Talk to the man on the street about the history of rail travel and there are three landmark locomotives that spring to mind. The world’s first, the world’s most famous, and the world’s fastest.
Although there were earlier prototypes, Stephenson’s Rocket is widely perceived as the first modern steam locomotive as it proved without a doubt that steam traction was a viable means of transporting goods and passengers.
Flying Scotsman, currently undergoing a complete overhaul at York’s National Railway Museum (NRM), is arguably the most famous locomotive. The globe-trotting steam giant occupies a unique place in the hearts of the nation and has been synonymous with the railways ever since it was designed by renowned engineer Sir Nigel Gresley in the early 1920s.
The Mallard steaming out of Waterloo Station on June 22 1948. © NRM
This month it’s the turn of the world’s fastest locomotive, also designed by Gresley for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), to step into the spotlight again.
On June 22 to mark Mallard’s historic departure from the National Railway Museum in York to its sister site Locomotion in Shildon, the steam giant will be displayed alongside the first steam locomotive to be built in Britain for 50 years, A1 Peppercorn Class No. 60163 Tornado, - a unique free event for thousands of rail fans.
The next day Mallard will be hauled to her new home in the North East by the Darlington Works built Tornado, in front of crowds of enthusiasts burning the midnight oil to ‘go loco’ for the legendary blue record-breaker and the apple green whirlwind.
On July 3 1938, the mighty Mallard was recorded as reaching the awe-inspiring speed of 126mph on the East Coast Main Line, breaking the existing German record of 124 mph set in 1936.
Mallard lines up at the National Railway Museum's A2 Grand Reunion in July 2008. © NRM
With Hitler’s Third Reich then in the ascendancy it was a matter of national pride that a British locomotive capture the world speed crown and No 4468 Mallard built at LNER’s Doncaster Works was chosen as the perfect vehicle for the endeavour.The LNER’s Chief Mechanical Engineer, Sir Nigel Gresley, one of the most gifted engineers Britain has ever produced, designed the A4 class of streamlined locomotives for running at sustained speeds of more than 100 mph.
The three-cylinder design made for stability at high velocity, and the large driving wheels offered maximum speed potential. They were among the first streamlined locomotives ever built in Britain and for many admirers, not only were they the fastest steam locomotives ever designed, they were the most beautiful too.
Of the A4s in service at the time, Mallard had the edge – not only was it equipped with a double chimney and blastpipe, which made for improved draughting and better exhaust flow at speed, it was only five months old. This meant the locomotive was well practiced at thundering down the mainline, but the mechanical components weren’t overly worn.
Mallard's footplate. © NRM
On that historic Sunday 70 years ago driver Joseph Duddington (a man renowned within the LNER for taking calculated risks) and fireman Thomas Bray were selected to crew the locomotive on its record attempt.
Mallard, with six coaches and a mobile laboratory – a dynomometer car- in tow reached the highest recorded speed for steam on the slight downwards slope of Stoke Bank south of Grantham. At milepost 90¼, between Little Bytham and Essendine, history was made when the instruments in the dynamometer car recorded the train was travelling at a momentary maximum velocity of 126mph (202.7km/h).
Duddington later described the attempt in a matter-of–fact fashion that seems to be typical of the railway workers of the day:
“Once over the top I gave Mallard her head and she just jumped to life like a live thing…
“I nursed her and we shot through Little Bytham at 123mph and over the next mile the speedometer in the cab crept up to 124, 125 and then for a quarter of a mile we held the speed at 126mph, while the men on board held their breath! If I had pushed her a bit more, I think we could have done 130mph.”
The plaque commemorating Mallard's World Speed Record of 1938. © NRM
However, thanks to Duddington’s skill, Britain achieved the record and won a battle of national prestige between Britain and Germany. Mallard, the locomotive that made it possible, placed a permanent milestone on the international timeline for technological supremacy and booked a spot in the history books.
70 years on millions of people have paid homage to Mallard’s still unbroken record in the National Railway Museum’s Great Hall, and her move to Shildon is a new opportunity for people with a taste for speed to pay their respects to the magnificent machine and the engineer that designed it. To reach her new home Mallard will travel down the mainline for the first time in 22 years, a spectacle that is set to thrill generations of steam junkies.
Tornado has also inspired new legions of rail fans through its appearance on the BBC’s flagship Top Gear, and the ‘celebrity’ loco has a large following including HRH the Prince of Wales who hitched a ride on A1’s footplate to meet the crew after the locomotive’s official naming ceremony in York.
The A1 Steam Locomotive Trust’s 10-year-long project to bring back to life a class of locomotive that got scrapped in 1966 has struck a chord in the hearts of the nation, as a triumph for British engineering on a level with Mallard breaking the speed record more than 70 years previously.