Railfans of today are often grateful that in many nations where there is a long history of railways, a healthy variety of rolling stock and locomotives has been preserved. Since preservation movements began in the middle of the 20th century, some locomotives have been saved in large numbers, whether for heritage operations, static displays or sometimes unique circumstances that see them back on the mainline. Numerous FL9s for example grace museums and heritage railroads across the USA, Hall Class steam locomotives run on similar lines in the UK and in China so many steam locomotives such as the QJ Class were preserved that they were used through into the 1990s when the nation expanded their rail operations.
But certain classes aren't so lucky. For one reason or another, they are more readily disposed of before preservation groups can get a hold of them. In fact a number of locomotives were entirely disposed of before preservation was even a consideration. Below, we take a look at some of the world's sole survivors: Locomotives where only one example remains for railfans to enjoy either on display or in operation. In many cases, their future is secure so that we can continue to learn about them and enjoy them for many decades to come.
The 'Golden State' or 'General Service' Classes of American steam locomotives were of the iconic streamlined design that moved passengers at high speed across the Western United States in the 1940s and '50s. A total of 28 Southern Pacific GS-4s were manufactured by Lima Locomotive Works pulling previous iterations of the Golden State, Sunset Limited and San Joaquin Daylight passenger trains. After withdrawal in 1958, the only remaining example of a GS-4, no.4449, went on to appear in a number of Hollywood movies before being overhauled and put back into steam in the late 1970s and early 1980s, following which it has been a huge draw for rail excursions across the USA. Such is the draw of 4449 that it has regularly contended with Union Pacific's 'Big Boys' as the most popular locomotive in America, perhaps due to its status as the sole surviving GS-4. When not on excursions, SP 4449 can be found at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center. SP 4449 leads an excursion from Tacoma to Portland. Photo by Drew Jacksich. CC BY 2.0 - cropped to 16:9 format.
An almost identical tale is told of the N&W J Class locomotives, of which fourteen were originally built between 1941 and 1950. Like the SP GS-4s they were used to haul passenger services, this time between Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee. Its bullet-like appearance denoted another streamlined design but after the Second World War, the new age of diesel locomotives was firmly under way and when the last J Class rolled off the line in 1950 they were considered to be the last American-built passenger steam locomotives. Today, like SP 4449, just one survivor remains but is celebrated widely on excursions during its second revival from 2015 onwards. No.611 Spirit of Roanoke, named from the firm that built her, captures the imagination of railfans and photographers as she continues to run in preservation. N&W 611 near Valdosta, Georgia in 1992. Photo © 1992 by James G. Howes. (Image not compatible with Facebook's licensing terms).
Despite a strong preservation movement from the 1960s onwards, saving hundreds of steam locomotives destined for scrap, not much was made of the need to save some of the early diesel locomotives that began to replace them and in some cases like the Class 22, Class 13 and unique locomotives like Falcon and Kestrel, they were wiped out completely. The Class 15, known before TOPS as the BTH Type 1, had a troublesome career and was in direct competition with the similarly-shaped Class 20 locomotives that have since long outlived it. By the early 1970s they had been marked for withdrawal and all but four were scrapped, with the survivors used as train heating units until the 1980s. Only one of these units, D8233, has been preserved and continues to be worked on by volunteers at the East Lancashire Railway near Manchester, England. An unidentified British Rail Class 15. Photo © Paul Miller.
The East Lancashire Railway has not one, but two sole survivor locomotives undergoing restoration, showing that despite being the only examples of their kind, there is still passion and enthusiasm to bring them back to running condition. Like the Class 15, after withdrawal by 1969 the only survivor, D5705, was used as a heating unit before being again taken on by the ELR with the aim of restoring to running condition. The unusual Class featured bogies with differing numbers of wheels, with one holding four and the other six. Two Class 28s head a service between Manchester Central and London St Pancras in 1960. Photo by Ben Brooksbank. CC BY-SA 2.0 - image cropped to 16:9 format.
Only 10 examples of the New Zealand Df Class diesel locomotives were built to begin with, making them rare from the outset compared to similar classes in the US and UK, but even so, their withdrawal in the 1970s left only one remaining - no.1501 (or 1301). The 'bullnose' design of this locomotive will be familiar to American railfans, though it was adopted on the Df Class at both ends, similar to British 'Deltics'. Today this lonely class member is at the Diesel Traction Group's base in Ferrymead, where it is undergoing restoration. Df 1301, (originally Df 1501) at the Sims Pacific Steem plant, Otahuhu, South Auckland. Public domain image by D. J. Maciulaitis - Railway Photographer.
The Soviet Union, later Russia, along with other large developing nations like China, produced masses of locomotives to facilitate mining, industry and passenger movement between major cities and over large distances. 251 class P36 express passenger steam locomotives were built in the 1950s and their popularity saw more than 25 preserved in both operating and display conditions. Earlier locomotives weren't as numerous or lucky but one member of the class U became a must for preservation after being used as Vladimir Lenin's locomotive in the early 1900s. U-127 thus became a memorial to the leader who took Soviet Russia into the Soviet Union. It can be found at the Museum of the Moscow Railway as the sole surviving class U. Russian Locomotive Class U number U127. Photo by Harveyqs. CC BY-SA 3.0 - image cropped to 16:9 format.
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