IT PROVED to be a landmark that had not been seen on the nation’s railways for nearly half-a-century.
But the achievement of the steam locomotive Bittern to reach speeds exceeding 90mph on a journey to Yorkshire at the weekend acted as a curtain-raiser to the main event which will take place in York later this week.
The run was to commemorate the world-famous fellow A4 locomotive, Mallard, setting a record speed of 126mph near Grantham on July 3, 1938 – a feat that remains unbeaten 75 years later.
Bittern and Mallard are two of 35 A4s designed by renowned engineer Sir Nigel Gresley and built for LNER in Doncaster in the 1930s. Only six survive, and they are being reunited at the National Railway Museum in York to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Mallard’s record.
The event, which will run from Wednesday until July 17, is called the Great Gathering, and has been billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime sight”.
The special run along the East Coast Mainline on Saturday saw Bittern travel from King’s Cross in London up to York ahead of this week’s celebrations.
The locomotive, which was carrying 250 passengers, was granted special permission by authorities to exceed the 75mph limit for steam trains.
The journey was organised by Locomotive Services Ltd, the company which owns the historic steam locomotive after it was bought in the mid-1990s by a City of London financier and rail enthusiast, Jeremy Hosking.
The general manager at Locomotive Services Ltd, Richard Corser, said: “It was the culmination of a lot of months of preparation to make this happen, to go at a high speed and to give the passengers a bit of a flavour of what high-speed steam was like.
“This country’s very famous for its engineering skills and steam was its cradle. We are very proud of steam heritage and railways in this country and this was shown again today by the support we have received.”
Talks had begun more than nine months ago to stage the high-speed journey after Mr Corser had suggested to Mr Hosking that a special event should be staged to mark the 75th anniversary of Mallard’s record.
Permission had to be obtained from Network Rail and the Railway Standards Safety Board, and the Doncaster-based train operating company, DB Schenker, was signed up to run the service.
A series of safety tests had to be carried out on Bittern, and Network Rail conducted checks on 210 bridges to ensure they could carry the 140-tonne locomotive and 10 30-tonne carriages travelling at such high speeds.
A night-time test run between London and Didcot in Oxfordshire was carried out on May 29, when Bittern reached a speed of 91mph. But passengers on Saturday’s service had been warned there was no guarantee the train would break the 90mph mark.
However, Bittern reached 92.5mph along a stretch of railway between Grantham and Newark, making it the fastest speed which a coal-fired locomotive has travelled since steam was phased out in the late 1960s.
Three sections of the 188-mile journey totalling 66 miles – near Biggleswade in Bedfordshire, then between Grantham and Newark and finally from Arksey near Doncaster to Copmanthorpe on the outskirts of York – had been designated for the high-speed travel above the normal 75mph limit.
The service left platform four at King’s Cross at 8.18am on Saturday, and arrived at platform 10 in York at 12.25pm after stopping at Potters Bar in Hertfordshire to pick up more passengers. Two other stops were needed to take on water between Huntingdon and Peterborough and then at Retford.
Two more high-speed long-distance services are planned for Bittern in July, including York to Newcastle-upon-Tyne and another London-to-York run, although only a few tickets remain for both.
This week’s celebrations to mark Mallard’s historic speed record is expected to generate a huge amount of interest around the globe.
The museum’s senior curator of rail vehicle collections, Anthony Coulls, said: “What we’re planning is a major celebration – people will be coming from four corners of the Earth. The gathering of the six locomotives is the jewel in the crown, really.”
The surviving A4s also include Dominion of Canada, which now sits next to Mallard at the National Railway Museum after it was shipped from Montreal last October and restored especially for the anniversary.
The Dwight D Eisenhower – another transatlantic expat – has also rolled back into York and undergone a restoration for the occasion. Union of South Africa and the Sir Nigel Gresley will join them around the museum’s Great Hall turntable.