Blog : Remembering the Peaks…

Ian Nicholls


I was born in the Bedfordshire village of Flitwick (it was a village then) on the Midland Main Line, so the British Rail Peak diesel locomotive was part of my childhood. I can recall sitting in the classroom at Harlington Upper School watching them perform their daily rosters, when I should have been studying hard!

For two decades this rugged design was the mainstay of express trains out of St. Pancras to the north of England. Never a star performer in the way the Deltic was, lacking the style of a Western diesel hydraulic, or the efficiency of the ubiquitous Class 47, which partnered it on the Midland Main Line, the Peaks gave sterling service for two decades until they were replaced by High Speed Trains in 1982. They served in other parts of Britain’s rail network, but they were the dominant form of motive power on the Midland Main Line, hammering through Flitwick at their maximum speed of 90mph.

The Peaks were part of British Railways 1955 Modernisation Plan, which aimed to replace steam with electric and diesel traction. This plan called for a category of mainline diesel locomotives with power outputs of 2000bhp and above, known as Type 4. Both English Electric and BR responded with similar specifications. The English Electric Type 4, later known as the Class 40, was a 2000hp locomotive introduced in 1958.

The Peaks were BR Derby’s own take on the Type 4 specification. However, both Derby and English Electric found that the heavy internal components and the need to keep within the British loading gauge, prevented them from keeping weight to an acceptable level, which forced them to use four axle bogies. This resulted in both types of locomotive weighing in at a whopping 133 tons.

The initial fleet of ten Derby-built Type 4 locomotives used a Sulzer 12LDA28-A diesel engine to drive a Crompton Parkinson GC426-A1 main generator which supplied power to six Crompton Parkinson C171-B1 traction motors. All this resulted in a 2300bhp 90mph diesel locomotive. These first ten locomotives were all named after British mountains, which resulted in all the subsequent locomotives being called Peaks by rail enthusiasts. These initial ten locomotives, numbered D1 to D10, were delivered to British Railways’ London Midland Region in the winter of 1959/60 and operated out of Euston and St. Pancras.

BR were impressed with the performance of the Peaks enough to order an uprated version with a 2500bhp Sulzer 12LDA28B engine. A further 127 of these were built between 1960 and 1962 by BR’s Derby and Crewe works.

From 1962 these 2500hp locomotives became the dominant motive power on the Midland Main Line operating out of St Pancras, ousting the LMS-era Jubilee, Royal Scots and Patriot steam locomotives. The Midland Main Line had been the ‘Cinderella’ line of the London Midland Region. Weight restrictions had prevented the use of the mighty William Stanier-designed Pacifics in order to accelerate schedules. The Royal Scots in rebuilt form were as good as it got for their size, but the Peaks transformed services out of St. Pancras.

These days trains out of St. Pancras terminate at Sheffield but, at one stage, Peaks travelled further north, to Glasgow via Carstairs Junction, and Edinburgh via the Waverley Route. Although not well patronised by Londoners, because they were longer and slower than services out of Euston and Kings Cross, they did offer convenient Anglo-Scottish services to residents of places like Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield.

In 1961 BR Derby began building another variant of the Peak design. The 2500hp Sulzer 12LDA28B engine was used again, but differed in the fitment of a Brush generator and traction motors, in place of the Crompton Parkinson equipment. BR built a further 56 examples. However, in 1962 Brush Traction cracked the problem of producing a lighter Type 4 locomotive, resulting in the long-serving Class 47, and no more Peaks were ordered.

It was a testament to the quality of the Peaks that they remained a frontline locomotive despite the onset of more modern and lighter designs. In the late 1960s, the Peaks were progressively repainted Rail Blue with yellow ends, and a new classification scheme clarified the various sub-types.

The original ten 2300hp locomotives were re-branded as Class 44s. The next 127 2500hp machines became Class 45s and the final 56 examples with Brush components were now known as Class 46s.

The emasculation of services out of St. Pancras began in January 1969 with the closure of the Waverley Route between Carlisle and Edinburgh, which isolated vast swathes of Border country from the national rail network. The section between Galashiels and Edinburgh was resurrected in September 2015 as the Borders Railway, and hopes are high that eventually this will be extended further south.

In 1976 St. Pancras to Glasgow services also ceased. The original ten class 44s were latterly confined to freight traffic and were withdrawn between 1976 and 1981.

The arrival of the High Speed Train/InterCity 125 sounded the death knell of the Peaks. Arriving on the Western Region in October 1976, the HST initiated another game of motive power musical chairs, resulting in the final elimination of Diesel Hydraulic power from the region. The HST took over the main services out of Kings Cross in 1978. The final batch of HSTs were allocated to the Midland Main Line in 1982, and they have given even longer service than the Peaks they replaced.

The arrival of the HST freed up more modern designs like the Class 47 and the freight-only Class 56 to supplant the Peaks, and the Class 45 and 46 locomotives were withdrawn between 1981 and 1989.

An amazing 16 Peaks have been preserved. Although overshadowed by the publicity surrounding the InterCity 125, in their day the Peaks were as much a quantum leap over the steam locomotives they replaced as the later HST, particularly on routes like the Midland Main Line, where weight restrictions prevented the fastest steam locomotives from being utilised.

And so to the pictures… The first is a blue-painted Peak hustling through Flitwick, Bedfordshire in 1977 at 90mph. Then, we move back a decade to 1967 and is of green painted D22 in a snowscape, two miles south of Hawick on a now closed section of the Waverley Route.

D22 with an afternoon train on the Waverley route photographed approximately two miles south of Hawick in the snows of 1967.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. The Thames- Clyde Express was the name of the train service which went to Glasgow from St Pancras via the MML and Settle- Carlisle. It was useful for people who lived in the East Midlands and Leeds who wanted to get to Scotland without changing, but was too slow to compete with WCML trains and was scrapped in 1976. A descendant of this train from Nottingham to Glasgow via the Settle line lived on until 1982, when the rundown of the Carlisle- Settle line for a possible closure that never happened saw it abandoned.

  2. The last service train over the former Waverley route on Sunday 5th January 1969 was pulled by a Peak, D60 Lytham St Annes. The sleeper train, the 2156 Edinburgh Waverley to St Pancras was delayed to Carlisle by two hours owing to protests on the route. Then MP David Steele was a passenger and had to negotiate with the protesters to enable the train to proceed.

    I much remember the Peaks on the midlands trains at St Pancras in the early 80s when the station was a dark gloomy neglected hole. The coming of the International services has transformed the station into a bright glorious station.

    • I did think about mentioning the David Steele incident but I thought it would be rambling on and perhaps the reader might not be that interested.

  3. As toouched on above there were plans for a 4th batch of Peaks & BR allocated numbers D1500 upwards for them, but the Class 47s were bought instead. My Dad’s 1962 Ian Allen ABC book mentions this.

    The Class 44s were withdrawn earlier as they had vacuum only braking & I guess some other “non standard” features.

    A Class 46 was used in the infamous nuclear flask test in 1984, when it & 3 Mk1 coaches were driven into a nuclear flask to show it wouldn’t leak in an accident.

    • The pioneer Peaks D1 -10 finished their BR days at Toton on freight work, they were withdrawn by the late 1970s due to being absolutely “worn out” having accumulated high mileages

    • Thee fleet of ended at D193, D194 – D199 were cancelled and their equipment diverted to the Brush type 4 D1500 class

  4. There is an apparantly true story of when Swindon was building the dainty “Warship” diesels, (2200HP, 78 tons on 4 axles) the German engineers assisting with this project were invited by BR officials to Derby to see their answer to the same problem – the “Peak”.
    Apparantly, when confronted with this behomoth (2300 HP, 133 tons over 8 axles), the only comment from the Germans was “Mein Gott”!

    Perhaps the Peak had the last laugh, as they were reliable performers on very long Cross Country services and outlived the Warships by a considerable margin.
    Cheers, David

  5. The Diesel hydraulics were normally a fair bit lighter than the Diesel Electrics of the same power output, roughly the weight of a fully loaded Mk1 coach.

  6. Where lumbering locomotives like the Peak scored over the lightweight diesel hydraulic locomotives was when pulling unfitted (i.e. un-braked) freight trains, still common in the 60s and 70s.

    Diesel Hydraulics scored poorly when having to pull such trains as the china clay trains in Cornwall, then still common. On these trains, the locomotive weight was important in stopping the train.

    All said and done, the Peaks must be regarded as pretty successful by account of their lengthy service, outliving the Warships by twenty years.

  7. Not quite right that the final batch of HST’s went to the Midland. The final batch where for cross country North East/South West Services entering service in the early 80s. The Midland got an initial small fleet of HST’s from Western Region as more intensive working of the fleet allowed transfer of some units to the Midland mainline. The Midlands HST fleet then grew as East Coast Electrification released further HST’s in the late 80s/early 90s.

  8. Interesting stuff, although the peaks were never just MML locomotives – the externally identical Class 46es – which were also known as Peaks – were the mainstay of the north east to south west services throughout the seventies and early 1980s, working from Newcastle all the way to Plymouth and sometimes even into Cornwall. They coped remarkably well with the gradients of the GW metals past Exeter and I can well remember seeing them rushing past the beach at Dawlish Warren on summer holidays as a child.

    Later on the 46s and 45/1s were partially migrated onto the ‘Trans Pennine’ workings from Liverpool to Newcastle via Manchester and Leeds and the sight of one taking off up Miles Platting bank on leaving Manchester Victoria station was an equally memorable one. Hellfire, my Lords! (as the bashing fraternity used to put it.)

    The 45/1s worked passenger trains until the end, but sometimes in strange places – the last mainline examples were used on the summer Saturday workings that used to run from the East Midlands to Skegness in 1988/ 89. 45106 was Tinsley’s celebrity machine and was a popular performer on these. She had been repainted into British Railways green, and was doubtless destined for preservation until it unfortunately caught fire during what was apparently a particularly flat-out bit of operation; weeks before I remember riding behind her on one of the Manchester-Blackpool “club trains” which were comprised of five mk2 coaches and normally “powered” by a 31, the most gutless locomotive ever built. We picked up a delay with signalling work at Windsor Bridge and the 45 was positively unleashed on the way to Bolton – we must have gone through Farnworth tunnel at about 90mph!

    Many crews preferred the 44s, 45s and 46s to the ubiquitous 47s; it was harder to see out because of the need to look over the noses but they were reckoned to be less draughty and offered marginally more protection in the event of a crash.

    Keep up the good work!

  9. I find these articles absolutely fascinating. In my innocence, I thought that Diesel locomotives were…well, diesel locomotives . While Ian is at these researches, could we perhaps have some reference please to what in my boyhood I found the most fascinating loco ever – the gas turbine one powered by , I think, a Metrovick engine

  10. Another great read 🙂 Fascinating stuff.
    Really annoys me how this country doesn’t produce Locomotives or rolling stock any more. Even more annoying when foreign companies are here picking up major contracts etc when we used to have the skills and infrastructure in place already…
    Now all pretty much gone.
    Nothing against those foreign companies, more annoyed with decades of our own government’s refusal to invest properly in our railways..
    Sigh… rant over…

  11. @ Darren, Lancs, we do have Hitachi opening a new factory in Newton Aycliffe, not far from the former Shildon wagon works, so all is not lost and at least what will replace the HSTs and Class 91s will be made here. However, I know where you’re coming from as historic railway works like Crewe and Doncaster have largely gone and only Derby remains under foreign ownership.
    It is to the credit of these former British Railways workshops and companies like English Electric that classes of locomotives introduced in the sixties are still running reliably now and a 40 year old design like the HST/Inter City 125 is still in use every day on long distance services and still performing reliably.

  12. If you were a train spotter in the early/mid 70s to see the “first 10” Peaks was the bees knees with the holy grail being No 1 Scaffel Pike!!

  13. I’ve heard of a few train spotters efforts to complete a class, one struggled for years to get a certain Class 82 before spotting on a railtour.

  14. By the way, I don’t think editor Keith has any clue what we are all babbling on about. I asked him if he knew what a whistler or a streak was, but didn’t get a reply……..

  15. I guess nicknames change with generations? mine from early/mid 1970s Slug = Class33, Ingy =class 37, big ingy=class 40 Brush4 = class 47, Cromwell=class 25 and wessys = class52..not heard of a streak or a whistler [or is that a class 37?] when recent I heard an older loco fan refer to a class 37 as a Growler but he was 15 years on me!.

  16. I’ve heard of a few I’ve heard of from memory:

    03 = Gronks

    20 = Wardrobes

    22 = Baby Warships

    23 = Baby Deltics

    25 = Fruit Machines

    33 = Bagpipes & Toffee Apples

    37 = Tractors

    40 = Whistlers

    43 = Flying Bananas

    47 = Duffs & Spoons

    50 = Hoovers & 50/50s

  17. IIRC Classes 24 to 27 all seemed to be nicknamed rats, the Scottish region ones used to be known as McRats.

  18. One of the best and most relevant was Bog’s which were old 3 unit diesel multiple units running from the 1950s? to the late 80s? on the Reading to Tonbridge line

  19. It’s amazing how many motoring experts and enthusiasts are into railways as indeed I am! Here are a few more nicknames including some more modern loco classes. For further information refer to copies of 1970s Ian Allan or current Platform 5 spotting books!

    Class 08/09 Shunters Gronks
    Class 17 Claytons
    Class 20 Choppers
    Class 28 Metrovic
    Class 31 Goyles, Snails
    Class 33 Cromptons, Shredders
    Class 35 Hymeks
    Class 37 Syphons
    Class 47/7 Shove Duffs
    Class 50 Logs, Hoovers, Warships (for a short time following the names they received in the late 1970s, thankfully this soon died out)
    Class 56 Grids
    Class 57 Bodysnatchers (these are re-engineered class 47 bodyshells)
    Class 58 Bones
    Class 59 Yings
    Class 60 Tugs
    Class 66 Sheds (Some of these now operate abroad and are known as Euro Sheds)
    Class 67 Skips
    Class 70 Uglys (or Fuglys if operated by Freightliner)
    Class 73 Shoe Boxes or EDs
    Class 74 Booster
    Class 76 Tommies
    Classes 81-85 Roarers
    Classes 81-86 Cans/Sparkies (generic terms for electric locos)
    Class 87 Royal Scots
    Class 90 Skodas

    First Generation DMU sets Fart Carts (listen to the exhaust rasp as they pull away, similar to a Morris Minor decelerating downhill in low gear!)
    Class 142-144 ‘Pacer’: Donkeys (Horrible to ride on, wagon chassis with bus body!)

  20. Perhaps the abovementioned class 76 Tommies and the Woodhead line are worthy of an article. The electrification of the Woodhead line in 1954 meant Manchester and Sheffield had a high speed( by the standards of the fifties) electric rail link that was a vast improvement on steam and predated other Inter City type electric trains by twelve years. However, the closure of Sheffield Victoria in 1970 saw the end of passenger services on the Woodhead Line, and it lingered on as a freight line until 1981 when the non standard nature of the electrification and a recession saw it closed forever.

  21. Ah, the author is a fellow neighbour (or former neighbour, in my case) of the BedPan line. Thank you for clearing up the difference between 44s, 45s and 46s, Ian!

    I too have fond childhood memories in the seventies of these magnificent machines blasting through Harpenden station (platform ticket: 2 pence) on the fast lines while Class 127 DMUs burbled to a halt at platforms 3 and 4.

    In those days the station still had magnificent wooden structures which included separate Gentlemen and Ladies waiting rooms. It also still sported British Railways maroon totem signs declaring Harpenden Central, to distinguish it from the already-defunct Harpenden East station up the road – a victim of Doctor B.

    I must dig out my Combined Volume from those days but I suspect I must have ticked off most of the 45s in my ten or so years of childhood ‘bashing’. Happy, happy days…

  22. Interesting reflections but

    a) Each of the first 10 locomotives, later Class 44, were only used on the Midland main line for a few weeks after beng outshopped in 1959-60. They were then quickly transferred to the WCML to help relieve 8P pacifics from the heaviest duties. They returned to the Midland in (I think) autumn 1963, all allocated to Toton. Their boilers were removed and they were only normally used on freight.

    b) The Thames-Clyde Express was not routed via “Carstairs Junction” (unless, I suppose, diverted because of a blockage). It went via the former Glasgow & South Western route via Dumfries and Kilmarnock, originally using St Enoch station, but after that closed, using Glasgow Central.

    Routing via the G&SW line was a practice which dated from Midland Railway days.

    Regards, Kester

  23. The G& SW line is the slow line from Carlisle to Glasgow, with a much less frequent service north of Dumfries, but offering a cheaper service from Carlisle to Glasgow and enabling places like Sanqhuar to have a connection to the WCML.

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