The A4’s, a fleet of steam locomotives that capture the minds and imaginations of a generation, and even today, nearly 80 years after the first one’s left the factory, continue to draw in crowds of hundreds. Timeless witnesses to the way we once were, when the world moved at a steadier pace, and train travel was more an experience rather than a journey. I am of course talking about Sir Nigel Gresley’s greatest achievement, the A4 Pacifics.
In the 1930’s, Britain’s railways had been grouped into four major companies known as the ‘Big Four’, and two of these companies were the London & North Eastern Railway that operated out of London King’s Cross to Edinburgh, and the London, Midland & Scottish Railway that operated from London Euston to Glasgow. Together, these two companies competed with one another for the fastest journey times between Scotland and London. As such, each company built a fleet of high speed locomotives to beat one another to the capital. Conventional locomotives however could not particularly get a winning edge though, largely due to the highly unaerodynamic flat fronts of the boilers. Enter Sir Nigel Gresley, the LNER’s chief designer, who envisaged a streamlined casing surrounding a conventional boiler to improve drag co-efficiency and therefore allow for increased speeds. Taking influence from the famous Bugatti racing cars, the A4’s were designed to be as aerodynamic as possible, both internally and externally. Streamlining was added to the Steam Circuit, which, combined with higher boiler pressures and the extension of the firebox, formed a highly efficient steam locomotive with a reduced requirement for coal and water than the previous Gresley A3’s. The streamlining also gave the advantage of directing airflows over the locomotive so as to remove smoke from obscuring driver visibility. Covering the driving rods and wheels were low riding skirts that improved the aerodynamic capabilities of the locomotives even further, these being designed by the Southern Railway’s chief designer Oliver Bullied.
Launched in 1935, the initial 4 locomotives were employed on the Silver Jubilee service to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of King George V’s reign on the throne. This service ran from London to Newcastle and was an instant success with both passengers and onlookers. Combined with Gresley’s articulated rake of coaches, it was the ultimate in luxury, whilst the look of a beautifully ornate silver express train roaring through the country was something that captured the eye of artists, filmmakers and photographers. The initial public success was later followed by practical ones, with class premier 2509 ‘Silver Link’ achieving speeds of 112mph whilst also maintaining an average speed of 100mph over 43 miles.
The success of these initial 4 locomotives resulted in a further production fleet of 31 locomotives which entered service from late 1936. Unlike the original four locomotives which were named ‘Silver Link’, ‘Silver King’, ‘Silver Fox’ and ‘Quicksilver’ in combination with the ‘Silver Jubilee’ train, the remainder of the fleet were named after birds as Nigel Gresley was an avid birdwatcher, although some individual locomotives were named after Dominions of the British Empire and famous individuals, including himself! From 1937 new streamlined services were introduced to fully utilise the fleet, and the A4’s quickly became notorious for their ability to operate more 100mph journeys than any other steam locomotive had done or ever would do, thanks largely to the flat and straight layout of the East Coast Mainline.
However, the A4’s truly made history on the 3rd July 1938, when locomotive 4468 ‘Mallard’, chosen because it was the newest member of the class to be built, was hitched to 6-coaches and a dynmometer car, and sent out to bring home a record, and it did just that. Descending Stoke Bank south of Grantham, the locomotive, already being pushed to the very edge of its design limits, reached the golden speed of 126mph, breaking the world record as fastest steam locomotive, a record it continues to hold today, although it barely survived the trip due to the forces being exerted on the engine’s boiler and frame.
However, after only 4 years the golden age of train travel that the A4’s hoped would last forever came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War II. Very soon afterwards the lavish silver, green and blue paintwork was replaced by Wartime Black, and the beautiful skirts that improved their streamlining were removed for easier maintenance. To help the war effort, the engines were worked to destruction, but only one member of the class was lost, that being 4469 ‘Sir Ralph Wedgewood’, which was destroyed in an air raid on York in 1942.
After the end of the war in 1945, the locomotives and indeed the LNER was exhausted and bankrupt, as such the company was nationalised with the other ‘Big Four’ to create British Railways, hoping to solve the problem. However, the streamlined services of that bygone age were never to be reinstated. The locomotives did continue to work the top expresses between London and Edinburgh but with the advent of the Modernisation Plan, the days for these tired engines were indeed numbered.
In 1961 the first of a fleet of Type 5 ‘Deltic’ locomotives arrived on the scene after 6 years of trials with the prototype DP1 and were quick to replace the A4’s on the top East Coast Expresses. The A4’s continued to soldier on in the semi-fast and stopping trains until the first withdrawals began in 1962. Gradually as the fleet was reduced with the advent of diesels on semi-fast workings such as the Class 47’s and 40’s, the remaining A4’s were pushed away from their London roots, and by 1964 the last six locomotives were to be found working out of Aberdeen shed on Glasgow to Aberdeen expresses. Eventually the time came to see off the A4’s, and on the 5th September 1966, the final two locomotives 60024 ‘Kingfisher’ and 60019 ‘Bittern’ were withdrawn from service, heralding an end to the mighty A4’s.
Today, 6 locomotives have survived into preservation through various means. 4468 ‘Mallard’ was immediately bought for preservation and now resides at the National Railway Museum, returning to steam briefly in 1988 as part of the 50th anniversary of the 126mph Record Run. 4464 ‘Bittern’ was bought by Geoff Drury 6 days after withdrawal and has since returned to mainline running in a variety of guises, most prominently in the form of scrapped classmates 2509 Silver Link, and as 4492
Dominion of New Zealand. It has also had the distinction of being the fastest preserved steam locomotive, when in 2013 it was allowed to run at 90mph on a selection of tours on the East Coast Mainline, but has since been withdrawn for a 3 year refurbishment. 4488 (60009) ‘Union of South Africa’ was bought by the Lochty Private Railway upon withdrawal in 1966, and has since returned to the mainline, although during the 1980’s the locomotive was named Kestrel due to the Aparthied in South Africa making its name undesirable. 4489 ‘Dominion of Canada’ was presented to the Canadian Railway Museum in Montreal upon retirement in 1965, and 60010 ‘Dwight D. Eisenhower’ was sent to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1963. Both locomotives have since returned briefly to the UK as part of the Great Gathering celebrations of 2013, with 4489 undergoing cosmetic restoration before returning to Canada. The final locomotive was 4498 (60007) ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’, which was rescued from scrapping in 1966 and returned to traffic with donations from condemned classmate 60026 ‘Miles Beevor’. The engine has since made its way back to the mainline and continues to work tours today. Additionally, part of another A4 lives on as well, as the whistle of 4482 ‘Golden Eagle’, continues to survive and is in regular use as the whistle to rebuilt Peppercorn A1 Pacific number 60163 ‘Tornado’.
So apparently every cloud has a silver lining for the former Silver Link locos, but what attracts me most to the A4’s is really what they are, a time capsule into which we can look back at the golden age of railways, when travelling wasn’t as hasty or rushed as it is today. The thing that I love the most about A4’s though are their iconic whistles, which have a booming deep chime as opposed to other steam locomotives which have a weedy little peep.
A4’s really have some bass on their whistles, and it is so good!