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The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

A New High Speed Train for the East Coast Main Line

(From a speech given by Nigel Harris Managing Editor of Rail to an RPC-NE/NW joint public meeting at the NRM in York in February 2002)

Let me close with a story that I believe is true of railway skill, inspiration, bravado, guts and achievement.

In April 1935, London North Eastern Railway chief mechanical engineer Nigel Gresley, who hadn't been knighted then, decided that he wanted a new high speed train for the East Coast Main Line, right outside this museum. He conceived a plan, specified a train for one hundred and forty passengers, producing the drawings and completed the detail work. He gave the instructions to the craftsmen at Doncaster works, part of which is sadly soon to close, just down the road, at the beginning of May.

In just five months the very first A4 pacific, the streamlined Silver Link was completed together with the train it was to haul. On September 27th 1935, straight off the drawing board and just three weeks old, that locomotive and complete train untried and unproven was flagged away from Kings Cross. The one hundred and five and a half miles to Grantham were not only covered in just eighty eight minutes, but Silver Link also achieved a new world speed record of one hundred and twelve and a half miles per hour. It ran for more than twenty five miles at one hundred miles an hour, an incredible achievement of the day, especially for brand new kit. That train hauled by the only locomotive completed, Silver Link, went into passenger service just three days later.

It then ran from London to Newcastle and back, five days a week for two weeks without any relief or problems before the next locomotive in the series was raised. There were no failures, no breakdowns, on a job requiring two, two hundred and sixty eight mile journeys daily, at an average speed of seventy miles per hour, and all from a completely new, untried, untested locomotive and train.

It was the start of the InterCity era that we now take for granted, and what a debut. It finds few parallels throughout railway history and certainly no equals. Other speed records followed for the A4, the most notable of which was achieved by Mallard, which is out in the main hall, which on July 3rd 1938 achieved one hundred and twenty six miles per hour, a record for steam which still stands.

Of course it was a different world, and of course there was less bureaucracy, fewer restrictions and a lot less red tape, but don't under estimate that achievement of Gresley's team, working at the very cutting edge of the technology that they were familiar with. Today we seem to find it impossible even to build multiple units and get them smoothly into service. We must have a simpler, slicker, less contracts driven, more flexible and humanly run railway, operated from clear plans, shared objectives and mutually beneficial pride and professionalism. It worked for Gresley, it could work for us. The SRA's new plan is a step in the right direction, paves the way, it is a good start and I can only commend it warmly, but it does have flaws and I hope that Richard Bowker will be open to persuasion to address them. For while it started as his plan, if it is going to work, it has to be our plan, and to make it our plan it must take us along with it, by incorporating views and approaches which maybe he equally doesn't currently share and I am sure that we will have to do the same.

One last thing, when you leave here please go through the great hall and admire Mallard, not just for its sleek lines and sheer glamour, which it has in abundance, but maybe more importantly for all it represents, because Mallard represents an age when small boys wanted to be engine drivers and we have got to recreate that as well, otherwise we will never solve the recruitment and training issues which hold the railways back.

The plan must not only create a reliable railway, it must recreate the prospect of exciting careers too, maybe Virgins Pendolino may start to do this, so as you leave please do something which I do every time I come here. It is inspirational, and while the technology it contains is of a bygone age, the spirit, values and drive which built these marvellous exhibits is something that we need to create afresh.

So as you go out those main doors, go round the front of Mallard and just with your fingernail flick the edge of one of its highly polished front buffers. If you get it right you will get a beautiful ring just like a bell and it will astonish you that one hundred and sixty odd tons of copper, steel and brass can be so finely tuned.