Killed before their time? A technological dead end? A waste of resources? I fully realise that in profiling the Class 52 AKA the Western diesel locomotive I may be opening a can of worms. So here goes…
When the Conservative Party returned to power in 1951 it realised there was no realistic prospect of returning the railways to the private sector, such was the maintenance arrears resulting from six years of war. However, they did decide to grant greater autonomy to the regions with consequences for future motive power policy.
The Western Region of British Railways was the state-owned descendant of the Great Western Railway – GWR – God’s Wonderful Railway. Whether it was justified or not, the GWR had a reputation for customer service. They had set the pace in steam locomotive development. In comparative trials in the 1920s, they had shown the LNER Pacifics a clean pair of heels and the LMS had poached William Stanier off them to revitalise their motive power. The new British Railways Standard steam locomotives coming into service were by and large evolutions of LMS design philosophy, itself derived from that of the GWR.
The GWR had also pioneered diesel railcars on branchlines. In terms of average speed, the GWR ran some of the fastest trains in Britain. The early British main line diesels, the LMR 10000, 10001 and the SR 10201,10202 and 10203 all used diesel electric transmission. However, the Western Region opted to use hydraulic transmission for their fleet of diesels.
The theoretical advantage of diesel-hydraulic was simple: it resulted in a lighter locomotive than equivalent diesel-electric transmission. This provided better power/weight ratio and decreased track wear. Unfortunately, it had two key disadvantages: the technology was proven in continental Europe, particularly Germany, but was new to Britain. At the time, it was considered politically unacceptable for the British Government to order railway rolling stock from foreign companies, especially German companies so soon after the Second World War. This resulted in most of the engines and transmissions being manufactured in the United Kingdom under licence from the German manufacturers.
The most robust hydraulic transmissions were only capable of handling engines with power output of around 1500 hp; to build a more powerful locomotive would involve two diesel engines and two transmissions. The first diesel-hydraulics locomotives were the North British-built D600 to D604, retrospectively known as the Class 41. Introduced in 1957, they were equipped with two 1000hp MAN V12 diesels, connected to a Voith transmission.
They were followed by the much lighter Class 42 in 1958, a 38-strong class which used twin Maybach engines, most licence built by Bristol-Siddeley, connected to Mekydro hydraulic transmissions. Then there was the similar looking Class 43, which used twin MAN engines and Voith transmissions – because they were named after Royal Navy vessels, the class became known as ‘Warships’.
With around 2200hp available and weighing less than 80 tons, these locomotives, seemed to prove the point about the superior power to weight ratio of the diesel hydraulic over the diesel electric. The 2000hp Class 40 diesel electric weighed in at 133 tons. However, the Western Region needed more power and this was to lead to the development of the ‘Westerns’.
Experience had shown that the Maybach engines were superior to the MAN engines used in the ‘Warships’, particularly in power output. Also Maybach were able to offer their 12 MD655 engines rated at 1350hp allied to a Voith L630RV transmission; a Mekydro transmission designed to handle such power could not be fitted into the British loading gauge.
The order for 74 locomotives was placed by the British Transport Commission in September 1959, just prior to the completion of the final design. The actual look of the locomotive was the work of Misha Black, one of the leaders of industrial design in Britain. Construction was divided between Swindon and Crewe. The first example was delivered in December 1961.
With 2700hp and weighing 108 tons, the new ‘Westerns’ were on paper the best Type 4 locomotive yet. The decision was taken to name all the locomotives, with the prefix ‘Western’, hence the popular name of the class. The first member of the class was painted Desert Sand, and other early examples in Brunswick Green. However, Western Region eventually settled on all-over maroon livery for the class, which distinguished them further from other classes and regions. They were certainly handsome locomotives.
While capable of 100mph, the official top speed was 90mph. Due to a mismatching between the engine and the Voith transmission, the locomotives found it very difficult to hit their top speed. The last locomotive, D1073 Western Bulwark, was built at Crewe in December 1963, but the sun was already setting on the diesel-hydraulic experiment. The Chairman of British Railways, Dr Richard Beeching, sent Gerry Fiennes, an ex-LNER and Eastern Region man, to run Western Region. Fiennes decided that the next batch of new diesels for the Western Region should have diesel-electric transmissions and ordered Brush Class 47s and English Electric Class 37s.
Although the ‘Westerns’ settled down to give sterling service over the next few years, the writing was on the wall. Later classified as the Class 52, they suffered their fair share of mechanical maladies, so did other locomotive types, regardless of their transmission type. Some rail observers calculated the best horsepower delivered by the ‘Westerns’ at the drawbar was in the region of 1500hp, something like 56 per cent efficiency through the hydraulic transmission compared with nearer 80 per cent with the diesel-electrics.
In a haulage comparison between the Class 52 ‘Westerns’ and other diesel-electric Type 4s, the Class 52 fared worse when pulling a load up a hill, despite it having nominally the best power-to-weight ratio and being more powerful than the ‘Peak’ Class 45/46s, which weighed in at 133 tons. That said, if the ‘Westerns’ were so bad, why did they continue on top link expresses?
As rail traffic collapsed in the aftermath of the Beeching Report and the onslaught of competition from road transport, British Rail found it had a surplus of diesel locomotives. It began weeding out the sub-standard types, a lot of them were diesel-electrics, and then looked at what it deemed were non-standard. The Western Region Diesel Hydraulics came into this category. The ‘Warships’ went in 1972, and the smaller Class 35 Hymeks went in 1975.
By this time the ‘Westerns’ had lost their distinctive maroon livery and were now painted Rail Blue with yellow ends. By now the Paddington to Bristol route was also facing competition from the new M4 motorway. In May 1974, London Midland Region at last completed the London to Glasgow electrification – it had only taken 15 years! This released 50 English Electric Class 50 diesel-electric locomotives for use on the Western Region. Since 1968 the Class 50s had hauled trains from Crewe, where the overhead wires ended, onto Glasgow. This 100mph design replaced the ‘Westerns’ on top link expresses. Class 52 withdrawals commenced as and when they came up for serious repairs, which were deemed to be uneconomical to proceed with.
The external condition of the locomotives declined as British Rail became reluctant to clean what was now a doomed fleet. In October 1976, the Class 50s were themselves displaced by the High Speed Train/InterCity 125, thus freeing them for other duties. This meant the end for the ‘Westerns’ and they had all been withdrawn by the end of February 1977.
The whole diesel hydraulic saga had lasted a mere 20 years, the locomotives having a working life half as long as the GWR Castle and King steam engines they replaced. In their later years, the ‘Westerns’ had been relegated to freight duties and they had a much higher tractive effort than the rival Class 47 diesel-electric. At the time of their withdrawal, British Rail were in the process of buying the Class 56 freight locomotive, initially built in Romania. It does invite the question: would it have not been more economical to keep the ‘Westerns’ in service and not have bothered with the Class 56?
So what are we to make of the Class 52 ‘Westerns’. Were they the folly of a British Railways region that arrogantly thought it knew better, or were they withdrawn far too soon by a management that did not appreciate them? Were they as bad as the critics made out? Even as they were being withdrawn they were developing a rail fan base, a tribute to Sir Misha Black’s design. Black himself died in October 1977, only months after the withdrawal of the last ‘Westerns’. The Misha Black Awards were created in his memory, in order to honour people and organisations involved in design education. The winner of the 1997 Misha Black Medal was none other than Alex Moulton, a well-known name here on AROnline.
And so to the pictures. First we have D1041 Western Prince at Paddington in its glorious maroon 1960s heyday. Many colour images of maroon ‘Westerns’ evoke idyllic 1960s holidays in the West Country, when the sun always shone. The traditional English seaside holiday was, like the ‘Westerns’, doomed, as cheap Spanish package holidays gained in popularity.
Then onto the later Rail Blue era. Here we have D1028 Western Hussar at Dawlish. I have chosen this image for the fine display of automobilia parked below, in particular that rather magnificent two-tone BMC 1800 Landcrab. I have never seen one in that livery before. The fact that there appears to be no spare parking spaces also, of course, illustrates how the car was rapidly becoming the preferred means of travelling to the seaside. On returning to a car left in the hot sunshine, the owner would discover that the Vynide seat covering was unpleasantly rather warm to the bare skin!
But I digress – if the ‘Westerns’ are to be considered a failure, then they were a glorious failure.