British Rail Class 56

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British Rail Class 56
56006 at Doncaster Works.JPG
Electroputere-built 56 006 at Doncaster in 2003 painted in rail blue livery
Type and origin
Power type Diesel-electric
Builder Electroputere (56 001–56 030)
BREL (56 031–56 135)
Build date 1976–1984
Total produced 135
Configuration Co-Co
UIC class Co'Co'
Gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length 63 ft 6 in (19.35 m)
Width 9 ft 2 in (2.79 m)
Height 12 ft 9 in (3.89 m)
Loco weight 123 long tons (125 t)
Fuel capacity 1,150 imp gal (5,200 l; 1,380 US gal)
Prime mover Ruston-Paxman 16RK3CT
MU working Red Diamond
Train heating None
Train brakes Air
Performance figures
Maximum speed 80 mph (129 km/h)
Power output Engine: 3,250 bhp (2,424 kW)
at rail: 2,400 bhp (1,790 kW)
Tractive effort Maximum: 61,800 lbf (275 kN)
Continuous: 53,950 lbf (240 kN) at 16.8 mph (27 km/h) [1]
Loco brakeforce 59 long tons-force (588 kN)
Operators British Rail
Colas Rail
English Welsh & Scottish
Floyd Zrt.
UK Rail Leasing
Numbers 56 001–56 135
Axle load class Route availability 7

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. The fleet was introduced between 1976 and 1984.

The first thirty locomotives (Nos.56 001-56 030) were built by Electroputere in Romania, but these suffered from poor construction standards and many were withdrawn from service early for extensive rebuilding before re-entering revenue service.[2] The remaining 105 locomotives were built by BREL at Doncaster Works (nos. 56 031 to 56 115) and Crewe Works (Nos. 56 116 to 56 135). Enthusiasts nicknamed them "Gridirons" (or "Grids" for short), due to the grid-like horn cover on the locomotive's cab ends fitted to nos. 56 056 onwards.

Technical details[edit]

When specifying the Class 56, British Rail chose its bodyshell design to be based on the Brush-built Class 47 design, minus some features like the obsolete headcode panel.


When introduced, the Class 56s were arguably the first of the "second generation" of UK diesel locomotives.

The engine is a direct descendant of English Electric CSVT types, its closest relative being the 16CSVT used in the Class 50. Technical advances included 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.

Electrical equipment[edit]

A key difference between the Class 56s and the earlier designs of the 1950s and 1960s is the use of self-exciting alternators rather than direct current (DC) generators for the generation of traction current and auxiliary supply. This produces a far more robust power unit, and greatly reduces the risk of flash-overs and other earth faults. Traction supply was rectified since the type employs DC traction motors. Many auxiliary machines (such as compressors and traction motor blowers) used the unrectified 3-phase AC output of the auxiliary alternator, and therefore run at a speed proportional to engine r.p.m.


The Class 56s were the first British Rail diesel type to be built with air train brakes only, using the Davies and Metcalfe E70 system. Earlier designs had variously been fitted with vacuum train brakes, or a dual braking system.


A total of 135 locomotives were built, which were numbered as follows:

  • 56 001 to 56 030, built by Electroputere, Romania
  • 56 031 to 56 115, built by BREL, Doncaster
  • 56 116 to 56 135, built by BREL, Crewe

Some locomotives have been renumbered in the 56 3xx series. The reason for this is not clear because there appear to be no technical differences.

Construction of the class was moved from BREL Doncaster to BREL Crewe to allow for the commencement of the Class 58 construction at the former works.

The Class 56 Group has published a list of locomotives still in existence at 10 May 2013. This also includes locomotives stored, in mainline use and preserved.[3]


In service the Class 56s proved to be a strong and capable locomotive, and less prone to wheelslip than the Class 58s. However, maintenance needs were high by modern standards, and notwithstanding significant investment by Trans-Rail and Load-Haul in their Class 56 fleets in the 1990s, the class could not compete with the more modern Class 66 in terms of availability or maintenance costs. As Class 66 imports gathered pace the writing was on the wall for English Welsh & Scottish operated Class 56s, which looked increasingly like locomotives from another era.

One class member, BREL-built no. 56 042, was chosen to test the CP3 bogies that were fitted to the Class 58s.


Oystermouth 56 040 at Barrow Hill.
56 115 on a railtour
Fastline 56 303 passing Kingsthorpe, just north of Northampton station, 13 June 2007

On 4 August 1976, 56 001 and 56 002 were loaded for shipping from Zeebrugge to Harwich.[4] They were towed from Harwich to Tinsley on 7 August.[4] Initial trials were conducted on the Settle-Carlisle Line.[5] 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.

Most examples were withdrawn by English Welsh & Scottish on 31 March 2004. Some were subsequently reinstated for use on construction trains connected with the LGV Est in France, although all such locomotives have now returned to the UK.

In 2006, two locomotives (56 045 and 56 124) were overhauled at Brush Traction and renumbered as 56 301 and 56 302 for Fastline, the British freight company launched by Jarvis. 56 125 was returned to service after a less thorough overhaul by FMRail and numbered 56 303. 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 bust. 56 301 was put into store, and 56 302 was purchased and run by Colas Rail. 56 303 was returned to RVEL (successor to FMRail) and sat out of use at Derby but in September 2009 it was repainted into Great Western Railway green livery, to mark the 175th anniversary of The Great Western Railway in 2010. The loco was expected to move to the Severn Valley Railway in October 2009 to participate in their 2009 diesel gala, before being used as part of the GWR 175 celebrations next year, but its involvement was subsequently shelved. The loco is however in use with the freight spot hire market, having twice been hired from RVEL to Colas Rail in late 2009 to work the Boston to Washwood Heath steel train and return empties. Since 2011 56 303 has been part of the BARS fleet, based at Washwood Heath. 56 301 was later purchased by the Class 56 Group as a replacement for their restored 56 040 'Oystermouth', which had just suffered a serious failure. 56 040 was subsequently scrapped at Barrow Hill.

Formerly preserved 56 057 (renumbered 56 311) and 56 003 (renumbered 56 312) are now operated by British American Railway Services (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 56 311 and 56 312, along with 56 303, 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, 56 312 was repainted into the same grey livery as 56 311, but with advertising for the National Railway Museum's forthcoming 'Railfest 2012' event displayed on the body side (this has since been removed). 56 128 (which was to have become 56 313) is also owned by BARS. 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. 56 114 was stripped of usable parts and dispatched for scrapping during March 2012 and was cut up immediately after arrival at EMR Kingsbury. BARS 56 091 returned to service in April 2013 but has since been sidelined due to power unit issues. 56 103 was returned to service with BARS during July 2014. 56 301 remains under long-term hire to BARS.

UK Rail Leasing have returned 56 081, 098 and 104 to operational condition as of July 2014 at their Leicester depot. All three are in unbranded original Railfreight livery.

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.[6]


In September 2011, freight operator DB Schenker (formerly EWS) announced that all 33 stored class 56s in its fleet were up for sale[7] with most expected to be sold for scrap.

For re-use[edit]

UK-based locomotive provider Europhoenix[8] tendered for three of the DB Schenker locomotives (56 018, 56 115, 56 117) for export to Hungarian freight operator Floyd.[9] They finally bought 56 101 (from preservation), 56 115 and 56 117. With 56 101 moving to Europhoenix, 56 018 has been sold to preservationist Ed Stevenson. 56 101 arrived in Hungary on 19 June 2012 with 56 115 and 56 117 following later in the year. These have been renumbered 0659-001-5, 0659-002-3 and 0659-003-1 respectively.

For scrap[edit]

In late 2011, DB Schenker sold 27 Class 56s for scrap to European Metal Recycling. These were 56 006, 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.[10] Despite the mass sale of scrap, 56 078, 56 087, 56 094, 56 105 and 56 113 were sold on to Colas Rail while UK Rail Leasing has bought a number of Class 56s, to form a pool of hire locomotives.

Class 56s today[edit]

Currently (2015), Colas Rail Freight operate their fleet of 56 078, 087, 094, 105, 113 and 302 on a rotating basis on all their freight movements (most often seen on their 6E07 Washwood Heath to Boston Docks steel train, and 6M08 return). These locomotives are serviced at Washwood Heath. Leicester-based UK Rail Leasing also currently operate Class 56's on a spot-hire basis.


Ownership list 2014 [11]

Owner Numbers Notes
British American Railway Services 56 091/103/128/303(125)/311(057)/312(003)
Colas Rail 56 049/051/074/078/087/090/094/096/105/113/
UK Rail Leasing 56 007/018/031/032/037/038/060/065/069/
Class 56 Locomotives 56 301(045)

Numbers in brackets are former numbers of renumbered locomotives.


Railways Illustrated for June 2014 reports that UK Rail Leasing is considering upgrading a Class 56 with new engines and electronics. There would be two 1,900 hp engines, making a total of 3,800 hp. The magazine emphasises that this is "blue sky thinking" and is not likely to happen soon.[12]

Further information was published in Today's Railways for March 2016. Three different options are now being considered. These are: 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.[13]


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.[14]

Number Name Livery Location Notes
56 006 - BR Blue UKRL, Leicester Owned by Class 56 Group
56 097 - Railfreight Triple Grey (Coal Sector) Great Central Railway (Nottingham) Operational.
56301 - Fastline (Unbranded) - Owned by Class 56 Group, on hire to BARS.


  1. ^ Platform 5 pocket book no.1. 2001. p. 51. ISBN 1-902336-15-1. 
  2. ^ "The Locos that Came in From the Cold". The Railway Magazine. December 2000 – January 2001. 
  3. ^ "Class 56 Fleet List (updated 10/05/13)". 2013-05-10. Retrieved 2014-04-28. 
  4. ^ a b Toms 1978, p. 100
  5. ^ Toms 1978, p. 101
  6. ^ Earnshaw, Alan (1991). Trains in Trouble: Vol. 7. Penryn: Atlantic Books. p. 46. ISBN 0-906899-50-8. 
  7. ^ "Items for disposal". 
  8. ^ "Europhoenix: low cost 25kV AC electric locomotives for Europe". Retrieved 2014-04-28. 
  9. ^ "Floyd'S World". 2004-06-16. Retrieved 2014-04-28. 
  10. ^ Railways Illustrated: 9. February 2012. ISSN 1479-2230.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ British Railways Locomotives & Coaching Stock 2014. Sheffield: Platform 5 Publishing. pp. 34–35. ISBN 9781909431096. 
  12. ^ Railways Illustrated (136): 15. June 2014. ISSN 1479-2230.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  13. ^ Pritchard, Robert (March 2016). "UK Rail Leasing looks to a re-engineered future". Today's Railways. No. 171. Sheffield, England: Platform 5 Publishing. pp. 50–51. ISSN 1475-9713. 
  14. ^ "Class 56 Fleet List (updated 10/05/13)". The Class 56 Group. 2013-05-10. Retrieved 2014-04-28. 


  • Lowe, P. J.; Russell, D. F. (1980). "The class 56 freight locomotives of British Rail". Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 194 (1980): 65. doi:10.1243/PIME_PROC_1980_194_070_02. 
  • Russell, D.F. "Operational experience with Class 56 freight locomotives". Railway Engineer International. 3–5: 16. ISSN 0141-6049. 
  • Toms, George (1978). Brush Diesel Locomotives, 1940-78. Sheffield: Turntable Publications. ISBN 0902844482. OCLC 11213057. 
  • "The Class 56 story". The Railway Magazine. 146 (1188): 36–43. April 2000. 

Further reading[edit]

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