Urban Transport

New steam locomotive hits 100 mph on British tracks for first time in 50 years

New steam locomotive hits 100 ...
The Tornado was built by hand from the original plans
The Tornado was built by hand from the original plans
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The Tornado was built by hand from the original plans
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The Tornado was built by hand from the original plans

It may not be a bullet train, but a steam locomotive made history this week as it became the first steam-driven train clocking 100 mph (161 km/h) on a British mainline track in over 50 years. On Wednesday, the coal-fired LNER Peppercorn Class A1 60163 Tornado hit its maximum speed on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) between Doncaster and Newcastle as part of its certification trials to allow it to operate on the UK rail network alongside its electric and diesel siblings.

Though it looks like something out of a period drama, the Tornado is actually one of Britain's most modern locomotives and its seemingly Victorian name is actually a reference to the Panavia Tornado fighter bomber flown by the Royal Air Force. Despite its old-fashioned appearance, it was only completed in 2008 after 14 years of construction at the Doncaster Works in the North of England.

It isn't the fastest steam locomotive ever built. That accolade belongs to the Mallard, which reached 126 mph (203 km/h) in 1938. Nor is it the only steam train operating in Britain. There are many functional ones in the hands of the National Railway Museum in York, private collectors, and charitable trusts. But it is the first proper steam locomotive to be built in Britain in over half a century and it incorporates a number of improvements and modern safety devices that allow it to make regular runs on mainline railways.

The Tornado was built by the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust as a way to correct an historic oversight. Forty-nine Peppercorn class A1 steam locomotives were built and operated in Britain in the decades after the Second World War and they gained a solid reputation for hard work and low maintenance. The last in a line of express passenger steam locomotives for the East Coast Main Line, the A1s could go 118,000 mi (189,900 km) between servicing – making them the cheapest locomotives in their class to run.

However, in the 1960s, the state-owned British Railways underwent a ruthless overhaul as steam was abandoned wholesale in favor of diesel and electric trains. In the frenzy of scrapping, all the A1s were cut up and melted down by 1966 without a single one preserved.

Then in the 1990s, the Trust got its hands on a set of the original plans and set out to build by hand the 50th A1 – not a museum replica, but a fully functional 105 ton (106.9 tonne) engine plus tender with a number of improvements and additional features to make it legal to operate on the main line alongside modern passenger and goods trains.

According to the Trust, the Tornado has already been operating since 2008, but it has been limited to speeds of under 75 mph (121 km/h). To fit in with other trains though, it must be able to do over 90 mph (145 km/h), so on the morning of April 12, it was rigged with diagnostic and recording gear and run at 10 percent over its planned maximum speed under the eyes of rail industry engineers and certification bodies.

"We are delighted to have completed the test runs that move us one step closer to 90 mph operations with Tornado," says Graeme Bunker-James, Operations Director for The A1 Steam Locomotive Trust. "This will allow us to ensure that the locomotive continues to haul trains on the busiest parts of the UK network allowing as many people as possible to enjoy traveling with Tornado. As part of these tests the locomotive operated at 90 mph for a sustained period and also achieved 100 mph under these special conditions and running with clear signals.

"We now have to analyze the results from the tests and then complete the necessary certification processes before the first 90 mph public operations can be undertaken. We hope to conclude this before the end of 2017."

Source: The A1 Steam Locomotive Trust

12 comments
StefanSchmidt
This is actually awesome.
Doug Nutter
Steam engines are indeed powerful. Some past designs were a bit on the dangerous side but modern technology should address most of those concerns. We lived close to the Union Pacific mainline running through Nebraska and my cousins in Texas called my brothers liars when they talked about the speed of the trains coming through shortly after WWII. When they came up to visit, their jobs dropped when my brother top ended his car on the highway alongside the track. The train left them in the dust. Of course the train wrecks were fairly frequent and quite spectacular and the carnage from teenagers trying to beat the train was heartbreaking. Ahh, the memories.
LarryWolf
It's too bad the world went from steam to fossil fuels before going to electric and solar. We should have stuck with steam until we went solar the world would be a better place today if we had.
JimFox
Very odd. I would have thought a cleaner fuel system would be desirable. Natural gas to heat the boiler? No idea if sufficient compressed NG could be carried but 9 tons of coal would suggest so. Steam was ever a low-maintenance power source.
Bob Stuart
It may be the most modern steam locomotive, and newly built, but it is old-fashioned. Modern things have better efficiency and burn less carbon. Seven billion people can't behave like a few million rich ones did a century ago without killing their planet.
Martin Winlow
@JimFox - A very natural progression you would have thought... There must be a legal/practical reason why this has not happened, now or in the past. It would certainly make the job of the 'stoker' a lot easier (and cleaner)! I can remember traveling up to London from Devon in about 1967 (aged 6) on a steam-pulled train and making the mistake of sticking my head out of the window at an inopportune moment only to get a face (and eyes) full of soot from the chuffing engine. What is most noteworthy from this story, though, is that the fastest engine back then (the Mallard mentioned in the article) was just as fast as our fastest regular trains today (the InterCity 125s). Have we *really* not progressed here *at all*?! A very sad inditement of successive governmental failures if ever I saw one. Perhaps we could scrap HS2 (High Speed (rail) 2) and just jump on the Hyperloop!
Catweazle
StefanSchmidt April 14th, 2017 says: "This is actually awesome." Exactly so! And, unlike all these super-clean modern high-efficiency devices, it's got SOUL!
bergamot69
This is a tremendous achievement- a wonderful piece of 'living history'. @Martin Winlow, actually we have progressed massively since the days of the Mallard- yes, it did 126mph once- in highly favourable conditions- but at the expense of the track and it damaged the locomotive itself to some extent (all repairable thankfully). The modern HST (and others) can do 125mph day in, day out, can easily out-accelerate and out-brake a steam-hauled train, and in fact is capable of over 150mph flat out, if unrestricted. The A4 locomotive class (of which the Mallard is a member) could only operate up to 90mph in normal service. The reason the HST (and others) are restricted to 125 is to do with the fact that our rail infrastructure is saturated, has to share track with slower local or freight trains, is mostly Victorian in origin, has sharp curves, etc. Huge improvements have been made to the rail network to allow faster running (often not apparent to most lay persons) but there is a limit to what can be squeezed out of our ageing network. Hyperloop is a grand concept, but there will always be a need for heavy rail- so High Speed 2 is very much needed and will always be needed even if hyperloop proves to be viable (and unlike HS2 it has never been costed for building long distance in the UK).
JimFox
@Martin Winlow- Last time I used the Inter City 125, it still took an HOUR to travel 40 miles Exeter-Plymouth. Problem is not the rolling stock but our rail infrastructure, much of it from the Brunel era! There can be no Bullet Trains in Uk without billions spent on complete track, signal & safety replacement. Not upgrade, replacement.
JimFox
@LarryWolf- If we had stuck with steam then coal would have continued as fuel; possibly oil later, but not much cleaner- and it underwrites Islamic terror. Whilst it may seem pie-in-the -sky, it IS possible that trains & large vessels could be powered by Molten Salt Reactors; they can be small, modular and fail-safe, producing tiny quantities of actinides that can be sealed in glass for safety. One such produced power for 4 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory under Alvin Weinberg's team in the early 60's but was shut down in favour of PWR's to produce plutonium for weapons...