The most ubiquitous locomotive still in use on Britain’s railways is a design that dates back to the late 1930s. It still does its job, moving rolling stock around rail yards and sidings, which is why it remains a favourite with both commercial and heritage railways.
British Railways Class 08 diesel shunters are based on the specification of the great steam-locomotive engineer William A Stanier (1876-1965) and were built for the London Midland & Scottish Railway from 1935 onwards.
They were intended to make use of the advantages of diesel traction – quick starting, cleanliness, flexibility and economy.
They capitalised on the twin technical breakthroughs of newly developed smaller, more powerful diesel engines connected to electric transmission that was more robust than the mechanical clutch-operated gearbox that serves smaller road vehicles.
Yet to deliver adhesion while minimising wear on the track, the engines were mounted on a steam-locomotive frame and drove the wheels through a jackshaft, connecting rods and coupling rods.
In the post-war period, when British Railways owned thousands of steam shunting locomotives, the diesel-electric shunter proved equal to the required physical tasks without the need to keep the boiler fired up in slack periods, and they didn’t send the crew home filthy at the end of a shift.
None of the pre-war English-Electric built LMS shunters survived past the 1960s, but several of the post-war version, built from 1945 onwards, became British Railways Class 11 and are still maintained by heritage railways. Other versions of this design, developed for the War Department during the Second World War, were exported to the Netherlands, Australia and Liberia.
They were followed by Class 08, of which nearly a thousand were built between 1952 and 1962.
Their reliability and efficiency stood out from the heterogeneous ragbag of inadequate shunters ordered, many of them off-plan, in response to the 1955 British Railways Modernisation Plan.
There were variants – a low-height version (Class 08/9) for the Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley Railway in South Wales, and a faster but less powerful variant with a maximum speed of 27½mph instead of 15mph (Class 09), another batch with different engines (Class 10) and a Southern Railway derivative (Class 12). A small number were paired as master-and-slave units with one of the cabs removed (Class 13) to work over the humps at Tinsley Marshalling Yard between Sheffield and Rotherham.
All these together amounted to nearly twelve hundred locomotives, and though many were scrapped or cannibalised for spares in the 1970s and 1980s, their adaptability meant that industrial users such as the National Coal Board snapped them up, and heritage lines found them extremely useful as well as historically interesting.
Many main-line freight and passenger operators still run Class 08 locomotives to marshal rolling stock, and over seventy are preserved.
Like the long-lived High Speed Train, the longevity of Class 08 proves that British railways had the expertise to design world-beating locomotives after the age of steam.