British Standard Steam Locomotives

I have been reading though copies of 1950 and 1951 editions of The Railway Magazine. This has given me the opportunity to read some really interesting articles. Most of the ones that I have chosen to reflect on have been about narrow gauge lines. Just occasionally I have strayed onto the standard gauge.

This post is perhaps the exception that proves that rule. 1951 was the year of the new Standard Types of Locomotive which the newly formed British Railways sought to develop. The Railway Magazine carried an article based on a paper by Mr E.S. Cox, Executive Officer (Design), Railway Executive, read before the Institution of Locomotive Engineers on 21st March 1951. [6]

British Railways came into being in 1948 and a decision was taken at the time to construct a range of “standard” steam locomotives. Cecil Allan states that “in the interests of economy standardisation of new types for the whole country obviously was desirable with dimensions and weight so planned as to give each new type the widest possible range of action”. The principal progenitors of the locomotives were:

  • R.A. Riddles – Railway Executive member for mechanical engineering
  • E.S. Cox – locomotive design
  • E.S. Bond – building and maintenance

The parent design office was Derby but, as in the case of other B.R. standard locomotives, all the Regional drawing offices contributed to various sections of the design.

The decision to build steam locomotives of a new design still causes controversy to this day. There are at least 3 different arguments

  • The new build could have been from existing steam locomotive designs.
  • As prototype diesels were being built, full scale dieselisation should have been the choice. The counter argument was that diesel engineering in the UK was still at an early stage and the importing of American technology was politically undesirable. Later events in the 1950s with the introduction of diesels would prove that this was an option to avoid in the late 40s.
  • Electrification. This was Riddles’ long term choice but the technology was still evolving in 1948. The Woodhead line electrification proceeded after the Second World War but this used 1500V DC. A decision to adopt 25kV AC electrification as standard was adopted in 1956. Proceeding with full scale electrification in 1948 would have chosen the wrong technology.

A series of trials was held in 1948 to ascertain the qualities of the existing locomotive stock. Unfortunately the scope and purpose of the trials were not clearly defined to the loco crews and there were widely differing results. [3]

E.S. Cox, the author of the paper reported in The Railway Magazine, was the author of an historic Ian Allan publication which received its latest reprint in 1973 in paperback – “British Railways Standard Steam Locomotives.”

BR’s attempt to harmonise its locomotive designs was a very significant project. E.S. Cox was at the very heart of the project in his role as Executive Officer for Design on the former Railways Executive, who worked with two other former LMS (London Midland Scottish) men – Robert Riddles and Roland C. Bond to bring about standardisation.

E.S. Cox was the lead design engineer in the team that headed British Railways in the 1950s. The war years had left the railways in a poor state and many new locomotives were required. That team, says R. Holt, “drew on the best features from the Big Four Railway companies that preceded nationalisation, and built a complete set of locomotives that covered every requirement for freight and passenger, local and long distance, and light and heavy work. … The result was a set of locomotives that were strong, efficient, economical and easy to maintain. The names of Cox, Riddles and Bond are not perhaps as well known as the like of Stanier, Churchward, Gresley and Bulleid, yet they contributed the final chapter of British Steam power.” [4]

In his preliminary discussion of the pros and cons of locomotive standardisation, the author describes a number of previous exercises in this field prior to 1948.

The main part of his book relates the inception, development and design of this final range of British steam engines. It follows closely the lives of those locomotives through construction, testing and performance on the line. The book also covers such matters as maintenance, teething troubles and costs.

In dealing with these locomotives, Cox sheds light on the last days of steam, and makes many interesting comparisons with the final designs of the LMS, LNER, GWR and SR with which the BR engines had to compete. “Cox … is … honest and quite critical of things that they did wrong, and yet obviously proud of what they achieved in such a short time.” [5]

The book ends with some original thoughts on what trends design might have followed had nationalisation never taken place, or had the triumph of the diesel been delayed for another decade or more.

It has been commented that, “The designers of the standard locomotives under Riddles are unfairly castigated these days for sticking to steam rather than pursuing diesel and electric traction. Actually, all they were guilty of was not having the benefit of hindsight that we now have! We can sit in our armchairs now and look back and know exactly what should have been done. … This is … unfair, and … Cox goes a long way in this book to explain the reasons behind the decisions taken, along with their instruction from government and higher bodies. He is a good writer, … the development of these locomotives [was] … the pinnacle of steam development in this country, and it’s a great pity that a change of government stopped the plan mid-way, and set in motion the half baked modernisation plan that was to result in the mad rush to dieselisation that virtually bankrupted BR.” [5]

In parallel with this standardisation process there was a significant programme of scrappage. This, perhaps at least in part, might explain the lack of confidence in existing standard designs from the pre-BR companies. Most had been thrashed and not that well maintained during the Second World War.

Professor Alan Earnshaw states: “After the resumption of peace the railways were in a terrible state, the locomotive situation being one of the worse aspects. By the end of the 1940s some engines were still in use when, had it not been for the war, they would have been scrapped a decade earlier. The situation was initially alleviated by the arrival of the Riddles 2-8-0/2-10-0s and the Stanier 8F 2-8-0s, which had finally been released to the newly formed British Railways by the War Department. The British Railways Modernisation Plan, which included … 999 new steam locomotives … finally seemed to provide the answer to BR’s chronic lack of motive power. As these new machines became available, the faithful worn-out servants of the pre-Grouping era slid quietly into the back roads and thus into oblivion. They were soon to be followed by the old standard types of the Grouped companies.” [7]

The poor state of these older locomotives and their resultant performance figures was combined with a sense, manifest across the whole of society, that new, bigger, bolder and perhaps even brash was better than maintaining and improving of the old. This was after-all an era when many excellent railway buildings were destroyed to be replaced by what, with hindsight we can see, were considerable poorer structures. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, new was better and almost always associated without question with progress.



  1. The Railway Magazine No. 604, July 1951, p438-445 & p449.
  2. E.S. Cox; British Railways Standard Steam Locomotives; Ian Allan, 1973.
  3., accessed on 25th April 2019.
  4. R. Holt; Book Review;, accessed on 25th April 2019.
  5. Capelbond; Book Review;
  6. E.S. Cox; British Standard Locomotives; Journal of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers, Paper No. 502, Volume: 41 issue: 221, May 1951, p287-403.
  7. Professor Alan Earnshaw; Down in the Dumps: A prelude to the Scrapping of British Steam; in BackTrack Volume 11 No. 1, Atlantic Publishers, 1997, p45.


6 thoughts on “British Standard Steam Locomotives

    1. rogerfarnworth Post author

      I guess it was related to the need to keep axle-loads lower so as to give the widest possible usage across the network. Other may know better than me!

      1. rogerfarnworth Post author

        Agreed Peter. The only way this might be justified is on the basis that the axle load, as I understand it, was intended to be as low as possible to give the widest possible network access for a heavy freight loco.

  1. Tristan Bradshaw

    I knew Stuart-Cox reasonably well and frankly the standard fleet of engines was on of the greatest acts of fraud ever perpetuated in the field of railway transport. Few if any of the engines were needed and they were devised solely to feed personal ambition.

  2. Gordon Powrie

    Another reason for sticking with steam was that UK couldn’t afford to import the fuel needed to run them (oil). UK was in fact a raft of coal floating on a sea of oil, but we didn’t know about the latter until the 1960s


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.