Centenary of Britain’s Big Four railways

The Times marks LNER’s 100th birthday

The LNER rail company has been celebrating its centenary this week, with this splendid video:

I admire the company’s enterprising PR spirit. But there’s more to this 100th birthday than you’d think reading an @LNER tweet. The current LNER is just five years old, taking over rail services on the east coast main line in 2018. The new operator revived the name of the historic LNER, which was created on 1 January 1923 when some 120 British railway companies were grouped into the ‘Big Four’: GWR, LNER, LMS and Southern Railway. Those iconic brands disappeared exactly 25 years later when the railways were nationalised. Yet their enduring appeal led to three of the famous names being revived by privatised-era rail operators: GWR, Southern and LNER. (The reborn LNER scrapped the conjunction in the old name, London and North Eastern Railway.)

The British government’s 1920 white paper that led to the 1923 grouping

It is striking that the aim of the grouping was to make the railways more efficient, and to eliminate direct competition ‘as far as possible’. Indeed, Winston Churchill spoke in favour of nationalising the railways in 1918, but changed his mind by the time the 1945 Labour government nationalised the Big Four as British Railways. The eventual amalgamation created just four groups rather than the seven suggested in 1920.

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Mallard and her sister A4s: the Great Gathering at York

The six surviving A4 pacifics at National Railway Museum, York

The six surviving A4 pacifics at National Railway Museum, York

Sundays were deadly dull in the 1930s, according to my father Bob Skinner. Yet one Sunday afternoon in 1938, a beautiful blue steam engine called Mallard set a world speed record that stands to this day. This week, the National Railway Museum in York has marked the 75th anniversary of that exploit by reuniting Mallard with its five surviving sister A4 engines: Bittern, Union of South Africa, Sir Nigel Gresley, Dominion of Canada and Dwight D Eisenhower.

It’s hard to describe the stunning spectacle of seeing six A4s lined up together in the  museum’s Great Hall. And the image is even more memorable knowing that Dominion of Canada and Dwight D Eisenhower have made remarkable journeys back across the Atlantic from their North American homes. (They left Britain at the end of steam in the 1960s.)


Owen in the seat from which Driver Duddington set the world speed record

High speed rail, 1935 style

The A4s are arguably the most beautiful railway engines ever built. Yet they also represented a dramatic move towards high speed train services by a company that was desperately short of money. The LNER was badly hit by the collapse of coal traffic during the Great Depression, but was determined to improve its express services in competition with its great rival, the LMS west coast railway.

The first A4, Silver Link, launched the Silver Jubilee service from London to Newcastle in 1935, with special silver trains to match the engines. Silver Link ran the service alone for the first 13 days, running 536 miles a day without a hitch. The Silver Jubilee cut an hour off the journey time – a 22 per cent reduction. Back in the 1930s, Britain led the world in railways. Today, we’ve been left far behind, arguing over high speed rail, which became common place in France, Germany and other countries more than 20 years ago. (See my 2012 blogpost about the HS2 high speed rail project.)

LNER A4 Bittern, our fastest current steam locomotive

Back to 2013. Mallard’s sister A4 Bittern set a speed record for a preserved steam record this summer: 92mph. That’s quite a feat for a 76 year old engine. Bittern has been given special dispensation to exceed the 75mph speed limit for steam trains on the national rail system. A fitting tribute to the A4s and their creator, LNER chief mechanical engineer Sir Nigel Gresley.

The A4 great gathering is a triumph for the National Railway Museum. Former director Steve Davies had the idea. Canada’s Exporail rail museum and America’s National Railroad Museum in Wisconsin made possible the repatriation of A4s Dominion of Canada and Dwight D Eisenhower. Moveright International brought the engines home free of charge. The owners of Union of South Africa, Bittern and Sir Nigel Gresley added the working A4s to the mix. And Hornby sponsored the entire event. Thanks to them all, entry to this extraordinary event was entirely free.

I’ll end with a photo showing three Sir Nigel Gresleys: a sign showing the man himself with his 100th pacific, A4 4489 in 1937, alongside the engine today, in British Railways blue as 60007.

Three Nigel Gresleys

Three Nigel Gresleys

Raising a glass to Mallard...

Raising a glass to Mallard…