Naming of British railway rolling stock

Naming of British railway rolling stock

Since the invention of the very first railway steam locomotive in 1804, railway companies have applied names to their locomotives, carriages and multiple units. Numbers have usually been applied too, but not always; the Great Western Railway only applied names to its own broad gauge locomotives (though numbers were given to such locomotives that it inherited from elsewhere.

Locomotive names have been inspired by a variety of topics over the two centuries of railway operation in the United Kingdom. Some examples are set out in the list below:

  • Abbeys & Cathedrals
  • Animals: Hardly an animal type has been passed over as a source of names. Birds, mammals, molluscs, dog breeds, pre-historic, and fictional animals have all featured. The Great Western Railway had an entire class named after birds, and the London and North Eastern Railway were also fond of birds for their fast express locomotives (note LNER 4468 Mallard, the world's fastest steam locomotive). However, the most unusual animal names applied were those given to the LNER Class B1 locos; those of varieties of antelope. Springbok and Gnu might not be unusual, but Bongo was more noteworthy!
  • Aristocracy: Important people like to be flattered, and what better way than to name a locomotive after them. It also gave the railways a bit of grandeur. Hence, locomotives were named after Earls, Lords and Ladies amongst others.
  • Arthurian Legend
  • Artists
  • Attractions on Route: Railways have often recognised popular attractions on their route, not least because it might help their business. From geographical attractions (such as Tor Bay) to museums (e.g. Royal Armouries), all types of attraction have been promoted in this way.
  • 'Authors
  • Birds LNER A4 Class World record holder for steam traction 'Mallard' is an example
  • The British Empire: Railway companies, anxious to underline their patriotism and also seeking to add a dash of the exotic to their service, found the Empire to be an endless source of good locomotive names. The names of countries, Dominions, regions, colonies and cities in the Empire were all adopted. This trend was at its peak in the early 20th Century, but in the 1960s, as Empire shrank, these names disappeared entirely together with the steam locomotives that had carried them.
  • Castles
  • Cities
  • Clans
  • Commercial & Promotional: In the 1980s, naming of rolling stock started to occur more frequently after some thirty years out of fashion. Unfortunately, many of the names applied since then have been commercial or promotional in nature, and thus rather temporary; some names only being carried for a matter of months. These names celebrate new contracts to move freight, one-off events (like the Commonwealth Games) or publicity tie-ins with radio stations or newspapers.
  • Composers
  • Counties & Regions
  • Engineers
  • Famous People (Current)
  • Famous People (Historical)
  • Fictional Characters: In particular, Scott's 'Waverley' novels.
  • Fish and other aquatic creatures: Wagons used for maintenance purposes carry names such as Mackerel (ballast hopper), Dogfish (3-way ballast hopper), and Salmon (track-laying flat wagon with cranes fitted).
  • Flowers
  • Football Clubs
  • Fox Hunts
  • Greek, Roman & Norse Mythology: Mythology has proved to be a rich source of exotic and impressive names for locomotives, particularly during the Victorian era. In more recent times, only the more familiar of the mythological figures have been commemorated, e.g. Odin and Vulcan.
  • Historic Railways & Locomotives: Companies wishing to show a sense of history and pride, have often applied names that recall historic railway companies and famous old locomotives. Names for the LMS Royal Scot Class and British Rail Class 47 mined this source.
  • Houses & Halls
  • Monarchs: Railway companies have often sought to gain publicity by naming one of their latest locomotives after the reigning monarch. Historic kings and queens were also remembered. Indeed, the Great Western Railway named a whole class of locos after the Kings of Britain and England working backwards from the then current monarch, King George V. Monarchs of other countries were also honoured, though often generically (e.g. The Belgian Monarch).
  • Mountains & Hills, Bens & Glens: As imposing natural sights - and often intriguing names - the application of such names to locomotives has become long-standing. British Rail Class 44 locos were all named after various UK hills and mountains, giving rise to the nichname for the type of Peaks. Many of the British Rail Class 60 locomotives were also given these names, although sadly most have now been removed.
  • Racehorses: It became a tradition to name the principal express locomotives working on the East Coast Main Line after famous racehorses (the implied connection is obvious). Such names were carried by a locomotives in a succession of steam, diesel and electric types, including the LNER Class A3, British Rail Class 55, and now British Rail Class 91.
  • Railway Company Directors & Staff: In the past, the senior directors of railway companies often found their names on the sides of their most prestigious locomotives. Since British Rail days, such an honour has usually been reserved for the retirement of long-serving staff, including some relatively low-ranking staff.
  • Railway Depots: With the upsurge in locomotive naming from the mid-1980s, the staff at many railway depots sought to have one of their fleet named after their depot. In some cases, such a naming celebrated an important anniversary for the depot, its achievement of British Standard 5750 quality status, or even its closure.
  • Regiments
  • Rivers & Lakes
  • Royal Navy (Admirals & Warships)
  • Royalty: An extension of the Monarchs theme, members of the extended Royal Family have also been honoured, including Princes & Princesses and Dukes and Duchesses. Most noteworthy are the names applied to the LMS Princess Royal and LMS Princess Coronation classes.
  • Saints
  • Schools & Universities
  • Ships & Shipping Lines
  • Singers
  • Stagecoaches: The railway may have put them out of business, but it was not averse to using the names applied to old stagecoaches to its new locomotives, especially in the early days of the railways.
  • Stars & Signs of the Zodiac
  • Traditional Events
  • Towns on Route: Whether for promotional reasons, civic pride, or some other reason, many companies in the early 20th Century named locomotives after the towns that they served. The London, Tilbury and Southend Railway named all its locomotives in this way. Such names fell out of favour because passengers could sometimes confuse the name of the locomotive with the destination of the train. The Midland Railway denamed all the LTS locos when it took over, and the Great Western Railway removed all such names on its locomotives during 1927-1930.
  • Wars & Battles: Similar to the British Empire names (see above), war and battle-related names were popular in the early 20th Century as a demonstration of patriotism. The Crimean, Boer and First World wars in particular provided inspiration. The Southern Railway (UK) used the Battle of Britain as inspiration for some of its 1940s steam locomotives. Some companies also used a locomotive as their war memorial, hence the name Valour, carried by a succession of engines in honour of the war dead (and now on a Class 66 locomotive). Wars could also lead to de-naming; many locomotives with German-sounding names were de-named in the early months of the First World War.

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