Officially, the last steam locomotive to travel at 100mph on a UK main line was in 1968, but last night history repeated itself as the Tornado, a British-built recreated LNER A1 steam loco reached the magic “ton” during a secret test run.
It might sound like something dreamed up by John Buchan and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but in the early hours of yesterday, 12 April, Tornado No 60163, a £3 million evolution of the Arthur Peppercorn-designed A1 class, proved its enhanced design speed by maintaining 100mph for 48 seconds on a flat part of the East Coast main line at Pilmoor, between Thirsk and York.
Conducted with all the secrecy of a military black ops venture, the record-breaking run was conducted in the early morning to prevent the track invasions which marked last year's runs by The Flying Scotsman steam loco. It also meant the track was quieter, although Tornado wasn't completely alone, as her speed run, which took place between Doncaster and Newcastle, was book-ended by two express services.
The run was observed by experts from National Rail and DB Cargo, the firm which provided the experienced crew consisting of driver Stevie Hanczar and firemen Tony Jones and Dave Proctor.
Graeme Bunker, operations manager for the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, said: "We're not absolutely sure about the top speed. We saw 100mph on the footplate, and 101.6 on the gauge, with a [satellite] tracker showing over 100mph, so we're sure it's over the ton. When we get it back to base and check it over to see if it's still in one piece, then we can all be proud."
David Elliot, director of engineering for the A1 Trust, added: “I'm delighted. We've achieved exactly what we set out to do."
Driver Hanczar, who had admitted that he felt the weight of responsibility quite keenly at the outset, was particularly pleased. After series of minor setbacks, with signals set against Tornado and speed restrictions, the Pilmoor stretch was the last possible place to go for the much-anticipated record. "It ran well, I'm very pleased," he said. "And yes, I would do it again."
The absolute steam-loco speed record is held by the Sir Nigel Gresley-designed Mallard, which attained 126mph in July 1938 on the downhill section of Stoke Bank near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Since the end of steam on main-line railways in the Sixties, however, preservation steam locos run by trusts and wealthy individuals have been restricted to a maximum speed of 75mph.
But engines like Tornado, which run excursion tours up the East and West Coast main lines, are being squeezed out by ever-increasing traffic density of scheduled main-line services. Steam operators have called for an increase in the speed limit to 90mph for certain engines that can prove themselves safe and not damaging to the tracks. They can then fit more easily into the scheduling on these busy routes.
Bunker said: "For the moment, all this does is allow us to say ‘Yay!’ What it does, though, is further our claim to be allowed to run at 90mph when we can and the track allows it."
We tested another steam locomotive, the Flying Scotsman, in December. Read Andrew's full review here.