Bulleid, Oliver Vaughan Snell (1882–1970), railway engineer, was born 19 September 1882 at Invercargill, New Zealand, eldest child of William Bulleid (originally of North Taunton, Devon, England) and his wife, Marian, daughter of Oliver Vaughan Pugh of Llanfyllin, Montgomeryshire, Wales. His father's death (1889) forced Bulleid's mother to return to Llanfyllin. He attended Spa College, Bridge of Allan, Stirling (1894–5), and later the Municipal Technical School in Accrington, Lancashire.
Failing a civil service examination in 1900 through illness, Bulleid was urged by his mother to accept a relative's offer of a legal apprenticeship in New Zealand. Another relative, however, an anglican vicar in Doncaster, recommended him to H. A. Ivatt of that city's Great Northern Railway works, where he obtained a premium apprenticeship in January 1901. He became closely involved with the Ivatt family, not least with the youngest daughter, Marjorie.
Having qualified in 1905 he began (1906) as personal assistant to the locomotive superintendent in Doncaster. Tied to administration and a small salary, Bulleid sought more practical experience with higher income, and found both in 1908 when he moved to the French Westinghouse workshops near Paris. When he married Marjorie Ivatt (November 1908) she moved to Paris and then Brussels (1909) when Bulleid was engaged by the Board of Trade as mechanical engineer for the British locomotive displays at the Brussels and Turin international shows of 1910 and 1911. He returned to Doncaster in 1912 as personal assistant to (Sir) Nigel Gresley, chief mechanical engineer of the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER).
Volunteering for service in the first world war, Bulleid was posted to France in 1915 as a railway transport officer in the Royal Engineers and demobilised as a major in 1918. He resumed his civilian occupation at the LNER, where he remained till 1937. Bulleid was not opposed to new technology but believed (like most of his British contemporaries) in the continuity of steam traction from earlier Atlantic class locomotives to the modern, more aerodynamic Pacific class, rather than surrendering to electricity and diesel. In 1937 he became chief mechanical engineer of the Southern Railway, where he remained committed to steam. He was progressive enough to support his romance with steam by innovation. He advocated and designed advanced models of the latest Pacific class locomotives, emphasising lightness, comfort, and speed. His streamlined and attractive rolling stock, including carriages, were popular with crew and passengers alike. Bulleid upgraded wheel bogies to support his defence of modern steam transport. He personally developed economy versions of Pacific class locomotives during the second world war (in which he was an ex-officio lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Engineers). Their ‘lightweight’ epithet had negative connotations, so his trains were patriotically reclassified with stirring titles such as West Country and Battle of Britain, with the desired effect. In 1946 Bulleid received for his services the freedom of the city of London and membership of the Goldsmiths’ Company.
In the late 1940s he carried out his last British experiment with steam before retirement. His Leader class locomotive (an unattractive austerity model resembling a hybridised London tube train mounted high on a conventional chassis) was discontinued some time after his own official departure in September 1949 from British Railways, the nationalised postwar successor of the independent companies. In that year Bulleid was created CBE and was hailed as the last great mechanical engineer of British steam, as diesel and electric traction began to win the race for modernity after 1950.
Bulleid's retirement was strategic: he had been on Sir James Milne's committee which reported (1948) on the state of CIE railways, dilapidated through years of neglect. He attracted the attention of T. C. Courtney, new chairman of CIE, who with effect from October 1949 created for him the post of consulting mechanical engineer to modernise Irish rail. Bulleid left a notable legacy in Ireland, not least his serious but outdated attempts to develop a specially designed turf-burning steam locomotive (known eponymously as the ‘Turfburner’) using Irish natural fuel to replace poor-quality imported coal. Almost viable by 1957, his experiment was an unlikely alternative to the fleet of roaring diesel engines that Bulleid himself imported gradually as official CIE policy from 1953. He had upgraded the Inchicore works in Dublin to assemble the new locomotives, and correspondingly modernised the service shops at major provincial yards. Diesel and Bulleid became bywords of progress in the 1950s, celebrated for the comfortable new carriages and light goods wagons that consigned steam to the railway preservation societies.
About half the network and many personnel were legislated away in 1958 (acting on the 1957 Beddy report) at the end of Bulleid's tenure in CIE. He appreciated the irony: the last crusader of steam had almost totally ‘dieselised’ Ireland ahead of Britain, with most remaining steam trains on stand-by service or in storage, like his own Turfburner (dismantled in 1965), awaiting the scrapyard. The year 1958 marked Oliver Bulleid's final retirement with his wife, initially to Devon but after some years in Exmouth to Balzan near Valetta, Malta. He enjoyed the status of a living legend and a steam preservation society was named after him. An associate member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers since 1911, he had been a member of the prestigious Smeatonian Society of civil engineers and president of the Institutes of Locomotive Engineers, of Mechanical Engineers, and of Welding. He was an honorary member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and in 1967 received an honorary D.Sc. from the University of Bath. He died in Malta 25 April 1970, survived by his wife Marjorie, who later contributed to the memoirs of H.A.V. Bulleid, their son and biographer.