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Conceived in 1937 when Oliver Bulleid became Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway, the Merchant Navy Class represented Bulleids vision for a quick accelerating, mixed traffic 4-6-2 locomotive, equally capable of hauling passenger services (such as the Golden Arrow and Atlantic Coast Expresses), or freight workings, to a speed of around 75mph.In 1934, Bulleid had been opposed the use of streamlining, but for the Merchant Navys air-smoothed design it suited his purposes, being easy to clean mechanically and hiding the boilers external pipes, which in turn meant they could be run for function, rather than aesthetics.
Reliability, ease of maintenance and the complete withdrawal of steam were high on British Rails priority list and for a while there was the distinct possibility that the class would be scrapped. By 1954 it was apparent that steam would continue to be required, at least over the next decade, and consideration was given to the rebuilding of the Merchant Navy locomotives, incorporating the existing boilers and fireboxes.
Withdrawal of the class commenced in February 1964, their traditional workings being taken over by Warship class diesel-hydraulic locomotives and the final seven engines were withdrawn during 1967, with the end of steam on the Southern region. Eleven of the class were eventually saved from the cutters torch and now survive in various states of preservation across the country.
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