British Rail Class 56

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British Rail Class 56
Electroputere LDE 3500
56006 at Doncaster Works.JPG
Electroputere-built 56 006 at Doncaster Works in 2003 painted in rail blue livery
Type and origin
Power typeDiesel-electric
Build date1976–1984
Total produced135
 • UICCo'Co'
 • CommonwealthCo-Co
Gauge4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length63 ft 6 in (19.35 m)
Width9 ft 2 in (2.79 m)
Height12 ft 9 in (3.89 m)
Loco weight123 long tons (125 t)
Fuel capacity1,150 imp gal (5,200 l; 1,380 US gal)
Prime moverRuston-Paxman 16RK3CT
AlternatorBrush BA1101A
Traction motorsBrush TM73-62
MU working Red Diamond
Train heatingNone
Train brakesAir
Performance figures
Maximum speed80 mph (129 km/h)
Power outputEngine: 3,250 bhp (2,424 kW)
at rail: 2,400 bhp (1,790 kW)
Tractive effortMaximum: 61,800 lbf (275 kN)
Continuous: 53,950 lbf (240 kN) at 16.8 mph (27 km/h)[1]
Brakeforce59 long tons-force (588 kN)
OperatorsBritish Rail
Colas Rail
English Welsh & Scottish
Floyd Zrt.
UK Rail Leasing
NicknamesGridirons, Grids[2]
Axle load classRoute availability 7
Disposition3 preserved, 35 still in service, remainder scrapped

The British Rail Class 56 is a type of diesel locomotive designed for heavy freight work. It is a Type 5 locomotive, with a Ruston-Paxman power unit developing 3,250 bhp (2,423 kW), and has a Co-Co wheel arrangement. Enthusiasts nicknamed them "Gridirons" (or "Grids" for short), due to the grid-like horn cover on the locomotive's cab ends fitted to nos. 56056 onwards. Under its Romanian railway factory nomenclature, the locomotive was named Electroputere LDE 3500, with LDE coming from Locomotivă Diesel-Electrică (Diesel-Electric Locomotive) and the 3500 being the planned horsepower output.[citation needed]

The Class 56 fleet was introduced between 1976 and 1984, a total of 135 examples were manufactured. The first 30 locomotives (56001 - 56030, factory classification LDE3500) were built by Electroputere in Romania, but these typically suffered from poor construction standards and many were withdrawn from service early for extensive rebuilding before re-entering revenue service.[3] The remaining 105 locomotives were built by British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) at Doncaster Works (56031 to 56115) and Crewe Works (56116 to 56135).



During the early 1970s, it became clear to British Rail planners that a new Type 5 locomotive to handle heavy freight services would be ideal. However, ambitions to produce such a fleet were somewhat hamstrung by cutbacks at many of Britain's major railway workshops, having lost many skilled staff through multiple restructurings and cost saving drives; according to railway author Rodger Bradley, such moves proved to have came at a substantial long term cost the nation's railway engineering capabilities.[4]

Accordingly, in 1974, BR placed an order for 60 freight locomotives, which were originally intended to be separately constructed in two batches of 30 at BREL's Doncaster Works and Brush Traction, Loughborough respectively.[5][6] However, Brush had already reached the maximum capacity of their Loughborough site via several unrelated projects, making it unrealistic to perform the work in-house as had been envisioned.[4] To overcome its constraints, the company's managers opted to subcontract its batch to the Romanian locomotive manufacturer Electroputere.[7]

On 29 April 1977, the first Class 56 locomotive to be constructed by was handed over to British Rail, having been transported from Romania by ship via the port of Harwich.[4] At one point, it was reportedly planned to deliver 20 locomotives each year; however, this ambitious schedule did not come to pass without consequence. The 30 Romanian locomotives (Nos. 56 001 – 56 030) were found to have a relatively poor build quality; to effectively address this, the majority had to be withdrawn from service for extensive rebuilding within their first few years of operation, after which they were re-introduced to service with better performance.[4]

Follow-on orders and work redistribution[edit]

At an early stage of the programme, BR had indicated its intention to place a follow-on order for the type following the delivery of the first 30 locomotives.[4] Accordingly, the number ordered was increased to 135 and they were numbered as follows:

  • 56001 to 56030, built by Electroputere, Romania
  • 56031 to 56115, built by BREL, Doncaster Works
  • 56116 to 56135, built by BREL, Crewe Works

However, BREL's Doncaster Works were in severe demand at this time and its resources would be stretched to meet these targets despite the ample fabrication facilities available on site, as a lack of numbers of skilled personnel to manufacture mechanical components was the primary limitation on capacity at Doncaster.[4] To address this constraint, Ashford, Eastleigh and Swindon Works were also involved in the fabrication of sub-assemblies to successfully satisfy the production timetable; specically, roofs, fuel tanks and cab frames were produced at Ashford, while cab desks were built at Eastleigh, and radiator housings were supplied from Swindon.[4] Subsiquently, final assembly of the type was transferred from Doncaster Works to Crewe, allowing the latter to commence work on construction of the new Class 58 heavy freight locomitive.[4]

As a consequence of the undesirable performance experienced with the early Romanian-built members of the class, the locomitives subsequently built feature significant modifications to help prevent this experience being repeated.[4] This attention to improving its operational performance is likely to be amongst the reasons why the Class 56 would prove to be operationally superior in most metrics to the subsequent Class 58, which in turn has led to the type having a longer lifespan in comparison to this newer locomotive.[4] It had been largely due to the initially negative experiences with the Class 56, which had caused dissatisfaction amongst several of British Rail's freight customers,[8] that BR officials had initiated work on the Class 58, although it differed substantially due to a new focus for the latter upon the highly competitive international market.[9][10]

Technical details[edit]

The Class 56 is a heavy freight-orientated diesel-electric locomotive. Upon its introduction, the type arguably represented the first of the "second generation" of British diesel locomotives. When specifying its requirements for the Class 56, BR stipulated that its bodyshell design would be based on Brush Traction's existing Class 47 design, minus some features such as the obsolete headcode panel.[4] Accordingly, it features a stress-skin manner of construction that was paired with an all-welded monocoque superstructure assembly. Mechanically, the type shares considerable similarity with the Class 47 overall, including its double-cab design.[4]

The locomotive is powered by a single Ruston-Paxman-built power unit, which is a direct descendant of English Electric CSVT types; the closest relative to its engine is the 16CSVT, as used in the Class 50.[citation needed] However, there are numerous technical advances included in its design, including significantly uprated turbochargers, gear-driven camshafts in place of the timing chain used on Class 50s, and uprated cylinder heads, fuel pumps and injectors. The engine was nominally rated at 3,520 hp (2,620 kW), but was set at 3,250 hp (2,420 kW) for rail use.[citation needed]

One key difference between the Class 56 and the various preceding British locomotives produced during the 1950s and 1960s is the use of self-exciting alternators rather than direct current (DC) generators for the generation of both traction current and auxiliary supply. This change reportedly results in the power unit being considerably more robust, as well as greatly reducing the risk of flash-overs and other earth-related faults. Traction supply was rectified since the type employs DC traction motors. Much of the auxiliary apparatus, such as the compressors and traction motor blowers, were powered via the unrectified 3-phase AC output of the auxiliary alternator, and therefore run at a speed proportional to engine r.p.m.[citation needed]

Another key design change started on the Class 56 was its braking system; it was the first diesel locomotive operated by British Rail to be built only with air train brakes, specifically the Davies and Metcalfe E70 system. Earlier locomotives had variously been fitted with vacuum train brakes or an often complex dual-braking arrangement.[citation needed]



During its service life, the Class 56 has proved to be a strong and capable locomotive, being noticeably less prone to wheelslip than the newer Class 58s. However, the type's maintenance needs were relatively high even amongst its contemporaries, such as the Class 58.[9] Notwithstanding bouts of significant investment into the Class 56 during the 1990s by operators such as Transrail and Loadhaul, the locomotive has proven to be somewhat uneconomic to operate in comparison to more modern types, such as the Class 66, in terms of availability or maintenance costs. This disadvantage had led to the majority of the fleet being withdrawn during the early twenty-first century.[4]

Previous operators[edit]

British Rail[edit]

On 4 August 1976, 56001 and 56002 were loaded for shipping from Zeebrugge to Harwich.[11] They were towed from Harwich to Tinsley on 7 August.[11] Initial trials were conducted on the Settle-Carlisle Line.[12] Subsequent examples (of the Romanian deliveries) went to Barrow Hill depot for preparation and subsequent commissioning on test trains from Tinsley, usually to Peterborough West Yard. The test train consisted of a rake of rail-carrying flat wagons, with a former East Coast Metro-Cammell Pullman vehicle marshalled immediately behind the locomotive. Testing of Doncaster-built examples was completed using the traditional Doncaster works test train, running north along the East Coast Main Line.

One class member, BREL-built no. 56042, was chosen to test the CP3 bogies that were fitted to the Class 58s. It was the first of the class to be withdrawn in 1991 after only 12 years service and scrapped three years later in 1994 at Toton TMD.[citation needed]


56115 on a railtour.

The entire class passed to English Welsh & Scottish (EWS) in 1995, when it purchased the Loadhaul, Mainline Freight and Transrail Freight companies from British Rail. Withdrawals commenced in the 1990s, with the last withdrawn on 31 March 2004.[13] Some were reinstated for use on construction trains connected with the LGV Est in France, although all such locomotives have now returned to the UK.[14]

In September 2011, DB Schenker (as EWS had become) placed its remaining 33 stored class 56s up for sale[15] with most expected to be sold for scrap.

UK-based locomotive provider Europhoenix[16] tendered for three of the DB Schenker locomotives (56018, 56115, 56117) for export to Hungarian freight operator Floyd.[17] They finally bought 56101 (from preservation), 56115 and 56117. With 56101 moving to Europhoenix, 56018 has been sold to preservationist Ed Stevenson. 56101 arrived in Hungary on 19 June 2012 with 56115 and 56117 following later in the year. These have been renumbered 0659-001-5, 0659-002-3 and 0659-003-1 respectively.[citation needed]

In late 2011, DB Cargo UK sold 27 Class 56s for scrap to European Metal Recycling. These were 56006, 031, 032, 037, 038, 046, 049, 051, 058, 060, 065, 069, 073, 074, 077, 078, 081, 087, 090, 094, 096, 104, 105, 106, 112, 113, 133.[18] Despite the mass sale of scrap, 56078, 087, 094, 105 and 113 were sold on to Colas Rail while UK Rail Leasing has bought a number of Class 56s, to form a pool of hire locomotives.


Fastline 56303 passing Kingsthorpe, just north of Northampton station, 13 June 2007

In 2006, three locomotives (56045, 56124 and 56125) were overhauled at Brush Traction and renumbered as 56301, 56302 and 56303 for Fastline, the British freight company launched by Jarvis. They were used on intermodal traffic. The small fleet never achieved particularly impressive availability, and there were significant problems with bogies, turbochargers, and low power. Fastline dispensed with Class 56 operation due to the loss of intermodal traffic and operated Class 66s on their coal traffic until March 2010 when the company went bankrupt.[citation needed]

56301 was put into store, and 56302 was purchased and run by Colas Rail. 56301 was later purchased by the Class 56 Group as a replacement for their own 56040 Oystermouth after the latter had suffered a catastrophic failure. 56040 was subsequently stripped of spares and scrapped at Barrow Hill.[citation needed]

British American Railway Services (BARS) / Devon & Cornwall Railways (DCR)[edit]

Formerly preserved 56057 (renumbered 56311) and 56003 (renumbered 56312) are now operated by British American Railway Services under their Devon and Cornwall Railways subsidiary (formerly Hanson Traction), these were frequently hired to Colas Rail to work their intermodal services between Dollands Moor and Hams Hall, steel diagrams between Boston and Washwood Heath and their Dagenham to Dollands Moor "Transfesa" workings in London, supplementing Colas Rail's own class 47/7 fleet. British American Railway Services currently use 56311 and 56312, along with 56303, on their own freight flows including scrap metal flows between Cardiff and the North-East, landfill flows between Wembley and Calvert and for stock moves. During 2011, 56312 was repainted into the same grey livery as 56311, but with advertising for the National Railway Museum's forthcoming 'Railfest 2012' event displayed on the body side (this has since been removed). 56128 (which was to have become 56313) is also owned by BARS.[citation needed]

In December 2013 it was moved from Wansford (Nene Valley Railway) to their facility at Washwood Heath for evaluation for a possible mainline return but work has not been proceeded with. 56114 was stripped of usable parts and dispatched for scrapping during March 2012 and was cut up immediately after arrival at EMR Kingsbury. BARS 56091 returned to service in April 2013 but has since been sidelined due to power unit issues. 56103 was returned to service with BARS during July 2014. 56301 remains under long-term hire to BARS. In November 2017 all six remaining locomotives (56091, 103, 128, 303, 311, 312) were put up for sale.[19] Only 56303 was operational.

UK Rail Leasing[edit]

A convoy of diesel locomotives led by two Class 56s at UK Rail Leasing base at Leicester, April 2016

Leicester-based UK Rail Leasing (UKRL) operates Class 56's on a spot-hire basis. Within two months of the company's founding in September 2013, a fleet of 16 former DB Schenker Class 56 and two Class 37/9 diesel locomotives had been purchased.[20][21][22] In November 2014, UKRL's first locomotive (56081) was certified for main line use and hired to Freightliner.[22][23] By November 2015, a further two (56098 and 56104) had been certified for main line use.[24][25]

During mid-2014, UKRL were reportedly considering upgrading a Class 56 with new engines and electronics; the proposed arrangement involved two 1,900 hp engines for a combined output of 3,800 hp. However, this was emphasised to be "blue sky thinking" and not likely to happen soon.[26] Further information was published two years later. By then, three different options were being considered; these were: two main engines, a single main engine, or a single main engine plus an auxiliary engine. It is expected that a re-engined Class 56 would cost around £1.8 million, compared to £3 million for a new locomotive.[27]

In December 2017, two further locomotives (56311, 312) were acquired from BARS/DCR. However, in 2018, 16 locomotives, the majority of their fleet, were sold to GB Railfreight.[28][29][30]

Current operators[edit]

Colas Rail[edit]

56049 on display at Old Oak Common Depot open day in 2017.

In late 2008, Colas commenced operating steel trains from Immingham to Washwood Heath with Class 56s hired from Hanson Traction.[31] In 2012, Colas purchased four Class 56s.[32] By January 2014, Colas had purchased 11 of the type.[33]

As of 2020, Colas Rail Freight operates 56049, 051, 078, 087, 090, 094, 096, 105, 113 and 302 on a rotating basis on all its freight movements.[citation needed]

GB Railfreight[edit]

In June 2018, GB Railfreight acquired 16 of the Class 56 locomotives owned by UK Rail Leasing, together with various parts.[28] Some may be returned to traffic quickly whilst others may be re-engineered. The locomotives were previously owned by DB Cargo and subsequently hired to Fertis, for high speed rail construction trains in France, before returning to the UK and were later acquired by UK Rail Leasing in 2014 for spot hire. Only 56081, 098 and 104 had been made operational by UKRL, with the majority stored at Leicester depot.[34] Locomotive (56128) ex DCR/BARS was acquired from CF Booth (scrapyard) and collected from there by GBRF directly. 56009, 031, 032, 037, 069, 311 subsequently moved to EMD Longport for ee-engineering in July 2018.

In April 2019, GB Railfreight announced that it had awarded Progress Rail a contract to re-power the 16 locomotives that it bought from UK Rail Leasing. The locomotives will have their existing engines replaced by EMD 12-710 series engines, and will receive updated electronic controls. The work is planned to be undertaken at Progress Rail's Longport site and the first locomotive is expected to be completed in May 2020. The rebuilt locomotives are to be redesignated as Class 69.[35][36]


In mid 2017, Devon & Cornwall Railways was bought by the waste contracting firm Cappagh Group. Branded as DCRail, the company acquired ex-Fertis locomotives 56103 and 56091 from its former parent BARS. Both locomotives are now in traffic.[citation needed]

DCRail are also current owners of the Willesden 'F' Sidings in London, just south of Wembley. Contracts out of the yard include loaded Spoil trains to Calvert Land Fill in Buckinghamshire. With more flows expected in the coming months.[citation needed]

Floyd Zrt. (Hungary)[edit]

Floyd acquired 3 locomotives for use in Hungary. 56101 & 115 for operations in 2012 and 56117 as a spares donor in 2013.[37] 56115 suffered damage to one cab after hitting a lorry on a level crossing. Subsequently, it was repaired using a cab supplied by UKRL from 56106 in 2017 and 56117 was also brought into use.[38]

Fleet summary[edit]

Owner Number Numbers Notes
Colas Rail 10 56049, 56051, 56078, 56087, 56090, 56094, 56096, 56105, 56113, 56302
DCRail 3 56091, 56103, 56303 Offered for Sale by Devon & Cornwall Railways in 2017, acquired by successor company DCRail.
56303 was accident damaged stored at Wembley.
Floyd Zrt. (Hungary) 3 56101, 56115, 56117
GB Railfreight 18 56007, 56009, 56018, 56031, 56032, 56037, 56038, 56060, 56065, 56069, 56077, 56081, 56098, 56104, 56106, 56128, 56311, 56312 To be converted to Class 69 with EMD 710 engine.
  • 16 from UK Rail leasing of which 2 ex-BARS.
  • Only 56081 & 56098 are operational, the remainder stored or non-working.
  • 56106 is missing one cab (Believed exported to repair 115).
  • 56128 ex-DCR acquired from CF Booth (scrapyard).
Class 56 Group 1 56301 Preserved - Mainline registered. Available for spot hire.
Total 35


Although multiple members of the class have been purchased for preservation, most have re-entered mainline service. There are presently only three class 56s that are technically preserved.[39]

Number Name Livery Location Notes
56006 - BR Blue East Lancashire Railway Owned by Class 56 Group
56097 - Railfreight Triple Grey (Coal Sector) Great Central Railway (Nottingham) Operational.
56301 - Fastline (Unbranded) - Owned by Class 56 Group, on hire to BARS.

Accidents and incidents[edit]

  • On 14 June 1988, locomotive No. 56 062 was hauling a freight train that overran signals and was derailed at Copyhold Junction, West Sussex. Recovery of the locomotive was a protracted affair. On 18 August, the locomotive was returned to an upright position. Its engine and alternator unit were removed on 4 September. The body was lifted from the bogies on 2 October. All were transported to Doncaster Works where the locomotive was rebuilt.[40]
  • On June 1991, 56002 derailed whilst powering an MGR service at Caverswall, Blyth Bridge, Staffordshire. The locomotive remained on site awaiting recovery for around a month with one cab crushed by its MGR wagons. The 1977 built locomotive was withdrawn 8 May 1992 after only 15 years service and scrapped two years later at Doncaster MPD in March 1994, the second of the fleet to be withdrawn.

Model railways[edit]

In 1998 Hornby Railways launched its first version of the BR Class 56 in OO gauge.[41]



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  20. ^ "UK Rail Leasing's in-demand 56s set for overhauls". Rail. No. 739. 8 January 2014. p. 12.
  21. ^ "UK Rail Leasing breaks cover". Rail Express. No. 213. February 2014. p. 40.
  22. ^ a b "UK Rail Leasing launch Class 56 fleet back into main line service". Rail. 18 November 2014. Retrieved 22 November 2017.
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  32. ^ "Colas Rail buys four Class 56s". The Railway Magazine. No. 1332. April 2012. p. 9.
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  34. ^ UK Rail Leasing launch Class 56 fleet back into main line service
  35. ^ Progress Rail to repower GB Railfreight locomotives - Retrieved 3 April 2019.
  36. ^ Dunn, Pip (June 2019). "GBRf signs for 16 Class 69s". Railways Illustrated. No. 196. p. 10.
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  38. ^ "UKRL Supports Class 56s in Hungary".
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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]