What is new build steam?

New to new build steam, or steam railways in general? Start here…

Barker snaps a Standard 4
A grimy unloved steam engine running under electric wires – the end of steam was approaching. Photo by JohnGreyTurner on Flickr.

The end of steam
Like many nations in the West, Britain changed in the 1960s. Economically, socially and demographically, the country looked very different by the end of the decade to how it had looked at the start. Technological changes were a major part of this: television production, for instance, switched from black and white to colour.  And on the railways, steam trains were phased out and replaced entirely, by late 1968, with diesel and electric trains.

But railways in general, and steam locomotives in particular, have long attracted enthusiasts. By the end of the 1960s, not only had a national collection  been established to preserve a selection of locomotives, but other engines had been purchased for preservation by wealthy individuals and groups of enthusiasts. Numerous closed branch lines had been or were being bought by enthusiasts and preserved, in order to run the saved locomotives.

Please don't let me die
A rusting locomotive in Barry scrapyard in the early 80s, as the movement to rescue the engines there gathered pace. Photo: JohnGreyTurner on Flickr

Most engines, however – tens of thousands of them – were sent to be scrapped. One scrap yard, in Barry, south Wales, didn’t get round to scrapping its engines, concentrating on other work and leaving them to rot in their yard. Most of these – nearly 300 – were eventually bought for restoration by enthusiasts. These three sources – the national collection, direct purchase from British Rail, and rescues from Barry – account for almost all the surviving steam locomotives in Britain today.

The trouble was this: the process had been haphazard. Many types of locomotive, some of them important chapters in the history of railway engineering, were absent from the survivors – for many classes of engine, every single one of them had been cut up for scrap. Many people bitterly regretted their absence.

Steam in the 1970s and beyond
In truth, the end of steam in Britain was not so neat as a total cut-off in 1968. London Transport kept using steam locomotives for its engineering trains into the 1970s; many industrial sites kept using them to move bulky freight around their sites into the 80s and even 90s. Meanwhile, many other countries continued using steam engines, and Britain continued manufacturing and exporting them, for narrow gauge railways at least. Manufacture of steam locomotives finally stopped in 1971, when Hunslet in Leeds completed its last steam engine for export.

Just as the end of the steam “era” is a bit blurred, so is the beginning of “new build” steam. The first locomotives to be built for heritage railways in Britain are now quite old: narrow gauge lines like the Ravenglass and Eskdale in Cumbria and the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales began constructing their own locomotives, sometimes using remnants of older machines, in the 1960s and 70s. Working replicas of very early steam engines like Rocket were built as long ago as the 1930s.

71000 'Duke of Gloucester'
Restored against the odds – Duke of Gloucester showed what might be possible. Photo by mike_j on Flickr

“New build”
The move to build new, full size (standard gauge) locomotives – that could haul a decent train on a preserved line, or even the main line – took shape in the 1980s. As the Barry wrecks were being restored, the boundaries of what was possible seemed to recede. In particular, the restoration of the last British Rail express steam engine, 71000 Duke of Gloucester, pointed to what might be possible. So much of the locomotive had been damaged or cut up in the scrap yard, it was regarded as an impossible job; instead, it was restored to working order, and its performance considerably improved on what BR had extracted from it in the process.

Tornado on its first ever mainline test run after completion in 2008 – a now legendary event in rail preservation. Photo by W Hannabuss on Flickr.

This presented a new possibility to enthusiasts: if major components like new cylinder blocks could be fabricated for Duke of Gloucester, why couldn’t all the parts needed to make an entirely new locomotive be made, and some of the gaps in the remaining steam fleet be filled? The project to build a brand new A1 pacific – of the type that hauled express trains on the East Coast Main Line from after the Second World War until the 1960s – was established in 1990 (its name, Tornado, was inspired by the aircraft used prominently in the Gulf War). It took 18 years and 3 million pounds to bring it together – but Tornado is now a well-known performer on railways across Britain.

Many more groups came into existence after 1990 (and one or two had even begun before): some dedicated to building new engines from scratch as with Tornado; others planning to use existing components, including from some Barry wrecks, to recreate lost classes. Progress on these projects is documented on this website. They are not without significance: the steam locomotives running on our main line in fifty years’ time, if there are any, will largely be the ones currently under construction. The remaining preserved locomotives are already very old, and increasingly facing the dilemma of how they can be kept running without replacing so many components that they could be argued not to be the original locomotives in any meaningful sense (a big debate in preservation). This is not to say there is a firm business case for new build steam locomotives – they are unlikely to be profitable, and like all aspects of rail preservation are built for no reason other than enthusiasm.


  1. ‘Duke of Gloucester’ and ‘Tornado’ have show what is possible, but the steam locomotive in the UK is about to enter troubled times. Many engines are restored from Barry scrapyard condition, and were in a very poor condition, by which I mean much worse than anything that would be tolerated on a preserved railway running today under a light railway order, when BR withdrew them. You can get away with bringing a bag of nails into steamable condition and running at 25 mph up and down a preserved branch line for a while. but eventually the riding and general condition of the frames and springs will deteriorate and the loco will need a major rebuildling if it is not to knock itself to bits every time it moves. I do not mean in any way to demean the enormous amount of work put in to rescue these engines from Barry condition by dedicated volunteers often working in less than ideal conditions, but the awful truth is that, underneath the polish and shining paintwork, some are still in fundamentally Barry condition.

    When the engines were acquired from Dai Woodham, the main worries in the minds of those putting cash and effort into them were things like ‘how hard will it be to get a boiler certificate’ or ‘what state are the cylinders or anything else that might need expensive casting in’ (as the people involved in 2857’s restoration discovered; BR had been running the loco like that in it’s final service days!), and, especially, ‘how are we ever going to pay for it all’, and frames, axle boxes, hornblocks, and springs were by and large stripped down, cleaned up as much as possible, re-assembled, and put back on the locos. Not until the loco was steamed and run was it apparent if these components were any good or not, and that 25mph speed limit covered a lot of sins. Sooner or later these will require complete replacement with new items, and the question will arise as to whether it is cheaper and quicker to build a completely new ‘replica’ loco like Tornado as opposed to struggling on with an engine which was at or approaching the end of it’s working life in the 1960s and has now put in a fair few miles since.

    Nor are the more recently built BR standards immune to the problem, despite having had shorter, and in some cases very much shorter, working lives. They were built at a time of austerity and the quality of steel used in the vital structural components was clearly inferior, and many were hammered to death in their brief service (I include the rebuilt ‘Merchant Navies’ in that comment); a walk along the platform at Cardiff (Bute Road) in the 90s when the ‘Barry 10’ were stored there showed that the 28xx and 5101 were in far better condition that the 9F, with an LMS 8F in not a bad state at all apart from the boiler cladding!

    ‘New build’ locos such as the Patriot, 82045, ‘County of Glamorgan’ and so on use Barry components, and as such may find themselves in a compromised situation sooner than their operators expect, perhaps in only 20 or 30 years. Boilers are not as much a problem, as they have to be maintained to the highest standard in order to be ticketed, and were in any case built with phenomenal strength in the first place, but the running parts of the engines may be their ultimate downfall. Around 2050, what is the situation going to be like?

    I suspect that there will be a number of completely new built brand new engines, using modern materials, roller bearings, and maybe oil-firing and electronic control so that they can be single manned. Some may be ‘replicas’, improved versions of traditional designs using exterior components such as funnels, domes, cabs, boiler cladding, and so on from the originals, but some may well be completely new designs, which will be interesting. Replicas of 19th century classics such as ‘Jenny Lind’ or a ‘Crompton’ could be built, along with rakes of 4 or 6 wheeled replica carriages with air disc brakes and automatic centrally locking doors to go with them. If restoring Duke of Gloucester or newbuilding Tornado were not enough of a challenge, perhaps someone might have a crack at making the ‘Leader’ work..

    The coaching stock may well also be in a parlous condition before 2050. The bulk of it is BR mk1, and most of those vehicles were altered in the 60s and 70s to have the steps removed as a safety measure owing to the presence of 25kv electric cables, and the hole where they were cut off plated over. This has introduced a long term corrosion problem to the body framework of these vehicles, and their condition is slowly deteriorating. Older coaches are already beginning to show their age in terms of running; I was aboard a Bullied brake 3rd on the Bluebell a couple of years ago which actually frightened my a bit in the way it lurched and staggered over pointwork!

    Along with the Raven A8, can I have a Rhymney Railway L class 2-4-2 outside framed saddle tank, please!

    • Thanks John – I’m sure some people will view what you say as contentious, but I enjoyed reading it!

      • Its Time too build new Steam locomotives another Duke of Gloucester Type locomotive maybe named after the Queen mother maybe fitting, and Raven A8 tank with a upgrade boilered all steel welded type has the Bullies are and proven too be reliable Were going too have too go back too steam traction anyway has Oil is slowly running out, and Steam has more power has its not finenight power like diesel is once you got too your top revs thats it no more output and the electric motors can burn out too steam is reliable if kept in good order , good house keeping from the crews The Raven A8s in its day worked many main line passengers train down the North east cost line Until the DMU made them redundant in the late 1950s but they were a powerful and versatile locomotive I feel there is a big case for a all new Build of one Has all the Raven A8s were lost too the cutters torch sad really Now how do you get started with funding for a Raven A8 project answer please

    • I will admit. What you are saying scares me. I am now concerned some of the locomotive restorations may not have been thorough, and with the decline of coal, I am worried that many if not all British steam locos in service today will soon enough never be able to run again, including even new-build engines like Tornado one day never running again.

      But I wonder if all the worn parts of a locomotive were replaced, would the engine run like new? I have heard of engines not performing as well due to age even after restoration and it makes me worried one day all mainline steam will vanish completely. If an engine could be made to run as good as completely new, including perhaps full repair or replacement of the frames & moving parts, it would bring me great hope that steam will last for many generations to come.

  2. Well has Worlds Oil is running out the Day will come when the Government will have to retake a look At Steam traction and by using biofuels or recycling waste has to fuel pellets to burn in a fire box and designing more affiant and better boilers and better bearing with a higher mileage wear rate and lower maintenance costs and self-feeding fireboxes electronic control, this country has some of the best engineers in the world but they need to be free to think projects out and find the best way of building steam traction locomotives for long running at low cost and long life of the locomotive and thought of dual-purpose locomotives will be needed has heavy freight will come back to the rails has well has passenger working So Steam traction for the 21st and 22sd century

  3. It’s O.K. I am on the “Case” Yes I have the I.P.R. on a turbine that uses the 2nd law of thermodynamics to keep steam water hot in a closed loop.

    Watch this space for a update. All I need is the support of the U.N. to allow , Corp’s and Inc/ Plc to bid for power from the World Wide Green Grid, and the whole world will then run on Green Steam. richardverecompton@gmail.com

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