The end of the Deltics
As my railway photographic trips progressed I found myself being increasingly drawn to one particular subject; the Deltic diesel-electric locomotives. These locomotives hauled the important express trains on the east coast main line which linked London Kings Cross with Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
The Deltic locomotives (officially “Class 55”) had been introduced in 1961 and even in 1980 they were still the most powerful diesel locomotives in the UK. Their 100 mph capability had enabled British Rail to cut the journey time of the flagship London to Edinburgh “Flying Scotsman” train from 6 hours and 30 minutes to 5 hours and 27 minutes.
The locomotives had a strong enthusiast following for several obvious reasons: they looked great; they sounded great; there were only 22 of them and they all had names.
The names were mostly taken from the army regiments of Scotland and North East England: The Black Watch, Royal Highland Fusilier, The Durham Light Infantry and the like.
However, eight of them had been named after racehorses. This was done following a tradition stretching back to steam days and stemmed from the fact that Doncaster, where many locomotives had been constructed, was also a racing town.
The racehorse names given to the Deltics were from the Derby and St Ledger winners of the 1950’s. They were wonderfully evocative and sounded just great: St Paddy; Meld; Pinza; Alycidon; Crepello; Tulyar; Ballymoss and Nimbus.
In 1978 “Inter City 125” trains were introduced onto the east coast main line. They cut the London to Edinburgh time down to 4 hours 35 minutes and took over the majority of the fast express duties. The Deltics were relegated to a secondary role and began to haul semi-fast trains in a kind of support act to the new high speed trains. They still performed well but they were too expensive to run. In 1980 British Rail announced they would withdraw all of them by the end of 1981.
This new status of “endangered species” endeared the Deltics to the enthusiasts even more. A preservation group (Deltic Preservation Society) was set up to make sure that at least one example was preserved for posterity. The group published a monthly magazine “Deltic Deadline” and ran a myriad of events in order to raise enough money to purchase a Deltic from British Rail.
For me photographing Deltics now became an obsession. I don’t know why exactly, but I wanted to get as many photographs as possible in as many different places as possible before the dreaded date of December 31st 1981.
I wasn’t naive enough to believe that my photographs would be any good and I wasn’t ignorant of the fact that a lot of other people were doing exactly the same thing, often with better cameras and more skill than me.
I had a part time job and I began to focus almost all my money and spare time on the new mission. A friend came with me for some of the trips, we cycled together once from York to London, camping and photographing from several bridges along the route, but for most of the time I was alone. These missions to photograph the Deltics were the first time I had really travelled on my own and they gave me confidence for more independent travel later on.
As time went on the trips became longer and longer and more and more desperate. I thought nothing of getting an overnight train from Preston to Edinburgh, spending the day cycling around photographing and then catching another overnight train back.
A whole half term week in 1981 was spent alone riding back and forwards on a rover ticket between Berwick and York with no place to sleep except on the station and on the overnight trains.
The Deltic withdrawals had happened gradually at first but then they accelerated. By November 1981 there were less than 10 machines left in service.
Anxious to capitalise on the interest and enthusiasm, British Rail painted one Deltic in its original green livery and organised special rail tours. I participated in a few.
On 2nd January 1982 the very last Deltic-hauled train left Kings Cross for Edinburgh. Thousands of enthusiasts lined the route and I travelled over to York to photograph it. Its arrival back at Kings Cross later that evening made the ITN television News. The withdrawal of the Deltics was easily the biggest thing on the railways since the end of steam.
That photograph that I took at York was the last of more than five hundred images I shot of the last years of the Deltics. My obsession had lasted almost two years. In those two years I found that my interest in photographing any other railway subjects had waned completely.
Now, with the Deltics gone, I found my railway enthusiasm reduced too. I still bought railway magazines and kept up with the general scene, but the desire to go out and photograph anything else had disappeared.
In the end they saved 6 Deltics: the Deltic Preservation Society had enough funds to buy three; one went to the National Railway Museum and two more were bought by private collectors.
A few years later I took my university girlfriend to see a Deltic on the preserved North Yorkshire Moors Railway.
She wasn’t really impressed with it. To be absolutely honest, I wasn’t that excited about it myself.