Sisters of fastest steam locomotive return to England

No. 4468 Mallard at the National Railway Museum in YorkThe London and North Eastern Railway No. 4468 Mallard, an A4 Class Pacific steam locomotive, broke the world land speed record for steam locomotives on July 3rd, 1938, reaching 125.88 miles per hour between Little Bytham and Essendine in Lincolnshire, east England. This was a great point of national pride for Britain since the previous record of 124.5 miles per hour had been set by a German DRG Class locomotive on the Berlin–Hamburg line in 1936. With tensions between Britain and Nazi Germany escalating in the lead-up to war, Mallard, built at London and North Eastern Railway’s Doncaster Works in March of 1938, was chosen to defeat the Germans on the railway battlefield. Mallard’s record still holds today.

Mallard at Kings Cross in 1962, right before its retirementThe Class A4 series locomotives were designed by Sir Nigel Gresley in 1935 with the specific aim of creating a steam locomotive that could pull passenger cars at high speed. They were streamlined on the outside, making them look extremely cool as well as improving their aerodynamics and moving the smoke upwards so it would no longer obscure the engineer’s view. They were also streamlined on the inside, making their steam circuits far more efficient than their predecessor models and reducing their fuel intake. Mallard had an additional improvement, a double chimney and double blastpipe which boosted the engine’s exhaust flow when it was running at high speeds. After Mallard’s great success, the remaining A4 trains built also had the double chimney and double blastpipe, and the older ones were retrofitted with them in the 1950s.

A4 Mallard engine and tender by Sunset ModelThe A4 Class’s record-breaking cachet and handsome streamlined design made them popular with train enthusiasts, who nicknamed them “streaks” for their high speed and their distinctive curved-nose look. The A4s starred in several movies, appeared in books and were favorite subjects for model trains. The 35 A4 locomotives built remained in use on the East Coast Main Line route in England until the early 1960s. They lasted a little longer in Scotland, until 1966. After that, they were all retired, replaced by faster but nowhere near as sexy Deltic Class 55 diesel engines.

No. 60009 Union of South AfricaAfter their withdrawal from service, most of the A4s were sold or scrapped. For a few years they were cannibalized for parts for the engines that were still running, then were left derelict in depots. Out of the 35 that were built, only six were preserved and still exist today. Four of them — Bittern, Union of South Africa, Sir Nigel Gresley, and of course Mallard — are in the UK, all based in museums but three of them approved for mainline use. Mallard was restored to operational fitness and did some runs from 1986 to 1988, but she’s been on static display ever since at the National Railway Museum in York.

Dominion of Canada lifted onto MV Beaverbrook at Royal Victoria Dock, Liverpool, April 10, 1967The two remaining A4s were sent to the colonies, as it were. Dominion of Canada was donated to the Canadian Railroad Historical Association and was shipped to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1966. It is on static display at Exporail, the Canadian Railway Museum, in Saint-Constant, a suburb of Montreal. Dwight D. Eisenhower (originally named Golden Shuttle but rechristened in honor of the General in 1946) was shipped to New York in 1964 and became part of the collection of the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The four remaining in the UK came back together in 2008 in honor of the 70th anniversary of Mallard’s record, but nobody even considered the prospect of a full reunion of the six. When the last two were sent abroad, it was a huge endeavor and they were expected to remain there until the end of days. The National Railway Museum wanted to do something extra special for the 75th anniversary in 2013, so in 2011 they negotiated a two-year loan of the North American engines.

Once the deal was struck, there was the small matter of figuring out how to move two 100-ton locomotives and their coal cars thousands of miles from their display tracks to Halifax, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Liverpool and thence to the National Railway Museum. It took a team of heavy haulage specialists and Canadian National employees 10 hours just to move Dwight D. Eisenhower from its display berth to active tracks 80 feet away. Then they had to put together a custom loading ramp, weld wheel chocks onto a transporter wagon and load the locomotive so it could be brought 1800 miles to Halifax via rail. A month later, Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived in Halifax (watch video of the excruciatingly slow unloading process here). The same transporter wagon and loading ramp were then sent to Montreal to pick up Dominion of Canada and carry her the 775 miles to Halifax so both trains could be shipped to Liverpool at the same time on an Atlantic Container Line oversize cargo vessel.

Dwight D. Eisenhower unloaded at LiverpoolAs of the first week in October, both Dominion of Canada and Dwight D. Eisenhower are home again. You can see Dominion of Canada unloaded from the container ship at the Liverpool dock in this video. From Liverpool they were trucked to the National Railway Museum in Shildon where they are being examined by conservators. They’ll be receiving a cosmetic restoration so that they will be as glossy and pretty as their sisters for the 2013 celebration.

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada at the NRM in ShildonThey can both be viewed at the Shildon sidings until October 22nd. Admission is free. Union of South Africa will be joining them the weekend of October 19-21, and that weekend there will be a special event held where enthusiasts will be able to photograph the three A4s together. That will not be free. Tickets for the photography event are £60 per person and must be pre-booked.

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada at ShildonAfter this, Dwight D. Eisenhower will be trucked to the museum in York where it will be repainted in its current British Railway green livery in the museum workshop. The public will be able to view the repainting in the York workshop. Dominion of Canada will remain in the Shildon workshop where it will be converted to its 1937 form (single chimney with Canadian bell and chime whistle) and painted the gloriously rich Garter Blue color of the London and North Eastern Railway livery, the same color as Mallard which is herself getting a new coat of paint to look her best.

The plans for the 75th anniversary events are still being made. Right now, the six A4s are scheduled to be on display together in July 2013 at York, then again at Shildon in early 2014. Keep an eye on the National Railway Museum website for more information. The museum also has an outstanding blog that any train lover and even general vintage travel enthusiasts will enjoy. It’s an impressively varied read; I highly recommend it.

Below is a very cool video of Mallard doing her thing on the mainline in 1988. She really gets going around the 4:15 mark and you can hear her adorable soprano toot-toot! Stick around to the 5:00 mark to see the prodigious quantities of steam Mallard can produce. It’s clear why the issue of steam staying low and causing poor visibility for the driver was so significant. Imagine trying to drive through that cloud.


4 thoughts on “Sisters of fastest steam locomotive return to England

  1. Great site. Good to be able to read-up on this. I am in South Africa and besides our own Steam Locos my next favourites are British steam.
    I was always under the impression Mallard was a class of loc – now I know better.

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