The Great Gathering of A4 steam locomotives

When last we saw the six surviving A4 Class Pacific steam locomotives, the two that live abroad — Dominion of Canada from the Canadian Railway Museum in Montreal and Dwight D. Eisenhower from the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin — had just arrived in Liverpool, England. This massive effort was undergone so that all six of the A4s could come together to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the day one of them, Mallard, broke the world land speed record for steam locomotives by hitting 125.88 miles per hour during a run between Little Bytham and Essendine in Lincolnshire. Mallard set that record on July 3rd, 1938, and it still stands to this day.

The noble A4s couldn’t hold out against the advent of diesel engines and were gradually taken out of service in the 1960s. By the time they were finished being used for parts and decaying unused in depots, only six of the original 35 were still intact. Two were sent to North America and the others wound up in museums in the UK. The record-breaking Mallard has been on permanent display at the National Railway Museum in York since the 1980s.

It’s the National Railway Museum that had the ambition and vision to organize a full class reunion to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Mallard‘s record run. They surmounted unimaginable obstacles to bring the Canadian and US locomotives home so there could be a Great Gathering of the surviving A4s. Once Dominion of Canada and Dwight D. Eisenhower were safely on English tracks, they needed some sprucing up. Both were repainted, Dwight D. Eisenhower with a fresh coat of the British Railway green livery it was wearing when it arrived, Dominion of Canada with the shiny new Garter Blue livery of the London and North Eastern Railway livery. The latter also needed a few mechanical and accessory modifications to restore it to its 1937 condition. Here they are before and after restoration:

So shiny!

While all of that was going on, the National Railway Museum found itself fighting for its life. Cuts in government grants left its parent organization with large projected deficits that put the museum in danger of closure. The York Press launched a campaign to save the NRM which was strongly supported by train lovers and the people of York. It worked, and the looming threat of closure was extinguished just in time for the anniversary celebrations.

On July 3rd, the Great Gathering opened to the public. It was an instant smash hit, so much so that the museum had to institute a “one in one out” policy in the mornings due to massive lines. People flocked to see the six A4s with their sleek lines and handsome curved noses and they’re still flocking now. The last day of the Great Gathering is July 17th, but there will be two more opportunities to view all six locomotives together: the Autumn Great Gathering at the museum in York from October 26th to November 8th, 2013, and the Great Goodbye in Shildon from February 15th to February 23rd, 2014.

There are lots of wonderful pictures of the trains and crowds of train fans enjoying this singular exhibition on Flickr. The National Railway Museum’s Facebook page has a variety of lovely and interesting views of the trains in action and on display. Many of them were taken by members of the public watching the trains go by. My favorite is this phenomenal shot of Union of South Africa departing the station at Lincoln. This is why nothing can replace the steam engine in the crucial moments of mysteries, romances and films noir.

6 thoughts on “The Great Gathering of A4 steam locomotives

  1. Visited York on Sat. 6th July (72ndbirthday) but also as an ex railway employee. Sadly there were no photographs available of the occasion to buy (without spectators) Is it possible to sell me a copy of your above photograph (A5 size).
    Have to say the visit brought back many happy memories.

    Allan Turner (ex Gorton Tank)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.