at the Eastleigh 100 Open Days.


    British Rail Class 50 Wikipedia