'Tornado' and the magic of high-speed steam

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The British 4-6-2 'Tornado' recently became the first steam locomotive to attain 100 mph in half a century. Still in gray primer shortly after its completion, the A1 breaks in on a tourist railway in September 2008. Mike Walker photo
Last week the steam preservation world was abuzz with the news that Britain’s ultimate steam star — A1-class 4-6-2 Tornado — had reached 100 mph on April 12 in a special trial run between Doncaster and Newcastle on the East Coast Main Line.

The news was sensational on both sides of the Atlantic, where hitting the “century mark” is seen as an almost magical feat for a steam locomotive. That fascination goes back to the late 19th century, and judging from the reaction on railroad social media, it hasn’t worn off a bit.

For those who don’t follow U.K. steam closely, the Tornado is that brand-new engine built from scratch by the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust at its facility in Darlington, 217 miles north of London. The group raised millions of dollars and performed engineering and manufacturing miracles as the engine, officially No. 60163, took shape beginning in 1994. Fourteen years later, on July 29, 2008, it made its first run.

The Tornado stirred deep passions in England, for it symbolized one of the most beloved classes of locomotives from the glory days of British steam. There were 49 of the A1 Pacifics, designed by the London & North Eastern Railway on the eve of the nationalization of Britain’s railways; LNER’s chief mechanical engineer was Arthur Peppercorn, and his name came to be associated with the class. The new British Railways built the A1s at the old LNER shop at Doncaster in 1948–49. All of them were scrapped, a travesty that nagged at the U.K. steam community. Along comes a talented and determined group and does something about it. Something stunning.

The speed trial of the Tornado wasn’t a mere publicity stunt. The test had a serious purpose: to prove the suitability for running the Tornado (and by extension, other British steam) at 90 mph in order to blend effectively with all the other trains crowding the national system. In other words, if mainline steam is to survive, it has to run faster. 

The first locomotive for which a speed of 100 mph was claimed was NYC 4-4-0 No. 999, which was reported to have hit 112.5 mph in May 1893. The claim has long been disputed, but the engine is an icon of speed. NYC photo
Quite the opposite of the American state of affairs, where, for mostly good reasons, U.S. mainline steam is kept to a much slower pace. More on that in a moment.

Americans’ fascination with the century mark goes back to May 9 and 10, 1893, when the New York Central introduced the Empire State Express by supposedly running 4-4-0 No. 999 at speeds over 100 mph between Batavia and Buffalo, N.Y. I said “supposedly” because there is some controversy over the achievement; some sources say a speed recorder on the 999 never registered beyond 86 mph, and that the higher speeds were recorded by unreliable newspapermen. Still, 999 and its run became legendary, and today the locomotive is enshrined at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry.

In the 20th century, speeds of 100 mph got to be almost routine on some railroads, often when daring engineers pushed their luck to get back on schedule, but also as a matter of course as dictated by the timetable. 

A Milwaukee F7-class 4-6-4 blurs through Rondout, Ill., where signs advised engineers to REDUCE speed to 90 mph. Frank Sellers photo
To my mind, the greatest example is the Milwaukee Road’s fleet of Hiawathas, specifically those hauled by the railroad’s rakish A-class 4-4-2s and F7-class 4-6-4s, running on timetables that required sustained bursts of 100 mph between Milwaukee and Chicago and between Portage and New Lisbon, Wis. It’s true that in its heyday, the Hi was famously required to slow to 90 mph for the EJ&E diamonds at Rondout, Ill. You can look it up.

After the Tornado’s accomplishment last week, some American railfans were asking, if 90 mph is to be the U.K.’s new normal, “why not here?” There are any number of reasons: the Tornado is virtually a brand-new machine, with the benefit of recent engineering advances; British main lines are signaled for high speed virtually everywhere, and they’re relatively unencumbered by road crossings; the U.K. steam scene is better organized, with much wider public support. 

Besides, the big engines we love on this side of the pond aren’t speedsters in the manner of the 60163. It’s apples and oranges. To get a feel for how operators of U.S. mainline steam view speed, I checked in with two friends involved in two of our most active locomotives, Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765 and Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261.

For Kelly Lynch, of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, the operation of the 765 is done with an eye toward authenticity. As a freighter, the NKP Berkshire is capable of fairly high speeds, something we saw last year when it ran on Metra in Chicago.

NKP 2-8-4 No. 765 accelerates on Metra track north of Lake Forest, Ill., with an excursion on the day in June 2016 when it hit 72 mph. Robert S. McGonigal photo
“We don’t have a policy [on speed] except to follow the standards and practices of the Nickel Plate Road and Lima Locomotive Works,” says Lynch. “The 765 peaked at 72 mph last season on Metra and the locomotive is a different animal at those speeds. The Berkshires ran above 60 mph in regular service and the 765 has gone even faster than it did last season. Regardless of its age, our team has confidence in the 765. The running gear is in very good condition and our volunteers and contractors are very exacting in their work.”

Much of 765’s recent operations have been on Norfolk Southern, which enforces a 40-mph speed limit on steam, and for that reason, Lynch has some affinity for the Brits. “Compared to the Tornado, we have similar reasons for wanting to go faster and it’s not to make history — it’s because we can get over the road faster and use fewer resources. Some of our longer deadhead moves could have been greatly abbreviated just by increasing the timetable speed, but that’s not a complaint as much as it is an observation.” 

For Steve Sandberg, higher speeds can be a good thing, even for a 4-8-4 built in 1944. And speed was a hallmark of the Milwaukee Road in those days.

“The 261 was designed for passenger trains, express mail, and high priority freight, spending much of its early life hauling troop trains and priority war materials. With its 74-inch drivers, it was capable of operating at speeds of 100 mph,” says Sandburg. “When delivered the S3-class 4-8-4s operated regularly at speeds of 90 mph, but after the war and as track condition deteriorated, a 75-mph speed restriction was placed on them.”

Today, the 261 generally sticks to a maximum 60 mph, but when the occasion merits, the big Alco will exceed that.

“In fact the 261 has a ‘sweet spot’ and rides best at 70 mph,” Sandberg adds. “But most of the time you will find the 261 operating at 60 mph. We have found that this is a good safe speed in which passengers can enjoy the ride and the wear and tear on the locomotive is kept to a minimum. The higher the speed the higher the maintenance cost.”

And will Sandberg run fast just for the sake of running fast? Forget it. “Safety is the biggest factor. You will never find the 261 running fast just to prove we can do it; we already know it can.”

Meanwhile, 765’s Kelly Lynch, ever conscious of the cost of running mainline steam, thought of another good reason to run faster: “It makes it harder to chase, which means the best way to catch the 765 is to be on board our train.” As someone who has sampled the Fort Wayne group’s terrific on-board hospitality, I can say amen to that.

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