Vickers and the Brush-Sulzer Class 47


In the early 1960s, following the re-appraisal of the 1955 ‘Modernisation and Re-Equipment Programme’ the UK Government of the day had decided to press ahead rapidly with dieselization, following the now unlikely completion of East Coast Main Line electrification. British Railways was running with a wide variety of ‘pilot scheme’ diesel locomotive designs, most with 4-stroke diesel engines paired with electric transmission, but with the Western Region opting for hydraulic transmission.   On top of this, with BR losses mounting during the steam era, and the equally rapidly expanding motorway building programme and rise of private car ownership, whilst being hampered by the common carrier obligations, the need for a solution was pressing and becoming more urgent.

So, what was the solution? Ignore the results from the operation of the pilot scheme non-steam types, and order a lightweight, high power design almost straight off the drawing board, from manufacturers with limited experience. It is wrong to suggest that either Brush Electrical Engineering, or Sulzer Brothers had very limited experience, but put in the context of BR’s operational requirement, it was a new and very challenging position.

Brush had been working on a prototype locomotive – the “Falcon”, whilst a well-known rolling stock builder – Metropolitan-Cammell in Birmingham, had almost completed a similar prototype – the “Lion”. So, did BR opt for a trial to compare and contrast the two – no, it ordered over 500 similar, but different locomotives from a Brush-Sulzer design, designated Type 4, and later to become the Class 47, and built at the Brush Works in Loughborough and BR’s Crewe Locomotive Works.

“Modern Railways” reported this change of approach from the “Pilot Scheme” approach as:

  • ” … Standardisation of main-line diesel locomotives has now been stabilised in five designs, excluding the “Deltics”; they are the 650 hp Type I diesel-hydraulic under construction at Swindon, the 900 hp Clayton Type 1, the 1,250 h.p. B.R. Sulzer Type 2, the 1,750 hp English Electric Type 3 and the 2,750 h.p. Brush Type 4. …”

The first two of these designs were rapidly dropped, and whilst the Brush Type 4 was numerically the largest class, for the first few years they suffered problems, many involving engine failures, and crankcase faults that regularly saw them back at Vickers Armstrongs works in Barrow-in-Furness.

BR had embarked on a pragmatic approach to modernization – the steam to diesel and electric changeover in the mid 1950s – but a re-appraisal resulted in the placing of the biggest order for untried diesel locomotives. In 1955 orders were placed for what were known as the ‘Pilot Scheme’ locomotives, with just over 100 different locos, with differing engines, transmissions and weights. But, BR was up against an economic clock, with falling receipts, and inefficient steam operations, with railway workshops and repair depots coming to the end of their working lives.

August 63 Modern Rlys ExtractPut that in the heated context of the 1963 Beeching proposals, and Ernest Marples opposition to railway workshops, and it seems an odd juxtaposition of ideology – use a world famous steam locomotive building workshop to deliver an untried, unproven locomotive design – in numbers. But, on top of this, there was a need to introduce another engine design from Sulzer, but with the private manufacturers also seemingly suffering the lack of growth in their business – Vulcan Foundry was closed in 1963, following North British Loco. the previous year, and Metropolitan-Cammell staring at the end of the line.

By August 1963, the changes following the re-appraisal more than 350 Brush Type 4 locomotives were ordered, with the design becoming BR’s “standard” Type 4. Clearly, this looked like the death knell for the BR and English Electric designed Type 4 diesel-electrics, and potentially the Western Region’s diesel-hydraulics. To say the new Brush designs were ordered straight off the drawing board is misleading, but with only 50 engines in traffic in less than 12 months, clearly there had been little operational use, or testing done before placing this huge order.

Fitting Sulzer Engine at Brush

Fitting a Sulzer 12LDA28 series engine into a Brush Type 4 at the Brush workshops

The contract details would clearly have been discussed during the first 6 months of use of the first of the class, between November 1962 and April 1963, for the news to have reached the press by July and August 1963, when the size of the order was announced. The planned build included Nos. D1550 to D1681 and D1782 to D1833 at Crewe Works, with the completion of Nos. D1500-D1549 at Brush, along with new locomotives D1682-D1781 and D1834-D1861.

Allocation after building was planned to be:

  • 124 to the Eastern Region,
  • 13 to the North Eastern Region,
  • 75 to the London Midland Region
  • 150 to the Western Region.

A total of 362 new, and unproven diesel-electric locomotives. But the gamble did pay off – eventually, though not without some major problems along the way. Many of the locomotives had to have their engines repaired, or even replaced within a few short months of going into service, suffering from crankcase failures, and other problems. These problems could be associated with the transition from steam to diesel operations, with driving and train running practices may have had a negative effect on this ‘new technology’. Teething troubles – yes – expensive too.

It is perhaps ironic that at the height of the operational problems and failures with the Brush Type 4 in the mid 1960s, BR published its “National Traction Plan” in 1967, which consolidated the position of the Brush-Sulzer design. This plan stated that designs proving unreliable, expensive to maintain or non-standard should be eliminated as quickly as possible, ideally by 1974, and with the number of classes reduced from 28 to 15. Unsurprisingly, the Western Region’s diesel-hydraulics were the obvious choice for removal, disappearing by around 1975, and replaced by the Brush Type 4, together with the new High Speed Train (HST) power cars.

Class 47 on 1A58 at Barrow Station 1977

Class 47 on 1A58 at Barrow-in-Furness, 1977

Vickers & The Sulzer Connection

Choice of engine builder for the new Type 4’s? Vickers-Armstrongs at Barrow-in-Furness, but with their focus on marine engineering, defence, ships, submarines, how would that help in railway business? The company had also been gearing up for the expansion of naval construction during the early 50s, with the expected expansion of the Korean War. That of course did not take place, but Vickers capacity and capability to construct and deliver large quantities of heavy machinery in a short timescale was not lost on the BR engineering teams during the modernisation programme.

Brush Type 4s in the paint shop

New Brush Type 4 locomotives in the works Paint Shop

Despite its emphasis on submarines and warships, Vickers, Barrow had built locomotives before – the mechanical parts – when the Metropolitan Railway ordered its locomotives from Metropolitan-Vickers in Manchester, Vickers in Barrow built the bodies. Vickers association with the Swiss company Sulzer Brothers really began in 1947, when they received an order for six of the 6LDA28 engines for Irish Railways, and then in 1955, the first orders for British Railways arrived.

Sulzer (London) obtained a licence to build the engines in the UK, and although for the LDA28 series the first 10 engines were built at Winterthur in Switzerland, all of the remainder were built at the Barrow Engineering Works.

These included all of the LDA28 series, in 6-cylinder and 12-cylinder versions, with the twin bank 12-cylinder design fitted into the Brush Type 4 locomotive. All the engines for this class were built at Vickers Barrow works. In fact, by the time the 1,000th engine had been delivered in October 1964, the engineering works at Barrow were churning them out at the rate of one every day. The Brush Type 4, or Class 47 engines were all assembled at Vickers, Barrow, and the company also fabricated the engine bed plates and cylinder blocks, together other components, with many other parts coming from a long list of suppliers.

The total number of orders for Sulzer engines then stood at 1,397, and covered the following classes:

BR Type / Class Original Numbers Engine Type No. Built
Brush-Sulzer Type 4 / Class 47 D1100-111, D1500-1999 12LDA28C

12LVA24 *

BR-Sulzer Type 4 1Co-Co1 “Peak” D1-193 12LDA28 193
BR-Sulzer Type 2 Bo-Bo D5000-5299 D5300-5415




BR-Sulzer Type 3 Bo-Bo D6500-6597 8LDA28



* Only 4 locomotives were fitted with this engine as a trial, they were D1702 – D1705

Sadly, within a very short time, the engine crankcases on a large number of these locomotives showed signs of fatigue cracks, and as one of the Sulzer team has since remarked:

“…the 12 cylinder LDA double bank engine at it’s highest C rating was subject to unacceptable stresses and vibrations in the early years mainly due to the cyclic nature of the service…”

Apart from the operational cause, it was found that faults in Vickers welding techniques when combined with the excessive strain these engines were under in day-to-day operation, was a contributory factor. But, in other areas, Vickers skills were unrivalled, as that same engineer commented:

“Although Vickers welding techniques and quality can be criticised, they were certainly in the forefront in other areas. Having built many ships – both merchant, naval and submarines, they were absolute experts at gearbox manufacture.”

Vickers gear hobbing and grinding practices for these engines cost BR money – the complicated nature of matching the outputs of the twin crankshafts to a single shaft to drive the generators led to BR demanding 30 spare sets of gears – just in case. These spares were never used or needed – and BR had to pay for them at cost price!! A great tribute to Vickers skills in that area.

The building of such large numbers of diesel engines at Barrow took place in a machine shop the size of at least 3 football pitches, and the company also developed a purpose built test house, to complete the build before delivery to BR.

VSEL Sulzer Diesel Engine building 2

Sulzer engine building at Vickers in Barrow – the area was nicknamed “the golden mile”, due to the volume of work in progress at that time

Ultimately, the Brush Type 4, or Class 47 as it was renumbered under the TOPS classification scheme, proved to be perhaps one of the most useful diesel-electric designs, and might be compared to say the LMS ‘Black Five’ steam locomotive. It could be found and used on many, and perhaps almost every operation imaginable, and has provided the backbone of locomotive hauled operations in common with the English Electric Type 3.

No less than 32 of the type are preserved, with 30 still operational – though to be fair, the power units have been replaced by engines and alternators from EMD, and as Class 57 are effectively new locomotives, but bear all the outward appearance of the Brush Type 4.

Maybe the ‘straight off the drawing board’ is less than a fact, but more than 50 years on, they are still doing duty, either on heritage railways, or on other operational duties.

Maybe it has been the combined pioneering work of Vickers Armstrongs, Sulzer Brothers where Dr Rudolf Diesel completed his work, and the electrical and manufacturing expertise of Brush Electrical Machines that have come together so effectively.