Q+A: A1 Steam Locomotive Trust

Tornado racing along Dawlish sea wall in August 2009. Photo by Dave Cooper, Simon Pielow, under Creative Commons licence BY SA 2.0.

Mark Allatt of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust kindly took sometime to speak to us by phone about Tornado’s first ten years, the future of the Trust and more.

NBS: After ten years of very successful operation and all sorts of achievements, what’s next for Tornado? Is there any more new ground to break, or major achievements to rack up that you’ve got your eyes on?

MA: Crikey, there’s always new ground to break. We deliberately try and make sure we do something new, fresh, ground-breaking all the time, and look for the opportunities that would do that. So this last year it was the opening of the S&C, it was obviously the hundred miles an hour that we’d been planning for a very very long time, and this year we’ve got Tornado’s tenth anniversary celebrations that start in the summer and run through until next year. We’ll pick every so often to do a train like one of the Elizabethans that we’ve done, which is Tornado one-way to Edinburgh and then the Deltic back and stuff like that.

So having done Paddington 2, having done two TV programmes about us, having done Top Gear, we work those types of opportunities all the time to try and make sure we’re doing something that lifts the locomotive beyond just where you’d expect it to be.

NBS: Can you quantify the sort of impacts and benefits that something like Paddington 2 brings, and how would to seek to quantify it – is that in monetary terms, or in terms of the funds for the future operation of the loco…?

MA: Well, I wouldn’t say I have quantified it, but there are certain train bookings that we’ve had which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done Paddington 2, we’re getting invitations to preserved lines where they’re wanting us to go there because they know that the locomotive that was in Paddington 2 will generate more revenue for them because it’s got an appeal to a certain age group, etc.

So we’re very conscious of what will help to drive the right type of profile, and therefore will drive the right type of opportunity for us, but we also know for instance that the single biggest reason that people come on our tours is because they’re booking to travel behind Tornado. Whereas that’s not necessarily the case with other locomotives that are operating on the main line. If you think about the factors in deciding to choose a rail tour as a passenger, there’s obviously price and the type of experience you want, but there’s the locomotive pulling it, there’s the route and there’s the date. Well, with us, of those, travelling behind Tornado is the first factor in that decision.

NBS: Do you think that’s a factor that will endure or last for the long term? And I want to talk about the vision that the Trust has put a great deal of work into, clearly, for the long term.

MA: Well, it will decay if you don’t stoke it constantly. Anything’s profile, if you build a profile up and then do nothing about keeping it there then it will decay as people’s memory of it fades. Just the same way in which it’s now less about Tornado being the first new steam loco for fifty years and it’s becoming about just the fact that it’s Tornado, because everyone’s heard of it, and because it’s been on Top Gear and in Paddington 2, and it’s done a hundred miles an hour. All of those factors contribute to the story, and different elements of that story become more important over time. The secret is to make sure that you’re always writing that story.

The only locomotive I can draw a parallel with is Flying Scotsman really: the first steam locomotive to be built by the LNER, it went to the British Empire Exhibition, it then was the first one to do the non-stop, it was then the first to do a hundred miles an hour, it did loads of exhibitions throughout the 1930s, it then went on to be the first express passenger loco to be privately preserved, then it went to America, then it went to Australia, then it did the longest ever run when it was in Australia, etc. etc. All of those contribute to the locomotive’s remarkable story. And in a way Tornado’s story, although it’s a different story, and it’s not over anything like that length of time yet, if you think about what we’ve crammed into the first ten years it’s quite remarkable. But it’s deliberate, that’s the point to get over. We are constantly, actively seeking the right opportunities.

Tornado crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct on last year’s pioneering Plandampf service. Adapted from image by arg_flickr, under Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0.

NBS: There’s also a lot of synergies and connections that you’ve formed around Tornado – military, royal family, film-makers. What’s the value of each of those proved to be?

MA: Royal family: profile and connections, gravitas. Again, it provides a bit of that halo around the locomotive. Military – though it’s a great honour to be with them anyway, I think we all enjoy being with people who’ve been in the military – it’s very nice to be able to work with people of such talent and dedication, again the professionalism that they exude every time you have anything to do with them is something which we hope we are able to keep up with.

And again it’s profile – it’s a symbiotic relationship, they get benefits from it, we get benefits from it as well, and hopefully we all gain from that. So they all contribute to that story I was talking about, they all contribute to raising a profile, they all contribute to why, when you ask someone to name a steam engine, hopefully they’ll name Tornado above most others. Even though it’s the youngest.

NBS: Looking ahead a bit further, do you have a view on the sort of environment that you expect Tornado to be operating in in the future – 10, 15, 20 years down the line? In terms of main line, preserved lines, what the fleet might look like and where new builds will be in the mix?

MA: Yeah, that’s a big question. Clearly the time lapse between when steam finished on the main line and where we are will become longer and longer, and it will become more and more challenging to operate steam on the main line. We have to make sure we have all the right electronics and safety equipment on board, there has to be the right relationships with the right people to make sure it continues to happen, and steam has to continue to demonstrate that it adds value to the railway. As the railway becomes busier, finding paths becomes harder, hence why Tornado being able to do 90 miles an hour on certain routes at certain times will become increasingly important, why Tornado’s extra range will become ever more important.

I think that there comes a point increasingly where – like with the Tower of London and its “axes and handles” – how much of original locomotives are left? It’s easier to maintain and overhaul a locomotive where you know what it is, rather than one where you don’t, if that makes sense. So, with Tornado, because we built the locomotive and we have records of that build and records of what’s where, and we know how we’ve overhauled everything, we know the condition of everything. Many locomotive owners and custodians don’t have that luxury – we’ve not sat in a scrapyard for thirty years, or we’ve not been run for thirty years by either BR or a predecessor company, where records have been either lost or not kept. So, we have the added advantage of knowing the condition of the locomotive.

So, what will the main line fleet look like? Smaller, I suspect. It will at least have one more new build in it anyway, by that time!

NBS: For the Trust in that world, you’ll have hopefully a small fleet of new builds of your own, and the new site and rolling stock. You’ll be operationally fairly self-sufficient – is there anything you won’t have?

MA: Well we won’t be a train operating company, will we?

NBS: That’s not an ambition, is it?

MA: It’s something we will always keep under review. It’s not on the agenda at the moment. We’ve got a very very strong working relationship with DB Cargo, but you don’t ever say never in these spaces. It will be interesting to see how Jeremy Hosking’s outfit does, and obviously we’re seeing others potentially go down that route as well, so we keep a watching brief, we look at it, see what they’re doing. It’s not right for us at the moment; will it be right for us in the future? Might be, yeah. But it’s not on our agenda at the moment.

NBS: And for the new site, was Whessoe Road always the prime candidate, or were there other serious contenders?

MA: No, there were other sites. We’d been aware of that site for quite a number of years, we have been slowly working in the background on this for quite a long time. Since before Tornado was completed, that’s how long we’ve been working on this. Because it was very apparent that, although the building we’ve got is wonderful, it’s the perfect building to build in, we can only build one locomotive at a time, we can’t overhaul Tornado in it, we can’t raise steam in it, and we are getting a bit constrained by space. One of the big downsides is we can’t bring our own locomotives back for overhaul – when we do, we can’t do it at the same time as build one, we can’t use it as a base to run out of, and all those are reasons why we need to have a base where we can build, operate and maintain, with a main line connection.

NBS: So what does that mean for the next overhaul of Tornado? Potentially getting it into the building after Prince of Wales comes out?

MA: All depends on timing. There’s too much in the air at the moment to be able to say concretely one way or another on that.

NBS: The other aspect of the big plan I wanted to ask about was the coaching stock. So, the choice of Mk3 carriages – was that again part of the long-term thinking?

MA: Absolutely. Mk3s are going to be in use by the railway for many years to come, bearing in mind many of the HST ones are migrating up to Scotland. The railway understands the Mk3, it’s a great vehicle. It’s had many of the mods that need doing to operate on the modern railway – CTL, retention toilets. etc. etc. – have already been done. They can be made, as you can see from the Grand Hiberian over in Ireland, to have a pastiche of looking more traditional. So they’ll provide all the benefits of a more modern vehicle, with all the traditional look and feel that we can bring.

Modified Grand Hibernian Mk3 coach. From a photo by Milepost98 on Wikipedia, adapted under Creative Commons licence BY-SA 4.0 and available for reuse under the same.

NBS: So what will that entail, presentation-wise?

MA: It’ll mean picking an appropriate livery, it’ll mean making sure there are opening windows that are fitted, it’ll mean making sure that the seating is configured in the right way, etc.

NBS: I won’t ask you about what livery it will be, which I’m sure everyone wants to know…

MA: I’m sure they do, and if they know they can tell me, because I don’t. We haven’t got that far with it yet. We’ve got ideas, we’ve got concepts, but we’ve not made those decision yet.

NBS: In terms of the team involved in the operation of the Trust and Tornado today, has there been a lot of continuity over the ten years or from before Tornado became operational to now, what’s the balance between staff and volunteers, and what sort of skills are needed on that team?

MA: OK, interesting question. Clearly, because we’ve been going as an organisation now for 28 years, clearly some of the people around are going to be people who’ve been there from the start, a lot of those who were there at the start are dead, and new people come on board all the time. And also the need for people changes all the time.

We had a mantra right at the beginning when we formed the organisation, which is you do for the Trust what you do for a living. We don’t ask an accountant to weld, we ask an accountant to look after money. And a lot of organisations don’t do that, where they pick someone who’s enthusiastic and ask them to do something they’re not skilled enough to do. My job is in marketing, branding, PR, communications, business development, sponsorship, that type of thing, and that’s what I’ve traditionally done for the Trust. And I’ve been doing that for the Trust since 1991, in fact it’s my 27th anniversary of doing it this month! I got involved at the second public meeting, that was held in London, as did David Elliott. There are other people who are much more recent, but then again what we need from a skillset changes over time as well.

So we’re constantly looking at the organisation, looking at the roles people do, with that mantra in mind that you do for the Trust what you do for a living, and looking at where we have skills gaps, where we just have resourcing gaps because of the volume of work, etc. And in the not too distant future we will be a very very different, and vastly bigger, organisation than we were when we were just building Tornado. We’re operating Tornado, we’re building a second locomotive, we’ll be running a major steam centre, we’re organising our own main line railtours, and we’ll have our own rake of coaches – that’s vastly different in scale.

And then you look at the balance between voluntary and paid labour, that again is something that evolves over time. We didn’t have any employees as an organisation for many years, however: although all of our fundraising and administration had historically been done by volunteers, the vast majority of the engineering was always paid labour doing that. We’ve always had volunteers helping, but that’s been very much in an assistance role rather than a leading role. That’s always been a virtue since the beginning – we recognised that the engineering needed to be paid for, even if it was paid for in small bites to start with. We’ve got an engineering team now, and getting to the scale where some of the administration needed to be done, and now some of the fundraising is also being done, by paid staff. And that’s a reflection of our scale, it’s a reflection of actually how much more you can get done when you’re paying staff. It means you get better use of senior people like me, and my time when I’m doing things.

There’s also the changing nature of the availability of volunteers – the days of people who are fit and healthy and retiring in their fifties on large final salary pensions and can afford to do all of this are well over. People are now having to work longer, with smaller pensions, and they’re not going to be available to effectively have a second career which they just don’t get paid for. So that whole area of early retirees who have been the engine room of the railway heritage movement for years is changing, and changing rapidly.

NBS: It’s occurred to me its going to be a very different world when labour from those people and potentially also financial support from those people isn’t available on the scale that it has been.

MA: I think the financial support remains there, to be honest with you. Yes you have to go out of your way – too many people have passively waited for it to come through the door rather than chased it – but I think it’s more that the labour won’t be there. But then again, getting something done with a volunteer versus getting something done with the right paid-for person are two very different things. Managing volunteers can be challenging – volunteers volunteer only when they want to, quite rightly, and often they are quite strict about what they are and are not willing to do, whereas an employee has got an employment contract with you and they will work the set hours and have set deliverables, and they do it or they don’t continue working for you.

And so for instance, when I first started doing stuff for the Trust, getting a single press release out of the door was a major logistical exercise that would take up most of my spare time for a week. You’d write the bloody thing, you’d then typeset it because that’s what you had to do in those days, we’re talking 27 years ago. Because no one then had email, obviously, you then had to photocopy however many hundreds of copies you were sending out, duplicate all the photography, pack them all, stick the labels on and then post them out. It used to take a bloody week to do a single press release! You can do it at the click of a button now.

Tornado in its testing livery, outside Darlington Locomotive Works, August 2008.

NBS: You’ve mentioned the fundraising – what’s the profile of donors and supporters?

MA: I’d say we have supporters from all walks of life. I’d say one of the differences maybe between us and some of the other single locomotive owning groups or ones that own several locomotives is that because we started a few years later, maybe our age profile is a little bit younger. Because if you think about the groups like the Gresley Society, which I’m a member of, that set up to buy the N2, they started in 1963 or something so some of their people are still members from 1963 – I know quite a lot of them actually! But then there are those societies that bought things out of Barry in the 70s and 80s and maybe even into the early 90s, and they’ll be that bit younger; and we set up in the early 90s. So I think by its very nature, because some societies can be quite closed in the way they don’t attract newcomers necessarily later on in life, our age profile is maybe ten, twenty years younger, on average, than some are. It could just be the fact that we started later.

NBS: What’s the – for want of a better phrase – business model in relation to Tornado? Is it too crude a generalisation to say the steaming fees cover ongoing running and maintenance, you still need the covenantors for overhauls, and is that basically like the model that seems common for most locomotives now, you always need additional funds for for the overhaul?

MA: Yeah, that’s pretty much where it is at the moment.

NBS: One last question – looking back over the last ten years of Tornado’s operation, would you do anything differently?

MA: Over the last ten years… Would I do anything differently? There’s trains that we might not have run because they weren’t as profitable as others might have been. I’ve never thought about that to be quite honest with you! I don’t know! Can’t think of anything to be quite honest with you.

NBS: Fair enough, it’s been a very successful ten years!

MA: Yeah, I think so!

NBS: Those are the things I wanted to run through. Is there anything else you want to put across?

MA: I think the important thing is not standing still. We’ve got to keep creating that story, we’ve got to keep making Tornado relevant, which is why it wasn’t enough ever just to be the first new steam locomotive to be built in 50 years, you then had to do things beyond that as well, and that’s what we’ll continue to do. And I think the other thing, perhaps something for other new build groups just to consider, is that the challenge is raising the money, the challenge is the fundraising and putting the right fundraising structures in place to raise that money. I think, still, so many new build projects are approaching them as engineering projects, not as fundraising projects.

Thanks again to Mark for speaking to us. We hope to return to 2007 Prince of Wales and the Trust’s other planned locomotives in the future.

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