Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Book review: "Mallard: how the 'Blue Streak' broke the world speed record", by Don Hale

For boys of a certain generation, 'Mallard' conjures up images not of a duck floating on a pond, but of a garter-blue locomotive spitting fire and cinders.

On the 3rd July 1938, driver Joseph Duddington and fireman Thomas Bray drove streamlined LNER locomotive Mallard, along with seven coaches, down Stoke Bank towards Peterborough, setting a world speed record for steam locomotives of 126 MPH. It is a record that stands to this day.

It is an oft-told story, and a well-known one. In fact, it is so well known that yet another tome about the record attempt seems scarcely necessary. Thankfully, the author seems to have recognised this, and the attempt is only covered in the last fifth of the book. The remainder mostly concerns the people involved, including the Mallard's designer, Sir Nigel Gresley.

Mallard's record-breaking run really marked the end of the glory years of railway travel. War was approaching, and in fact the run had a lot to do with national and international rivalry. The LNER's great rival, the LMS, had the current British record, set the previous year when Sir William Stanier's streamlined Coronation class locomotive reached 114 MPH.

The international rivalry came from Germany, whose O5 locomotive had reached 124.5 MPH two years earlier. To this day some claim that Germany still holds the record, but those later attempts were not independently verified.

Despite being familiar with the story, I learnt some new things: for instance the famous luxury car maker Bugatti was a friend of Gresley's, and was involved with the design of the streamlining. In fact, Bugatti himself designed streamlined petrol and diesel locomotives for high-speed running. Many enthusiasts paint Gresley and Stanier as great rivals; that may be the case, but they were also firm friends. In fact, Stanier's son introduced Gresley's daughter to her future husband.

Some items are not adequately covered: Stanier's Coronation class were the most powerful British steam locomotives ever made, and many believe a member of the class could have beaten Mallard's record. But unlike the LNER, the LMS did not have a stretch of track suitable for setting the record. Who knows what speed a Coronation could have reached on its way down to Grantham?

But they are minor quibbles. The author has managed to get some relatively fresh and unbiased angles on a famous story, without going into too much technical detail. This thin book was both fascinating and enlightening.

No comments: