Experience Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive

On July 3, 1938, Mallard coughed up smoke as he reached a speed of 126 mph, or just over 200 km/h. With this, Mallard became the fastest steam locomotive in the world, a record she holds to this day. Join ASGanesh as he takes you for a ride on this train…

On July 3, 1938, Mallard coughed up smoke as he reached a speed of 126 mph, or just over 200 km/h. With this, Mallard became the fastest steam locomotive in the world, a record she holds to this day. Join ASGanesh as he takes you for a ride on this train…

The 1930s were a golden time for railways as they saw great developments and the building of iconic locomotives. The fact that less labor-intensive and more efficient diesel-electric motors were entering the railroad world at this time meant that the end was near for steam engines. And yet, it was in this climate that Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive, was created.

Speed ​​was not only seen as the ultimate sign of modernity at that time, but also as a symbol of patriotism. In Britain, a region that had flourished during the Industrial Revolution made possible by steam power, two companies – the London, Midland & Scottish (LMS) and the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) – were in a race to provide Scotland’s fastest dessert.

The magic of Gresley

Add to that a German challenger, and there were enough reasons to reach the zenith of steam traction. Great Britain won thanks to LNER’s Mallard, a marvel designed by Sir Nigel Gresley.

Gresley had an illustrious engineering career with many achievements including the design of the Flying Scotsman, the first locomotive to break the 100mph barrier in the UK. The class of A4 engines he designed marked the culmination of a glorious career in harnessing steam power.

At the end of 1936, LNER ordered a batch of A4 engines. Named after a bird, Mallard was designed with three cylinders that allowed smooth operation at high speeds. Mallard also had the latest modifications, which included streamlined air passages, new Westinghouse brake valves and increased boiler pressure. Mallard was also the first to boast technical improvements in the form of a twin chimney and a Kylchap blowpipe arrangement, helping the locomotive to breathe better by distributing exhaust smoke more freely.

Bugatti effect

There were also some cosmetic changes. Gresley was a close friend of Ettore Bugatti, an Italian-born French car designer best known for the luxury and racing cars that still bear his name. Based on a French racing blue used on one of Bugatti’s racing cars, the Mallard was painted Garter Blue. Bearing the registration number 4468, Mallard left the railway workshop of Doncaster Works in March 1938.

For the first few months, Mallard seemed to be just another member of the LNER express locomotive. At that time, the speed record had been increased to 124.5 mph by a German locomotive in 1936, while the English record of 114 mph had been set in 1937 by an LMS locomotive.

July 3, 1938 was the day Gresley headed to Mallard to break the England record held by LMS. A train of reduced length with six of the eight cars in a set as well as a dynamometer car to record vital parameters, including speed, was assembled. Other than experienced pilot Joe Duddington and firefighter Thomas Bray who were handpicked by Gresley, none of the crew and technical team were told the real purpose of the race.

After a mundane northbound trip, the train’s engineers began to question the purpose of the trip and were made aware of the secret. The record attempt was scheduled when Mallard would run down Stoke Bank on the main line between Grantham and Peterborough.

The mallard takes flight

Mallard easily broke the LMS record as he raced down Stoke Bank at 120mph over five miles, as recorded by the dyno car. With the train having to slow down for the curve at Essendin, there was still a small window where the crew could accelerate further.

They did just that as the Mallard was able to maintain a constant speed of 125 mph and even briefly hit 126 mph – just for a distance of 144 meters according to recorded data. This meant that the top speed of 124.5 mph achieved by the German locomotive in May 1936 had also been wiped out.

Essendine’s heavy braking in the corners, however, took its toll on Mallard as the connecting rod big end at the front of the three-cylinder engine failed. As the crew posed for photos as the train stopped at Peterborough, the locomotive was removed from the train for repairs.

Mallard duck at King's Cross station in 1948. Credit: Ben Brooksbank/ Wikimedia Commons

Mallard duck at King’s Cross station in 1948. Credit: Ben Brooksbank/ Wikimedia Commons | Photo credit: Ben Brooksbank Wikimedia Commons

After its historic run, the Mallard returned to active express duties, traveling over 1.4 million miles before finally being retired in 1963. Selected for preservation due to its speed record, the Mallard first been exhibited at the Museum of British Transport in Clapham.

In 1975 Mallard was moved in time for the National Railway Museum’s first day of opening in York. Here it occupies a prominent place and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum every year. For the Mallard, in a way, represents the pinnacle of steam locomotives, just a few decades before they were phased out.

Jose P. Rogers