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Eighty years ago today, the A4 class Mallard steam locomotive set a world speed record on the East Coast Main Line. Neil Hudson finds out why it may stand for a very long time When Sir Nigel Gresley, the man who designed the mighty Mallard steam locomotive, decided to have a go at going faster than anyone else in a train, it was something of an impromptu affair. Bob Gwynne, associate curator at the National Railway Museum, York, recounts the story on the 80th anniversary of the iconic Doncaster-built locomotive setting its world speed record on the East Coast Main Line. “People think the speed record was some kind of officially sanctioned thing. It wasn’t really. Gresley said to his chief carriage and wagon man, ‘Do you think we can beet LMS?’, which was a rival route on the West Coast and they said yes. Gresley then said, ‘Can you fix it for next Sunday?’ “There were some people there waiting to go on a test run and they knew nothing of it until the train turned up on the morning. It was a ‘daring do’ approach to steam records that we don’t have today.” When it set the record, Mallard had barely been run in - it was just four months old. It is said that crockery in the dining area was smashed to pieces as the train hurtled along the track at Stoke Bank, near Grantham and that red hot cinders smashed windows as it passed Little Bytham. When it reached 120mph (beating the LMS record of 114mph), the crew decided to push it for another quarter mile, beating the German record of 124.5mph in the process. Its speed was measured by a dynamometer car, which it was pulling and which is also on display at the NRM. Eight decades on, its record still stands and probably will for some time, according to Mr Gwynne. “It depends on whether another country wants to have a go at it. The Germans have a steam locomotive that’s passed running at 100mph with wheels considerable larger than Mallard. The Americans have locomotives that are rumoured to have gone faster but it depends if they want to have a go. At speed, a steam locomotive has lots of moving parts, so you need to be very thorough with your checks. “You could have a steam engine go faster but its almost a case of ‘why would you’. Steam on the Main Line is a technology that’s of the past. There would have to be a reason of national pride to do it. I can imagine Americans doing it but not Germans. I think that the record will stand.” Over and above it’s long-standing speed record, Mallard remains one of the most popular attractions at the NRM, which pulls in almost three-quarters-of-a-million visitors a year. Mr Gwynne says: “It’s a really good focal point for us, it’s so photogenic and that’s one of the reasons people get their mobile phones out - to have their picture taken in front of it. There’s always someone in front of it. It’s the fastest steam locomotive in the world, it’s something that people come to see, it’s a steam icon. Frankly, it’s also very beautiful.” Mallard was in service from 1938 to 1963. It ran again in 1988, conducting a series of tours as part of its golden jubilee. It was part of the A4 class of locomotives, noted for its sleek, wedge-shaped design, which bore little resemblance to the A3 class which preceded it, of which the Flying Scotsman was one example. Gresley, who lived on a house with a moat, was apparently inspired to name it after one of the many birds which lived there. Similarly named engines include Golden Eagle, Kestrel, Merlin, Osprey and the Bittern. But it is the latter which today captures the romanticism of the apex of the steam era. During its service, Mallard, which weighs 165 tons and is 70ft long, clocked up almost one-and-a-half million miles. “This was his masterpiece,” says Mr Gwynne. “He put all the things he had learned since he started building big steam engines into one design.”
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