SINCE Privatisation in the mid-1990s, the distinction between the ‘departmental’ and‘normal’ fleets has become blurred to the point of irrelevance as traditional non-revenue earning roles – like maintenance and renewal of the permanent way, track testing and rolling stock commissioning – have become money earners for freight operators, infrastructure specialists, and locomotive owners.
Although Network Rail retains a small group of dedicated locos for special duties, the 1970s and 80s were the quintessential era of the departmental locomotive. Barely a depot or works open day went by without one or more of the famous red/blue-liveried fleet being there. The eclectic list of 97xxx and ADB, RDB and TDB-prefixed machines at the rear of our dog-eared stock books, often the final survivors of long-withdrawn loco types, was guaranteed to provoke a deep fascination.
Despite their open day ubiquity, there were actually only four red/blue machines and one of those had only a tenuous departmental role as a depot shunter (the others being a ‘24’ and two ‘46s’). However, they skewed the perception of the fleet as one formed primarily for powering colourful research test trains around the national network – but the reality was somewhat less glamorous. While many did work these formations, over half of the survivors on the departmental roster only ever had static or nontractive roles for testing, training, carriage heating, as dead loads or as power unit transporters. Others were transferred to the 97xxx departmental locomotive series for use on large scale engineering projects, often becoming the last of their class in service. One last hurrah before withdrawal – but also one that benefited the preservation movement. Without having their lives extended by departmental use, we would arguably be missing a ‘24’, ‘28’, three ‘40s’, a prototype HST power car, and two ‘46s’.
This survey will confine itself to the story of the mainline departmental fleet in British Rail days, and the first part will take a look at powered locomotives, while the second installment will cover everything that no longer moved under its own means. The Privatisation era, shunters or former shunters and the Class 501 driving motor cars converted as battery-powered tractor units will have to wait for another time.
THE EARLY DAYS
The history of departmental locomotives stretches back into the Victorian era, as the larger railway companies had a need for shunting locomotives at workshops or at larger permanent way depots. However, it was not until the 1960s that there was a requirement for mainline locomotives outside of the revenue-earning fleet.
The catalyst for this was the creation of the Railway Technical Centre (RTC) at Derby in 1963, which had been urgently tasked with improving the understanding of the wheel-rail interface following a spate of high-profile derailments of two-axle wagons. This, along with development of the Advanced Passenger Train and investigations into adhesion/wheel slip issues (the study of which is called tribology), led to the conversion of a fascinating collection of research vehicles and much more extensive mainline testing than ever before. While the revenue fleet would still be called upon for many specific workings, the job of powering the new Research & Development Division trains would fall to a small group of dedicated locos.
The first mainline machine to join the RTC roster was Metrovick Class 28 No. D5705. One of the final 12 examples to be withdrawn in the great Co-Bo cull of September 1968, it was transferred from Carlisle Kingmoor to departmental service at Derby in December that year. While its 11 colleagues made their way to J Cashmore in South Wales for breaking, it was be renumbered No. S15705 in February 1969 and would come to be most commonly associated with the new Tribometer Test Train. This debuted in 1972 and was formed of test coach No. RDB 975046 ‘Laboratory 11’ (ex-Mk.1 BSK 34249), adhesion test vehicle No. RDB 999000 (built new as part of the COV-AB programme) and auto-trailer No. RDB 975076 (ex-Mk.1 BSK 34500). The RDB prefix denoted its allocation to the Research Department.
The Co-Bo’s main-line resurrection would prove to be short-lived and it was withdrawn again in November 1973. This was still in the dark days before diesel preservation was widespread, so in a fortunate move the locomotive was reassigned in January 1975 as a static carriage pre-heater, gaining the new number No. TDB 968006 (TDB for the Traffic Department). Allocated initially to Swansea East Dock and Bristol Bath Road, it was retired from this role in September 1977. Stored at Bristol until June 1980 and then at Swindon Works, where it was either forgotten or protected from scrapping, it was purchased for preservation – twice – before finally escaping to Peak Rail in the spring of 1986. It is now at the East Lancashire Railway being restored.
No. S15705 shared duties on the Tribometer tests in those early RTC days with ‘Baby Deltic’ no. D5901, which must have been a frustrating combination for those tasked with ensuring that trains could always make it back to Derby. Like the Co-Bo, the Class 23 had exactly 10 years of revenue operation, not including a couple of years out for a rebuild at English Electric Vulcan Foundry, before BR could remove it from the main fleet. However, contrary to No. D5705, this story did not have a happy ending in preservation and no Class 23s survive today (although the Baby Deltic Project is aiming to re-create one at Barrow Hill).
Initially loaned to the Research Department in August 1969, No. D5901’s transfer became official that December (leaving just Nos. D5905 and D5909 in revenue service). Curiously, it was never renumbered during its career at the RTC and, after a serious failure in February 1976, it was stored at Doncaster Works, from where it was withdrawn nine months later as the sole survivor of the once 10-strong class. It was cut up at the same location in February 1977.
‘Clayton’ Type 1 (Class 17) No. D8512 was one of a pair of the unsuccessful centre-cab locomotives to be acquired by the RTC in July 1969 along with No. D8521, which became a static generator vehicle. Initially No. D8512 appears to have been assigned to the Train Control Group that was developing a cab-to shore signalling system at the Mickleover Test Track (intended for eventual development into an automatic train operation system called BRATO). This work saw the loco usually partnered with vehicle No. RDB975081 Laboratory 17 Hermes or, less commonly, No. RDB975280 Laboratory 18 Mercury.
From September 1971, the ‘Clayton’ was also employed on the APT-E suspension and tilt test formation known as the POP train (Power-0-Power). Unfortunately, the unreliability that plagued the type followed it to the RTC, and it was stopped at the end of the year then retired in January 1972 having never worn its assigned No. S18512 number. For the next couple of months, it found employment at General Electric, Stafford, as a mobile generator before moving to Glasgow Works, where it was eventually scrapped in January 1974.
No. D8512 was replaced in April 1972 by Beyer Peacock-built classmate No. D8598 which had, ironically, also been waylaid at the end of 1971. Although this locomotive also never wore its assigned departmental number, No. S18598, its career at Derby was much more successful. Continuing with the Train Control Group, and stencilled as such, it was a regular in the Manchester area in connection with the planned introduction of the BRATO system between Altrincham and Alderley Edge, which was eventually cancelled. Withdrawn in October 1978, along with generator sister No. S18521 (ex-D8521), the pair was criminally reduced to scrap metal at Glasgow Works in March 1979. Thankfully at least one ‘17’ survives today after being sold to industrial use – No. D8568 at the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway.
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