Class 47s…as sound as a 'Belle'

Derby station: 0520 on August 30. The departure screens list the trains for the next couple of hours. Birmingham and Nottingham feature heavily, while the 0610 to Plymouth is also there (it used to be a regular Class 47-hauled train until the late 1990s, but is now a Voyager).

On the list is an unusual destination - Newbury. If we were at London Paddington, that would make sense. But here, at 0554 from Derby, there will be a departure for Newbury. 

This is a charter operated by Direct Rail Services. Leaving from Platform 1, it is the prestigious Northern Belle - a luxury charter owned by Venice Simplon Orient Express, offering high-quality food at premium prices on quality coaching stock that takes passengers to various destinations across the UK. DRS took over running the trains two years ago from DB Schenker, and operates several each month. Top-and-tail Class 47s are the staple motive power. 

As the Northern Belle passengers begin to arrive (many are senior citizens, and suitably well-dressed) the distinctive triangular headlight arrangement of a Class 47 homes into view from the south of the station. 

The train arrives behind 47832 Solway Princess, having run empty from Crewe. Reinstated the day before, this is one of two ‘47s’ painted in NB’s chocolate and cream livery that matches the NB coaching stock. The other ‘47’ in those colours (47790 Galloway Princess) is ‘dead’ on the rear of the train. 

Driver Dave Bramley, based at Crewe, is acting as guard for the train, and acknowledges RAIL as the train grinds to a halt. As it does, the NB staff hop out with red carpets and start welcoming passengers aboard. 

47832 is switched off and, while Bramley explains today’s itinerary, Stowmarket-based area operations manager Neil Saunders fires up 47790. Saunders will drive the train to Didcot Parkway, where another DRS driver will relieve him. Bramley will be guard for the train as far as Didcot. 

The following day Bramley is rostered to drive a pair of Class 37s to Tame Bridge Parkway on a charter.

The drivers are decked out in NB uniform - a shirt that seems a pale shade of yellow, red NB tie and a smart coat adorned with DRS and NB logos. This has been the standard uniform ever since DRS took over.

The NB set is made up (usually) of 11 coaches. Two are Mk 3 sleepers, two are Mk 1 buffets, and the rest are Mk 2 first opens, apart from a Corridor Brake First (BFK). Today, it is a ten-coach set, with one sleeper absent (10734, which had been converted from a royal coach).

The BFK (17167) is a support coach for NB staff - it features a generator to power the Sleeper’s lights and shower, a train manager’s office and fitter’s room. It is no longer a passenger coach, and this is where Bramley will be based until Didcot. 

His role is to make sure everyone is on the train. Once NB staff secure the central door locking, he will wave a green flag, blow a whistle (in the way trains used to be dispatched) and liaise with Saunders via radio to make sure everything is OK. At the various station stops he will also speak to Saunders to highlight any problems that may have arisen. 

Saunders, like Bramley, is a Class 1 driver, which means he is qualified to drive DRS’s increasing portfolio of passenger work. Having made sure everything is OK with 47790, he climbs into his seat and waits for ‘the off’ to begin the 298-mile journey to Newbury. 

This is no ordinary route. The train is booked to run south along the Midland Main Line to Leicester, before heading for Nuneaton. At Water Orton it will take the freight-only line via Sutton Coldfield to Ryecroft Junction, before running past Bescot to Aston. Here it takes another freight-only line to Stetchford, before joining the Coventry route. 

Once past Coventry the train will take the single-track line to Leamington Spa and run south to Didcot. It is then booked to run to Bristol, where it will head round Dr Days Junction before running east to Bath Spa. 

After Bath, it will head for Newbury via Bradford-on-Avon and Westbury (taking the avoiding line and the freight-only part of Hawkeridge Junction). Arrival at Newbury is scheduled for 1314. 

The train is then booked to run empty to Bristol Temple Meads, where it will be watered before stabling at Bedminster (changed from Bristol Barton Hill, because the train would not fit in the LNWR depot). It then returns empty to Bath, before running back to Newbury and then to Didcot via Reading West Junction. 

Once through Didcot Parkway, it retraces its steps to Derby, where it is due to arrive at 0016. That seems a very, very long time away, and Saunders laughs when he hears how long RAIL will be on the train. “You’ll get the ‘nods’,” he suggests.

Bang on 0554, 47790 edges away from Derby, depositing a characteristic plume of exhaust into the early morning Derby sky as it sets off on its long journey. With the exception of the Newbury-Bristol ECS move, 47790 will lead for the entire day (47832 hauled the train from Crewe, and will haul it back ). 

Instantly noticeable is a rattling hotplate in front of the secondman’s seat. This isn’t used anymore, but makes an almighty racket. My bag is placed on it, and this highly scientific quick fix works a treat. “You never, ever get used to that noise,” says Saunders. My bag modification, he suggests, is the common fix. 

We are soon bounding along the MML, with the familiar scream of the ‘47s’ turbochargers in the background. It’s a pleasant run to Leicester, as the sun rises after a gloomy start. 

At Trent Junction we pass an EMT ‘158’ bound for Norwich, and sway around a bit as we clatter over pointwork. It is surprising how little movement there actually is ‘up front’ - the ride is smooth and quite quiet. We are in the No.1 cab in 47790, which has the louvres and radiator fans immediately behind it. This one is clean and tidy, and seems to have been repainted recently. 

As we head for Leicester, Saunders explains: “These are probably my favourite to drive. You know they are going to get you home. I think they are the only locomotive that was built with the driver in mind. Everything is where it needs to be.”

He is being accompanied today by his manager Andy Taylor, also based at Stowmarket, and a fellow Class 1 driver. Taylor is needed because RAIL is in the cab - otherwise the DRS crew would be two men, with one driving and one in the NB stock (Bramley, who is also joined by a new recruit learning train dispatch).

“The other thing about ‘47s’ is that they are as tough as old boots,” says Saunders. “Even 47841!” That locomotive is known for its unpredictability - it failed several times last year in East Anglia, and was one of two to fail on a cruise liner train a few months ago that saw the train miss its connection with a ferry at Southampton. Some drivers want it withdrawn, others think it merely needs some work. It is one of only two members of the current DRS operational fleet that has not been used on the Belle (the other is 47853, but that has only worked twice).

“They are still doing what they are designed for. It is incredible to think that,” says Saunders about the locomotives, as we pass Brush Traction, Loughborough, at 0614. This is the ‘spiritual home’ of the class, and the origin of one of their many nicknames (‘Brush’), although ironically, the two ‘47s’ with us today were both built at BREL Crewe. 

The ‘47s’ used on the NB are, ideally, always meant to be 47790 and 47832. No additional preparation other than a hand clean is needed for the ‘47s’ before they work the train, although Saunders says that DRS locomotives ‘always look the part’ anyway.

The first stop is Leicester, where the red carpets are laid out for a modest number of people boarding. We have a few minutes to wait, so Saunders and Bramley have a quick chat to see how the train is performing. There is nothing to worry about so far, and Bramley quickly takes a picture of the ‘47’ in the early light. An enthusiast happy to see these workhorses break the monotony of modern units at the station does likewise. He asks Saunders where we are off to, and bids a cheery farewell. The signal changes to green and we are off again. 

Class 47s have a reputation for being draughty, but this is not the case with 790. As we head for Nuneaton, Saunders says there is no real difference between the DRS ‘47s’. All have their little quirks, but it is no different to driving to drive a new car. Bramley had suggested earlier that 805 was the best, and this is a view largely held by others through the day. 

“A Class 47 can start on full power and get going quickly,” says Saunders. “You can have some fun with them.’

Sadly this isn’t the case as we head past Nuneaton, and the drizzle begins. Saunders sets his windscreen wiper going, and it is smooth and slow - just right. RAIL tries the wiper for the secondman’s window, and to the amusement of others in the cab it knows only two speeds - stop or 100mph! It soon annoys me, so is switched off. “Rather that one working like that than mine,” grins Saunders.

Past Nuneaton, and 47790 appears to be working hard. Saunders says we are heading up a bank on wet rail, and indeed we experience wheel slipping. “This is where you notice the dead ‘47’ on the back,” he says. 

The rear locomotive cannot be switched on unless it is manned. This is for safety reasons relating to the fire extinguishers, which are manually operated. 

A modification could see the ‘47s’ and coaches through-wired, much in the same way that EWS modified a rake of Mk 2s and three ‘37s’ for the Settle-Carlisle line a few years ago, but that is not deemed necessary for this job. This also means that with 47790 providing electric train supply, so its power is drained. Whereas its official rating is 2,580hp, it is not able to produce that purely to haul the train. 

At Water Orton we turn right, and head onto the freight-only line to Ryecroft Junction. It is in remarkable condition and, considering we are now very close to urban Birmingham, the scenery is very pleasant, with picturesque woods and a country park on the left-hand side. The rain has also been replaced by sunshine. 

The speed limit for the route is 45mph, and we pass two freight trains as we head for Ryecroft, where we are due to wait for ten minutes before proceeding. On this freight line there is also a section where a road passes alongside the railway, and here a monitor on the road registers our speed! 37mph! Saunders laughs: “At Southend, there is a camera that flashes when we go past.” Has DRS received a speeding ticket yet? “I don’t think so,” he chuckles. 

As we arrive at Ryecroft Junction a London Midland Class 153/170 commuter train crosses, and Saunders suggests we may be lucky. Sure enough, the signal changes to green and we are away. We crawl through Walsall and past the power box, where several Network Rail staff stand taking pictures. 

We continue our voyage across Birmingham, passing Bescot depot and yards (looking a bit empty and run-down), and head for Stetchford. This means using another freight-only line from Aston that crosses over the Water Orton-Birmingham line at Washwood Heath. As we do that, a Class 31, ‘47’ and ‘50’ can be seen ‘on shed’ at the former Alstom workshops now used by Colas Rail, Devon & Cornwall Railways and Neil Boden. All were one everyday sights in the area, but not now. 

We arrive at Stetchford 14 minutes earlier than planned, and Saunders’ prediction that we would be held here is proved correct. His prediction that we would wait for a Pendolino is also proved right, as one speeds south. To his relief we get the green - there was concern that we may have to follow a local train to Coventry, which would have caused delays.

As we pass the local stations, so commuters, used to a procession of LM and Virgin Trains’ units, look baffled at the sight of this long, relatively noisy and almost historic train. 

Next stop Coventry. Here we are joined by a London-based driver, Dave Poynter, along with a large number of passengers, many of whom take pictures of 47790 rolling into the platform. 

Poynter is learning the route from here to Didcot, before replacing Bramley as the guard. After exchanging banter with Saunders, he settles to watch the road and ask questions. 

Saunders uses his route knowledge and railway history to explain where various signals are, and to point out useful landmarks. So many closed lines and former junctions are etched in his mind, and it is invaluable. Born in Oxford, this is his local patch, although now Saunders lives in Suffolk - a constant source of jokes for Poynter. 

At Leamington Spa we are held to let a Chiltern Railways train pass, and then it is a clear run to Didcot. This enables us to close in on 47790’s 95mph capability, although we do not quite reach it. 

At Didcot we roll past the new signalling centre on a freight-only curve and come to a stand. Here, Saunders hands over to Tim Howlett, who is a mentor driver. He climbs into the cab and exchanges pleasantries. Bramley is done for the day, and will make his way back to Crewe ready for the ‘37s’ the following day. Taylor also hops off, to make his way home to Suffolk.

At 1025, after a booked 20-minute stop, Howlett applies the power and we are off again. Saunders is now in the cab. Yesterday he was out with First Great Western learning the line to Bristol, now he will stay with Howlett as far as Newbury, as he needs to learn the Berks and Hants Line. DRS is winning more passenger work, and needs several drivers to know many routes. 

Howlett, like Saunders, is an enthusiast, and they swap tales about the Great Western Main Line as we head west. Born in Great Yarmouth, Howlett now lives in Suffolk, and has worked for DRS for 11 years, having started at Crewe. He jokes that he is part of the ‘Stowmarket Anglia and Western Division’, and says he still cannot believe he is able to drive trains on the famous route. 

“She’s a good old girl, a bit of a plodder, but reliable,” he says of 47790 in his East Anglian accent. “I didn’t like ‘47s’ too much in the old days,” he says. “They were everywhere. I used to like Deltics - ‘56s’, ‘50s’ - but now that I am driving them, I can appreciate them. A beast! They are powerful locomotives.”

We approach Bristol Parkway and come to a stand (nine minutes early). Heading in the other direction is a Freightliner Class 70 - will they last as long as 47790? 

We set off again, and enter Bristol’s suburbs. At Dr Days Junction we head east rather than west to Temple Meads, and crawl over the various junctions with a 10mph speed limit, before heading for Bath, running through the various GWML Brunel tunnels built for broad gauge. 

Bath is the first stop for passengers wishing to get off, and the Northern Belle attracts attention from other passengers as it rolls in. An FGW staff member on his way to Bristol stops for a chat, and seems pleased that we will be back at Temple Meads later. Other enthusiasts are still taking pictures as we leave at noon. 

To reach Newbury, we must run via the picturesque Bradford-on-Avon line with its rolling hills, stunning large houses and traditional small stations. Howlett needs to remember to stop at Trowbridge tomorrow (not a usual request), so notes where the various landmarks are as we cross the junction with the Melksham line, which is the route he will take.

At Westbury we use Hawkeridge Junction (rare for passenger trains), and wait for an FGW High Speed Train to speed past bound for London. We are then out on the Berks and Hants, and Howlett lets 47790 loose. It bowls along at a good speed, and after arrival at Newbury he says he got it up to 88mph. 

The weather has held out, and we are a couple of minutes late, but Howlett is happy with the trip. Saunders bids farewell, and while Howlett and RAIL swap ends, Poynter is busy helping passengers off the train. We climb into the cab of 47832 and are ready for the 1327 departure for Bristol. 

There is no rattling hotplate in 47832, so already there is less noise. As well as the usual number, maximum speed and various safety notices above the windscreen, someone (“not me!” says Howlett) has written ‘Tamar’ above the window. This was the name carried by 47832 for many years, when it was 47560. “That’s nothing, you should see 47805 - someone has put its entire history up,” laughs Howlett.”

Soon we are up and running, and he manages to get 95mph out of 47832. “It is amazing to think that even now they are out doing work like this, and doing it well,” he says as we hammer along the Berks and Hants bound for Westbury. A massive thud indicates we have hit and killed a pigeon, and that will need cleaning later. Howlett explains how this section of the line is one of his favourites: “It has a canal, and I love canals.”

All too soon we are at Bristol Temple Meads for watering. As we come to a stand, the sad remains of Bristol Bath Road are on view. Once home to numerous ‘47s’ and many other diesels, the depot has been demolished and the land lays vacant except for metal fencing. 47832 was allocated there between October 1967-March 1969, May 1988-May 1989 and June 1989-May 1995, when it moved to St Philip’s Marsh, but is unlikely to be a Bristol machine again. 

Time for lunch and a few photographs. And as RAIL takes pictures, other enthusiasts join in. A regular sight each day at this major station, a ‘47’ on a rake of coaches attracts plenty of attention. Confusingly, the automated announcements declare that passengers must stand back from the edge of Platform 11 (where we are), as the next train does not stop here!

The planned move to Bedminster is no longer needed, and with co-operation from FGW staff, the train is watered at Platform 11. Northern Belle senior train technician Andrew Quayle has joined us for the return journey, and is busy making sure his coaches are OK, while also taking a look at 47790. Its water is a bit low, so he tops it up prior to departure. 

On the platform Howlett and Poynter are talking to interested observers about the ‘47’ and its train. A female FGW staff member takes a picture on her phone (one of many to do so) and remarks (sheepishly) to Howlett: “I’m not a spotter”. “That’s what they all say,” he replies. 

Speaking about the interest the train receives, Howlett says: “We almost take it for granted, but it is one of a kind.” 

At 1632, once a ‘158’ has left, we get the road, and are off again. We‘re back in 47790, and the hotplate is rattling again until RAIL’s bag is put on it. “Oh, you know about that,” grins Howlett. “We need to get that removed. It doesn’t work.”

His ‘47’ is certainly working, and the usual exhaust plume has momentarily darkened the Bristolian skies as we head for Bath. “47790 is a bit of a clagger,” admits Howlett. As we race through Keynsham tunnel, Howlett accelerates and the noise echoes around the tunnel - ‘47s’ are not known for being ‘loud’, but this could be disputed right now.

We roll into Bath to another barrage of cameras, and out come the red carpets again, to welcome passengers aboard. We are able to leave three minutes early at 1657, and are soon back on the Bradford route for the third time in about three hours. “It’s déjà vu time,” laughs Howlett, as he notices the same man at Trowbridge taking photographs. He blows his horn for him.

The NB leaves Newbury at 1804 (three minutes early), and Howlett needs to use his wiper again. It barely works, while RAIL’s again goes like the clappers! 

We head east, and are soon at Reading - we use the avoiding line, and pass the site of the music festival that had been held a few days previously. Tents and rubbish lie abandoned behind the new depot that is being constructed, complete with catenary posts for the impending electrification.

On the way to Didcot, Howlett is surprised to find he is routed via the Down Fast. He is enjoying this, and puts 47790 through its paces. Soon we catch an FGW Class 166 DMU. “Come on old girl, overtake this,” he says, admitting that he does talk to the locomotives to encourage them. We hammer past the ‘166’ - maybe the encouragement worked?

A planned crew change at Didcot Parkway has been shifted to Banbury, but we still stop here. At the adjacent Rail Centre, the newly restored Railmotor is being put through its paces, while around the station are several DB Schenker Class 08s and 66s. 

We depart at 1852, with orders not to get to Banbury before 1930, as there will be nobody there to greet us. Back on the line to Birmingham now, and Howlett says this is another route he likes. “There is a canal next to it,” he explains.

We are held by a red signal at Oxford, and children wave at us from a bridge above the stationary ‘47’. Howlett toots the horn for them, and they stay to watch us accelerate away. Passengers watch as we continue to accelerate through the centre road at Oxford. 

At Banbury it is time for Poynter and Howlett to bid farewell. They are being relieved by drivers Jon Atkinson and Kevin Beveridge. The latter is on guard duty until Derby, where he will take over from Atkinson. 

RAIL must also leave the cab, and carry on the journey from the comfort of 17167. This is for safety reasons, as Atkinson is unable to have non-staff accompany him. 

Once on board the NB staff try to find out from Beveridge whether the planned 63-minute wait in Kenilworth Loop can be avoided, or at least shortened. 

Such stops are needed so that the diners on the train are not rushed. When NB plans a train, it sends its ideal departure times to DRS, which comes up with a plan and then sends it to Network Rail for approval. This is why today’s train has a convoluted route, and why we are set to stand in the middle of nowhere nine minutes from where many passengers are due to get off. Despite various plans and requests, we end up standing there. 

Quayle is busy ensuring the generator on 17167 is working, and recalls some of the trips he has been on with the NB since he started seven years ago. He loves the ‘47s’, and in his spare time he volunteers at the Crewe Heritage Centre, where he works on 47192 (D1842, the first preserved ‘47’). He doesn’t have a favourite, but agrees that 47805 “goes like a whippet” and that 47841 is not the best. 

We stay at Kenilworth for the full 63 minutes before running to Coventry, where most of the passengers get off. They are happy and Quayle says there are plenty of repeat bookings.

Departure from Coventry is impressive and noisy. With the window down, RAIL can hear 47790 piercing the still Birmingham night as it retraces its route around Birmingham. It is quicker than this morning, with less commuter traffic about, and soon we are passing Nuneaton. 

At 0006 (August 31), we roll into Derby ten minutes early. Even at this hour, there is a photographer here to take a picture on this cool, still night. RAIL bids the team farewell, but while my work is done Quayle, Atkinson and Beveridge have to take the train to Crewe, where they are due in at 0246. Bramley will have left with his ‘37s’ by then, heading for Tame Bridge Parkway.

It has been a long, tiring but immensely fun day with the ‘47s’. It is fascinating to see just how much work they are doing almost 50 years after their introduction, and it is hard to see them being disposed of anytime soon. Their reliability on this duty has been superb, with only a handful of failures in almost two years. These DRS ‘47s’ are certainly proving their worth on Britain’s 21st century railway.

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