August 2, 2008

Rail Fans Rejoice, Trainspotters Too: A "new" steam locomotive comes to life in UK

Those Brits are so nostalgic! Decades after the last steam locomotive was taken out of active main line service in the UK, a new locomotive has been built. Not a new design, but a faithful reproduction of a 1943 design like the one on the left, known as the A1 Peppercorn (after the design engineer Arthur Peppercorn). The new loco is called Tornado and moved "in steam" for the first time a few days ago. This picture, from the LNER archive site, shows one of the original Peppercorns, back in the day. This type of steam engine design is generally known as a "Pacific" and has much in common with some of the great American steam locomotives engines.

As you can see this is a beefy engine with a 4-6-2 configuration, capable of over speeds in excess of 100 mph. With all the talk of high speed rail today focused on sleek electric and diesel trains, and given all the woes of high speed rail in America today, it is easy to forget that steams trains were delivering passenger service at speeds up to 100 mph in Britain and America as early as the 1930s (the UK's LNER A3 Peppercorn 2750, named "Papyrus" is a contender for the title of first 100mph train, with a run it made in March, 1935).

The effort to build the Tornado, seen on the left, has cost about $6 million so far, and is part labor of love, part engineering challenge. The two hundred years of accumulated skills and knowledge that went into building the most advanced of the steam locomotives were about to be lost. Now they have been preserved, and updated. This process will extend to operations as the Tornado has been designed to run regular trips on British track, providing a rare treat for trainspotters.

Another motive was to ensure that one of each class of historic steam locomotive was preserved. Since all the examples of this type had been scrapped it was necessary, in some minds, to make a new one. That's how dedicated some rail enthusiasts are.
Just to put this into perspective, clock these rims. That's some serious metal work. And I don't know if anyone has put this loco through the "green" test to check it's carbon footprint versus a diesel, but it would be interesting. At least one person reckons that the Tornado should have been built to a newer design with an eye to it's eventual return. Finally, one has to applaud this level of enthusiasm for transportation technology. If only America had not caved in to the vested interests of car makers, tire makers, oil companies, and road builders, just think what we might have today in terms of trains. New York to Miami in 10 hours? Cross country in a day? With the comfort of rail and without the endless hassles of air travel. What a sweet green dream.