Western Requiem
The Railway Magazine|February 2017

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the class on British Rail and John Heaton FCILT recalls some performances by the ‘Westerns’ in their heyday.

What made the ‘Western’ 2,700hp Western Region diesel hydraulics so different? This is a question that is often posed, especially by observers who were too young to have seen them in their pomp. The answer is probably that indefinable quality: charisma. Later to become known as Class 52s, the Western Region progeny looked every inch an express passenger locomotive; haughty thoroughbreds with classic lines and an air of superiority, even when condescending to chivvy a rake of recalcitrant china clay empties.

More prosaically, the C-C wheel arrangement, hydraulic transmission and power superiority over 2,200hp ‘Warship’ alternatives made them popular with their crews, not forgetting their supremely comfortable cabs. What is more, the availability of two engines would often be a driver’s passport to escaping trouble. They could lift a heavy train away from a station with ease, often on full power from the very start and in a smooth and steep acceleration curve. In this respect they had no diesel locomotive competition.

February 2017 represents the ruby anniversary of these distinctive locomotives’ final withdrawal in 1977. By contrast, the first appearance of D1000 Western Enterprise in the Railway Performance Society (RPS) electronic archive occurs on July 17, 1962, when the locomotive was recorded working south from Snow Hill on the 09.45 Aberystwyth- Paddington. However, the very first Class 52 entry was on June 28, 1962, featuring D1001 Western Pathfinder on the 16.10 Paddington- Birkenhead North, taking 75min 11 sec from Paddington to Banbury.

Eclectic mix

Having displaced ‘Castles’ and ‘Kings’, the Class 52s were not instant favourites with enthusiasts, but they were, at least, thoroughly ‘Western’. This extended even to their series of ‘Western’ prefixed names that were greeted with some derision when announced. Even now they seem to be an eclectic mix of the impressive and contrived, but they are more elegant than the majority of modern names, which are often little more than scarcely concealed advertisements. Newton Abbot Widget Factory 1958-2008 Quality Assured comes to mind.

It has to be said that the standard of their initial work on the Snow Hill line failed to match their appearance. Their stay was limited to around 18 months, whereupon they were supplanted by diesel-electric Class 47s. For much of this time, bogie problems caused the hydraulics’ top speed to be fixed at 80mph.

Their train heating boilers, in common with most other diesels, were also unreliable. On January 12, 1964, for instance, a Paddington to Snow Hill express commandeered a steam pilot from Leamington Spa, marshalled between the D1001 and its train to stave off hypothermia from the passengers of its 13-coach load.

The 5101 class 2-6-2 ‘prairie tank’ was promptly treated to an unaccustomed 70mph stampede through Solihull. It is interesting to note that the preceding 14-coach 09.35 from Paddington had already utilised the Oxford ‘Hall’ 4-6-0 pilot after D1071 Western Renown had sustained a leaking fuel tank.

Looking at the final stretch from Leamington Spa to Snow Hill in more detail, the best Down steam net schedules had been 28min, which locally based RPS member Alan Varley had found difficult to attain. It was not hard for diesel locos to make improvements and ‘even time’ (a 60mph start to stop average) should have been possible for the 23.3 miles. Despite many attempts, Alan never quite managed to achieve this with a Class 52, although the first log in Table 1 shows a game effort with 12 bogies. The second run, to the Solihull stop, shows D1005 Western Venturer ‘on eleven’ that was on course for even time to Snow Hill had its calling pattern been different.

Both trains topped the 1-in-103/110 of Hatton Bank at around 54mph from a maximum of about 61mph, D1073 Western Bulwark delivering a marginally higher rail horsepower (rhp) of 1,940. This was a little disappointing for a nominally 2,700hp machine, but typical – even towards good – at the time. The third run in Table 1 shows a net 23min run with Brush Type 4 No. D1710 on a 12-coach train with an rhp of 2,250 from its nominally 2,750hp engine. The minimum on Hatton bank was again 54mph, but this time from a slightly lower maximum that was affected by a temporary speed restriction.

It was on West of England expresses via the Western’s ‘Cinderella’ Berks and Hants (B&H) route that the Class 52s achieved their reputations. This was far from being a high speed railway, semaphore signalled with a 90mph maximum speed that matched that of the Class 52s, with many intermediate restrictions and sometimes indifferent track quality. The loads of the holiday expresses were high, although frequency (with the exception of summer Saturdays) was not.

Characteristic roaring

David Adams has lodged many diesel hydraulic runs in the RPS archive and Class 52s over the B&H were a popular target for him. The hydraulic era ended in 1976 and, by then, the few remaining Class 52s in service were generally unkempt. It was with some apprehension one evening in April 1976 that David watched from the end of the platform at Paddington as a shabby No. 1005, instead of the anticipated Class 50, crept towards the station from Old Oak Common.

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