One of the last and most powerful steam locomotives ever built, the British Rail Standard Class 7 was BR’s top express locomotive, and could have been utilised far better in its short lifespan, but ended up only serving the railways for 15 years, a blink of an eye compared to other mainline Pacifics of the time that had operated under the pre-nationalisation companies.
Designed by Robert Riddles, who had previously coined the design for the War
Department Austerity 2-10-0 and 2-8-0 freight locomotives, the BR Standard Class 7’s were conceived of as a result of the 1948 locomotive exchanges, which were done to test the best and worst aspects of locomotive design within the Big Four railway companies that had existed before nationalisation. The research gained from operating the best designs of the GWR, LMS, LNER and Southern railways on different areas of the British Railways network paved the way for several new classes of standardised locomotives to be constructed, largely to replace many of the ageing Victorian era engines that even in the late 1940’s continued to ply their merry trade.
The first design requested by the Railway Executive was for a new express passenger Pacific locomotive, designed specifically to reduce maintenance and using the latest available innovations in steam technology from home and abroad. Various labour-saving devices were utilised to produce a simple, standard and effective design, able to produce equivalent power to some of the Pacifics that were still available as legacies of the Big Four.
The basic design of the Standard 7’s can be traced to LMS construction practices, largely owed to Riddles’ previous career with that company, but complimented this with the boiler and trailing wheel design of the Southern Railway’s Merchant Navy Pacifics so as to follow the best design practice. The firebox was also similar in having a rocking grate, which allowed the fire to be rebuilt without stopping the locomotive, removing both ash and clinker on the move. A self-cleaning smokebox was used, which enabled ash to flow into the atmosphere, reducing the workload of the engine cleaner at the end of a working day. A single chimney was placed on top of the smokebox, which was unusual for a Pacific type of locomotive.
The Standard 7’s were fitted with 6 ft 2 in driving wheels, allowing these engines greater capacity for use in mixed-traffic working, which made them available for both sustained fast running with heavy passenger trains, yet small enough to allow them to undertake more mundane tasks such as freight haulage.
55 of these engines were constructed between 1951 and 1954, with 70000 ‘Britannia’ being the first and flagship of the fleet, with residual locomotives of the class being dubbed ‘Britannia-Class’. Three batches were constructed at Crewe Works, before the publication of the 1955 Modernisation Plan.
The Britannias took their names from great Britons, former Star Class locomotives, and Scottish firths, although one locomotive, 70047, was never named. The success of these first Standard Pacifics gave birth to two other Pacific classes over the BR years, including the unique BR Standard Class 8, number 71000 ‘Duke of Gloucester’, which was built in 1954 to replace the destroyed Princess Royal Class locomotive number 46202 Princess Anne, lost in the Harrow and Wealdstone rail disaster of 1952, and the fleet of 10 BR Standard Class 6 ‘Clan’ Pacifics that were employed on services in the west of Scotland, but failed to gain a stellar reputation due to their employment on timetables for the more powerful Standard 7’s they couldn’t keep up to.
The class gained a warm response from locomotive crews across all British Railway Regions, with especially glowing reports from those operating them from Stratford depot on the Eastern Region, where its lower weight and high power transformed motive power over the restricted East Anglian lines. However, negative feedback was received from various operating departments, most notably on the Western Region. The criticism was primarily out of partisan preference for GWR-designed locomotive stock among Western Region staff; in particular, the class was ‘left-hand drive’ in contrast to ‘right-hand drive’ GWR locomotive and signalling practice, a factor in the Milton rail crash of 1955.
For this reason, the Western Region locomotive depots at Old Oak Common and Plymouth Laira declared that the class was surplus to requirements. However Cardiff Canton depot displayed its liking for the class (despite being part of the former GWR empire) and managed to obtain good results on South Wales passenger traffic.
The Midland Region also had favourable reports, but a marked consistency in losing time on the longer runs between Holyhead and Euston was recorded, although all complaints were down to the individual techniques of the operating crews. This was compounded by the irregular allocation of the class to depots all over the network, meaning that few crews ever had a great deal of experience in driving them. The Southern Region also had an allocation of seven in May 1953, when all Merchant Navy Class locomotives were temporarily withdrawn for inspection after 35020 “Bibby Line” sheared a crank axle on the central driving wheel.
Repairs to the class were undertaken at Crewe, Swindon and Doncaster Works until the financial constraints of the British Railways Modernisation Plan in terms of expenditure on steam began to preclude the regular overhaul of locomotives. During the mid-1960s overhauls were carried out exclusively at Crewe Works.
However, as the locomotives entered the 1960’s, the modernisation plan continued to gather pace, and diesel locomotives started to replace steam on most parts of the network. Very soon the Standard 7’s placement on Top-Line expresses were demoted to the on-again-off-again work of freight and parcels, and cosmetic maintenance was reduced as their final years loomed. The lavish BR Brunswick Green soon faded to grey, and in some cases BR Lined Black was adopted for ease.
The first locomotive to be withdrawn from service was number 70007 Coeur-de-Lion in 1965, and the entire class was gradually transferred to Carlisle Kingmoor and Glasgow Polmadie depots. Britannia was withdrawn in May 1966, after 15 years of service.
A succession of bulk withdrawals began in 1967, culminating in the very last steam operation in British Railways service on August 11th, 1968, where Standard 7 number 70013 Oliver Cromwell, was chosen to assist in hauling the Fifteen Guinea Special, the last steam hauled British Railways passenger service from Liverpool to Carlisle via the S&C. 70013 was chosen as it was the last the last BR-owned steam locomotive to undergo routine heavy overhaul at Crewe Works, being out-shopped after a special ceremony in February 1967. The engine hauled the Manchester to Carlisle leg of the service via the Settle and Carlisle line, with LMS Class 5 45110, and LMS Stanier Class 5 locomotives, 44781 and 44871 double-heading the return working back to Manchester.
Today, only two BR Standard 7’s survive in preservation, these being class flagship number 70000 ‘Britannia’, and 70013 ‘Oliver Cromwell’. Both locomotives are now frequent operators on the mainline, working a selection of railtours up and down the nation, and proving themselves as reliable in preservation as they were in revenue service.