Guest Article: 50 years of Diesel locomotives celebrated at the National Railway Museum

Guest Article by Catherine Farrel, National Railway Museum, York | 19 October 2010
a photo of a group of men in front of a diesel locomotive
North East Region Short Works Course. Group of students. Class 37 diesel.65/346© National Railway Museum
It may not have all the romance and glamour associated with steam, but this October the National Railway Museum in York has been paying homage to one of the lesser-known icons of the National Collection, the newly restored diesel electric D6700.

The Class 37 Diesel Anniversary Weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the wide-scale dieselisation of Britain's railway network and the entry into traffic of D6700, the first ever English Electric Type 3 diesel electric locomotive to travel the tracks.

Since it rolled off the production line in 1960 this mechanical workhorse's career has spanned the best part of four decades, demonstrating the true ingenuity of British engineering design.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the British Rail modernisation plan sounded the death knell for steam on Britain's railway network. In 1960, large-scale dieselisation commenced and the age of a new breed of locomotive - the diesel electric - had begun.

a black and white photo of a deisel locomotive
Class 37 No. D6700 (37350) - 1963.© National Railway Museum
A new locomotive was needed that was equally at home hauling heavy goods trains as it was on passenger services. English Electric had already been successful in producing powerful engines for export to East Africa and came up with an exciting new design for a general purpose machine that could withstand the rigours of both passenger and freight work.

A design for the Class 37 was accepted and more than 300 were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This massive order was split between English Electric's Vulcan Foundry at Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside and Robert Stephenson and Hawthorn's at Darlington.

The first Class 37 locomotive, D6700, was rolled out of Vulcan Foundry in December 1960 to begin a working life which was to span nearly 40 years. Its varied history exemplifies the versatility of English Electric's original design.

A balck and white photograph of a large busy factory floor producing diesel locomotives
Diesel electrics at Crewe Works, Cheshire, c 1961.© National Railway Museum
The newly built "BR green" D6700 entered service in British Rail's Eastern region and was soon seen speeding up and down the tracks of East Anglia, often on express passenger trains where it had displaced steam locomotives. By the late 1960s, it had also spent time in the North-East, South Wales and Scotland.

Steam stopped being used on Britain's mainline in 1968, and in the 1970s diesel-electric reigned supreme. In 1974, D6700 was given a new look with a repaint into the standard British Rail corporate blue colour. It was also given a new number, 37 119, and remained mainly in the North and North-East.

The D6700 and the other Class 37 diesels became a mainstay of the British rail fleet, and when privatisation transformed the railway network in the 1980s it did not bring their ownership of the tracks to an end. Their life was prolonged by an extensive refurbishment which mainly took place at Crewe, securing the classes' future as one of the longest surviving on British railways.

a photo of a workshop interior with tow diesel locomotives
Diesel test house. Interior, with 2 locomotives on text. Class 37 diesel.24/09/1965.65/724© National Railway Museum
With modifications including the installation of electric heating and a fresh coat of paint, a fleet of rebuilt locomotives were able to work passenger trains all year round in Wales and Scotland. Others were earmarked as freight powerhouses with the addition of a ballast weight to give extra pulling power when hauling heavy goods.

In the late 1980s, D6700 was moved to South Wales where it worked on secondary passenger trains and fast goods trains and was eventually renumbered again to 37 350. The loco also hauled a number of services in the West Country.

In the 1990s, although they were displaced from most passenger work by higher-powered locomotives, the Class 37s held their own. They still carried passengers in the summer and on secondary services in Scotland and Wales, and were heavily used for hauling freight trains by English Welsh and Scottish Railways(EWS) and Direct Rail Services (DRS).

a colour photo of diesel locomotive in a workshop
Diesels being restored at National Railway Museum workshops© National Railway Museum
Like many of the class, D6700 hauled freight in the early 1990s, but as the first of its kind it enjoyed a certain "celebrity" status and was earmarked for preservation in York's National Railway Museum by its owners EWS (now DB Schenker (UK) Ltd.).

In 1998 the company painted it into its original British Railways' green livery and presented it to the Museum, rail's "great hall of fame", which was given the name "National Railway Museum" on 11th November that year.

In December 1999 it was finally taken out of service, and the locomotive officially became part of the National Collection owned by the NRM on 17 July 2001.

At the beginning of the new millennium, Class 37s were still in regular use on the mainline despite many of them being nearly half a century old. They were running on the North Wales Coast and between Cardiff and Rhymney as late as 2006, and their final daily use in Scotland was the Fort William Sleeper Train in June 2006.

West Coast Railways currently operate a number of Class 37s in their fleet on charter trains on the national network.

A colour photo of a green diesel locomotive
BR Diesel-Electric Type 3 Class 37 No. 6700 (37350) - 2005© National Railway Museum
In the past decade D6700 has been in demand as a guest engine by heritage railways including the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, the East Lancashire Railway and Barrow Hill roundhouse. It has now returned to the home of the railways, the National Railway Museum in York to begin an exciting new chapter in its history.

For the past year D6700 has been undergoing bodywork and other repairs in the Museum's workshop in preparation for the 50th anniversary year.

The restoration project is on track for completion and diesel fans were able to see the newly-refurbished locomotive for the first time when it was the star attraction at its "birthday party" - the Museum's Class 37 Diesel Anniversary Weekend on October 16 and 17.
To explain why the birth of diesels is just as significant a marker on the timeline of the railways as the end of steam, the Museum is also searching for people with exciting tales to tell about this milestone in railway history.

a photo of a green diesel locomotive with train at a station platform
37088 at Oban, Service to Glasgow (Queen Street) collects mail before departure. 7th August 1985© National Railway Museum
The D6700 may not have the immediate pull of its more flashy steam predecessors, but the 50th anniversary of its entry into traffic is worthy of note.

If the streamlined locomotive legend Duchess of Hamilton is comparable to a thoroughbred racehorse, the D6700 is the equivalent of a patient and hardworking dray horse which has pulled people and goods in its cart for many years. For nearly four decades this hardworking locomotive has hauled services all over the UK.

Now in its 50th year it has been restored for future generations to enjoy as a symbol of the spirit of change in the swinging sixties.
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