Although there is a safety culture on the railways that would put the vast majority of road users to shame, there is also an appetite for record breaking. Nowadays, as with the Virgin Pendolino run from Glasgow to London in under four hours, speed limits are strictly observed, as are signalling restrictions. It was rather different in the 1930s, when speed records meant valuable publicity.
Mallard's sisters include Union Of South Africa
That publicity was always useful to the London and North Eastern Railway, which had gone from being reasonably comfortable financially to relatively poor in 1925, when Winshton, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made his infamous mistake, putting Sterling back on the Gold Standard at the 1914 exchange rate. This increased the price of exports by 10% and many customers went elsewhere.
So the LNER’s streamlined express trains, introduced in 1935 with the Silver Jubilee, running between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and London, brought the publicity of high speeds, along with useful income from business travellers, who for the first time could visit their London offices, get useful work done, and do the round trip the same day. This set the speed record at 113mph.
The rival London, Midland and Scottish (LMS), launching their Coronation Scot streamliner in 1937, also decided to try for a speed record, and as I noted recently, this almost came to grief on the southern approach to Crewe after driver Tom Clarke left his brake application late. This raised the bar to 114mph. The LNER’s Chief Mechanical Engineer Nigel Gresley looked to better that the following year.
Brand new A4 class streamliner Mallard (Gresley bred wild birds and ducks) was chosen for the record attempt. She had been fitted with a double chimney and double blastpipe, after Gresley, looking at the LMS’ speed attempt, had become convinced that the single chimney throttled the exhaust at higher speeds. A “brake test” was arranged for July 3, 1938.
Before setting off, all the press were told of the real nature of the “brake test” and given the opportunity to leave the train. None did. Driver Joe Duddington, who wore his cap back to front for the occasion, coaxed Mallard to well over 120mph on the downhill from Stoke Tunnel (south of Grantham). The – very briefly recorded – top speed was 126. But this was rather different to doing that speed nowadays.
The run was over jointed track, some of which had not been replaced for two decades. The riding of the lightweight coaches would have literally been a white-knuckle ride: walking up and down the train at those record speeds would have been extremely difficult. But it is a record that has not been broken in the 75 years since. As railways have long ago moved on from steam traction, it will remain unbroken.
You can see Mallard and her five surviving sisters at the NRM for the next fortnight.