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Whistling at Sixty : Bashers and the forties

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

The British Rail Class 40's were the vanguard of Diesel traction that ushered in the end of the Steam era. Sixty years on from the first revenue earning service, the surviving members are reunited for a gala event that will pull a crowd of dedicated Bashers, a curious sub genre of train enthusiast.

40044 On the 1425 Service to Birmingham New Street. 18 March 1984 ©Alan Davis

40044 On the 1425 Service to Birmingham New Street. 18 March 1984

©Alan Davis

200 Class 40 locomotives were built between 1958 and 1962, with D200, the class pioneer pulling a Liverpool Street to Norwich service on 18th April 1958. The class were the poster boys of the new, clean, post steam railway but they were not so welcome among the staff to begin with.

The original order was for ten prototypes which were trialled on the Great Eastern routes and the East Coast Main Line. Chairman of the British Transport Commission, Sir Brian Robertson was dismissive of the machines. He claimed the locomotives were underpowered to maintain speed on heavy trains and prohibitively expensive to run in multiple. He was to be proven correct and others returned criticism which led to a decision to uprate future orders to 2500hp, a decision that was never followed through. The Great Eastern found the class at peak performance to be no better than existing Britannia class steam locomotives and the Eastern Region actually rejected the locomotives as replacement for their Pacific class steam on the East Coast mainline, preferring to wait for the more powerful Deltic class which were under construction.

Despite this scathing rejection, the class 40 found a welcome home on the West Coast Mainline with the London Midland Region who enthusiastically accepted the locomotives. The West Coast had been underfunded for many years and had generally lower track speeds than the East Coast so whilst the class 40 was not able to maintain high speed for long periods, their impressive acceleration and power on inclines meant they were well suited to the runs out of Euston.

25 of the class were dedicated to working services to and from Liverpool and were named after famous ships of Cunard Line, Dempster Line and the Canadian Pacific Steamships, all based at Liverpool.

One member of the class had unenviable celebrity status and was said to be cursed by some railwaymen. D326 was heading the night mail in 1963 when it was stopped in the Great Train Robbery. A year later a crew member was electrocuted while washing her windows and a year later she suffered brake failure in Birmingham and crashed into the rear of a freight train injuring a guard. After this series of unfortunate events it had an uneventful career and upon withdrawal in 1984 it was offered to the National Railway Museum as an exhibit of historical significance. The offer was declined and she was scrapped rapidly to prevent souvenir hunters from pillaging the locomotive.

The class had their heyday in the early swinging sixties, pulling crack expresses up and down the West Coast and in East Anglia. Their time at the top was short lived however, as more modern classes with greater power were introduced and the Class Forties were reduced to more mundane duties. As locomotives were renumbered in the new TOPS system, and the deep greens and maroons of the fifties were replaced by the uniform corporate blue of the seventies, they could be found operating heavy freight and secondary passenger services across the north of England and in Scotland but not being installed with modern braking or train heating equipment they started to find themselves surplus to requirements. The herd was thinned and the end was in sight.

It was in this period, in the late seventies and early eighties that the remaining forties became celebrities in the railway enthusiasts world. Nicknamed "Whistlers" due to their characteristic high pitch sound made by the Napier turbo chargers, as they thrashed their way across the Pennines or along the North Wales Coast on summer relief services, an increasing crowd of Bashers could be found in their wake.

Bashers are a curious breed. Many would be surprised to discover that railway enthusiasts are a wide church indeed. Bashers would not dream of writing down numbers of trains, they chase them, attempting to get mileage behind locomotives, hanging out of windows arms aloft, enjoying the thrill of the ride, hoping the driver will open his throttle and churn out thick clouds of black clag and make his loco sing. As classes of locomotives reach the end of their working life and face the final swan song, Bashing becomes ever more urgent and they are joined by regular enthusiasts wanting to enjoy the last workings or record the events. Such affection occasionally causes such a scene that it makes national news as bemused commuters look on with bewilderment as hordes jostle on the platform to catch a glimpse of a final moment. Such scenes were witnessed with the final British Rail mainline steam train in 1968 and repeated when the Deltics took their bow at Kings Cross in 1982.

The Forties bashers were an enterprising lot, garnering "gen" (Information) on impending haulage and coordinating journeys to collect their prey. All carried out in an era before the internet and mobile phones. In later years as these boys grew into men, several would end up working on the "inside" and arrange certain locomotives for certain trips, or roster particular drivers that would happily "thrash" the loco for themselves and their friends, but back then, they were like a denim and anorak clad feral gang, roaming the windswept platforms and hunkering down in late night stopping services to the middle of nowhere to catch a bash. Some would record mileage behind various locos, other bashers had the aim to travel all the lines available, others just wanted to bathe in the diesel smoke and listen to heavy metal music as they lose themselves in their "flailing" out the window past the fields and factories.

40034 Liverpool Lime Street 13th November 1982

40034 Liverpool Lime Street 13th November 1982 departing on the Vulcan Venturer Railtour. ©Dave Peacock

This long short recollection by Phil Durrell, who went by the extraordinarily inventive nickname Darth Fare Evader, gives an idea of what a Bashing weekend in 1975 would consist of. He describes the fact that the class 40's were so outdated even by then, that almost every other locomotive on shed would be thrown into service before a forty went out to haul passenger trains.

"It was March 1975 and the middle of a very cold snap. I was living in Bolton, Lancashire and during the week would probably end up each evening covering the loco hauled turns or portions around Manchester. Generally a 40 produced perhaps once a night so there would be enough around to keep you active even if only on one of the Blackpool diagrams or a short jaunt Preston-Liverpool. On a Friday though I would make my way back home to York on the 17.05 Lime Street-Newcastle, joining the train from Manchester, with the inevitable class 46 up front.

York was probably as best a place as ever to sit out your Vigil. Hoping that perhaps a 40 would be about on an ECML overnight or even more rarely drop onto a ‘Pennine diagram (though these were the protected domains of the Gateshead Peaks or alternator duffs) because of the usual Friday night shortage of power at Gateshead. The one great hope you held out on was 1M41 (The York - Shrewsbury mail) would produce, as it was a kick-out from the shed. This particular freezing, snowy night (so far) my luck was in...."

The dedication, fortitude and sheer miles covered by unaccompanied teenagers boggles the mind, this particular Bolton lad would frequently "weekend" in Scotland, with no such luxury as a bed or a hotel room. These days, young men with such obsessive tendencies are probably spending hours in front of flickering screens, mutilating each other's digital form, one can't help but think something quintessentially British, a quirky, eccentric and utterly indecipherable addiction seems to have been lost and all we have left is the lavish descriptions of moments seared into memory. Darth Fare Evader's poignant descriptive passages haunt the long since sanitised railway network, for a generation who fell in love with diesels.

"40065 made a strange noise under power. Like a dozen tap hammers banging away, increasing in speed as the engine was opened up. The fan-howl was immense. The raw exhaust hollow, yet strident. The four points of her exhaust were jet-dark with the scars of overwork and long overdue maintenance. How this Huge, Haymarket Vacuum braked veteran monster had strayed south away from its protected Scottish haunts I don’t know but its external state was a disgrace. Weeks-perhaps months of neglect had left her filthy black. Her blue barely visible and her yellow ends encrusted in grime. Great drifts of goo gobbed in rivulets down her body sides like spent lava from a long extinct volcano. In short she looked beautiful"

The forties were all withdrawn before the eighties came to a close. Bashers in the nineties turned their attention to the similarly bulbous nosed class 37's as they thrashed up and down the North Wales Coast and hauled the West Highland sleeper service. Channel Four ran a short documentary in the year 2000 following a group of these Bashers as regular 37 haulage came to a close. The group come across as fun loving eccentrics to some and Aspergers hooligans to others as the YouTube comments section confirms, and they have swift condemnation for the "weirdoes" that spot trains.

In an attempt to evoke those long lost days and to celebrate sixty years since the Forties first ran on the rails, The East Lancs Railway in Bury is holding a 40s at 60 weekend 13-15 April 2018 with a special timetable featuring five of the eight remaining preserved class 40's in action. It will surely be attended by those same Bashers, perhaps taking their children or even grandchildren to stand up close to those evocative 1950s workhorses as they whistle into action once again, having been lovingly restored, repaired and maintained by other members of that curious breed of diehard fanatics, the railway restoration enthusiast.

For further information on the class 40's, check out:

The Class 40 Motherlist : An absurdly defiant attempt to catalogue every class forty working in their BR career. A work of extraordinary dedication and obsessive data collection that would put even a Star trek super fan to shame.

The Class 40 Appreciation Society maintained by Darth Fare Evader himself is awash with photos and discussion topics as bashers relive their memories when the world was BR blue.

There is an excellent recollection/memoire on "bashing" the forties that captures the spirit of the hobby available at the Rail Rovers website here

The Rail Rover website in fact offers a "bashing simulator" called "Hellfire" for the PC. You can relive or discover the passion of bashing during the heady days of the summer of 1981 by downloading the demo version here.

A discussion thread on the rules of Bashing can be read here

Some fabulous Youtube videos on the 40s at 60 event to check out, especially if you are unfamiliar with the distinctive whistling of the class forty locomotives!

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