A family gathering is planned next year for the world’s fastest steam locomotive. Michael Hickling reports.
Perhaps the most glamorous steam locomotives the world has ever seen were the 34 that were built to move so fast that they were known to excited small boys of the time as “streaks”.
Designed in Doncaster by Sir Nigel Gresley and built there before the war, their celebrity appeal endures today through Mallard which set an imperishable world speed record on the East Coast main line in the summer of 1938.
Six of these A4 Pacific locos still exist. The newly-repainted Mallard is one of the stars of the National Railway Museum in York where the idea was conceived to bring all of them together for a major exhibition next July to mark the 75th anniversary of Mallard’s record run.
Delivering three more of the oldsters to the party did not present any great difficulty because they are either on show or earning a living in this country. One of them, Union of South Africa, was the last one to go through the Doncaster works.
But the remaining two – the Dwight D Eisenhower and the Dominion of Canada – were holed up in museums abroad, one in the States and the other in Canada.
The commercial estimates for shifting two icons of the steam age – each weighing over 100 tons – across the Atlantic required the kind of money the NRM did not have.
But Steve Davies, then the museum’s director, decided to have a go anyway. Personal contacts did the trick. Deals were done, particularly with an international shipping company and the Port of Liverpool, to give help in kind. Result: early in October two slightly the worse for wear giants of steam rolled off a ship from Nova Scotia in Liverpool.
From the dockside the Dominion of Canada was moved by road to the rail museum at Shildon in County Durham to be readied, via a programme of cosmetic restoration, for the big day next summer.
And by a neat piece of timing, the Dwight D Eisenhower, named after the 34th President of the United States, finally completed her 3,700-mile odyssey from Wisconsin to York on the day that the 45th President, Barack Obama, was re-elected.
The loco, originally the Golden Shuttle, once worked the Yorkshire Pullman service to Bradford. It was re-named post-war when the railways were nationalised, in honour of the Allies’ supreme commander at D-Day.
The Dwight D Eisenhower had survived the great steam loco cull of the Sixties through the enthusiasm of a group of American businessmen who asked to buy it from British Rail. BR decided to donate it to them instead and shipped it over for free as a gesture of goodwill, the loco arriving in New York Harbour on May 11, 1964. It ended up in Wisconsin, at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay on the shore of Lake Michigan. The Dominion of Canada meanwhile was acquired by the Canadian National Railway Museum in Montreal.
Bob Gwynne, the NRM’s associate curator of rail vehicles at York, travelled to Wisconsin to smooth the way for Dwight D Eisenhower’s return to its home county.
“Having Mallard’s sisters here is a significant event,” he said. “It’s a major undertaking. But fix up a return journey for nowt and it becomes a lot easier. It all started with a personal call from our director at the time.”
It seems that in Green Bay they were so startled by this out of the blue call from York with its ambitious proposal that they checked whether this unknown caller was genuine before responding.
“They had the Dwight D Eisenhower along with two of the private trains which Eisenhower rode in during the months prior to D-Day,” says Bob. It was not possible for the loco to make its own way over to the shipping port, although the American track gauge is compatible.
“Green Bay to Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a long way and they have double-stacking on container trains. So we rolled it onto a container wagon.”
Are the Americans as mad for vintage rail as we are here? “Their approach is different. Their nostalgia for railways is not quite the same as ours. Theirs is more of a freight system than a passenger one.”
America did however enjoy a brief golden age of steam express trains which roughly coincided with ours. Green Bay is roughly half way, although further to the east, on the route of the Hiawatha express which ran from Chicago to St Paul, Minneapolis pulled by locos built in the mid-1930s for the Milwaukee Railroad. The other famous train on the eastern side of the continent was the 20th Century Limited which ran for over 60 years from Grand Central station in New York to Chicago.
Mallard was only four months old on July 3, 1938 when she was chosen to make the attempt on the world record which had been set by a German loco two years before. Mallard was the first to be fitted with a different exhaust – in effect a double chimney – so that she steamed even better than the others. Sir Nigel Gresley personally hand-picked the crew to make an attempt on the record. He chose Joe Duddington, a driver he knew would go for it, and Tommy Bray a fireman of prodigious strength, both men from Doncaster.
It was a Sunday and the train was supposedly out on a brake test with a team from the makers, Westinghouse, aboard. At Barkston, north of Grantham, the brake engineers were told about the imminent record attempt and offered the option of taking taxis back to Kings Cross. They decided to stay.
The track engineers in charge of that stretch of line hadn’t been told what was going to happen and another man who remained in the dark was the guard. He usually worked on freight trains and was doing a Sunday job to make a big extra. He soon found himself bouncing around at the back around in a most unexpected manner, watching coal flying off from the tender as Mallard hit the record 125.88mph. It’s sometimes presented as a victory of national engineering prowess over the Germans. But in truth it seems what Sir Nigel Gresley’s LNER employers were mostly interested in was putting down their LMS rivals on the west coast line who held the domestic record.
Immediately after Mallard had beaten their record, the wife of William Whitelaw, the chairman of LNER, sent to telegram to Gresley saying: “Congratulations – LMS out for a duck”.
Nor was victory over the Germans quite as complete as some make it appear.
Joe Duddington thrashed Mallard as required in the record-breaking trip. But it was downhill all the way and concluded 40 miles later at Peterborough when a bearing overheated. Mallard broke down and had to be towed into Kings Cross.
The German, however, had not needed special conditions to set their record with DRG class loco, number 05 002, and a regular on the Hamburg to Berlin line. It continued on to its destination as normal after reaching 200.4 kmph.
But only three of these types were built, so that they had nothing like the day-to-day impact on the national railway that Mallard and the A4 Pacifics had for over 20 years. And the German locos lacked the stylish engineering flourish of the “streaks”. Compared with the élan of the best of British, the DRG class looked like plug-ugly Roundheads in the steam railway war against dashing Cavaliers.
This was a world record that summed up the romance of the steam age and the holder is to likely to resonate down the years if it has an evocative name like Mallard. Loco number 05 002 just doesn’t have the right sort of ring.
How far ahead of its time was Mallard? It was not until 1964 that the piece of railway track where the record was set was passed for 100mph running. This was for the new Deltic diesels with 3,300 horsepower, about one-and-a-half times greater than Mallard’s.
When it was retired from service in 1963 Mallard was immediately listed for preservation. Ian Hewitt, the boss of a three-man business called Heritage Paintings, is now the latest to be applying his skills to make the old girl look her best.
Ian was a trainee pilot when he broke his back and needed a new career and started out in this one only 15 months ago.
He had an oily aspect when he emerged from a first close inspection of Dwight D Eisenhower just hours after it had arrived at the NRM. He had been commissioned to spend the next seven weeks on its cosmetic restoration. “The Americans had it shot-blasted in the 1980s and it has a very tired tender full of holes,” he said.
Do you have to be a railway nut to do this job? “I was an aviation nut,” he says. “It’s an honour and a huge boost for us to be doing jobs like Mallard and Dwight D Eisenhower.”
First, his team use a needle gun to loosen off the paint. Then to make good what lies beneath they use materials once familiar to all DIY car bodgers – fibreglass filler and chicken wire. Then everything is hand-painted, using brushes from three inches to two millimetres
“These locomotives are made from panels that rub against each other and the paint chips,” adds Ian. “We finish with eight to nine coats of paint. We are keeping old techniques alive, it’s a labour of love to some extent.”
The special paint they use comes from TR Williamson of Ripon, who know a thing or two about the job in hand. They supplied the paint for Stephenson’s Rocket in 1829 and Ian says it’s important to get things exactly right. “Colour is such a contentious issue. It will look, when we are finished, ex-works – pristine.”
When Bob Gwynne arrived in Green Bay to help get Dwight D Eisenhower on the move again he found that it was being displayed with two of the private rail cars the great Allied general had used prior to D-day. Bob was able to fill them in about the starring role the loco played in the UK.
“They had never treated it as an English loco with a story of its own,” says Bob. “They regarded it as an icon of a venerated soldier and president.
“The Mayor of Green Bay came along and discovered that they had something that was bigger than they realised.
“It made them more aware of what an asset they had and now they can tell two stories about it. And we’ll send it back looking better than ever in 2014.”