At the end of January, the first Class 50 - D400/50050 Fearless - returned to Network Rail’s metals with a test run from Washwood Heath to Nuneaton. It was the first time in more than 15 years that it has operated on the national network under its own power.
Purchased by engineer Neil Boden in January 2015, the locomotive has undergone an extensive restoration at his Washwood Heath workshops, allowing it to join Boden’s two other main line registered Class 50s, 50007 Hercules and 50017 Royal Oak operating on the main line.
Just over 25 years ago, RAIL played an active part in persuading BR’s Network SouthEast (NSE) sector management to restore the locomotive ‘50’ into a version of its original BR blue livery, as applied when the locomotive was first rolled out of Vulcan Foundry’s workshops in Newton-le-Willows in June 1967.
The English Electric Type 4s (which became Class 50 under the British Rail TOPS renumbering scheme) were designed as mixed-traffic locomotives and the 50-strong fleet initially saw use on passenger and freight services on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) before being transferred to the West of England in the early 1970s as the electrification of the WCML progressed.
A complicated design, they were initially unpopular with crews and gained a reputation for poor reliability. However, refurbishment of the locomotives at Doncaster Works in the early 1980s removed a number of obsolete components and the refurbished locomotives quickly gained a reputation for improved reliability and their popularity amongst enthusiasts increased significantly.
Whilst they were powerful locomotives capable of maintaining 100mph running speeds, they were expensive to repair and susceptible to failure of major components such as main generators and electric train heating equipment. The first Class 50 to be withdrawn, 50011 Centurion, was taken out of service in February 1987 and over the next few months several others fell by the wayside.
By the middle of 1990, their use was concentrated on passenger services on NSE’s Waterloo to Exeter route with a number of them in departmental use.
The Class 50 fleet was in rapid decline and as the rundown accelerated so did the interest in them from enthusiasts. In the days before the internet, RAIL’s fortnightly publication schedule meant the magazine became essential reading for anyone interested in the latest news on the ‘50s’. The magazine even launched a pre-recorded phone line for those enthusiasts who couldn’t wait to find out the latest information in the magazine each fortnight.
Knowing the interest in the Class 50s, an approach was made to NSE’s charismatic director Chris Green in autumn 1990 to suggest that 50050 Fearless should be restored to original BR blue livery for its final few months in service. However, 50050 had suffered from a main generator failure in late summer 1990 and had been placed on decision at Plymouth Laira depot, with repairs or withdrawal the two options. Dumped out of use at Laira, had it not been for the suggestion of repainting the locomotive, it is highly likely it would have joined the growing list of withdrawn ‘50s’ sent for scrapping.
The Area Fleet Manager at Laira was Geoff Hudson, who was well aware of the popularity of the ‘50s’ on his books. He was also sympathetic to the idea of returning 50050 to as-near original condition as D400 once again. Green and Hudson backed returning the locomotive to service and agreed to fund the necessary repairs to allow it to be brought back into use. It was also agreed that 50050 could be repainted into original BR blue on condition that the costs of the repaint - estimated to be in the region of £2,500 - were met through sponsorship by RAIL.
During the refurbishment of the locomotives at Doncaster Works, several modifications had been carried out to the ‘50s’ which had changed their appearance from how they originally looked. Obsolete items such as the route indicator blinds and sanding ports had been plated over and these would not be reinstated as part of the backdating in order to keep costs down.
The news that D400 could be restored to BR blue was announced in RAIL 132. The story confirmed that Green had authorised the necessary repairs to the locomotive and agreed to the repaint. The cost of the repaint would be met by donations from RAIL readers, with RAIL’s publisher at the time, EMAP, agreeing to match each donation pound for pound. It also confirmed that work was scheduled to be completed in December 1990, although this target proved to be somewhat optimistic.
The idea quickly caught the attention of RAIL’s readers and the response to the appeal was almost instant with over £500 pledged within the first week after issue 132 had been published.
Over the following months, donations continued to be received towards the appeal and with £1,500 donated by readers and EMAP matching these donations. All in all, £3,000 was raised to fund the exhibition finish repaint to be applied to the rejuvenated D400.
Work on the locomotive progressed throughout late-1990 and early-1991, but completion of the locomotive was delayed due to the demands placed on maintenance staff at Laira keeping the other serviceable Class 50s in traffic. However, in late February, bodywork repairs and preparations for its repaint began. A month later the locomotive was completed and ready to be launched back into service.
It was announced that D400 would return to use on the Waterloo to Exeter route on April 6 1991. Its first revenue-earning service in its new guise was the 0945 Plymouth to Waterloo via Southampton, returning to the South West on the 1715 Waterloo to Exeter later in the day. Such was the interest in D400 that hundreds of people lined the route to catch a glimpse of the locomotive and many enthusiasts also travelled on services hauled by it.