British Rail Class 55

D9009 Alycidon at the National Railway Museum, York

The British Rail Class 55 is a class of diesel locomotive built between 1961 and 1962 by English Electric. They were designed for the high-speed express passenger services on the East Coast Main Line between London King's Cross and Edinburgh. They gained the name "Deltic" from the prototype locomotive, DP1 Deltic, which in turn was named for its Napier Deltic power units. 22 locomotives were built and they dominated services on the line until their withdrawal at the end of 1981. Six locomotives were preserved and are still running today.

Production

Following trials with the prototype locomotive, an order was placed with English Electric for a production fleet of 22 units (reduced from the, originally, planned 23, replacing more than twice that number (55) of Gresley Pacifics. A first, was that the locomotives were purchased under a service contract, English Electric agreeing to maintain them, including their engines and generators, for a fixed price. Additional Deltic engines were produced to enable engines to be swapped out regularly for overhaul while keeping the locomotives in service.

A sectioned Napier Deltic engine at the National Railway Museum

The locomotives were assigned to three locomotive depots: Finsbury Park in London, Gateshead over the Tyne from Newcastle, and Haymarket in Edinburgh. They arrived from the manufacturer painted in two-tone green, the dark BR green on top, with a narrower strip of a lighter, lime green along the bottom. This helped to disguise the bulk of the locomotive body. The cab window surrounds were picked out in cream-white. Although delivered without it, they all soon sported the bright yellow warning panel at each end common to all British diesel and electric locomotives, to make them more conspicuous. Very soon, all were named; the Gateshead and Haymarket locomotives after regiments of the British Army, while Finsbury Park followed the grand LNER tradition of naming locomotives after winning racehorses.

By 1966 they began to be painted in corporate Rail Blue with yellow ends, the change generally coinciding with a works repair and the fitting of air brake equipment, the locomotives originally having only vacuum braking (the first so treated was D9002; the last to be painted blue was D9014). In the early 1970s they were fitted with Electric Train Heating (ETH) equipment to power the new generation of air-conditioned coaches, while a couple of years later, with the introduction of BR's TOPS computer system, they were renumbered 55 001 to 55 022. In 1979 Finsbury Park restored the white cab window surrounds to their remaining (6) Deltics, making them distinctive although these were later painted over when the locomotives were transferred to York during the rundown of the depot at Finsbury Park.

Replacement

A line of seven withdrawn Deltics at Doncaster Works in August 1982

In the late 1970s the Deltics began to be supplanted by the next generation of express trains, the Class 43 High Speed Train (HST), branded as InterCity 125 and the Deltics began to take on secondary roles. It was soon realised that the class had a limited future; it was not considered economic to maintain such a small non-standard class of locomotive for secondary services and the end of the decade saw the first withdrawals from service. Deltics were generally run with only limited maintenance until they became unable to continue running and required rescue by other locomotives after breaking down. Typically the cause would be engine failure although some Deltics were withdrawn for other reasons. They were then taken to Doncaster Works for scrapping. For a time the Deltic scrap line was a draw for railway enthusiasts. The final service run was the 16:30 Aberdeen-York service on 31 December 1981, hauled from Edinburgh by 55 019 Royal Highland Fusilier, arriving in York at just before midnight. The last train was an enthusiast special, the "Deltic Scotsman Farewell" on 2 January 1982, from King's Cross to Edinburgh and back, hauled by 55015 Tulyar northbound and 55022 Royal Scots Grey on the return. Following the farewell, the surviving Deltics were put on display at Doncaster Works before their final journey to the scrap line.

Preservation

Six locomotives were saved after their withdrawal:

  • D9000 (55 022) Royal Scots Grey was purchased by the Deltic 9000 Fund and was handed over in fully running condition after work and a repaint by BR. Its first base was the Nene Valley Railway. It now resides in Bury at the East Lancs Railway and is owned by Beaver Sports (Yorks) Ltd, who are committed to its preservation in running order with main-line certification. It completed an 18-month overhaul and was re-certified for running on the main line in August 2006.
  • D9002 (55 002) The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry was donated to the National Railway Museum, York and was the first preserved Deltic to return to the main line when it worked light engine to York after participating in the Doncaster Works Open Day on 27 February 1982.
  • D9009 (55 009) Alycidon was purchased by the Deltic Preservation Society Ltd and has been mostly based at the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.
  • D9015 (55 015) Tulyar was purchased by a private buyer, Peter Sansom; in 1986 it was sold to the Deltic Preservation Society. It has led an itinerant existence on many preserved railways.
  • D9016 (55 016) Gordon Highlander was purchased by the Deltic 9000 Fund, with the intention that it would be restored to running condition, whilst acting as a 'twelve wheeled mobile source of spares'. As of November 2007 the locomotive was based at the Peak Rail (Heritage Railway), near Bakewell, Derbyshire, where it could sometimes be seen hauling trains (especially on 'diesel weekends'). In July 2008, this loco was sold by a private individual to HNRC as a business venture. In spite of previous announcements to the contrary, HNRC put the loco up for sale at the end of September 2008. Bids from the Gordon Highlander Preservation Group and Martin Walker (the owner of 55 022) were rejected by HNRC in favour of a higher offer from Direct Rail Services (DRS) Ltd.
  • D9019 (55 019) Royal Highland Fusilier was purchased by the Deltic Preservation Society. In April 2005 it became the first Deltic to be fitted with TPWS equipment.
9019 (55019) in preservation on the GCR heritage railway in 1988

Cabs from D9008 (55 008) The Green Howards and D9021 (55 021) Argyll and Sutherland Highlander are also owned by the DPS.

Operations after BR withdrawal

Despite the ban on privately owned diesel locomotives operating on BR tracks, railway enthusiasts did not have to wait that long after the final withdrawal of the class to see a Deltic back on the mainline. Following participation in the hastily arranged 'Farewell to the Deltics' open day at BREL Doncaster Works on 27 February 1982, 55 002 left Doncaster under its own power and ran back up the ECML to the National Railway Museum light engine; it was to be some years before a Deltic was officially allowed to run again on the mainline.

The next opportunity to see a Deltic back on the mainline and running under its own power was in April 1985 when D9000 was sent (at the request of Scotrail management) light engine from Haymarket Depot to Perth for an open day. Following newspaper comments by Chris Green of Scotrail around that time there was hope that D9000 might see regular work north of the border. Sadly, Chris Green's move to the management team at the newly created Network South East in 1986 put paid to that. However, that did not end his involvement with D9000 and when he moved on to head up Virgin Trains the Deltic was used on many Virgin service trains.

With the changes taking place on Britain's railways in the 1990s, the outlook changed for preserved diesel locomotives. In British Rail days, no privately-owned diesel locomotives were allowed to operate on its tracks. With privatisation came open-access railways—the track and infrastructure were owned and operated by Railtrack, who for a fee would allow approved locomotives and trains to operate on their track. Suddenly, the owners of preserved locomotives were on an equal footing with everyone else. In fact the characteristics of the Deltic locomotives, powerful and capable of cruising at 100 mph (160 km/h), enabled them to fit more easily onto the modern rail network than other, slower, preserved diesels.

55022 Royal Scots Grey at Linlithgow, after a railtour, on 7 December 2007

In 1996, the Deltic 9000 Fund reformed itself as Deltic 9000 Locomotives Ltd (DNLL) in order to return its locomotives to main-line service and on 30 November 1996 D9000 Royal Scots Grey hauled the 'Deltic Deliverance' charter from Edinburgh to Berwick. Although this tour ended prematurely, D9000 went on to haul many charter and Virgin service trains until 2003. Subsequently DNLL's other Deltic, D9016 Gordon Highlander returned to main-line working (it was temporarily painted in the garish purple livery of Porterbrook Leasing, who helped finance the restoration and was called the 'Purple Peril' by enthusiasts), as did the Deltic Preservation Society's D9009 Alycidon and D9019 Royal Highland Fusilier. Between 1997 and 2003 all four main-line certified locomotives saw frequent charter and locomotive hire use, including on the Venice Simplon Orient Express.

In 2003 DNLL went into liquidation with the result that D9000 and D9016 were sold to private individuals. From July 2003 to March 2005 no Deltics hauled a train on the main line. After a brief return to the main line in 2005 the DPS withdrew their last Deltic (55 019) at the end of 2005, having run three tours during the year. The other two preserved Deltics, D9002 The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and D9015 Tulyar, are currently (September 2008) non-runners. Tulyar is undergoing a full bodyside restoration at Barrow Hill and D9002 is an exhibit at the NRM, as 55 002 in BR blue. 55 019 remains in full working order along with 55 009, whilst 55 016 is currently able to operate on one engine only.

On 23 September 2006 55 022 (D9000) Royal Scots Grey returned to the main line after a lengthy and extensive restoration at Barrow Hill by the DPS. It successfully hauled the SRPS 'Moray Mint' railtour from Edinburgh to Inverness, via Perth on the outward trip and back via Aberdeen. Unfortunately on its second working two weeks later a severe failure to one of the power units occurred ,this left Royal Scots Grey still able to operate but on one engine only. By January 2007 the faulty power unit was removed from 55 022, and replaced by an ex-marine Napier Deltic engine modified for rail use; work was complete by August 2007 and the locomotive hauled its first tour since the previous engine malfunction on RTC's 'Autumn Highlander' with 50 049 and 40 145 in October 2007. Although 55 022 successfully hauled a number of charter tour services during 2008 the replacement marine sourced engine gave rise for concern following the discovery of oil in the coolant, and at the end of August the loco was then removed from future mainline workings pending repairs to the power unit.

In mid January 2007, an agreement was reached between heritage railway Peak Rail and the owner of 55 016 (D9016) Gordon Highlander which entailed the move of the locomotive from Barrow Hill to the preserved line for a period of three years. It had been thought that D9016 would receive certain maintenance and restoration while on the railway. However, the sale of the locomotive to the Harry Needle Railroad Company and subsequent announcements indicated that that the weekend runs of the 27th and 28 September 2008 might be its last prior to component recovery and eventual scrapping. Despite previous indications to the contrary, HNRC put the locomotive up for sale during the last week of September 2008 and although the Gordon Highlander Preservation Group submitted a substantial bid it was not accepted and the immediate future (and owner) of the locomotive was clouded in some mystery.

Subsequently, in October 2008 DRS announced in a presss release that it had acquired 55016 (D9016) Gordon Highlander from Harry Needle Railroad Company (HNRC). The company is working with HNRC to return the locomotive to operational condition, although at the time of writing (June 2009) the locomotive is still stored at Barrow Hill awaiting attention. While the locomotive is not been planned for an immediate return to service, DRS is confident that the locomotive will be returned to mainline service in the future. DRS intends to retain the locomotive's name.