Saturday, 5 September 2015

Class 31 Diesel Locomotive A British Railways Workhorse

Class 31 31288 on the sidings at Northampton Station      Photo: Charles Moorhen

The Class 31 diesels, a one-time powerful workhorse of the British Rail network, became one of the railway enthusiasts favourite locomotives.

As romantic and evocative as the steam locomotive was, with such impressive names as Mallard, the IronDuke and TheFlying Scotsman, like all good things it was inevitable that the golden age of steam would someday have to come to an end. And so it was that in the mid-1950’s the dawn of the diesel locomotive, such as the Class31, began to creep over the horizon.

By 1967, the majority of steam locomotives had passed into history, (though fortunately a number were saved by heritage lines in England), superseded by a cleaner more efficient type of motive power – the diesel locomotive.
Although there was a certain amount of initial animosity against these new and powerful machines by railway enthusiasts, one such diesel locomotive - the Class 31 - did eventually become a firm favourite among enthusiast and train-driving crews alike.

                                                    31306 at Bletchley - late 1980's    Photo: Charles Moorhen

As one of the classes of diesels known as the ‘Pilot SchemeLocomotives’, ordered by British Railways to replace their costly and out-of-date steam locomotives, the Class 31  was built by Brush Traction in Loughborough. With a top speed of 90 mph (though the majority never exceeded 75 mph) and weighing in at 49 tonnes, the first of the class made its appearance in public service in September 1957.

Incidentally, the building of the full fleet took only five years to complete with the final locomotive leaving the works in 1962.

Originally intended to be used mainly on the Eastern Region, they were soon to be seen frequently on the Western and London Midland regions and eventually across the whole of the railway network performing freight duties; although they also carried out relief passenger work. With a fuel tank capacity of 750 gallons (2409 litres) of diesel, they were ideal for a wide variety of duties.

                        Class 31467 locomotive Entering Bletchley station      Photo: Charles Moorhen  

The Class 31’s, which were later divided into sub-classes 31/0, 31/1 and 31/4, with a few classified as 31/5 and 31/6, were easily identified by the large head-code boxes on the roof above the cab. 

However, the first twenty examples of the fleet were not fitted with these boxes and were quickly nicknamed ‘Skinheads’ by enthusiasts.  

The sub-class, 31/4, was powerful enough to haul a train of up to eleven BR Mark 3 carriages though in practice the actual number of carriages hauled at any one time was often fewer than five.                                                                                                                                                                        
Apart from the day-to-day work that the Class 31’s carried out, four of the fleet made brief appearances on television. 31233 and 31107 were used in a ‘crash’ scene for the BBC series ‘Top Gear’ on the 21st August 2006, to promote safety at level crossings.
31414 featured in an episode of ‘Casualty’, while 31108 was seen in an episode of ‘EastEnders’ filmed on the Nene Valley Railway near Peterborough – once again involving a railway level crossing.

                          Class 31462 passing through Banbury in the late 1980's  Photo: Charles Moorhen

Like the steam locomotives that they superseded, the Class 31 fleet of diesel locomotives eventually became redundant with many ending up in pieces in scrap yards. However, around twenty-five or so survived this fate and were bought by heritage railway lines up and down the country.
31018, the first locomotive built, is now in preservation in BR Blue livery at the National Railway Museum in York, while the last locomotive to be built is preserved in BR Green livery.

                        Class 31168 in a neglected state on Bletchley sidings in the late 1980's   Photo: Charles Moorhen
With a number of these sturdy locomotives still surviving, the legend of the 31 lives on!

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