Tornado A1 locomotive

All aboard Tornado: engineering a new steam locomotive

‘Tornado’ has passed its first annual maintenance exams. E&T looks at the revived skills and the modern techniques that have brought the UK’s newest steam locomotive onto the mainline, after 20 years of determination to make the dream a reality.

Amongst 2009’s gloomy stories about the state of the economy, one piece of news could raise a smile. On 7 February, Tornado – the world’s newest and most advanced steam engine – was treated to a rousing welcome, as thousands crammed into London’s King’s Cross station to witness its arrival in the capital. This was just the start of a year that saw the Peppercorn class A1 Pacific draw large crowds around the country.

The engine took the registered charity behind the project – The A1 Steam Locomotive Trust – nearly 20 years to build and was partly financed for the price of a pint – albeit donated every week for several years by an army of loyal covenantors. In fact, the total build cost was over £3m, which, along with the deeds of covenant, was raised through donations, sponsorship of individual components, loans, and a bond issue. Various commercial sponsors, headed by William Cook Cast Products Ltd, also produced components, or worked on the locomotive, for free or at a discount. The end result of this volunteer-run project is by anyone’s standards impressive, but the scale of the locomotive’s popularity has taken the A1 Trust by surprise.

“We were worried people wouldn’t feel an emotional attachment to a locomotive that had no history. However, because people have paid for it to be built and seen it growing before them, there is a much deeper emotional tie than we ever expected,” explains Mark Allatt, chairman of the A1 Trust. “It’s also something children feel they can associate with, because it’s not 100 years older than them.”

All 49 of the original A1s were built through 1948-49 after the formation of British Railways, but had been designed by Arthur Peppercorn for the LNER (London and North Eastern Railway) to haul express passenger trains on the East Coast Mainline. While a selection of other LNER Pacifics – including A3 Pacific Flying Scotsman and A4 Pacific Mallard – were saved, no example of an A1 made its way into preservation. So the A1 E F Trust was formed to plug this gap in British railway history, albeit with slight design adjustments to aid construction, improve performance, and satisfy modern regulations.

Along with the innovative fundraising, the targeted use of volunteers’ professional skills seems to have been crucial for keeping the project afloat. “One of our adages is: ‘You do for the Trust what you do for a living’. We didn’t ever ask a bank manager to learn to weld. We asked him or her to look after the money,” explains Allatt. This approach suits the volunteers too. “On a personal level, I’m a chartered engineer and proud to be a professional in the railway approvals field,” says Graham Nicholas, director of quality and certification for the A1 Trust. “I’ve stuck with the project because I could see it was being run on that sort of basis.”

In addition to using the professional skills of its volunteers, the A1 Trust also employed specialist contractors for most of the main manufacturing. The boiler, for example – which, to reduce maintenance, is welded rather than riveted, like the originals – was built at the Dampflokwerk Meiningen railway works in Germany, and, according to David Elliott, director of engineering for the A1 Trust, is likely to return there when major servicing is required. “The UK heritage boiler industry does not have much expertise with fully welded modern boilers, whereas Meiningen will know what they need to replace,” he says, adding that it was this lack of UK skills that led them to choose the German works for the initial construction. “Meiningen was in East Germany where they operated steam on the mainline until 1988, and the region has never stopped using steam on narrow gauge railways, so the works has maintained a full design capability,” he explains.

"I think the main reason this engine is running so well is that we have applied modern engineering principles and have taken the time to build the locomotive as closely to the drawings as possible,” continues Elliot.

In order to keep running, Tornado must have a constant cycle of examinations and maintenance. “Every time it goes out it has a ‘fitness to run’ exam by DB Schenker, one of two companies that can operate network-wide mainline steam trains,” explains A1 Trust operations director Graeme Bunker. In addition, the A1 Trust carries out a monthly ‘A exam’ to make sure Tornado will continue to pass its Fitness to Run tests and a six-monthly ‘B exam’. “Tornado also has an annual ‘C’ exam by the insurance company and Vehicle Acceptance Body (VAB),” says Bunker. (Tornado’s VAB is DeltaRail, who check traction, is compliant with UK rail industry standards and have a mandate for working with steam locomotives.) All these examinations cover both the mechanical parts and the electrical system.

The original A1s were renowned for their reliability, and Tornado should be no exception. It will have an intermediate overhaul after five years, which will include replacing boiler tubes, so it can remain running on the mainline until the ten-year boiler certificate expires and the main overhaul takes place.

“In terms of the clock ticking on the overhaul and recertification cycle that all started in January 2008 when we did the boiler test so we’re already two years into that,” says Nicholas. “Our five-year overhaul is really what’s focusing our minds at the moment, as we need the money to pay for it.”

Funds are also required to clear the remaining £600,000 of debt, and to make a pot available for any unexpected problems. While Tornado continues to attract new covenantors, it is also working for its living by being hired out for use on mainline excursions and visiting heritage railways with the Trust then taking a percentage of the gate. Merchandising brings in further revenue, as do the Trust’s own excursions overseen by Bunker whose day job is running his steam-hauled railway tours company Steam Dreams. While ticket prices of a few hundred pounds can seem expensive, they are often comparable to a regular walk-on fare, and a profit needs to be made on each trip, which is not cheap to run.

“To put a train on between London and Bath for example, by the time you’ve organised coal and water, the crews, paid Network Rail for the access, hired coaches and caterers and done publicity, you’re not going to get much change out of £40,000,” says Bunker.

Tornado’s crews are drivers from rail freight operators DB Schenker, specially trained by ex-steam drivers and firemen from the 1960s. Like boiler inspection, these are some of the few steam-related jobs still in existence, all of which are attracting new blood. “I can fire mainline steam and I am 35 and not the youngest, so there is longevity about it,” says Bunker.

Compared with the original A1s, Tornado has an adapted tender which carries 1.5 tonnes less coal (1.5 tonnes), but 1,200 extra gallons of water. “We can go 100 to 110 miles with a full tender, which is around 20 miles more than most other engines,” explains Bunker. “We very rarely go far enough to use a tender full of coal, but water is all important. Historically London to Newcastle would need three water stops, but now we’d only need two, and this helps make the journey times quicker.”

As the water columns and troughs no longer exist that were common to the UK rail network before the withdrawal of steam traction in 1968, private tanker companies fill Tornado’s tender during water stops – not the Fire Brigade as is often thought. “The Fire Brigade only carry about 500 gallons of water, and we use 6,000,” explains Bunker. At every stop-off, the engine is also oiled, filled with coal, and has its grate cleaned to remove metallic impurities from the coal that can stop air getting through to the fire.

The A1 Trust would eventually like to run Tornado at 90mph like the original A1s. “We will have to apply for a derogation [reduction of normal regulatory standards] as the current railway legislation limits the maximum speed for steam locomotives to 75 mph,” says Elliott. This is mainly because of the age of heritage locomotives, but even though Tornado is a new build, several potential problems need addressing.

“We must look at impact forces over bridges and on structures,” explains Bunker. “Tornado is no more aggressive in terms of what it does to the track than modern locomotives, but the weight is more concentrated and 170 tonnes can end up on one bridge. Freight wagons are heavier on an axle loading but they are spread out. We’ll also need to ensure drivers have got adequate time to observe signals, as visibility from a modern engine is much better than from a steam engine.”

In addition, more maintenance will be required. “It may only be a 20 per cent increase in speed, but it’s a 44 per cent increase in wear and tear,” cautions Nicholas.

In the immediate future, the nearly-full 2010 diary will help keep the engine on track financially. Meanwhile the A1 Trust are considering building another locomotive, reveals Trust chairman Allatt. “We are having discussions about what we do next. Having pooled all this expertise together, people don’t want that to be the end of it.”

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