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The Full Story

The Tornado Story

Tornado’s story began back in the 1990s with a small group of dedicated enthusiasts wanting to right the wrong of no Peppercorn A1 Class locomotive being preserved. It left a gap in East Coast Main Line locomotives, running from the 1870s to the present day, and also deprived future generations of the most cost-effective express passenger locomotive to operate in Great Britain.

In 1990 the project to build a new Peppercorn A1 from scratch was born as a consequence. Its core fund raising principle – an A1 for the price of pint – with people donating £5 a month to see their dream turned into reality. This was an example of "crowd funding" before the term had been coined and has been the benchmark of the Trust ever since. Fortuitously, almost all the drawings from the original 1948/49 London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) design survived at the National Railway Museum in York and could be copied and turned into an electronic format suitable for the latest computer aided design (CAD) systems.

Construction really got underway in 1994 and the frames were rolled at British Steel’s Scunthorpe works and patterns made for a variety of items, including those for the cylinders. It was also at this time the Trust’s long association with William Cook PLC, as principal sponsor, and the affiliation with the Royal Air Force both started.

The discernible shape of the locomotive frames started to take shape at Tyseley Locomotive Works in 1995, under the eye of their Chief Engineer Bob Meanley. Over the following years what had been a few components now started to grow with the frames completed in 1997. This also heralded the opening of the new Darlington Locomotive Works and Tornado moved by rail and road to arrive there in September. The building now home to Tornado was the former Stockton and Darlington carriage works which had received significant investment courtesy of Darlington Borough Council, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the European Regional Development Fund.

Construction continued into the 21st century with wheels, axles, roller bearings and many smaller fixtures and fittings arriving and being installed on the frames. This was followed with the heavy motion (connecting rods are such a distinctive feature of a steam locomotive!) and a focus was turning to the boiler as the biggest single component of Tornado. The search for a suitable manufacturer was international and eventually the Deutsche Bahn (DB) works in Meiningen was selected. DB, as the German state railway company, still maintains a full steam locomotive works and they had the necessary design skills, capacity and certification processes to build the boiler. The contract was signed in 2005 and the boiler delivered on time and to budget in the Summer of 2006.

With the boiler now in the UK, the locomotive was close to being substantially complete, so the tender was the last major item to fund and construct. In an innovative deal with William Cook Cast Products, the tender was funded for construction and then leased back to the Trust. This was a major boost to the completion of the locomotive freeing up funds to deploy elsewhere.

At the beginning of 2008, set to be momentous year, the fire was lit up in the boiler for the first time to enable a steam test to be completed. The test was passed with flying colours, although the local water supply as found wanting!  It was now just a matter of time and on August 1st 2008 Tornado was unveiled to the world’s press, moving up and down 150 yards of track outside its Darlington home. This allowed all the systems to be checked before a road move south to the Great Central Railway (GCR) for testing and mileage accumulation.

The GCR is the only heritage double track railway in the UK and allows operation at speeds at up to 60mph. This allowed significant testing of a variety of systems, ride quality, braking distances and so forth at a fraction of the cost of doing so on the national rail network. The time at the GCR also allowed the very first passenger trains to be hauled, carrying those people who paid for Tornado to be built, these being the first services handles by an A1 for over 50 years .

Testing on the GCR covered many aspects but final tests were needed on the national network, and this was spread over three dates with heavier loads and faster speeds. The final run in November 2008 took the locomotive to Newcastle, passing its hometown of Darlington and being certified for revenue earning service. A fully approved A1 was on the national network for the first time in 53 years. It was then the time to apply the first coat of LNER Apple Green paint, ready for commercial service.

The first trains on the national network took place at the end of January 2009, running from York to Newcastle, again for those who supported the project financially, before the first commercial train ran from Darlington to London to be met by thousands of people at the lineside and at London King's Cross. So many turned out the station nearly had to be closed!

After further commercial duties the locomotive returned to York and was prepared for its naming ceremony. This was a huge milestone for the Trust with TRH Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall naming the locomotive at York station, with a flypast by the RAF and many spectators in attendance, before Tornado hauled the Royal Train to Leeds. HRH Prince of Wales rode on the footplate of Tornado leaving York to see for himself the locomotive in action.

After such a high profile event the locomotive then settled into a routine of running across the length of breadth of Scotland, England and Wales, having visited many national routes and preserved lines, heading as far west as Penzance and Holyhead, to Brora in the north of Scotland and Dover in the south east.

Tornado has gained a very high profile and entered the public mindset via regular appearances in the media. The two highest profile events would likely be the 2009 Top Gear ‘Race to the North’ episode which brought the locomotive to the attention of a whole new generation of fans, and then in 2017 when it took a starring role alongside Paddington Bear, in the second motion picture featuring the marmalade sandwich-munching bear from Peru. There have also been other special events such as the commemoration of the Kindertransport when Tornado hauled the UK leg of a train from Prague to London Liverpool Street, and the first English steam-hauled service trains in 2016 when ordinary tickets entitled travellers to make their journey on the Settle & Carlisle railway either by steam or modern traction for the same price, known as a plandampf (after German services with timetabled steam trains).

Another first for the locomotive was a special run in the spring of 2017 when, under special test conditions, Tornado achieved 100mph. This made it the first steam locomotive in the UK to reach three figures since 1967. Again a documentary team recorded this special event and relayed it to millions around the country and internationally.

Since 2008, Tornado has written its own page in the history books, reaching a worldwide audience beyond those with an engineering or railway interest. It has not always been plain sailing, with operational failures, including one at high speed in 2018, and the interruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in no small part to its loyal supporters, the locomotive will run throughout the 2020s across the country and will continue to write further chapters of its exciting history.