CIÉ E421 Class – Little Maybachs in Ireland

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E421 at Downpatrick, 18/10/14 (JW)

The Maybach-engined diesel-hydraulic locos of British Rail have long had a large enthusiast following, but it’s lesser-known that there were Maybachs across the Irish Sea too – three of which have survived into preservation.

Largely unburdened by war damage in comparison to other European countries, the railways of Éire embraced diesel traction relatively early, although initially in something of a piecemeal and haphazard way.  Aside from five Mirrlees-engined shunters, two prototype 960hp Sulzers and a one-off 0-8-0 MaK diesel-hydraulic, CIÉ’s first serious attempts at dieselisation came from 1954-58 when it procured 94 Crossley-engined diesel-electrics from Metropolitan-Vickers in Dukinfield – 60 of 1200hp (the famous A Class) and 34 of 550hp (C Class).

Aside from these sizable orders, CIÉ continued to amass small fleets of entirely disparate traction, including from BRCW/Sulzer, Deutz, and the first order of 15 machines from General Motors (B121 Class), which allowed steam traction to largely be dispensed with by the end of 1962.  One of these small fleets was of 19 420hp diesel-hydraulic shunters constructed by CIÉ themselves at their Inchicore Works in 1956/57, with 420hp Maybach MD220 power units with Mekydro transmission, and were known as the E401 Class.

The E401 Class met CIÉ’s expectations and indeed led to a follow-on order of 14 further machines to a largely similar design, known as the E421 Class, which entered traffic in 1962/63.  These featured a different Mekydro transmission, multiple working capability and were slightly longer than their forebears.

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E421 alongside G611 and G613 during a diesel gala at Downpatrick, 17/04/05 (JW)

Strictly speaking, “shunter” might actually be an unnecessarily derisive term to use for these diminutive machines, as they were designed with greater things in mind than shunt releasing in termini and knocking wagons about in yards.  They may have only been of 420hp but they were built with a plated maximum speed of 100km/h (62mph).

The E421 Class, however, did not get off to an auspicious start.  On Friday 7th September 1962, whilst returning from Kildare to Inchicore on one of its pre-acceptance test runs with five coaches, E421 had just passed Droichead Nua/Newbridge station when it derailed.  Thankfully, none of the seven people on board the loco and train – six CIÉ staff and a German Maybach technician – were injured, however 200 yards of track were destroyed (effectively closing the main Cork to Dublin main line) and all of the vehicles including E421 sustained serious damage.  E421 came to rest jammed up against a bridge embankment (see photo on Wikipedia).

The loco’s wheel arrangement (C) was implicated in the accident and this, combined with a notorious reputation for rough riding, meant that both the E401s and the E421s were permanently restricted to 40km/h (25mph) not long after, which naturally affected the duties on which they were employed.  Generally, their existence was a relatively humdrum one, predominantly in and around Dublin, and all were withdrawn by 1983.

The above is a link to a video uploaded to YouTube by Ulsterimages with some good sound of E421 in action in 2010.  The loco is currently out of service.

All of the E401s were withdrawn by the late 1970s cut up by the end of the following decade, however the E421s survived in an operational condition long enough to feature in the developing Irish preservation scene in the mid-1980s.  E421 and E432 went to the Downpatrick & County Down Railway over the border in Northern Ireland, where they remain, although both are currently out of traffic awaiting overhaul.

E428 and E430 went to the nascent “Westrail” based at Attymon Junction.  Westrail had hoped to take over the short branch line from there to Loughrea (closed 1975) as a preserved railway, but this did not come to pass; CIÉ downgraded Attymon Junction as a block post and sold the formation of the branch.  Westrail decamped to the goods shed at Tuam, on the Athenry to Claremorris route, in late 1985, but E430, which had been cannibalised for spares, had been cut up by then.

However, this ultimately led to a brighter future for its sister, at least for the short-term.  Sunday 22nd June 1986 saw E428, that unremarkable little engine in the far west of Ireland, make true diesel preservation history.  When it hauled the “Orange Blossom” special from Tuam to Claremorris and return, it became the very first preserved diesel locomotive to haul a passenger-carrying train on the main line under its own power in the British Isles.  E428 continued to be used on such specials up and down the Western Corridor – closed to passengers in 1976 but still open for freight traffic at the time – for the next few years (here is a link to a YouTube video of E428 at work on these duties, from 1989).  That is, until 1993, when Iarnród Éireann made the decision to lift the rails from the route through Tuam, supposedly for “reconditioning”, thus trapping Westrail’s rolling stock in its shed.  The route was eventually relaid, but not the connection to the shed – thus effectively ending Westrail’s operations at a stroke.

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E428 hides away in the background behind A3r at the Inchicore Works open day, 16/06/96 – I don’t seem to have actually taken a photo of E428 itself in those pre-digital days!  (JW)

E428 next returned to its birthplace, when it was taken by road from Tuam to Inchicore to be exhibited at the open day commemorating the Works’ 150th anniversary in 1996, with the assumption that it would then return to Tuam, but this did not occur.  E428 stayed at Inchicore for nearly a decade, before things turned full circle once again with it moving on to the Loughrea branch – it was purchased by Dunsandle Railway Station, and placed on a length of track there along with a carriage and a wagon.  It remains here as a static exhibit and has been recently been repainted; you can make a donation to its upkeep on its owners’ website should you so wish.

E425 and E429 were also earmarked for preservation, but sadly this did not come to anything – but we are lucky to retain the three survivors.

E421 Downpatrick & County Down Railway, Northern Ireland
E428 Dunsandle Stationlink to Google Maps
E432 Downpatrick & County Down Railway, Northern Ireland

As an aside, the E Class were not the only Maybachs that CIÉ had.  As the 1960s progressed, the aforementioned Crossley Metrovicks were not delivering the desired level of reliability; the Cs were especially problematical, as a lot of their branch line work was being taken away by the closure of the routes, leaving them at 550hp as underpowered for main line work.  As a trial, C233 and C234 received Maybach MD650 power units (as in the BR Class 42s and DB V200.0s) of 980hp in 1965/66, but in the end CIÉ made the sensible decision to standardise across its fleet on General Motors power units instead, and C233 and C234 followed suit in 1979, being the last “main line” Maybachs in the British Isles.

The E Class have never really been in the limelight, but the sound of one at full power is something to experience – especially if, like me, you are a fan of diesel-hydraulics – and hopefully it won’t be too long until that sound is heard again.

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