Trackside Classic: Big Boy 4014 or Mallard: Your Call

Big Boy 4014

How many times have you heard the expression “pulls like a train” when referring to a powerful car?

Here are two examples of just that, one from North America which literally does pull like a train and one from the UK that pulls rather more quickly, and to me at least, with a certain national and regional pride. This entry was prepared by loyal CC follower Big Paws, a complete train nut and owner of the last SAAB registered in Scotland.

First up, saving a Big part of America’s rail history.

big boy 4014

Union Pacific (UP) is unique among the large US railroads in running a working fleet of steam locomotives to recognise its heritage and as a very effective PR tool. The company’s commitment to this fleet reached a new height on the weekend of January 25-26, in Pomona, California, when UP achieved a major milestone in the return of Big Boy 4014 as a working member of the UP steam fleet.

Big Boy 03

The Big Boys, nicknamed by workers at American Locomotive Company (ALCO) in Schenectady, NY, were designed to accelerate the haulage of heavy freight over the mountains of Wyoming and Utah on UP’s historic Overland Route – the first US transcontinental railroad. To do this, they were designed as large and powerful as possible – such that bridges and rails had to be strengthened for them. The wheel arrangement of 4-8-8-4 was unique with four leading wheels, two sets of eight powered driving wheels and four more trailing wheels to support the cab, with a boiler to match and four massive cylinders, approximated to two of UP’s already powerful 4-8-4 locos. Length was 135 feet and weight close to 600 tons in full working order. The loco had a crew of two but, not surprisingly, the stoking was mechanical!

Big Boy 4014 steaming

4014 is one of eight of the class of 25 to escape the breakers when it was withdrawn in 1961, spending the next half century on public display under the guardianship of the Southern California Chapter of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society. The Chapter agreed a deal in 2013 with UP to return the loco to the railroad.

Big Boy 06

Overnight on January 25-26, after months of preparatory work, and with the cooperation of commuter rail operator Metrolink, UP cut the Metrolink mainline track and joined it to the temporary track in Fairplex Park where 4014 was waiting. UP diesel number 1996, built by EMD (formerly part of GM, of course) and painted in colours based on those of the Southern Pacific RR, which UP subsumed in, yes, 1996, then carefully and slowly towed 4014 back onto mainline rails for the first time in half a century. It may sound easy, but a lot of planning and preparation (600 tons, remember) paid off in a flawless move.

Big Boy 4014 January 25

4014 (and diesel escort) is now slowly making her way from LA to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where UP’s steam fleet is based and where she will be restored to working order by 2019.  Her first trip will be a thank you visit back to southern California. Early booking advised. To follow progress, try the UP steam website or Trains magazine’s dedicated pages. You won’t be disappointed.

Meanwhile, in England, a Special Birthday Party

Mallard in york

History shows that the railway and the steam locomotive, after its perfection and early use in the coal industry of northern England over 200 years ago, was one of Britain’s many gifts to the world. The historic English city of York, which has been a centre of political and religious power since Roman times 2000 years ago, remains one of the key railway junctions in Britain, and it is therefore fitting that the best railway museum in the world, Britain’s National Railway Museum (NRM), is located in the city, based around a restored engine shed (roundhouse). One of the prize exhibits is the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) Pacific 4468 Mallard – the fastest steam loco in history, which achieved 126mph on a specially arranged test run in 1938. 1930s Britain was a different country from today’s vibrant, diverse and busy society. Recovery from the post WW1 depression and then the Great Depression was slow, and society was in many ways rigid and conservative. Compared to north America, cars were rare and expensive, and long distance travel a luxury. As in the US, the rail network was a web of separate privately owned and competing railway companies, each covering distinct regions and with their own locomotive and rolling stock design and manufacturing operations.


So a streamlined express train from London to the historic city of Newcastle upon Tyne, heart of the industrial northeast of England and home of George Stephenson, where the steam engine was first developed and where even then a third of the world’s ships were built (yes, a third of the world’s ships!), painted in a striking grey and silver colour scheme and hauled by a streamlined loco at up to 100mph (cutting the 270 mile journey from 5 to 4 hours), was an attention grabber. The closest contemporary equivalent would perhaps be the inaugural Boeing 787 Dreamliner services. Service began in 1935, to mark King George Vs Silver Jubilee, so the train was the Silver Jubilee and the loco, Silver Link – the first of the LNERs A4 Pacifics.

flying scotsman

The A4 was basically an improved and streamlined version of the existing A3 Pacific (of which 4472 Flying Scotsman is the sole survivor). Soon Silver Link was joined by a further 5 Silver engines, and then in 1937, to mark the coronation of George VI, the LNER extended its streamliner to Edinburgh, 400 miles from London, as the Coronation. (Incidentally, between George V and George VI, we briefly had Edward VIII–1936 was the ‘Year of 3 Kings’–but he wanted to marry an American so had to go, obviously).

Coronation A4

The Coronation cut the London – Edinburgh time from 7 1/2 to 6 hours, and looked even more striking than the Silver Jubilee, with a bright blue A4 hauling a train of blue and white coaches including a beaver tail observation car at the rear. Quickly, of course, more A4s were needed, with the fleet eventually reaching 35. Names included links to the key components of the British Empire, including India, South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand,  homages to Yorkshire’s woollen industry (Golden Shuttle, Golden Fleece) and a series of fast-flying British birds and ducks, including Gannet, Sparrow Hawk, Bittern and Mallard. These locomotives were all built to LNER’s own designs and in their engine works at Doncaster, 40 miles south of York on the main line to London, and close to the great steel city of Sheffield.


Alongside the LNER, but running up the western side of the country through Birmingham and Manchester to Glasgow and then Edinburgh, the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) sought to compete for speed and style with its Coronation Scot streamliner and Princess-Coronation (or Duchess) Pacifics. In practice, the LNER went for speed and lightness, the LMS for power and brute force, with a best London–Glasgow time of 6½ hours (the best time is now 4½), and a loco better suited to hauling heavy trains up the steep hills of the LMS route. Inevitably, a rivalry centred on speed and journey time developed between the two companies.


It took the test run of July 3 1938 organised by Sir Nigel Gresley, Chief Engineer of the LNER and credited designer of the A3s and A4s to settle it. The 126mph maximum, achieved for a quarter mile only, but indubitably recorded by the LNER test car (which dated back to predecessor the North Eastern Railway and 1905, and is now displayed at the NRM, coupled to Mallard), eclipsed all comers comfortably, and the LNER duly milked the publicity of a World Record. The model makers and commemorative industry went into action, and remain active even now.

By the early 1960s, the A4s were giving way to the English Electric Deltic diesels (3,300hp each – the most powerful single unit diesel in the world at the time and worthy of a Trackside Classic of their own). Two of the A4 locomotives went across the Atlantic, as goodwill gifts to museums in Wisconsin and Montreal–the Dwight D Eisenhower (a post war renaming) and the Dominion of Canada–and three were preserved privately in the UK–Bittern, Union of South Africa and Sir Nigel Gresley (named for the designer). Mallard herself became part of the National Collection – in Britain, by statute, if the National Railway Museum wants it, British Railways and its privatised successors must hand it over when its service ends.


Which brings us to the birthday party. To mark the 75th anniversary of the speed record, the NRM organised for the 2 ex-pats to be returned home, given a cosmetic restoration (aka a proper thorough stripdown and repaint) and then placed on display in the Great Hall of the NRM alongside Mallard and the three other Brits, presented as the Great Gathering. So all 6 surviving A4s together! Don’t be fooled by the absence of crowds in these NRM publicity photos–250,000 visited in one weekend in July, with queues over an hour long.

Mallard NRM

The ex-pats will head back across the Atlantic soon, after a final gathering of the 6 at the NRM’s second base at Shildon in County Durham–appropriately, on the route of the Stockton and Darlington Railway of 1825, the first real railway in the world.

Huge plaudits to the NRM for having the idea and the courage to do this; it really was an amazing sight (see more here).

mallard rocket

So we see that the largest locomotive was American but that the fastest was British. Shall we call that a score draw? And it all began in the collieries of north east England, of course.