Mallard, the world’s fastest steam loco, photo Geoff Ford

Sir Nigel Gresley, Mallard And The Steam World Speed Record

by geoffford

The 1930’s was the Golden Age of the railways, a time of great developments and iconic locomotives, driven by the race to provide the fastest service to Scotland by the London, Midland & Scottish and the London & North Eastern Railway. At this time speed was, indeed, patriotic and the Germans also had a title challenger but ultimately it was the LNER’s Mallard, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, who died on 5th April 1941, that triumphed for Britain.

Sir Nigel had designed the A3 Pacifics (4-6-2 wheel configuration) including Flying Scotsman which had become the first locomotive to officially reach 100mph in 1934. The Great Western had claimed this for City of Truro in 1904, but the speed could not be verified. Many of Gresley’s designs were experimental culminating in his streamlined A4 Pacifics, the first of which entered service in September 1935 on the East Coast mainline from Kings Cross, via Newcastle, to Edinburgh.

To the contemporary observer these sleek machines must have seemed far ahead of their time. Their beautiful lines were decked in a striking silver and grey livery to pull the Silver Jubilee train celebrating the jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary. Only four A4s were ordered, instead of the usual LNER policy of batches of ten, so new was the design that Sir Nigel Gresley did not want to commit further funds until his design had been proved. He had no need to worry. No 2509 Silver Link made the inaugural journey, a round trip from Kings Cross to Grantham, twice touching 112mph on the return trip setting a new British record.

On 27th August 1936 the driver of a regular southbound express, pulled by 2512 Silver Fox, was instructed to ‘open up’ and duly reached 113mph, a record that would stand until the 1970’s as the fastest revenue-earning train, although the middle big-end disintegrated. The Silver Jubilee service had become a resounding success and more locomotives were commissioned to bring the fleet of A4s to a total of 35.

In the autumn of 1936 the LNER planned to introduce a new Coronation service, from July 1937, whilst the LMS proposed their West Coast mainline Coronation Scot service, to Glasgow, be hauled by their new Coronation class streamliners. On 29th June 1937 LMS No 6220 Coronation pulled a special press train on a round trip from Euston to Crewe and there was some speculation that this could be used to take the record from the LNER. With driver Tom Clark and fireman John Lewis, the Coronation sped down Whitmore Bank touching 114mph, but this was just two miles outside of Crewe station and, with the brakes applied, the train was still travelling at 50mph as it entered the station, on a bend, with flames shooting from screaming brake blocks and crockery flying around the dining car! The LMS had taken the British record but, in the meantime, the bar had already been raised to 124.5mph in Germany, much to the delight of the Nazi propaganda machine.

Mallard footplate (left), Statue of Sir Nigel Gresley, Kings Cross Station, London, photos Geoff Ford

Mallard was one of a batch of A4 engines ordered, by the LNER, late in 1936 and named after birds. The A4 class was designed with 3 cylinders which, Gresley had established, gave smooth running at high speed and Mallard was fitted with all the latest modifications: streamlined air passages, an increase in boiler pressure and new Westinghouse brake valves. She was also the first of four locomotives to be fitted with a new double chimney and Kylchap blastpipe arrangement to improve the draft through the firebox and distribute the exhaust smoke more freely. Mallard was always a favourite of Sir Nigel Gresley after his time breeding ducks at his home, Salisbury Hall near St Albans.

Having cost £8,500, Mallard left Doncaster works in March 1938 bearing the running number 4468. Gresley was, no doubt, satisfied that his latest engine was an improved version of his already successful A4 design and if he was to take back the British speed record from the LMS, Mallard was the engine to do it. Speed records generated a huge amount of publicity and prestige and the LNER’s Coronation service had already captured the public’s imagination. The A4s were painted in Garter Blue (a copy of French racing blue as used on the race cars of Gresley’s close friend Ettore Bugatti) and pulling a streamlined set of coaches, also finished in blue, with a ‘beaver-tail’ observation car bringing up the rear.

With Mallard run-in, a brake test was set for 3rd July 1938, a round trip from Kings Cross to Grantham and back, and Gresley suggested it may be the opportunity to retake the record. A reduced length train of 240 tons was assembled, six of the eight cars of a Coronation set plus a dynamometer car to record vital data – including speed. The trial was shrouded in secrecy and Westinghouse engineers on board were not told of the real purpose of the trip. On the footplate of Mallard were driver Joe Duddington, known for taking calculated risks, fireman Tommy Bray and Inspector Sam Jenkins.

The north bound journey was unremarkable, a number of brake tests from speeds of 90-100mph conducted and stopping distances duly noted. The train passed slowly through Grantham station arriving at Barkston Junction (just north of Grantham) to turn round at 2.49pm. The Westinghouse engineers began to question the purpose of the trip and were eventually let in on the secret. At 4.15pm Mallard pulled back onto the mainline to begin the return journey, but with Sunday maintenance work at Grantham, the train complied with a 15mph restriction instead passing through at 60 or 70.

Driver Duddington takes up the story. “With my lovely blue streamlined engine Mallard we drew away from Grantham. I accelerated up the bank to Stoke Summit and passed Stoke box at 85.

“Once over the top I gave Mallard ‘er ‘ead and she jumped to it like a live thing. Then 108, 109, 110. ‘Go on old girl,’ I thought, ‘we can do better than this.’ So I nursed her and we shot through Little Bytham at 123 and in the next mile and a quarter the needle crept up further… 124, 125 and then for a quarter of a mile, why, they tell me the folks in the car held their breath, 126! 126? That was the fastest a steam locomotive had ever been driven in the world!”

Fireman Tommy Bray (left) and driver Joe Duddington (second left) with the crew of Mallard at Peterborough, after the record run on 3rd July 1938

There was a price to pay, for the big-end at the front of the three cylinder engine had failed and the train was stopped at Peterborough. Here the men posed for photographs taken on their own Box Brownies, while the gentlemen of the press had assembled at Kings Cross.

When the readings on the paper roll from the dynamometer car, that had traced the speed, were checked the LNER released the story to the press claiming a record of 125mph, but a more detailed examination later led to a correction and confirmation that Mallard had, indeed, travelled at 126mph for a distance of 144 yards.

Moving valve gear (left) outside of the wheels reduced maintenance costs, Mallard speed record plaque (right), photos Geoff Ford

Mallard eventually returned to normal express duties on the East Coast Mainline, but soon came the war and Mallard even took her turn at hauling goods trains. After the war she once again pulled trains to Scotland, now for British Rail bearing the number 60022, but her days of mainline working were numbered. Dieselisation was the future and Mallard was retired in 1963 having covered 1,426,000 miles. She was taken to the British Transport Museum in London until 1975 when she was transferred to the new National Railway Museum in York. Here the engineers restored Mallard to her original condition and to steam. She worked many steam specials including a special Post Office train to Scarborough, in 1988, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the record. This was filmed for a special anniversary TV documentary about the Mallard and the world record:

Alas, Mallard is no longer working, but the National Railway Museum celebrated the 75th anniversary of the record-breaking run, in July 2013, with a ‘Great Gathering’ of all six A4 locomotives in preservation. These included 60008 Dwight D. Eisenhower and 60010 Dominion of Canada, both making the journey across the Atlantic and the event attracted over 100,000 visitors. Mallard was also been ‘on tour’ to Grantham, where the author caught up with her, and to Doncaster where she was built.

The author ‘at the controls’ of Mallard in 2013

At Grantham, where the record breaking run had begun, over 15,000 visitors came to see Mallard in just one weekend in September. The engine looked marvellous, gleaming in the sun under a suitably clear, blue sky. With such elegant lines, Mallard surely knows that she is the star turn wherever she goes. How fitting that such distinctive styling sets this locomotive apart from the rest when her performance confirmed that, for all time, Mallard is the fastest steam engine in the world.