Rail Blue - The Story.

With the onset of the dieselisation programme in the late 1950's the first experiments to look for alternatives to replace the drab green livery took place albeit what looked like, very little enthusiasm. In November 1961 Class 52 diesel-hydraulic No. D1000 'Western Enterprise' rolled off the Swindon production line in a new, very pleasing, 'Desert Sand' livery, followed closely some 13 months later by D1015 'Western Champion' in an equally exciting Golden Ochre. Little is documented however, about the Class 31 production line at the Brush Falcon Works which produced, from new in January 1960, D5579, again in Golden Ochre, and D5578 in a shade of blue that bore a striking resemblance to the rail blue livery that was to appear five years later. These two early repaints were produced as an experiment to highlight the visibility of the locomotives to trackside staff and the two locomotives were repainted into standard Brunswick Green before the onset of the 'new' house colours. Mention must also be made of the prototype locomotives D0260 'Lion', and Brush/Sulzers one off, HS4000 'Kestrel', although not  production machines 'Lion' appeared in April 1962 in white livery (which included all underslung equipment and bogies!) with gold linings along the lengths of its  bodyside, whilst HS4000 was turned out with its lower bodysides in 'Chocolate Brown'; the remainder in yellow. Another private venture, Brush's D0280 'Falcon' closely resembled the green traction fleet of the time, being outshopped in lime green and chestnut brown. More on 'Falcon' can be found here.

The early years. 1962 and before rail blue was ever thought of, a trio of photos depicting the old order of the day. Top: D1007 Western Talisman in original Western Region maroon livery without the distinctive yellow warning panels is seen with a Paddington - Birkenhead service at Chester General. Above left: All over green livery for Class 40 No. D232 Empress Of Canada as it heads the Royal Scot service at Carlisle and above right: Class 45 No. D12, again at Carlisle in green livery but this time with the addition of the mandatory small yellow warning panels. These additions to the locomotive fronts were steadily introduced from the latter half of 1961 in order to improve visibility of approaching trains to lineside staff and remain as such today.
(All photos courtesy Ray Owen )


Class 31 No D5579 in 'Golden Ochre' livery soon after introduction. The locomotive also supports red bufferbeams but retains the white bodyside bands applied to the other green members of the class. (Photo by kind courtesy Grahame Wareham.)

D5578 in what can only be described as, what later became 'Chromatic Blue' livery. As well as red bufferbeams, the locomotive has a black roof. Note also that the blue star coupling codes on the bufferbeams matched the main body colour and so had to be given a white circular background. (Photo by kind courtesy Grahame Wareham.)

The true history of the Rail Blue livery lies way back in the early 1960’s and starts from a decision, believe it or not, from the infamous Dr. Beeching. Along with his well documented axing of most of the British Rail network, Mr. Beeching realised that other forms of transport, faced with stiff competition with each other and the explosion in ownership of the humble motor car, were upgrading their identities and services in an effort to keep profitable. Thus it was decided to give British Rail a corporate image. The changes were to affect all parts of the railway system, not only the locomotives, but even changes down to the last detail such as staff uniforms and official letterheads. On the traction front, a new prototype train was to be produced, with improvements in internal equipment and décor, paving the way for future designs. In May 1964 the eight new cars, made up of three first class corridor coaches M13407 - 9, two second class corridor coaches M25508/9, and three open plan coaches M4727 - 9 rolled off the Derby production line and were to be known as the XP64 stock. Finished in a turquoise blue and pale grey livery with dark brown bogies and drawgear the formation was initially provided with a Class 47 locomotive, D1733. The locomotives new colour scheme was matched to the carriage stock and was set to change the look of the whole of the traction fleet for many years to come. The whole body carried the coaching stocks turquoise blue with the addition of a red square panel on the drivers’ cabs to which was applied the ‘new’ British Rail symbol of two fused arrows. Small yellow warning panels were applied to the ends of the machine, and the numbers, two sets either side, placed directly behind the cabs, were in a new style font somewhat smaller in size than had previously been used. The bogies and underframes again matched the coaching stocks brown. After successful trails, the new BR symbols still had to be officially approved, and so they were removed along with the red panels to which they were attached. The new colour scheme was soon to be expanded to all forms of traction and rolling stock, with one small change; the shade of blue was amended to a darker form, in reality called ‘monastral blue’ or, as its still called today....’rail blue’.

Several designs were put forward to the BRB for the new corporate identity logo before the familiar 'double arrow' was decided upon. Four submissions are shown above.

History reveals that the change to the new colour scheme was not quickly and easily arrived at. Several designs for the new BR symbol were put forward to the board before the familiar 'double arrow' was finally decided upon, and the original idea was for the arrow to be mounted on a plate similar in style to the 'Western' nameplates; the plates would have been 20 3/8" wide by 18" deep, with the double arrow and beading cast in alluminium. The symbol and beading were to be polished and the plate given a flame red background. As with today however, cost reared its ugly head, and at a later meeting the board firstly decided that only Type 4 and Type 5 locomotives should receive the plates; the rest of the fleet would have transfers applied. And at yet a further meeting the plate idea was rejected altogether, the whole of the motive power fleet were to be given vinyl transfer double arrows. To suit different locomotive designs, the transfers were to be made available in three different sizes, 1' 6", 2' 0" and 2' 6". It was also stated that there should be four emblems placed directly under the cabside windows, and all numbers would be moved to the bodyside directly behind the cab doors. This clearly upset the Western Region management, as their Hymek locomotives had cast alluminium numbers bolted from the inside of the machines in the space now required for the new symbol; their Western locomotives carried cast numberplates in the same position and attached in a similar fashion. After discussions with the board, the WR was allowed to keep the locomotives as they were, the Class 35's emblem moving to the centre of the machines and the Class 52's to the cabside opposite the numberplate. 

Rail Blue pioneer. Class 47 locomotive No. D1733 in its XP64 livery of blue with brown underframes. The new BR symbols were
located on flame red backgrounds in the form of vinyl stickers located underneath each of the cabside windows and were
removed after initial press demonstrations.
(Photographer unknown)

After a directive from the BRB to paint all motive power BR blue on the 9th June 1966 the transformation of the entire BR fleet began. Class 20 locomotive No. D8048 was selected by the BR design panel for livery experiments and emerged in the standard all over blue (including the bufferbeams), full yellow front ends and black undergear. The old style 'slim' typeface numbers were retained. One of the first to be treated to the new look was Class 08 No. D4100 which was outshopped from Eastleigh, although the locomotive retained XP64's brown underframes and wheels along with polished silver coupling rods. Changes were soon made to the standard black with yellow rods. Details of livery change dates are hard to come by, but a study of the 1967 Ian Allan 'combine' reveals that from a total of 62 photos of diesel locomotives only 14 feature the new colours. By 1971 this figure had risen to 37 out of 54. Random sightings during 1967 produced the following locomotives in BR blue:-

Class 20 D8181, D8183, D8184, D8197, D8198, D8199, D8305, D8306, D8307
Class 22 D6327, D6342
Class 25 D5218, D5233, D5226, D7660**, D7671**
Class 27 D5389*, D5391
Class 33 D6520, D6521, D6535
Class 43 D864
Class 44/45/46 D4, D58, D59, D61, D64, D71, D83, D86, D91, D105, D109, D113, D114, D116, D135, D142, D152, D158, D161, D162, D167, D169, D173, D174, D181, D186
Class 47 D1733, D1933, D1953 - 59**
Class 52 D1030, D1037*, D1047, D1052, D1057
Class 55 D9002

*reported to be in an earlier version of blue, possibly XP64 or 'Chromatic'
**locomotives built from new in rail blue

From the outset, locomotives retained the small yellow front warning panels until the BRB's accident prevention service decreed that the yellow was to cover the entire area of the front of the cabs; a move to make the machines more visible to trackside staff. Three classes of diesel locomotives, the 20's, 25's and the 47's, were still in production at the time of the livery change; D8178 became the first Class 20 to emerge 'as new' from the production lines, D7660 the first Class 25 and D1953 the first Class 47 (which is reported to be the first ever 'official' BR blue loco). The new blue Class 47 locomotives were recognisable by two cabside BR emblems each side, along with two sets of numbers each side set behind the cabs - the 'standard' BR blue livery. (see here). The introduction of the Class 50's in 1967 saw the whole build emerge in the new livery. Some of the smaller classes of locomotives were dealt with surprisingly quickly; in the case of the Class 55 'Deltics' D9002 became the first example outshopped in blue on the 20th October 1966, and D9014 the last, only three years later in November 1969. All, however, did not go as smoothly as planned, particularly with the Western Region. Confusion seemed to reign, and various combinations of blue and odd shaped yellow warning panels appeared. Upon repainting, the Class 35 Hymeks retained their white window surrounds, although, oddly, at least D7004, D7007 and D7051 appeared in all over blue including  the window surrounds which, when combined with its small yellow warning panels and black underframe equipment, made the locomotives look very drab indeed. The 'Western' and 'Warship' nameplates were all given black backgrounds in place of the several examples produced in red as applied to green painted machines. Several of the regions locomotives appeared in a different shade of blue called 'Chromatic Blue'; examples include Hymek No. D7040 and Class 52 'Western' No. D1037 'Western Empress'. D1030 'Western Musketeer', the first of the class to appear in the new blue livery, emerged with red bufferbeams and Swindon staff received a severe repremand from the board and were ordered to amend the livery accordingly. Red faces must have been abound when Class 20 locomotive No. D8048 appeared in full blue livery with the BR double arrow symbols the wrong way round! The paint specification for the Class 47 locomotives decreed that the machines should be applied with the 2' 6" version of the BR symbol on the cabsides, clearly far two big when viewed on early photographs, and a directive from on high had the double arrows changed to the 2' 0" version which looked far more suitable.

D7036 at Hereford on the 13th June 1967. The locomotive retains its white window surrounds from its green livery and carries a small yellow warning panel. The red dot on the cabside denotes the locomotives axle load. Of note, just below the drivers window, two small brackets; intended for use to place a plate with the locomotives drivers name - never used! (Photo courtesy Colin J. Marsden)

Class 52 'Western' diesel hydraulic locomotive No. D1037 Western Empress in Chromatic Blue livery at Bristol in the late 1960's. Number and nameplates have a black background but the locomotive also ran in this livery with red backed plates. (Photographer unknown.)

Hymek No. D7051 in all over rail blue livery including the window surrounds. Two other members of the class, D7004 & D7007 are also known to have been given this bizarre livery treatment. D7051 is pictured at Salisbury on the 11th August 1968.
(Photo courtesy David Mant )

Although retro- painted, preserved Warship No. D821 Greyhound shows off one the Western Regions first attempts at the rail blue livery. The boards decision to have cabside emblems and behind cab numbers clearly shows why the livery was amended to a single arrow in the centre of the locomotive and the numbers moved to the underside of the cab windows.
(Photo from the Alan Ramsay collection)


Again, on the Western Region, Class 41 No. D602 Bulldog at Plymouth in Chromatic Blue livery with small yellow warning panels. This locomotive must have been one of the first locomotives to reach the breakers in blue, being reduced to scrap at Cashmores Newport in November 1968.
(Photographer Alec Swain)

A rare shot of Class 25 No. D7661 at Willesden supporting rail blue with small yellow warning panels. Few (if any more) of this class ran with this style of livery.
(Photo by kind courtesy Grahame Wareham)


D8049 with its 'transposed' BR symbol.


The Chromatic Blue 'Myth' - Rail Blue Or Not Rail Blue?
With the comparatively new era of the World Wide Web many questions have arose considering whether 'Chromatic Blue' ever really existed. With the introduction of the new livery, paints and paint application was, as with the railways, entering a new era of advancement. Many manufacturers put forward their ideas and presumably wishful guarantees on how the new pigment would look, and moreover....last. During these early years several methods were tried and tested to evaluate the hue and quality with regard to both looks and service life. Several application methods were evaluated; by the well used and infallible brush, by spray painting, and the relatively new 'airless' spray method. Any of these could also have been possibly given a coat of varnish again, to evaluate qualities. 
With this in mind, and with no actual physical evidence to hand, the standard rail blue colour could 'appear' in archive photographs to be several shades different to that of the standard. Indeed, even today, with now many of the first generation diesel and electric locomotives in preservation, rail blue looks certainly different when recently applied to that of units several years old. 
Chromatic or rail blue? - the debate goes on.....


Only three months after the official introduction of the rail blue livery and a newly repainted D3464 (08 379) stands at Eastleigh on the 17th September 1966. Clearly the new colour scheme is still in its infancy with final modifications still to come. Note the BR symbol on the cabside, not on the bodyside, and the blue bufferbeam, eventually amended to black.
(Photo courtesy David Mant )

Such was the importance of safety, the adoption of the full yellow front ends was made priority and so many machines gained this addition before the blue livery was applied. This seemed to be more noticeable with the larger classes of locomotives; the Class 25's, 31's, 40's and 47's, as it was some time before all machines could be attended to at works. Thus, the appearance of the new colours continued apace. In 1973 BR introduced a new numbering scheme, making use of new computer technology for tracking movements of all its traction and stock. As with today, the software of the time could not differentiate between two identical numbers and so the new system required that every piece of rolling stock carried a different number. The new scheme, called TOPS (Total Operations Processing System) gave us the numbers as we see them today, with the first digits identifying the class, with the last three providing a unique number. This new technology also made the four character train reporting headcodes redundant, and from 5th January 1976 these were abandoned, and gradually replaced by black vinyl stickers with two white dots placed on the inside of the headcode glass to form two marker lights. Before this modification could be made locomotives could be seen with all types of regional modifications, from the displaying of four 0's through to the complete removal of the original number and letter blinds revealing the four bulbs behind. This interim period worked well for the Class 52 'Westerns' as the machines individual number could be displayed at each end of the locomotive! Although standardisation of the new scheme was applied to each class of locomotive, certain design differences within each class meant that numbers and arrows could appear on different positions on different locomotives. Several Scottish Region Class 20's were fitted with tablet catching equipment fitted into a recess on the cab sides. This usually meant that the BR symbol and data panel had to be applied on the first door on the bonnet. Regional variations in the placing of numbers/ symbols and data panels also seemed apparent, the Scottish Region again seemed to favour a larger spacing between each of the numerals on certain locomotives, and on their class 25 machines, numbers and panels were placed on the bodysides behind the cab, whilst their English counterparts applied them to the cabsides. All the early repaints featured the locomotives number, data panel and BR symbol on every cabside, four in all, and it was quickly realised that money could be saved by reducing this to two, and so later repaints saw the information transferred to the left hand side only, either below the drivers window or split between the cabside or to the rear of the cab. The BR symbol was sometimes moved to the centre of the locomotive.

Class 47/3 No. 47 366 at Reading in 1974 showing how the adoption of the full yellow front end became priority over repainting into rail blue.

Full rail blue as worn by Class 45/1 locomotive No. 45 136. Although the locomotive carries only one number each side, two BR symbols are retained.

And so the early 1970's started what is known the 'rail blue era' when it seemed to appear that everything that ran on British Rail was painted blue! All was not so, however, many locomotives lingered on well into the mid-1970's wearing an ever deteriorating coat of green paint. To the enthusiasts at this time, these locomotives became quite celebrity machines and made a delightful change in what seemed like a sea of blue. In all, it took nearly twelve years to repaint the Class 47's with 47 256 becoming the very last of its class to be repainted in BR blue in November 1978. Class 20 locomotives nos. 20 141 & 20 147 soldiered on until July 1980 in the old colours and were possibly the last two main-line locomotives to receive rail blue. Many locomotives ended their lives without being repainted, particularly the pre-1970 non standard designs. In 1974, the Class 24 machines were in the process of withdrawal. Three examples never received rail blue; 24 090/92 & 24 136. One locomotive, Class 40 no. 40106 was retained in green for enthusiasts specials and, holds the record for the only machine still running today (now preserved) never to receive rail blue. (full details can be found here). 136 locomotives still retained the old Brunswick Green livery as at December 1976. They are as follows:-

Class 03 03 382
Class 08 08 010/23/43/56/8/62/3/5/6/135/57/60/9/70/2/6/223/4/5/7/8/9/45/8/
Class 09 09 025
Class 13 13 002
Class 20  20 020/3/6/47/75/130/1/2/3/40/1/4/6/7/9/50/1/2/3/4/5/6/8/62/4/5/7/9/
Class 40 40 106/36
Class 47 47 195/256/356/8/65/6/7/9

A full comprehensive account of all the diesel locomotives renumbered into the TOPS system whilst still in green livery can be found here.
It was during this time that British Rail ran a strict corporate image policy. No new names or livery infringements were allowed in any form, and with the diesel-hydraulic locomotives then reduced to history, named locomotives only included those treated in the early 1960's, notably the Class 45's and 47's.
In 1977, however, staff at Stratford decided to 'test the water', and decided to alter the appearance of two Class 47 locomotives nos. 47 163/164, which, in retrospect, started the change of locomotives liveries to how we see them today. The rail blue era had started to end. It was during this year that Her Majesty The Queen celebrated her Silver Jublilee and in what seemed like a blatant breech of the BRB rules, the locomotives appeared adorned with union jack flags on the bodysides. It is reported that the two decorated locomotives caused quite an outcry amongst senior BRB officials, who, apparently knew nothing of the changes until the locomotives appeared. To the amazement of the railway fraternity, the embellishments were allowed to stay, albeit more accurately painted, at least until the Jubilee celebrations were over. As a footnote, 47 163, still carrying its flags, was badly damaged by fire and required an extensive rebuild before its return to traffic.
Not content with giving the BRB a kick in the teeth, Stratford decided to come out fighting yet again, this time the following year, 1978. During the latter half of 1977, it had already been decided by the Board to name the Class 50 and Class 87 en-mass, a policy perhaps derived from Stratfords first protest. Class 47 locomotive no. 47 460 appeared on the 3rd of April 1978 with an all over silver roof and red bufferbeams; and just to strike the message home a little harder, the depot applied wooden nameplates bearing the name 'Great Eastern'. Amazingly again, the livery change was sanctioned, but in what looked like an effort to quell Stratfords new found bravado, ordered that the plates be removed. The locomotive lasted just over two weeks until the 20th of April as 'Great Eastern'.

Stratfords rebellious Class 47. 47 460 complete with silver roof and red bufferbeams stands on York shed on the 30th May 1978, just over a month after its 'Great Eastern' wooden nameplates were removed.

With one of its union jack flags just visible, 47 163 awaits repairs at Crewe, after a collision with Class 83 electric locomotive no. 83 004 in the Willesden area ended its celebrity career. (Photo courtesy David Hills)

In retrospect, perhaps Statfords second protest was an effort to annoy the BRB even further, by naming a locomotive unofficially; if nothing had been said it would have paved the way for a whole host of namings by the Eastern Region, without the BRBs consent!
With the naming of the Class 50's and Class 87's, BR's official corporate blue livery seemed to be rapidly coming to an end. Class 47's regularly appeared with silver roofs and detail livery alterations tended to creep in into all BR's classes of locomotives. Several Class 31 locomotives started to appear with their white bodyside bands reinstated as did selected Class 45 machines.

The beginning of the end, and several classes of locomotives had their white bodyside stripes, that had been previously applied to their original green liveries, reinstated. Here Class 45/1 machine no. 45 121 awaits attention at Derby Locomotive Works in 1978, and Class 31 locomotive no. 31 402 at Kings Cross in 1980. (Photo courtesy David Hills)

In 1978 the BRB requested a new livery scheme for locomotives that were expected to be in service for some future years, and so came the final chapter in the standard rail blue story. In 1979 Class 56 locomotive no. 56 036 appeared as the first example of 'large logo' livery (more details can be found here). At the same time it was announced that all the Class 50 locomotives and many Class 47's were to be repainted in the revised colour scheme. From hereon 'Railfreight Grey' (and its sectorisation derivatives) was introduced for freight locomotives, and applied to all the Class 58 machines on introduction until British Rail finally ceased as a company on the 21st November 1997 ( last train, the 2315 service from Dollands Moor to Wembley hauled by Class 92 locomotive No. 92 003 'Beethoven' ). The rest, as they say, is history.....
Looking back as an enthusiast during these early years, it seemed hard to think that the rail blue era would ever end. From Inverness to Penzance, wherever you stood on a platform, everything that moved (and sometimes didn't) came in 'Rail Blue'! A look at todays scene sees a complete reverse of the policies of the time, and some twenty-five years later it seems ironic that I wish it would all come back! To the younger visitors to this website - you missed it all!!

The final rail blue diversion, large logo livery as applied to Class 50 locomotive no. 50 003 Temeraire, pictured at Reading in 1981.


And Finally...For The Purists And Technical Buffs!...

  • Monatsral Blue was decovered/invented in 1928.

  • The BS paint spec for 'Rail Blue' is -
    Airless spray finish - BR28/6001
    Brush finish - BR 28/5321




Green TOPS - The Definitive List  A look at the last green liveried locos to survive into TOPS renumbering.
Timeline 1958 - 1962 Notable modern traction and historical railway events during the first 25 years of the first generation diesels and electrics.
British Rail 1973 Diesel & Electric Locomotive Renumbering Scheme
The British Rail Corporate Identity Manual

©Copyright Graham Turner 2003 - 2012.