(first posted 12/15/2021) Restoring a Morris Minor is probably quite straightforward if you have the patience; building one from scratch, with no example to follow, would be something else. The A1 Steam Locomotive Trust set out to do exactly that – but not with a family runabout; they went large and built an express steam locomotive using 60 year old drawings and techniques – and now run it at 95mph on Britain’s mainlines. Let’s review the history and ambition that is Tornado.
The London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), owners and operators of the East Coast Main Line (ECML) from London to Yorkshire, north east England and Edinburgh from 1923 until nationalisation in January 1948, was proud of its express locomotives. CC has already heard of Mallard, the world’s fastest, and will hear the story of Flying Scotsman, the world’s most famous, when she returns to Britain’s rails in spring 2016. But they were pre-war racehorses, designed to haul fast and relatively light trains, not to drag heavy loads. By 1945, after 6 years of war, their shortcomings for the post war world were apparent – complex, expensive to maintain and past their peak.
American troops boarding a troop train in Britain, 1944
Wartime overuse and neglect had left the network and its equipment ‘knackered’ (as engineers say). Funds for investment and innovation were short, and new power was needed – trains had grown from the 8 – 10 coaches that an A4 like Mallard could easily handle at express speeds to 15, and the need now was for an engine that could reliably haul heavier trains, albeit not at pre-war streamlined express speeds. The urgent need for power meant that experiments with diesel traction were not an option – steam would have to soldier on.
Enter Arthur H Peppercorn (1889-1951), the quiet son of a Church of England vicar, brought up in Herefordshire on the Welsh border and determined from an early age to drive and build steam locomotives. By 1945, he had worked for the LNER (and its predecessor, the Great Northern) for 40 years. He joined as an engineering trainee, alongside W O Bentley, and then rose from District Locomotive Inspector to Assistant Mechanical Engineer, before reaching the pinnacle of Chief Mechanical Engineer when Britain’s railways were at their lowest ebb.
His solution to the power conundrum was not a radical one, but it was a properly designed and built one – the A1 Class 4-6-2 ‘Pacifics’. A Pacific has a leading 4 wheel bogie (truck), six coupled driving wheels on three axles, and two trailing wheels, and was the largest type of steam locomotive used for express passenger service in Britain.
Earlier LNER Pacifics, such as the A3s designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, were racehorses – stylish, graceful and fast. Indeed, most of Gresley’s Pacifics were named after racehorses. The streamlined A4s like Mallard were even more obviously a speed machine, albeit with styling that was more for visual effect than aerodynamic benefit.
In contrast to Gresley’s racehorses, Peppercorn’s new A1 Pacifics were clearly designed to be load haulers. From the trackside, the A1 looked what it was – a modern, no-nonsense machine ready to do important, but not glamourous work. By British standards, this was a large engine, but not a flashy one – the styling was plain, practical and purposeful, just right for the times as post-war austerity began to bite.
The boiler was pushed to the maximum that Britain’s confined structures allowed, with a firebox grate area 20% bigger than the A3s – the better to cope with poor quality post-war coal. Peppercorn also fitted various modern improvements, including Kylchap double chimneys, Timken roller bearings and electric light.
The Peppercorn Pacifics had a long gestation. After Gresley died in 1941, his successor Edward Thompson experimented with a range of designs for a new Pacific, none of which succeeded. Anecdotally, his unconventional ideas (such as the location of the outside cylinder on this A2/2 example) were so unpopular in the Doncaster drawing office that, as he neared retirement, engineers and draftsmen conspired to slow down the development of his designs so that he would retire before they could be built, and thus could be redesigned after his departure.
There was one big mechanical difference between the Gresley Pacifics and the less flamboyant Peppercorns. The A3s and A4s were three cylinder engines, with one cylinder on each side and one between the frames on the centre line of the engine, all driving the centre axle. The valve gear for the centre cylinder was of Gresley’s own devising, known as ‘Gresley Conjugated gear’. Instead of a separate set of valve gear for the centre cylinder, it was driven from the Walschaerts gear on the outside cylinder. Gresley believed that this arrangement was lighter and easier to maintain; this was true, but only if the maintenance was of a high standard. Wartime exposed the vulnerability of the design to poor or delayed maintenance, resulting in weak performance as the centre cylinder failed to do its share of the work.
This persuaded Peppercorn to abandon the conjugated gear for a more conventional arrangement of a three sets of Walschaerts gear, one for each cylinder, which was much more reliable and easily maintained in the less forgiving post war world.
The A1s were large and powerful engines by British standards, with an overall length of 62 feet – 2ft more than the A3 and A4s. Weight was 164 tons. The driving wheels were 80in in diameter, boiler pressure 250lb / sq ft, and tractive effort was calculated as 38,000 lb.
By way of comparison, Union Pacific’s preserved 4-8-4 (or ‘Northern’ type) no 844, the last steam loco built for UP, in 1944, is substantially larger, at 114ft with a total weight of over 400 tons, and a tractive effort of 63,000lb. Much of this difference in size is down to the tender – 844 was designed for long journeys across the American West, and carried over 6,000 gallons of fuel oil and 23,000 gallons of water in a 14 wheeled tender. The additional power is possible through a boiler far larger than Britain’s rails can accommodate.
The A1s carried 9 tons of coal and just 5,000 gallons on water – enough coal (manually stoked!) for 500 miles, but reliant on water troughs for supplementing the water at speed. And, as we noted with the ill-fated Advanced Passenger Train, Britain’s cramped railway infrastructure puts tight limits on the size of rail vehicles.
The first A1 appeared in August 1948, eight months after nationalisation, numbered 60114 and named W P Allen, after a Great Northern Railwayman who became a trade union leader and eventually a member of the Railway Executive, the government body which controlled British Railways. The 49th and last, 60162 Saint Johnstoun (an old name for the city of Perth in central Scotland, and one of a series of names referencing the books of Walter Scott) was completed in December 1949.
Of the 49, 26 were built at the LNER’s main works at Doncaster, on the ECML in Yorkshire, and 23 at the former North Eastern Railway works at Darlington, 45 miles north of York in County Durham. They were all named, after an eclectic mixture of racehorses, Scottish places and characters from Scott’s novels, the LNER’s predecessor companies and some of their significant locomotive engineers.
The A1s were a success – they did what was asked of them, with simpler and cheaper maintenance and better fuel consumption than the older Gresley designs, and had the power to meet the heavier loads of the 1950s without drama. Their dependability made them popular engines to work on, and by British standards the cab was spacious, well laid out and straightforward to work.
But by 1963, after barely 15 years of an expected 35 year working life, all the A1s were gone, swept away by rushed dieselisation.
Britain invented railway preservation, and it is now a flourishing industry. Estimates of the number of preserved and restored locomotives vary, but one website lists nearly 500 mainline engines – mostly rescued from scrapyards like the famous Woodhams Yard, at Barry near Cardiff. But none of these is an A1 – which deserves its place as the last in a 100 year line of East Coast steam express power.
This is history lined up for British Rail’s camera in 1976, to mark the introduction of the inter City 125 – there should be an A1 between Mallard and the Deltic. Enter the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, and their ambitious plan to fill a gap – allegedly dreamt up in the pub! The idea to build what became Tornado became a serious proposal in 1991, and led to the formation of the charitable A1 Steam Locomotive Trust in 1993, able to attract funding in a tax-efficient way form from individuals and companies and later from the UK National Lottery.
From the start, the aim was to build an A1 to the original drawings, with updates only as necessary for new health and safety standards and features such as a welded (rather than riveted) boiler, and work began in 1992 to assemble drawings saved from BR’s Doncaster and Darlington works. By 1995, the Trust had secured a building in which to assemble the new A1 – a remnant of the Stockton and Darlington Railway’s 1854 carriage works in Darlington, offered by the local council and now known as Darlington Locomotive Works. 23 of the original A1s were built in the historic town, at the now demolished North Eastern Railway works, so the location was very fitting.
Gradually, through the mid-1990s, parts began to come together as funding was slowly accumulated. The cost was originally estimated at £1.6m, but ended up closer to £3m. Funding came from regular, tax-free payments from individual rail fans; one-off gifts linked to particular parts, of up to £25,000; sponsorship in kind from engineering and railway companies (reducing the costs of some parts by over half), and a bond for £500,000 issued in 2004.
One early donation of £50,000 secured the naming rights, and the donor chose Tornado to honour the RAF pilots of the First Gulf War. The choice was a good one – a clear contemporary link to something many people could identify with, and with a sense of power, rather than a backward and inward looking name that might appeal to railfans but be a mystery to the general public.
The name is carried in traditional brass nameplates on either side, alongside badges of RAF Tornado squadrons. She is numbered 60163, the next in the sequence after the original 49 A1s.
Tornado’s fire was lit for the first time in January 2008, and the official boiler pressure test was passed on 11 January. In July, exactly 70 years after Mallard set the steam world record of 126mph, Tornado sat on her wheels for the first time, and in August 2008, the first British main line steam locomotive built since Evening Star in 1960 moved under her own power for the first time, still in grey undercoat.
Testing continued at the preserved Great Central Railway, and by November 2008 was far enough advanced for a 75mph mainline run from York to Newcastle upon Tyne; she was accepted as an approved mainline locomotive by the regulatory bodies on 27 January 2009.
In December 2008, she made her formal public debut, at the National Railway Museum in York, looking spectacular in the traditional LNER apple green livery but with her tender lettered British Railways – just as the first A1s had appeared back in 1948 – and to a predictably enthusiastic reception from large crowds.
Next was a formal naming ceremony, in railway tradition, by the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne and noted advocate for Britain’s heritage.
From 2009 onwards, Tornado has been a regular and popular performer on the British railtour scene and on the many preserved railways across the country.
She has roamed far from the East Coast mainline frequented by her predecessors, and travelled over most of the country’s mainlines.
And, several times, hauled the Royal Train. And, on one memorable occasion, rescued passengers from a snowbound electric commuter train.
She has also appeared in 3 liveries – the original LNER apple green; early British Railways dark blue – a livery that was not popular at the time, but looks very impressive to me – and the later, darker BR Brunswick green – all liveries that the original A1s wore during their working lives, but Tornado is kept a lot cleaner than they ever were!
Here she shares the limelight with preserved Great Western King class 4-6-0 King Edward I and A4 60009 Sir Nigel Gresley – all in the short-lived blue livery
Tornado is deservedly popular with railfans, and has a large following among photographers and volunteers across the country. It has been estimated that the A1 Steam Trust is, in financial terms, the largest and probably the strongest of the many groups operating steam locomotives on the mainline.
She also has a high public profile, in part at least thanks to the BBC’s Top Gear. In 2009, it staged a ‘race’ from London to Edinburgh on the premise of recreating the travel options of 1948 – a steam hauled express, a Jaguar XK120 and a Vincent Black Shadow motorbike, each driven (or, in Tornado’s case, fired, by Jeremy Clarkson) by one of the muppets presenters.
It certainly made for entertaining television, with the Jaguar declared the winner, and Tornado very close behind. Allowing for water stops necessary in 2009 but not in 1948, when water troughs were still in place, Tornado covered the 392 miles in 6 hours 30 minutes – the same as the crack non-stop Elizabethan express of the 1950s. And only a pedant would point out that the Jaguar had to use motorways and bypasses built in the 1990s to win!
Tornado has also sparked a trend – there are now over 20 similar projects in the UK, at varying stages of completion and pace of progress. There’s even a counterpart in the US – the Pennsylvania T1 Trust, which acknowledges the inspiration of the Tornado project.
Of course, Tornado is not the most modern British express train. That honour rests, for now, with the West Coast tilting Pendolino or the new Eurostar Siemens trains. But they are electric multiple units, and modern diesel locomotives are built for mixed use – so the newest British express locomotive really is a recreation of a 70 year old design, built with voluntary donations by volunteers, and operated for pleasure.
It’s hard to see a Pendolino generating the following and enthusiasm to achieve that.