Question: What does the Lamborghini Miura have in common with the British Rail Class 55 Deltic diesel locomotive?
Answer: They both appeared in the main title sequence of a classic Michael Caine film.
The Miura appeared in The Italian Job, the Deltic in Get Carter, depicting the journey of the main character from London to Newcastle on the East Coast Main Line as Roy Budd’s catchy theme plays over it. Although there may be questions marks over the Deltic’s reliability and availability, there was no questioning its acceleration and its pace.
With 3300hp on tap and a 105mph maximum speed, its ability to shrink journey times and improve on the times set by the outgoing steam locomotives made it a valuable tool in British Railways fight back against road and rail transport.
The English Electric company had, in co-operation with British Railways, pioneered the use of diesel traction in Britain, using their 16SVT engine. In the early 1950s, it suddenly occurred to the company’s senior management that their Napier subsidiary had a marine engine that could be adapted for railway use.
This was an 18 cylinder engine, known as the Deltic, which when fitted to minesweepers, produced 1750hp. English Electric de-rated the Deltic to 1650hp to prolong engine life and designed a locomotive around two of these engines to produce DP1, know to all as the prototype Deltic. And with a weight of only 106 tons, the DP1 had a power to weight ratio that embarrassed later designs.
DP1 entered British Railways service in 1955 on the Euston to Liverpool route, where its performance soon put everything else in the shade. And it was only initially geared for a maximum speed of 90mph. Hopes of rapid orders soon evaporated as the London Midland Region of British Railways took the official view that the Napier Deltic was a high-revving diesel and was unsuitable for railway use.
Railway politics could have, of course, played a part. In 1956, the British Transport Commission had announced a plan to electrify the Euston to Liverpool and Manchester route by 1959. LMR would have no need of a fleet of production DP1s in this eventuality – except, even allowing for the usual slippage, this was a woefully optimistic prediction. By 1960, the Department of Transport was putting the brakes on West Coast Main Line electrification on cost grounds and it would be 1966 before electric traction reached Liverpool and Manchester from the capital.
Meanwhile, the English Electric Type 4, later known as the Class 40, had made its debut on the Eastern Region. With 2000bhp and weighing in at 133 tons, it was inferior to DP1 in every area except price. However, Gerry Fiennes, the Line Traffic Manager on the former Great Northern route out of London King’s Cross station was dissatisfied with their performance. This was a line dominated by ex-LNER steam locomotives, including the A4 streamliners, now all fitted with double chimneys, and capable of sustained 100mph running.
An A4-hauled express could reach Edinburgh from the capital with a 12-13 coach train in 6 hours 30 minutes. Fiennes realised that, in order to compete with air and road transport, higher speeds were needed, and pushed for a fleet of Deltic locomotives. Opponents of the order argued that it might retard the electrification of the East Coast Main Line, but as it turned out, Fiennes was on the money, and it would be three decades before the wires were energized between the English and Scottish capitals.
And so an order was placed in 1959 for 22 production Deltics to replace 55 steam locomotives. Eastern Region then donated their allocation of Class 40 diesels to London Midland Region to tide them over until the electrification programme was up and running.
The 22 production Deltics were all delivered between 1961 and 1962. Once in service, British Railways only Type 5 locomotive began to demonstrate its prowess, and at only 99 tons, and with a 105mph top speed, soon impressed observers. With its rapid acceleration, the Deltic could wind up quickly to 100mph on parts of the East Coast Main Line even the A4s could not match. Gradually, more and more parts of the route were cleared for 100mph running. By the mid 1960s, Deltic-hauled trains were reaching Edinburgh from London in 5 hours 55 minutes, even faster than the pre-war ‘Coronation’, a lightweight A4-hauled train.
From 1966 the previously green Deltics began to be repainted in the new corporate Rail Blue with yellow ends and were reclassified as the Class 55. By the mid-1970s, track improvements had further reduced the London to Edinburgh time to 5 hours 30 minutes, but now the West Coast Main Line had been fully electrified, reducing London to Glasgow journey times to 5 hours, and demonstrating the superiority of electric traction over diesel, the West Coast Main Line is 9 miles longer.
However, with the politicians reluctant to invest public money in electrifying the East Coast Main Line, how were the Deltics to be replaced? One solution was the one-off prototype, HS4000 Kestrel, a 133 ton diesel locomotive built by Brush Traction and evaluated by British Rail between 1968 and 1971.
Substituting for a Deltic, the ‘Kestrel’ did knock 14 minutes off a London to Newcastle diagram. However, the axle weight was deemed to be beyond the acceptable limit in order to maintain track integrity. British Rail baulked at buying production HS4000s. The solution was to divide the power between two power cars, resulting in the High Speed Train or InterCity 125. With two power cars producing 2250hp each, the HST had a combined output of 4500hp. The HST entered service on the East Coast Main Line in 1978, reducing the London to Edinburgh time further to 4 hours 45 minutes, and relegating the Deltics to less prestigious duties.
The end came in January 1982 when the class was withdrawn, its task completed. Six locomotives survived into preservation. Even during its active life the Deltic was popular with enthusiasts, fast machines are always shown favouritism. The Class 55 was an ingeneous solution to the problem of how to speed up Britain’s railways in the face of the Government’s reluctance to invest in electrification, and for that it should be remembered as a great piece of British engineering.
And now for the pictures: above is a green D9016 Gordon Highlander leaving Leeds Central in 1965, a time of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Cliff Michelmore on the Tonight programme. Then we move on to 1974 and 55008 The Green Howards in Rail Blue blasts through Peterborough (below), when Britain had progressed to grooving to the poptastic sounds of the Wombles…
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