A new steam locomotive for British railways

Here’s a thing of wonder: the launch of a brand-new A1 Pacific steam locomotive built and paid for by enthusiasts, equipped to run on the mainline tracks, and reported on by The Independent.

Of course, the paper’s not absolutely accurate in its headline about steam returning to the railways, though that’s a pretty beguiling angle for the story. If you’re lucky enough to live in the right part of the country you can see preserved and rebuilt steam trains running pretty often, as special excursion services already use the mainline tracks. They need to pass certification tests to be allowed to do this, a potential problem which contributed to the difficulties experienced by the last private owners of the Flying Scotsman, herself an A1 Pacific, before she was bought for the nation by the National Rail Museum.

When I lived in an insalubrious part of west London I would regularly observe large crowds gathering at the local station to watch locomotives with Pullman coaches including, on at least one memorable occasion, The Flying Scotsman herself, running on luxury dining trips between Victoria and the West Country. You’d be hanging around on the platform, waiting for one of South West Trains’ hellish commuter boxes, and there’d be the scream of a whistle and the thump of some pistons, and for a few seconds the platform would be engulfed in steam, noise and motion. The spectators, thronging the bridge and hanging over the level crossing gates, would busily take photos, watch it out of sight then go off smiling. Occasionally you’d get to Clapham Junction or Victoria and see the engine sitting at a platform, polished to unfeasible brightness, steaming gently and surrounded by admirers.

Now I live on the East Coast Main Line, close to the start of the very straight section where the steam speed records were set. A few weeks ago I was at our local park taking part in the monthly litter clear-up, only to hear some very distinctive noises coming from the railway embankment above me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position where I could see the locomotive pass through, but pass through it did, as evidenced by the excitement of the people elsewhere in the park who did manage to get a glimpse of it.

So these little moments of serendipity are available, as are any number of excursions on preserved and heritage railways – my favourite easily being the West Somerset Railway, running between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard in Somerset. But the launch of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust’s Tornado is a truly wonderful thing, and a dream realised for many people. Here’s an excerpt from The Independent’s story:

Steam dreams: locomotives return to the tracks

Today, 40 years exactly since the fabled “Last Weekend” when British Rail signalled the end of one type of world and the start of another by running its final scheduled mainline steam services, the new A1, bearing the engine number 60163 and now christened Tornado, will make its first public movement. Some 600 enthusiasts will journey to the North-east from all over Britain to see it and hundreds of thousands across the world will monitor proceedings over the internet. It took an army of 2,000 supporters 18 years to raise the £3m necessary to fund the 150,000 man-hours required to build, from scratch, the first new mainline steam locomotive Britain has witnessed for almost half a century.

For Mark Allatt, chairman of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, who has ruthlessly driven the fundraising process, today’s short but symbolic shuttle a few yards along the tracks at Darlington, is the realisation of an audacious dream. The 43-year old-marketing director stands as tall as one of the locomotive’s huge steel wheels, an impressive 6ft 8ins. And, just as he has for the past decade, he has given up the annual leave from his City law firm to be close to the engine he loves. The divorced father of one, a self-confessed steam freak, travels thousands of miles to beat the drum for Tornado. Like his fellow Trust directors, he is unpaid, does not claim expenses yet works on the project every day. “People said to me when we set out on this that it would never be done,” he says. “They said you will never raise the money. I think we’ve proved a lot of people wrong.” Read full article here…

However, the Tornado project is the rebuild of a design over a century old. Even more exciting is the idea that a modern-design steam locomotive could be built.

Is someone trying this? Of course they are: 5AT Advanced Steam Locomotive Project. Now, this is one that I really would like to see realised.