Class 52 Westerns: The Twilight Years by Stephen Dowle
The British Railways Modernisation Plan of 1955 brought many innovations, but most visible to the layman or ordinary rail passenger was the replacement of steam by diesel locomotives. It should have been a time for clear vision, decisiveness and a firm hand on the tiller. Instead, screeching and clattering over the points went the bizarre twenty-strong Metro-Vick Co-Bo class and the ten 'Baby Deltics', which proved too heavy for the lines they were intended to operate. There were others.
The B. R. regions, legatees of the pre-Nationalisation 'Big Four' companies, retained considerable autonomy in the management of their affairs. Three of the four regions adopted the diesel-electric locomotive. This, properly understood, was an electric locomotive that carried a diesel engine to generate its own current ... more flexible and cheaper in infrastructure costs than a pure electric locomotive, which uses current generated at a power station. The Western Region, descendant of the Great Western Railway and noted, like its predecessor, for unorthodoxy ...not to say bloody-mindedness... decided to build diesel-hydraulic locomotives. The application of diesel-hydraulic technology to railways had been pioneered in Germany. The engines and transmissions for the W. R.'s locomotives were of German origin, though built, for political reasons, by British licensees. The first five locomotives, of A1A-A1A axle configuration and wished upon the W. R. by the British Transport Commission, were constructed on heavyweight principles appropriate to diesel-electrics, thereby squandering one of the main advantages of the diesel-hydraulic system, a high power-to-weight ratio. After this false start came three main types, known as the Warships, the Hymeks and, finally, in 1961, the Westerns.
Considered as part of the whole B. R. fleet the locomotives were decidedly non-standard, but they were unlike the numerically small, dead-loss designs that had appeared elsewhere on the system. The Hymeks were perhaps the most successful and enjoyed a good record of reliability and performance throughout their short working lives. The other two classes, like all thoroughbreds, were given to episodes of temperament, but once early problems had been remedied they settled, in their mature years, to a record as good as any contemporary diesel-electric. The Westerns, so called because all were given two-word names beginning with 'Western', were the Region's flagships ... it’s most powerful line-service locomotives and successors to the Great Western's King class steam engines. They were a handsome, clean design that made the diesel-electrics look like their ugly sisters. Much of their appeal derived from the impressive acoustics of their paired, fast-idling Maybach engines. These were a turbocharged and intercooled version of the Warships' engines, crammed, with difficulty, into a body reduced from German dimensions to fit the smaller clearances of British loading-gauge. Unlike the diesel-electric system, which requires power to be applied in gradual increments, hydraulic transmission demands a vigorous application of power at the start. Because of this characteristic, riding behind a Western, especially if running late, could be an exhilaratingly noisy experience.
I first came to railways in the last days of steam, but lost interest when steam disappeared. I had not kept abreast of developments and it came as a surprise when, one day in 1973, I overheard someone say that the Westerns were being withdrawn and scrapped. As long ago as 1967, I learned, a decision had been taken to rectify the problem of the Modernisation Plan's small and too numerous locomotive types. The diesel-hydraulics, though performing well by this time, amounted to little more than 10% of the BR fleet. Inevitably, they had to go. Even back in my steam days I had admired the Westerns and had assumed they would see out a normal service lifetime, perhaps lasting into the 21st century. A plan formed in my mind and I bought a new camera. It was already too late for the Warships, which had all been withdrawn by 1972; the Hymeks were down to a handful of survivors; but the Westerns were still almost intact and I could assemble a collection of photographs. The intention to eliminate the Westerns (by now officially 'Class 52') by the end of 1974 proved too ambitious and they battled on, increasingly dilapidated but extremely tenacious of life, until the last were withdrawn in February 1977.
My collection of photographs now meets its destiny, forty years on, in this Amberley publication. It is very much a 'one man's view' sort of book, giving an account in pictures, accompanied by a chatty text, of the events as I experienced them. However deplorable the early proliferation of non-standard types may have been from the point of view of operational efficiency, it was an interesting time for enthusiasts. Alas, railways are not operated for the entertainment of railway enthusiasts. Looking back and comparing, one is impressed by how packaged, sanitised and generally joyless railway travel has become. Today's traveller, eyes down to his smart phone for relief from the sterility of his surroundings, is packed into high density seating in a sealed, soundproofed, air-conditioned, fiberglass-infested multiple unit of gimcrack appearance, humming along on continuously-welded rails.
So climb aboard and let the years fall away. Take care, as the heavy door slams with a solid double snap behind you, not to spill your scalding plastic cup of B. R. chicory substitute. Settle your hindquarters, with a jangle of springs, into the deep cushions of the veneer-lined compartment. Lower the upholstered arm rest and turn the heating control knob above your head. With faint ticking sounds, little zephyrs of warmth begin to circulate around your lower legs. Reach for your Lyon's individual fruit pie and sit back for a swaying, lurching trip into the rusty, overgrown sidings of a forgotten railway epoch.
Stephen Dowle's Class 52 Westerns: The Twilight Years is available for purchase now.