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