BR Class 56 “Grids”

The BR Class 56 is a 3,250 bhp diesel-electric locomotive, built by Brush/Electroputere and British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL). The class was specially designed for heavy haul, specifically for merry-go-round coal trains in the East Midlands.

During the oil crisis of the early seventies, the demand for coal began to increase at astronomical rates, and the railways were hit with increased coal traffic. The current first generation motive power on the BR system was not economical for this operation, as horsepower and tractive effort were insufficient. Thus, BR decided on a type five heavy freight locomotive, primarily to work its merry-go-round coal trains, primarily in the East Midlands.

Syd Young

British Rail began to tender potential manufacturers for this project, and ultimately, Brush Traction of Loughborough was chosen. Because of strict time constraints, Brush utilized the body shell of the Class 47 locomotive, and fitted the unit with a Ruston-Paxman prime mover, of which, was the final development of the storied English Electric CSVT prime mover.

Because of capacity constraints at Brush, the initial thirty Class 56 locomotives, 56001-56030 were built at a Brush subsidiary, Electroputere of Craiova, Romania. However, when the locomotives began to arrive upon British shores, engineers soon realized that the builds were of poor build quality, and that damage had been experienced during transit. Upon delivery, the Romanian built locomotives entered service, however, not to an acceptable standard, as various flaws were evident. The locomotives were shipped to British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL), for various modifications.

After the final locomotive in the initial thirty units was delivered to the UK, further construction of the class was carried out by British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) at Doncaster and Crewe Works. Eighty-five units were to be constructed at Doncaster (56031-56115), and twenty (56116-56125), were to be constructed at Crewe. Because of the lack of engineering professionals assigned to Doncaster, various components of the locomotives were built at Swindon, Ashford, and Eastleigh. After the Romanian built locomotives were out shopped by BREL, reliability improved immensely, and performed as intended. However, due to various reliability issues, the Romanian built members of the class were withdrawn early.

Syd Young

Although the class experienced several issues at the beginning of their service life, the locomotives ushered in a new generation of British Rail locomotives, as the class is considered the first of the second generation British Rail diesels. Additionally, the class is the first to be built as a dedicated freight locomotive, as prior BR locomotives were prepared for mixed traffic duties.

One of the major pitfalls experienced by the class were its high and frequent maintenance costs, which in turn, led to lower availability. The high maintenance costs were related to design of the body, as tight quarters inside the locomotive made it difficult to work on components without removing them from the car body. This design flaw plagued the class throughout its service life, and proved to be a prominent mechanical headache for maintenance depots.

Although the class was designed as a stop gap locomotive, it encompassed significant advances in locomotive technology at the time. The 56 was the first BR locomotive to feature a uprated turbocharger, gear driven camshafts, and uprated cylinder heads. Perhaps the most important advancement was the addition of an alternator in lieu of a direct current (DC) generator, which supplies power to the locomotive’s traction motors and auxillary generators that power lights, and various other entities. The addition of the alternating current increased the overall power and performance of the locomotive, which proved crucial for the work in which they were initially designed for. Because of their grid like horn covers, the class earned the nickname, “gridirons”, or “grids” by rail enthusiasts.

For the majority of their operating life on British Rail, the class was allocated to the East Midlands, with some members of the  class allocated to Cardiff for use on steel and iron ore trains. Upon privatization, the class was dispersed among English, Welsh, and Scottish (EWS), where many were refurbished and performed well, in some instances better than the Class 58. Beginning in the late nineties and early 2000s, the class began to be replaced with the arrival of the Class 66 locomotive, which commanded much of the traffic on EWS.

Syd Young

After retirement from EWS, various members of the class were exported to France for work on various TGV lines in 2004, as a contract was drawn up with Fertis, however, all were returned upon the contract expiring. In 2006, Fastline, owned by Jarvis, operated an intermodal run between Doncaster and the Isle of Grain, 56045, 56124, and 56125 were employed on this run. However, in 2009, due to various financial difficulties during the recession, Fastline Freight ceased operation, and the three 56s were again stored.  Additionally, three members of the class were sold abroad to Hungary to Floyd, a Hungarian freight operator. Units 56101, 56115, and 56117 were exported to Hungary in 2012.

Further use of the class was exerted when Devon Cornwall Railway (DCR) purchased 56091, 56103, 56128, 56303, 56311, and 56312 for their freight services. Colas Rail also employed 56s, as they currently operate 56078, 56087, 56094, 56105, 56113, and 56302, which are found hauling various steel trains.


The Class 56 is powered by a Ruston Paxman 16RK3CT prime mover, producing 3,250 brake horsepower, and 61,800 lbf of tractive effort. Originally, the prime mover was rated for 3,520 horsepower, however, it was downrated for rail use. Stopping power on the Class 56 was provided by a Davies & Metcalfe E70 air brake system, providing 59 long tons of brakeforce, which was imperative for the long coal trains the units would be hauling. What made the Class 56 truly unique is the incorporation of an alternator instead of a DC generator, which allowed for greater tractive effort and efficiency.

Build Date1976-1984
Total Built135
Wheel ConfigurationCo’Co’
Length63 ft 6 in
Width9 ft 2 in
Height12 ft 9 in
Weight123 long tons
Fuel Capacity1,150 imp gals
Prime MoverRuston-Paxman 16RK3CT
Horsepower3,250 bhp
Max Speed80 mph
Train BrakesDavies & Metcalfe E70 air brakes
Tractive EffortMax: 61,800 lbf

Continuous: 53,950 lbf

Brakeforce59 long tons
Route Availability7


Throughout their privatisation years, the class has transferred between various different owners, most notably, many have found work abroad in continental Europe. Today, much of the fleet in the UK is managed by UK Rail Leasing (UKRL), as well as Colas Rail and GBRf.

British Rail56001-56135
Colas Rail56078, 56087, 56094, 56105, 56113, and 56302
English, Welsh, & Scottish56001-56135
Fastline56045(56301) 56124(56302) 56125
UK Rail Leasing56081, 56098, 56104, 56311, 56312
Devon, Cornwall Railway (DCR)56103, 56091
GBRf56007, 56009, 56018, 56031, 56032, 56037, 56038,56060, 56065, 56069, 56077, 56081, 56098, 56104, 56106, 56128, 56067, 56003.
Floyd( Budapest, Hungary)56101, 56115, 56117.
Syd Young



Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

Recent Posts