The fifty Class 50s – originally the ‘D400’ class were built by English Electric (EE) at its Vulcan Foundry Works near Newton-le-Willows in Lancashire, and introduced to service with British Rail in 1967/68. Producing 2,700bhp and capable of 100mph, the new locomotives were primarily used to haul West Coast Main Line (WCML) express passenger trains north from Crewe after investment for full electrification through to Glasgow was initially not authorised. Trains were electric-hauled as far as Crewe where diesels took over.
The 28th built locomotive of the order - given the numbers 3797 by EE and D1168 by Vulcan Foundry Works, rolled off the production line in spring 1968. BR numbered its latest acquisition D427 and following commissioning accepted it into service on 10 June 1968 - ready for a career that would span just over 23 years.
Initially based at Crewe diesel depot for maintenance purposes, D427 joined its classmates allocated to the London Midland Region, working the Western Lines area. Duties were mainly on the WCML between Crewe and Glasgow but like the other ‘D400s’, the locomotive made appearances all-round North West England with occasional forays to the east of Scotland and the West Midlands too.
Works attention was unsurprisingly carried out at Crewe and D427 received its first classified repair – a light overhaul there in September 1971. On return to service – some three years after standard gauge steam was abolished by BR, the ‘D’ (for diesel) prefix was dropped and the locomotive would now be known simply as 427. Two years later 427 re-entered Crewe Works for an intermediate overhaul. Emerging in January 1974, the locomotive was now numbered 50027 in accordance with the TOPS numbering system.
After investment to electrify the rest of the WCML was confirmed it became clear that the Class 50s would lose their main duties to new builds of electric locomotives (Class 87). The BR National Traction Plan however, earmarked the ‘50s’ for new work on the Western Region, helping to replace diesel-hydraulic traction, which was to be phased out in the 1970s. The big changeover was to take place in May 1974, but a number of Class 50s were transferred south in advance to be used for staff training.
In March of that year, 50027 was allocated briefly to Bristol Bath Road depot, before being moved on to Laira in Devon. The locomotive was used extensively for driver training in Cornwall and made the class’s debut at Penzance. By May 1976, the entire fleet of ‘50s’ had been rehomed on the WR – being based at Bristol and Laira.
From 1978 BR began applying names to the Class 50s, and by the close of 1979 the whole fleet had been named after Royal Navy warships or shore establishments. On 17 April 1978, and without ceremony, Laira depot christened 50027, Lion – the 15th of the class to be named. HMS Lion was a battlecruiser, the flagship of Admiral Beatty’s fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. She came close to sinking during the action and only flooding of the magazines preventing her from blowing up. In more recent times the name was carried by a ‘Tiger’ class cruiser, which served between 1960 and 1975.
After being transferred to the WR, Doncaster Works took over responsibility for Class 50 overhauls and major unclassified repairs from Crewe. 50027 entered ‘The Plant’ at Doncaster for the first time in July 1979, for its second intermediate overhaul. Almost 12 years old now, this was the locomotive’s third classified overhaul – equating to an even four years per cycle including actual time in the workshops. In March 1980, 50027 returned to its home region after taking over the 09.50 Edinburgh–Plymouth train at York.
As the Inter-City 125 High Speed Train took over most top-link Class 50s duties on the WR, the class was cascaded to more pastures new. From May 1980, the ‘50s’ took over on the Exeter to Waterloo line – resulting in significant speeding up of the service as well as adding an extra coach to most trains. On the first day of the new timetable 12 May 1980, 50027 worked the 07.37 Exeter-Waterloo and 15.10 Waterloo-Exeter.
Class 50s became known for unreliability and this resulted in a refurbishment programme being carried out between 1979 and 1983. Now based at Old Oak Common depot, 50027 was one of the last of the fleet to be treated and finally emerged in July 1983, now painted in the new ‘large-logo’ livery. Two years later and once again based in Devon, the locomotive received the black roof modified paint scheme as applied to several Laira based ‘50s’ in the mid-1980s.
From 1987 the first Class 50s were taken out of service for good. Later that same year however, 50027 received its final overhaul – or F-exam as they were now known since the introduction of Cost Effective Maintenance. The work was carried out at Laira and Lion emerged in the revised of Network SouthEast (NSE) livery on 31 December 1987.
By this time the ‘50s’ had lost most of their top-link duties on the Western Region as InterCity opted to use Class 47s on its remaining locomotive-hauled trains. With new DMU deliveries set to take over Provincial duties and the impending loss of newspaper traffic, the ‘50s’ were facing an uncertain future. By May 1989, more had been withdrawn and the survivors were left with NSE duties - split between the Thames and West of England routes, along with Departmental sector work – mainly on ballast trains. 50027 joined 19 of its classmates working the Waterloo to Exeter line.
As locomotive-hauled trains were reduced nationwide, a number of Class 47s – many from Scotland became available to replace the more expensive to run and less reliable ‘50s’ on both of their NSE routes. Entering summer 1991, 50027 continued in service on the Waterloo line but the passenger fleet size had by now shrunk to around a dozen. From 8 July, the ‘47s’ should have taken over but as is often the case, the Old Order had a stay of execution – and several Class 50s hung on into 1992. For Lion however, time had run out and requiring new bogies due to worn out wheels - the locomotive was switched off for the final time on 12 July.
With NSE now determined to eliminate its ‘50s’ as soon as possible, 50027 was officially withdrawn on 23 July 1991 after a career spanning 23 years. The locomotive also required engine repairs for which expenditure was not authorised and so Lion became the 37th Class 50 to be sidelined. Further shortages of traction on the Waterloo line led to consideration being given to reinstating some ‘50s’ – including 50027, in the autumn but this ultimately came to nothing.
By the end of their working lives, Class 50s had become very popular with enthusiasts leading to over one-third of the fleet eventually being preserved. In 1992, 50027 was purchased by a private owner, who arranged for the locomotive to be based on the Mid Hants Railway. After being towed away from Laira, it became one of the first ‘50s’ to work in preservation when it hauled a passenger train from Alton toAlresford on 17 May 1992.
Two years later however, Lion left the Mid Hants and following an appearance at the Exeter Rail Fare and Crewe Works open day, the locomotive visited the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR) at Grosmont. Arriving too late to haul any trains during the 1994 operating season, the locomotive remained on the line and finally entered service on 6 May 1995 when it worked two return trips between Grosmont and Pickering.
The locomotive remained at the NYMR for a further 17 years, during which time it starred in a number of ‘running days’ as well as taking part in several of the line’s successful diesel galas. During extended periods of summer dry weather, 50027 was occasionally called upon to pilot steam locomotives to help guard against line-side fires. In the 2008 running season, Lion was used extensively on empty stock movements for the Friday evening dining train, and thanks to unavailable steam crews occasionally hauled the diners as well.
Following the 2009 diesel gala, 50027 was taken out of service for engine and bodywork repairs. The opportunity was also taken to replace the floors in both driving cabs. Progress was however often slower than desired, with the efforts of the locomotive’s volunteer group hampered by the weather and limited access to the shed with its electrical supply.
Lion returned to the MHR on 14th June 2012 from the NYMR.
Copy courtesy of Ian Horner
- Built at
- English Electric Vulcan Foundry
- Build year
- Entered service
- 15 June 1968
- Privately Owned
- Northern, Western then Southern
- Route availability
- Total built of class
- Power output
- 2700 bhp
- Prime mover
- English Electric 16 CSVT 16 cylinder, 246 litre
- Top speed
- 100 mph
- Total length
- 68' 6"
- Total weight
- 115 tons
- Tractive effort
- max 48, 500 ibf
- 56' 2"