Historical notesWhen Virgin Trains arranged to have some Class 47 locos rebuilt with General Motors engines as Class 57/3, it was envisaged that they would be used principally for rescuing failed trains, and for hauling Class 390 'Pendolino' electric trains over non-electrified sections during diversions for engineering work. Class 221 Voyager diesels were to have covered all the Holyhead - London workings; four of these had been built as four-car sets rather than five-car for this purpose and allocated to the Virgin West Coast franchise, all other 221s being Virgin CrossCountry stock.
It had become a railway tradition to refer to locos stationed around the network for rescue purposes 'Thunderbirds' after the famous TV show, and Virgin took this one step further by arranging for the 57/3s to be named for characters in the series. Cleverly, the first five have the final digit of their numbers the same as the relevant character's transport in the stories. 57 301 is Scott Tracy, who piloted Thunderbird 1, etc. 57 307 Lady Penelope has pink-backed nameplates to match the colour of the lady's Rolls-Royce. Our picture shows 57 311 Tin Tin fresh out of the Brush works at Loughborough.
In Summer 2003, during the process of creation of the 57/3s, a change of plan occurred; legend has it that this was brought about by the desire of North Wales MPs for a full breakfast service when travelling to London, something that the small Class 221 galley could not offer. Two weekday return workings to London would therefore be Pendolinos, hauled by Class 57/3s between Holyhead and Crewe. The original order for locos was increased from 12 to 16, and the fitting of a 'Dellner' automatic coupler to the locos was hastily designed, so that the coupling and uncoupling at Crewe could be done more quickly than by using the 390's emergency screw-coupling as had originally been envisaged for 'dragging' and diversion work.
After 12 locos, there were no Thunderbirds characters left to use for names, so places and things from the show were resorted to for the final four.
By January 2004 we were reporting that the couplers were in process of fitting, and work was under way to modify the exhaust system of the locos to prevent diesel fumes entering the 390's air-conditioning. At one time it was thought that the 57/3 might have to push the train, but eventually this was resolved. Then the whole plan nearly foundered as it was discovered that a Pendolino, with its pantograph in the lowered position, was too high for the 'structure gauge' in North Wales, and Network Rail had to do some work to allow them to run. But after all these problems were overcome, Pendolino service did begin in Spring 2005. The weekday turns were, at various times, supplemented by summer weekend operations to release Class 221s to relieve overcrowding elsewhere in Britain. The two weekday trains, and some weekend workings, continued as Pendolinos until the December 2008 timetable change, after which only a single Saturday-only Pendolino return working remained. This was suspended for a while, but from May 2009 began running again, to maintain staff familairity with the procedure.
By 2008 Virgin Trains had found that they had too many locos for their requirements, even though they were already hiring them out for use on timber trains to Chirk. Arriva Trains Wales were being asked by the Welsh Assembly Government to provide a loco-hauled express from North Wales to Cardiff, and Virgin Trains successfully bid to supply the locos, to be driven by ATW drivers, who were given a referesher course, as ATW had used the 'Thunderbirds' for a while a couple of years before.
The last four locos, 313 - 316 were chosen, perhaps because their 'vehicle' names (Tracy Island, Firefly, The Mole, FAB 1) not match the 'character' names of the other twelve. 57 314 and 57 315 were de-named and re-liveried in a new version of Arriva Trains Wales colours for use on the Monday - Friday express from Holyhead to Cardiff and return, which commenced on 15 December 2008. 57 313 and 57 316 appeared shortly afterwards, de-named, in a so-called 'neutral' livery - the same blue but minus the lighter parts, and the logos - and are supposedly used 'when the branded locos are unavailable' (although in practice they appeared just as often as the branded ones). The Arriva service was taken over by DB Schenker Class 67s from the evening working of 26 March 2012.
In 2010 57s were replaced by Colas Rail Class 66s on timber traffic to Chirk; from December 2009 on they could be seen on First Great Western loco-hauled trains in south-west England, but were soon removed from this duty due to unreliability.
In August 2011, six of the locos were given up by Virgin for further use by Network Rail, and were repainted in NR's all-yellow livery. Changes were made to their couplers to allow them to haul various types of electric railcars used in the south-east. The nameplates were removed for sale in a charity auction. In March 2012 three more locos were de-branded, this time for transfer to DRS, and received DRS blue livery. In 2014, Network Rail decided to give up its locos, and all six have passed to DRS and gained its livery.
As for the four Arriva blue ones 313 - 316, at the start of 2013 they were sold to charter train operator West Coast Railway Company and when repainted have appeared in maroon livery; they make occasional forays to North Wales on excursions.
Farewell to North Wales
At the December 2012 timetable change, marking the end of Virgin's franchse term (although an abnormal extension was awarded to the company following much-publicised fisaco relating to the award of the next franchise) the story of Class 57s and Pendolinos come to an end as far as the normal working of the North Wales line is concerned.
It was planned to replace the solitary Saturday train with a pair of Class 221 Voyagers after the workings of 8 December, but in view of a series of problems in previous weeks, culminating in a failure to establish a control connection between loco and train on 1 December resulting in passengers being transferred to a Voyager at Crewe, it was decided to begin Voyager service a week early on 8 December, to the dismay of railfans who had hoped for a last ride.
The three 57/3 locos which remained allocated to Virgin and in their livery (307, 308, 311) transferred to the DRS fleet, and ceased to be the maintenance responsibilty of Alstom's Manchester Longsight depot. All are expected to receive DRS livery. By 7 December it was reported that 57 307 had already been sent to Eastleigh Works. Interestingly when it emerged in DRS blue livery the pink 'Lady Penelope' nameplates were retained - a nice gesture by DRS. In spring 2013 57 311 was re-named simply as 'Thunderbird' with a standard style nameplate.
In future provide the Class 57/3 locomotives for 'rescue' duty are hired by Virgin from DRS, although staffed by Virgin drivers, and will normally be located at Euston, Rugby, Crewe, Preston and Carlisle stations.
DRS locos are also likely to appear from time to time on passenger charter trains in North Wales and elsewhere.
of Class 57/3 locomotives
(original Class 47
numbers in brackets)