3 July 1938: Mallard Became the Fastest Steam Locomotive

The record set by the LNER’s Mallard locomotive on 3 July 1938 looks set to remain unbroken well into the future.

LNER's Mallard by Steve F E Cameron

LNER's Mallard by Steve F E Cameron

In the 1930s the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), Sir Nigel Gresley, took on the challenge of designing a class of faster and more reliable steam locomotives. High speed services in the USA and Germany used streamlined trains, so Gresley experimented with streamlining of existing locomotives.

The result of his trials was the A4 class. As well as a streamlined body shape, the A4 had improvements made to its valves and cylinders, an increased boiler pressure and subsequent changes to its exhaust and brakes. The first A4 locomotive reached a top speed of over 112mph in a demonstration between Kings Cross and Grantham on 27 September 1935.

Soon, other British railway companies were putting streamlined locomotives on the tracks, including the London Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway’s Coronation class. LMS and LNER drivers competed for the fastest speed record, often ignoring safety in pursuit of glory, until the directors of both companies stopped the rivalry. At that time the 114mph record was held by one of the LMS Coronations.

But there was to be one more attempt at breaking the record. On 3 July 1938 the A4 4468 Mallard pulled a train of seven vehicles, including a dynamometer car to measure its speed, with a total weight of 240 tons. The train, crewed by driver Joseph Duddington and fireman Thomas Bray, left Barkston, just north of Grantham, and headed south.

After passing through Grantham at 24mph, Mallard ascended an incline and had achieved 75mph by the time it reached Stoke Summit. From there it was all downhill. Mallard accelerated down from the summit and quickly exceeded the LMS record. Along one three-mile stretch of track the locomotive’s speed did not drop below 120mph, and for a very short distance the dynamometer car recorded a top speed of 126mph.

Shortly after the record was set, one of the locomotive’s three cylinders overheated and it had to return to Doncaster for repairs. Mallard continued in service after its repairs until 1963. It now has a permanent home at the National Railway Museum in York (although from 23 June 2010 it is on temporary loan to the National Railway Museum’s locomotion site in Shildon, County Durham). The record set by Mallard on 3 July 1938 for the fastest steam locomotive has remained unbroken for 72 years and looks set to endure.

View more July events

Be Sociable, Share!

Join the discussion