The Speed Record That Will Probably Never Be Broken

“Focus. Speed. I am speed. [. . .] Faster than fast, quicker than quick. I am Lightning.” —Cars (2006)

In A Nutshell

In this modern age, it’s not often speed records stand for long; the production car speed record, for example, is often being broken and re-broken. But, on July 3, 1938, a speed record was set which remains unbroken even today. The now-famous steam engine “Mallard” reached 202 kilometers per hour (126 mph), a speed record for steam engines.

The Whole Bushel

Steam railway engines are one of the best inventions to come out of Britain. They revolutionized travel, allowing greater volumes of people and goods to be moved much quicker than before. In the UK, steam engines carried on until 1968 in full time timetabled commercial service and well into the 1970s in private use, such as in coal mines. It’s no surprise then, that a British steam engine still holds the speed record today.

The 1930s were a golden age for the railways in Britain. Ever faster, more powerful, and more luxurious trains were being produced by the “Big Four” regional rail companies. One of the most lucrative routes was from London to Scotland and two of the Big Four companies were constantly trying to attract travelers onto their respective routes; The LMS (London, Midland Scottish) on the West Coast of England to Glasgow and the LNER (London North Eastern Railway) on the East Coast to Edinburgh. One way to gain publicity for the companies was their ability to claim they had the fastest train, and the record-breaking engines became famous. Both companies were determined to have the fastest service.

The speed record went back and forth between the LMS and the LNER (as well as the German state railway). However, the LNER had one advantage: A section of the line called Stoke Bank featured a steep gradient to allow trains to rapidly pick up speed, near Grantham in England.

In 1935, the A4 was the first of a new class of locomotive rolled out of Doncaster Works. Sleek, silver, and powerful, the new trains grabbed the attention of the public. Designed by top designer Sir Nigel Gresley, they were inspired by a Bugatti railcar (a type of self-propelled coach) which Gresley had seen in France and the German “flying hamburger” diesel service. It was an instant success. Britain’s first streamlined train, the Silver Jubilee (the caboose was streamlined as well as the locomotive) increased the people traveling on the line by an impressive 12 percent. The new A4s often went over 160 kilometers per hour (100 mph), with one making 180 kilometers per hour (112 mph) in publicity runs designed to build enthusiasm for the train. But, on June 28, 1937, an LMS engine reached 183 kilometers per hour (114 mph), a disaster for the LNER’s publicity department.

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To regain the record, a new attempt was arranged in secrecy. Mallard was chosen to pull the train as it was just four months old; old enough to iron out any small issues with the mechanics and young enough not to have developed any new issues. Driver J. Duddington had a reputation for pushing engines hard so he was chosen for the run. A fireman (to supply the engine with sufficient coal), T. Bray, and an inspector, J. Jenkins, joined him. Pulling a train made up of six coaches and a Dynamometer coach (to measure the speed), it set off from King’s Cross station in London.

After passing through Grantham at just 38 kilometers per hour (24 mph), Mallard accelerated hard. By the summit of Stoke Bank, he had Mallard traveling at 120 kilometers per hour (75 mph). From milepost 100 to milepost 93, (a distance of 11 kilometers, or 7 miles) Mallard went from 140–191 kilometers per hour (87–119 mph) and eventually reached 201 kilometers per hour (125 mph) further down the line. The Dynamometer coach measured 202 kilometers per hour (126 mph) for a short length of time, marking a new world record for speed and beating the German engine which held the record at 200 kilometers per hour (124.5 mph), by a whisker.

The A4s continued to reach great speeds. One of the class, named after the designer, Sir Nigel Gresley, still holds the post-war speed record. Today, they continue to reach the speed limit imposed on steam engines in Britain of 120 kilometers per hour (75 mph) on special trains.

Mallard recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of its famous speed run at the National Railway Museum in York, England. It was joined by the five other surviving A4 engines, including one from Canada and one from the USA. Mallard hasn’t run by itself since the 1980s; it currently resides at the National Railway Museum and still bears a plaque celebrating its successful run.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image photo credit: PTG Dudva
The Gresley A4 Pacifics
How Sir Nigel Gresley’s Mallard powered her way to speed record
Mallard: A Celebration