Last month, my son and I were on the footplate of the Mallard, famous as the fastest steam locomotive in the world. I should clarify that the engine wasn’t moving at the time; it’s an exhibit at the National Railway Museum in York.
On July 3rd 1938 the Mallard briefly touched 126 miles per hour (203 km/h)… and then limped home for repairs. The Mallard wasn’t a custom-built racing machine, though: thirty-five locomotives of the Pacific A4 class were constructed for use on the East Coast Main Line that runs between London and Edinburgh, and they served from 1935 until 1966.
The Mallard is an interesting, even beautiful machine, but it’s inescapably a product of the 1930s. Although designer Sir Nigel Gresley streamlined his creation with care using Plasticine models in the wind tunnel at the National Physical Laboratory, Mallard is covered with handrails and handles, and exhibits panels that don’t quite fit perfectly, held in place with big, lumpy rivets – and there’s no getting away from the fact that in a 218 tonne train, more than 167 tonnes is the locomotive and tender. In other words, three quarters of what a Pacific A4 locomotive moves is itself.
Of course we’re supposed to be kind when writing about the venerable Mallard, and I don’t mean to cause offense to steam enthusiasts… but this was the pinnacle for steam, and the circumstances that led to its creation were distinctly unusual. Throughout its life the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), creators of the Pacific A4, never made a profit. One might question why our small island needed four competing railway companies, each designing their own locomotives… and it seems the post-war government wasn’t impressed either: they rolled everything into British Railways from the start of 1948.
On the footplate of the Mallard, the working environment seems more like something from the Victorian era. The controls aren’t exactly ergonomic; in fact everything seems rather like the machines that you see preserved in old factories, with no safety guards, and precious little in the way of mistake-proofing. I could immediately see at least a dozen places where you’d badly injure yourself if you rested your hand. (You could argue that only an experienced driver and fireman would be on the footplate, and they’d know what they can and can’t touch… but is that any way to design a machine? Not by our modern way of thinking.)
For the fireman, things were probably worse. Scooping up coal where it spilled from the tender, he had to turn through 180 degrees to deliver each shovelful into the firebox, bending low while standing atop the hinged connection between locomotive and tender. It can’t always have been a smooth ride, and it was hot, dusty and noisy as well.
Nostalgia had no place in the new British Railways, and the LNER’s express locomotives were replaced by the British Rail Class 55, or ‘Deltic’: a powerful diesel. Significantly, just 22 Deltics were needed to replace 55 of Gresley’s A3s and A4s.
If the Mallard teaches us anything, it is that you can stay with a technology for too long. Getting a couple of hundred tonnes of iron and steel up above 125 miles per hour was a glorious, crazy thing to do, and it deserves to be celebrated – but it didn’t offer a way forward. The LNER got some great publicity out of the stunt, and it was valuable for national pride given that the previous speed record had been set in Germany… but coal and steam had delivered just about as much as they possibly could.
It may well be that some of our present-day technologies are similarly doomed to disappear from common usage. Perhaps improvements to petrol engines have entered a period of diminishing returns and will likewise go from being commonplace to being found mainly in museums, within a few decades? The next time somebody tells you that petrol is more practical for private cars than electricity because of the existing infrastructure, think back to when the British chose to stick with coal on the railways for much the same reason.