Rail history made 75 years ago on this day

30/5/13   Museum volunteer Robin Gray  reminisces about seeing 60010 Dominion Of Canada at York North Shed in 1958  as it  has returned to be with  sister locomotives Dwight D Eisenhower (left) Dominion of Canada (centre)  with Mallard at the National Railway museum in York.
30/5/13 Museum volunteer Robin Gray reminisces about seeing 60010 Dominion Of Canada at York North Shed in 1958 as it has returned to be with sister locomotives Dwight D Eisenhower (left) Dominion of Canada (centre) with Mallard at the National Railway museum in York.

Exactly 75 years ago today, for no more than a couple of minutes, the Doncaster-bui lt Mallard thundered along at a speed unmatched by any steam loco.

A handful of men in soot-stained overalls had pushed the engine to 126mph, and in doing so had marked the pinnacle of steam power.

Previously unissued photo dated 07/06/13 of Ron Birch, a former fireman and driver on the Mallard inside the cab of the locomotive during a visit to the National Railway Museum, York. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday June 28, 2013. It is 75 years since the train achieved 126 mph which has remained unmatched by any steam locomotive for three-quarters of a century. See PA story TRANSPORT Mallard. Photo credit should read: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

Previously unissued photo dated 07/06/13 of Ron Birch, a former fireman and driver on the Mallard inside the cab of the locomotive during a visit to the National Railway Museum, York. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday June 28, 2013. It is 75 years since the train achieved 126 mph which has remained unmatched by any steam locomotive for three-quarters of a century. See PA story TRANSPORT Mallard. Photo credit should read: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

Today Mallard will be reunited with her five surviving sister locomotives – two of which have been shipped from North America and restored – to commemorate her record-breaking run at a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ celebration.

“People will be coming from four corners of the earth,” said Anthony Coulls, the National Railway Museum’s senior curator of rail vehicle collections.

“The gathering of the six locomotives is the jewel in the crown really.”

Despite its unique place in history, Mallard was one of 35 near identical A4-class locomotives designed by renowned engineer Sir Nigel Gresley – the man behind the Flying Scotsman.

The six survivors include Dominion of Canada, shipped from Montreal last October and restored especially for the anniversary, and the Dwight D Eisenhower, brought over from the USA.

Union of South Africa and the Sir Nigel Gresley will join them around the museum’s Great Hall turntable for what organisers have dubbed The Great Gathering.

Bittern, the final survivor, travelled from London King’s Cross under its own steam after it was granted special permission to make a celebratory 90mph run up the East Coast Main Line through Doncaster to York – 15mph over the limit for steam trains – last weekend.

Modelled in a wind tunnel, the Plant Works-built A4s’ swooping art deco lines made them look like they were breaking records even when they were standing still.

But LNER’s prime objective was simply to build a fleet of luxury express trains for its high-speed East Coast Mainline service, and one of the most long-standing speed records in history happened virtually by chance.

Mallard is thought to have been plucked from the pack because it was one of the newest locomotives, and was fitted with a new performance exhaust, which Gresley wanted to test on the engine’s home turf – the East Coast Mainline near Grantham.

“Mallard didn’t really set out on that run to be a record-breaker,” said Mr Coulls. “They went to see what they could get out of it and it had a test car on the back which was noting down all the measurements.

“And they got the chance really on Stoke Bank. And they went for it. They knew that the only chance they could get to go that fast was on this part of the line. The record was made over not more than a couple of miles.”

Mallard was withdrawn from service in 1963 and treated to a full restoration by the National Railway Museum in the mid-1980s.

“Mallard carved its place in posterity in 1938, so it was always assured that something good would happen to it,” added Mr Coulls.

‘These were the racehorses’ - driver

Ron Birch made his living driving the world’s fastest steam engine.

“These were the racehorses – they had very light feet,” he said as he stood on the Mallard’s footplate, hands flitting over the bank of brass levers as he recalled how he would get 165 tons of steam train cantering along at three-figure speeds.

“You only had to open them and they were off – but the brakes weren’t very good,” he added.

Based in Doncaster from 1955, Mr Birch, now 80, regularly drove A4-class locos, including the Mallard.

“Each had its own personality,” said Mr Birch, who visited the Mallard ahead of the 75th anniversary of the speed record.

“Some days were harder than others, especially if you had about 15 coaches on. And the night mails, they were bad because you were stopping at all the stations.

“You think back to the 1950s when they were getting run down a bit, then by 1965 they were really run down, they weren’t repairing them much and these were hard work.”

Mr Birch’s father worked on the railways, as did his twin Derick, and some of his earliest memories are of his mother taking him to a nearby railway bridge to watch trains.