Blog : Remembering the Whistlers…

Ian Nicholls

D335 in August 1964

One of the most fondly remembered British Rail diesel locomotives was the English Electric Type 4, later christened Class 40. Nicknamed ‘Whistlers’ by rail enthusiasts, due to their distinctive engine noise, it was at one stage the star of the British Railways diesel fleet, hauling top line expresses in the east of England and on Anglo-Scottish routes.

However, it was hardly the most outstanding performer, and by the mid-1960s it was being relegated to less prestigious trains as more powerful diesel designs became available. The origins of the Class 40 date back to the late 1940s and the dying days of the London Midland and Scottish railway.

The LMS, in conjunction with English Electric, designed a new class of diesel locomotive. Powered by a 1600hp English Electric 16SVT engine with diesel-electric transmission, the first locomotive, numbered 10000, entered service in December 1947. By the time its sister locomotive, 10001 had been constructed, the LMS had become the London Midland Region of the newly-nationalised British Railways.

The LMS had intended to compare its new diesel twins with its latest steam locomotives. For the heavily-loaded West Coast Main Line, the plan was to run the diesels in pairs so as to compare them with the mighty William Stanier-designed Pacifics. Back in 1939, an LMS Pacific had recorded a power output of 3300hp, thus explaining the logic of pairing two 1600hp diesels.

In 1948, the LMR tested 10000 and 10001 on a London to Glasgow express. Such was the hitherto unmatched acceleration of the duo that the train was eased off. Despite having BR’s Chief Mechanical Engineer, R.A. Riddles, on board, the decision had already been taken to build yet more steam locomotives.

The next stage in Britain’s embryonic diesel development was conducted by the Southern Region of British Railways. Shortly before nationalisation, the Southern Railway in conjunction with English Electric, had begun to design their own diesel locomotive, using the same 1600hp engine utilised in the LMR twins. The major difference in the designs was in the wheel arrangement.

Train 10000/10001 used a six-axle layout, or co-co, to use railway parlance. The three SR locomotives used an extra pair of wheels on each bogie, known as 1 co-co 1 layout, for better weight distribution. The first two SR locomotives, 10201 and 10202, entered service in 1950-’51. In 1954, a third member of the class, 10203, entered service. This example had its engine uprated to 2000hp and this formed the basis of what became the Class 40.

As part of its 1955 modernisation plan, British Railways ordered ten diesel locomotives from English Electric based on 10203. The bodywork was much changed, gone was the forward control cab of the Southern Region examples. The first ten English Electric Type 4 diesels, as they were then known, were sent to the Eastern region of British Railways.

They made their debut on the Great Eastern Liverpool Street to Norwich line in April 1958. With their 90mph top speed and loads of around ten coaches, performance was adequate but not spectacular. They had to compare with the Britannia Pacifics that could hammer through Diss at 94 miles per hour. However, the ‘Whistlers’’ performance was satisfactory enough to result in orders for a further 190 locomotives.

That same year the English Electric Type 4s were put to work on the Kings Cross to Edinburgh route. It was on this route that the English Electric Type 4s had to stand comparison with British Railways racehorses, the Nigel Gresley-designed A4 Pacifics – although 35 of the Pacifics had been produced, only the last four had been fitted with double chimneys.

One of these four, 4468 Mallard, had in 1938 set a world record for steam traction, 126 miles per hour, that still stands to this day. It took until the late 1950s for BR to convert the remaining 31 A4s to double chimney configuration, but these revitalised giants of steam set a benchmark in performance that the 90mph ‘Whistlers’ struggled to match.

This was exposed by the all too frequent diesel failures in the early years of use. A dirty, unkempt steam locomotive usually had to be substituted to make up for lost time. Whilst a diesel locomotive could out accelerate a steam locomotive, the English Electric Type 4 was restricted by its gearing to 90 miles per hour. A steam locomotive could be wound up to speeds in excess of 100mph and sustain such pace.

The plus points of a diesel locomotive was its switch on and off availability, whereas a steam engine needed long-winded preparation before it could perform its daily roster, and then more maintenance at the end of its working day.

Sir Brian Robertson, Chairman of the British Transport Commission, was less than impressed with the English Electric Type 4, believing that the locomotives lacked the power to maintain heavy trains at high speed and were too expensive to run in multiple – opinions that were later proved to be correct. Airing his views at the Regional Boards prompted others to break cover and it was agreed that later orders would be uprated to 2500 hp, a change that was never applied.

The dawning reality that the ‘Whistlers’ were no journey shrinkers in a Britain about to enter the motorway age, was compounded by the alarm of the Macmillan Government at the projected cost of electrifying 29 per cent of Britain’s railways by 1980.

The Government scaled back on rail investment and dieselisation became the order of the day. The more savvy Eastern Region management, realising that 90mph speeds simply would not do, and that their lines were not going to see powerful and lightweight electric traction any time soon, pushed for a production version of the 3300hp Deltic diesel, the prototype of which had been operating on British Railways since 1955. As a consequence, they declined to accept any more English Electric Type 4s, and their allocation was transferred to London Midland Region.

LMR assigned their ‘Whistlers’ to the West Coast Main Line, Euston to Glasgow or Holyhead. Hauling 13 or 14 coach trains, they had the unenviable task of replacing the might Duchess Pacifics, steam engines designed to cope with the gradients north of Crewe. However, this did enable LMR to withdraw its ex-LMS Pacifics, this task being completed by the end of 1964. It was in 1963 that D326 became the most famous English Electric Type 4, when it was the locomotive stopped during the Great Train Robbery.

Any hopes that the ‘Whistlers’ would be short-term stopgaps pending Euston-Liverpool/Manchester electrification were dashed as this took until 1966 to reach fruition. The last English Electric Type 4 was delivered in September 1962, by which time the design was considered to be at 133 tons, overweight and underpowered.

The heyday of the ‘Whistlers’ was the early 1960s, but by the middle of the decade the Brush Type 4, a lighter 2750hp co-co design was available and it began to supplant the older English Electric design. In 1966 100mph electric trains replaced the diesels south of Crewe, although the route to Holyhead remained diesel hauled.

LMR, realising that they were stuck with diesels for some time north of Crewe, acquired fifty 2700hp Class 50 diesels, and the ‘Whistlers’, now re-branded as the Class 40, were relegated to less prestigious duties. Gradually the 200 strong fleet were repainted from their original green to Rail Blue and renumbered. After their initial teething troubles, the class settled down to become reliable performers. The last examples were withdrawn in 1985 and seven Class 40s survive in preservation. D326, later renumbered 40126 was scrapped in 1984. British Rail made sure it was not one of the preserved examples.

Now the pictures… First we see D335 in green (below), hauling a rake of maroon coaches in 1964. Then we have the now preserved 40122 hauling a freight train in the Rail Blue era (top). Train 40122 was originally numbered D200, the first of the class.



Ian Nicholls
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  1. Too heavy and underpowered and a cause for concern the accelerated East Coast mainline express passenger schedules trains they were given, the Gresley racehorse steam locos were given a shot in the arm, power and performance modifications by Peter Townsend, and retained their crowns in an Indian Summer of express steam, until something with more under the bonnet appeared, the 2750 bhp Brush type 4

  2. As a train spotter lad I used to watch 10,000 and 10,001 double heading the Lime Street to Euston expresses as they shot though Mossley Hill Station on the way out of Liverpool–quite a sight they made to a young lad used to the steamers!

  3. These were popular on freight services on the Cumbrian Coast Line well into the eighties and hauled trains from Barrow to Manchester. Also they were frequently used on charter services, a school trip from Whitehaven to Chester, using Mark 1 compartment stock, was hauled by a Class 40.

  4. The Macmillan government too fright at the cost of electrification – Just like the Cameron government today. Why is it relatively straight forward infrastructure improvements such as electrification, that other countries achieve without drama become virtually impossible to achieve in the UK? Perhaps whilst we are mired in business cases and risk assessments they just get on and do it.

  5. As I understand it, it is two decades since any major electrification work was carried out, and Network Rail no longer has the expertise within its ranks to electrify both the GWR and Midland mainlines at once and within budget. MODERN RAILWAYS magazine is now claiming that the GW electrification is going to cost four times what it cost to electrify the ECML.
    Why this is the case is open to debate, but is probably the consequence of stop go investment by central government that at one stage viewed the railway network as superfluous and a Victorian millstone around its neck.
    At the risk of being lynched, I argue that had Britain adopted a toll road system, as on the continent, we would have both better roads and railways.
    Certainly the A11 here in Norfolk would have been dualled a lot sooner.

  6. The ECML was delivered on time and budget by BR and flushed with success, the highly competent team electrified to Kings Lynn.

    Railtrack fell apart upgrading the West Coast mainline , the costs escalated throughout construction until THERE WASN’T A BUDGET. they could not predict the final sum of money to complete!.

    That and a few accidents led to death of Railtrack and step forward Network Rail!

    Now Network rail is the baddy, GW electification up the creek without a paddle and Govt has pulled the plug on electrification up int’ North.

    Leeds – Manchester route is the sufferer, it is a switchback of gradients, which electric trains simply shrug off, and those formerly depressed but now vibrant Mill towns on the route, they will suffer from under capacity and slow journey times to the economic powerhouses of Leeds and Manchester

  7. D326 seemed to be a jinxed locomotive in it’s early years, though it wasn’t involved in Coppenhall collision as often rumoured.

    I’ve also heard of a Class 47 that had lots of things happen to it.

  8. Although the Class 40s were cascaded down to secondary duties, I can personally vouch for their excellent performance on the Liverpool – Newcastle trans-Pennine expresses in the mid70s – mid-80s when they were withdrawn. They would keep time with 10 laden Mk2 coaches in comfort. Something that the current nasty little trans-pennine DMUs can’t achieve.

    I used to try and get one of the front coaches just so that I could open the window, stick my head out and listen to the wonderful noise as they blasted out of Manchester climbing through Stalybridge towards Mirfield.

    Oooo, I’m coming over all nostalgic!

    • I lived near Stalybridge and used to go to York. Loved the class 40s. They had character and presence.

  9. The 40s were very important for making diesel haulage mainstream, along with the Peaks.

    A little underpowered for mainline services but useful for trunkline & cross country duties, as well as many medium freights.

    IIRC they had problems with their bogies cracking in later years.

    They managed to have 4 different front ends, with combinations of doors (often plated over late on) / solid fronts, & discs or headcode boxes.

  10. Last October I had the pleasure of seeing Luton Model Railway Clubs recreation of the 1963 Great Train Robbery, a static depiction of where D326 was stopped on the bridge. This has caused controversy, as some people who hadn’t seen the model, took the view that it was glorifying a crime that involved the vicious beating of D326’s driver.
    This was far from the case, as Luton MRC were using it to raise funds for injured rail workers. The model was an impressive recreation of the crime scene, one that revealed the logistics of the operation in a clear concise manner. For example, D326 was stopped in the wrong place, so the mail bags in the coaches had to be passed man to man to the vehicles parked below the bridge.
    Network Rail have now renamed the bridge as “Robbers Bridge.”

  11. I can remember them being a popular sight in west Cumbria in the late seventies and early eighties, with the Travelling Post Office using class 40s, and chemical and steel trains using 40s more than any other locomotive. I reckon their reliability and ability at hauling slower trains counted in their favour.

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