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Class 59

photograph by Colin Duff

59005 was the first of the class to display the newer blue and silver livery in use from 1998. It is seen here on display at Old Oak Common on 6th August 2000.

The introduction in 1986 of the US built class 59 heralded a revolution in diesel traction for freight services in the UK.

The seed of such a significant change was due to the discontent of Foster Yeoman, a major customer of British Rail for block trains for their stone and aggregate products, with the dismal reliability of locomotives provided for their services. Negotiations in the early 1980s resulted in the provision of only class 56 haulage from May 1983, but this too proved poor with availability as low as 30 percent and at worst only 60 percent of trains running on time. Foster Yeoman were impressed with the reliability of their privately owned and dedicated fleet of wagons so ventured to suggest to British Rail that their services be operated with a similarly privately owned and dedicated fleet of locomotives. This was at the time a revolutionary concept but such was the value of the business to the BR that an agreement was reached between Foster Yeoman and BR with the support of the traditionally inflexible trade unions for Foster Yeoman to own their own locomotives to be driven by BR drivers and maintained by BR staff under contract.

Foster Yeoman therefore invited tenders for supply of locomotives to their specification which included a proven 95 percent availability. Contrary to common belief British companies and BR works were included in this process but they declined to tender as they felt they could only at best deliver this level reliability under ideal and closely controlled operating circumstances. General Motors' EMD products (FY already owned an EMD switcher) were known to be able to achieve this target and a scaled down version of their highly successful SD40-2 design was indicated. The likely purchase of US built traction increased the political stakes especially at a time when much British manufacturing industry was being closed down. However the value of the Foster Yeoman business prevailed - sweetened by a contract for a further 15 years if the proposals were successful - and the deal was finally completed on 16th November 1984. The new type was designated class 59/0.

Throughout 1984 the specification was worked on by a team drawn from Foster Yeoman, British Rail and EMD so that all parties would be satisfied. To meet British standards and fit within the restrictive loading gauge a considerable amount of re-design work and compromises were required to scale down the SD40-2 design. However it was possible to retain the well proven Super Series Creep Control (that allows superior traction at very low speeds) and this factor would allow the elimination of double heading. Foster Yeoman therefore reduced their original requirement from six to four locomotives.

Not being a standard EMD product they were constructed on their own production line with a specialised team, and the four were built in a little under six months. Despite its American construction the class does include standard British parts amongst others being the AWS, draw-gear and cab desk modules. The locomotives arrived at Southampton on 21st January 1986. They were unloaded over the following two days and then following inspection were hauled (even though they were capable of moving under their own power) to Westbury by a class 47. The locos were commissioned and tested at Merehead and were also hauled to the Railway Technical Centre in Derby for further testing and weighing. BR and EMD declared the performance to be outstanding and measured a maximum tractive effort of 114,000 lb and a constant effort of 111,000 lb. The class was introduced to service on 17th February.

Performance of the class from the very start was excellent with their availability actually being over 99 percent. With steady business for Foster Yeoman requiring regular hiring in of a BR loco a fifth locomotive of class 59 was ordered in summer 1988, again constructed as a special order and was delivered in June 1989.

Meanwhile other dissatisfied customers of BR for block trains such as ARC and National Power were observing the negotiations and developments closely. ARC purchased four (class 59/1) and National Power six (class 59/2).

In 1993 the otherwise competitors ARC and Foster Yeoman founded Mendip Rail to amalgamate the rail operations of the two companies to realise economies of scale. The assets are still owned by the parent companies and the staff seconded. Subsequently Mendip Rail has obtained Train Operating Company status and can compete to operate freight traffic on the national rail network although the core of the operation is still the transport of stone and aggregates of its parent companies to various customers. ARC has become Hanson. Foster Yeoman expanded into aggregate operations in Germany and in 1997 59003 was after suitable modifications exported to mainland Europe for these services, where it is operated by DB under a lease contract.

In April 1998 the National Power rail operation was sold to EWS so EWS acquired six 59/2 locomotives.

Ultimately EMD's diligence and flexibility in designing and constructing what is for their mass production volumes a small number of locomotives paid off because the class 59 was the genesis for the much larger quantity of class 66 locomotives (which although externally similar are different) bought by EWS, Freightliner and GB Rail, plus a small number to operators in Europe.

Foster Yeoman and Mendip Rail's class 59s work services between various destinations which have changed over time according to demand and specific contracts. They have worked regularly over Southern metals, most notably to the Foster Yeoman terminals at Eastleigh and Botley and Channel Tunnel construction work. During the latter there was a regular haul from Foster Yeoman's Isle of Grain aggregate terminal to Ashford for the manufacture of tunnel lining segments.

Click on the thumbnails for a larger image.
  • A class 59/0
    A Foster Yeoman class 59/0 in its original silver and blue livery on display at London Bridge.
    Photograph by Jonathan Hall.
  • 59001
    Class 59/0 59001 attended the Network Day at Waterloo on 1st October 1988.
    Photograph by Colin Duff.
  • 59001
    Class 59/0 59001 heads a northbound stone train through Gatwick Airport Station on Thursday, 21st September 2000.
    Photograph by Michael Taylor.
  • 59002
    Class 59/2 59002 displaying the Mendip Rail livery at Old Oak Common on 6th August 2000.
    Photograph by Colin Duff.
  • 59103
    Class 59/1 59103 is seen wearing the Hansons new livery at Old Oak Common on 6th August 2000. This locomotive was seriously damaged when it was involved in a derailment on the Whatley Quarry branch on 12th September 2000.
    Photograph by Colin Duff.
  • 59104
    ARC's class 59/1 59104 on display at London Bridge.
    Photograph by Jonathan Hall.
  • 59205
    The final member of the 59 family is the 59/2 series formerly owned by National Power but here owned by EWS. 59205 is on display at Old Oak Common on 6th August 2000.
    Photograph by Colin Duff.

This page was last updated 25 February 2005

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