Railways and the RAF

The Royal Air Forces’ connection with railways is not just confined to locomotive nameplates. It once operated extensive narrow and standard gauge railway systems, serving Maintenance Units such as RAF Stafford, bomb stores and airfields (Hendon airfield had its own branch line and sidings off the Midland main line between May 1918 and January 1921). Steam, diesel and battery electric locomotives were all used; the last Royal Air Force steam locomotive (A Barclay 0-4-0ST) was struck off charge at RAF St Athan in February 1973.

The Royal Air Force Museum’s collection reflects this long-standing connection and includes a Ruston and Hornsby built 48DL two foot gauge diesel ‘Yimkin’ from the Gulf staging post at Royal Air Force Masirah (on loan to the Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway Society since 1987) and two-foot gauge battery and diesel locomotives, wagons and track from the underground bomb storage area at Royal Air Force Chilmark, Wiltshire. These are currently stored at the RAFM facility at the former RAF Stafford, now MoD Stafford, and are not on public view.

Also held are two lamps from a diesel shunting loco from RAF Henlow and two number plates from a similar loco, ‘AMW No 167’ an 0-4-0 built by J. Fowler of Leeds in 1939 that once operated at No.7 MU Quedgeley, and latterly at the former flying boat base at RAF Pembroke Dock and was scrapped in 1983 having been sold by the MoD to scrap merchants George Cohen & Sons at Morriston, Glamorgan in April 1970.

The Royal Air Force Museum Midlands formerly displayed ‘Spitfire’ and ‘Hurricane’ nameplates from Hunslet built ‘Austerity’ saddletanks that worked at Parsonage Colliery near Manchester until 1978. These are currently in store.

Air Force Names

There is a long tradition of naming railway locomotives in Great Britain. The main railway companies have tended to name their passenger locomotives but not the humble shunting engines. This has been left to smaller users such as power stations and coalmines.

Themes have included railway personalities, railway served locations and classical heroes. Naming high-speed Train power cars ‘Top of the Pops’ came much later when popular culture was thought an appropriate subject to attract public attention.

Military names increased after the Great War, including warship and regimental names. Many companies had a ‘remembrance’ locomotive honouring the fallen.

In 1931the London Midland and Scottish Railway Royal Scot 4-6-0 express passenger locomotive No. 6159 became the first locomotive to carry a name associated with military aeronautics; it was named ‘The Royal Air Force’ and after rebuilding with a Stanier Boiler ran until November 1962 as BR 46159, being withdrawn from Willesden shed in London and scrapped at Crewe Works in February 1963. In September 2007, the BR smokebox numberplate of No.46159 was generously donated to the Royal Air Force Museum by Mr Bruce London ACIS. This item is now displayed at Hendon, accessioned as X004-6115.

Second world war patriotism caused the Great Western Railway to re-name 12 of its fast, powerful ‘Castle’ class locomotives after then current British Military aircraft. Nos 5071 to 5082 commemorated such aircraft as the Spitfire, Hurricane and Wellington; British Railways withdrew them by September 1964; sole survivor 5080 Defiant is owned by the Birmingham Railway Museum, Tyseley and currently on loan to the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton Road, pending overhaul.

Diesel and electric locomotives with names associated with the Royal Air Force include class 73 electro-diesels 73107 ‘Spitfire’, 73109 ‘Battle of Britain 50th Anniversary’, and classmate 73137 ‘Royal Observer Corps’.

A number of former BR Southern Region Class 33 Diesel-Electric locomotives have also received names with an aeronautical/RAF theme; these included:

33002 Sea King
After the locally based company Supermarine-built biplane amphibian fighter of 1920.

Engineer’s loco Named at Eastleigh Depot November 1991; Nameplates removed October 1996. Loco now preserved; restored into BR Engineer’s ‘Dutch’ livery and operating on South Devon Railway with Sea King nameplates and Eastleigh Spitfire logo refitted.

33009 Walrus
After the rugged Supermarine-built biplane amphibian reconnaissance/air sea rescue aircraft.

Engineer’s loco named at Eastleigh September 1991; Nameplates removed January 1992.

33019 Griffon
After the RR Griffon aero-engine fitted to Spitfires and many other aircraft.

Named at Eastleigh Depot, Hampshire 16 December 1991 as one of eight 33s for British Rail Civil Engineers use given aeronautical names. Nameplates removed December 1998 following privatisation of BR.

33026 Seafire
After the naval variant of the Spitfire.

Engineer’s loco named at Eastleigh 9 August 1991; nameplates removed January 1997.

33046 Merlin
After the RR Merlin aero engine.

Engineers use loco named at Eastleigh 4 October 1991; nameplates removed February 1997.

33047/33055 Spitfire
After R.J. Mitchell’s immortal fighter.

Engineer’s use loco named at Eastleigh Depot April 1991; nameplates removed January 1993 and applied to sister loco 33055 on 31 December 1993, but removed from this loco also August 1996.

33057 Seagull
After the Supermarine Seagull biplane amphibian of 1921/22.

Engineer’s use loco named at Eastleigh 6 September 1991; nameplates removed October 1996.

A number of other Eastleigh Depot based 33s also received a lozenge-shaped cast Spitfire logo carried on the cabside as the Depot logo.

In May 1997, Virgin Trains named their High Speed Train power car No.43155 The Red Arrows in a ceremony at York station attended by members of the squadron; the same company ran a electrically hauled control trailer on the West Coast main line named ‘101 Squadron’ until it was replaced by the current ‘Pendolino’ electric units.

Now-defunct privatised rail operator Fragonset railways also chose some aeronautical names;

33103 Swordfish
After the Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber.

Named at Derby November 2002.

33108 Vampire
After the DH Vampire jet fighter.

Named at Derby April 2002.

33202 Meteor
After the Gloster Meteor twin-jet fighter. Named at Derby Depot November 2002.