Thursday 4 July 2013


Great interest and excitement surrounds the 75th anniversary (yesterday) of the record-breaking run by the streamlined locomotive Mallard on 3 July 1938, on the East Coast Main Line south of Grantham (Thatcher's birthplace - she was 13 at the time). The top speed was a mind-boggling 126 mph (203 km/h). This record still stands and will never be broken.


To mark the anniversary the six remaining A4 class engines (of the original 35) have been assembled at the National Railway Museum in York: Mallard, Bittern, Sir Nigel Gresley (named after the designer), Union of South Africa and, from the United States and Canada,  Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada, restored to the striking garter blue livery of the London and North Eastern Railway. 

Trainspotting in the 1930s was, I suppose, a seriously cool thing to do - the trains were worth spotting, with locomotives such as Mallard the equivalent of todays's Formula 1 racing cars, cutting edge technologies. Trainspotters were clued-up connoisseurs, fiercely loyal in their regional allegiance to one or another of the 'Big Four' private companies who together ran the pre-nationalised system - the Southern, the Great Western, the London Midland and Scottish and, home to Mallard, the LNER.

I was, by the way, baffled by a tendency for journalists reporting the NRM celebration to write something like: "the Mallard and its sisters . . .". Surely that should be 'her sisters'? It may be supposed that some quivering sensibilities are offended by locomotives being thus 'feminised', yet 'sisters' remains unchallenged. Why anyone should object to such machines - elegant, powerful, charismatic - being described by a female pronoun is beyond me. Diesel engines, on the other hand, strike me as totally blokeish - noisy, functional, malodorous and unreliable.

It isn't merely nostalgia to see these majestic pre-war locomotives as a crowning achievement of our engineering past. They are by any objective measure among the most beautiful mechanical objects ever created. 

For my earlier blog about the Marxist interpretation of streamlining click here.

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