It is no exaggeration to say that David Elliott was a pioneer of new build steam. Since he began volunteering in 1991, David has made possibly the greatest contribution to the objectives of The A1 Steam Locomotive Trust of any one individual, and in so doing has paved the way for new build projects in the UK and overseas.
We were not surprised to hear of David’s passing in December as, in his characteristic pragmatic style, he had informed those working within the Trust, and its supporters, of his prognosis after being diagnosed with prostate cancer a couple of years ago. Nonetheless, we are deeply saddened to lose a dear friend and quite brilliant colleague.
David took an early interest in the railways, influenced by his grandfathers: one of whom worked for the Railway Clearing House, the other a Signalman at Velvet Hall on the Berwick to Coldstream line and later at Belford on the East Coast Main Line. Despite spending his childhood in Kent, his father’s interest in the railways and family ties to the north east meant that LNER was David’s favourite company. He recalled that they would often take trips to his Grandparents house in London where he would go spotting trains on the adjacent East Coast Main Line. Other day trips would end up at King’s Cross or Potters Bar, or else visit the more locally situated Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway to visit their fleet of narrow gauge locomotive akin to Gresley Pacifics of which Hurricane was his favourite. Although David possessed Ian Allen ABCs, he found number collecting dull and instead spent his time trying to understand how the engines worked – for which he had quite the aptitude!
A young David at the RH&DR with Hurricane
In his professional life, David has enjoyed a wide and varied engineering career starting off as a mechanical engineer with British Railways (BR) at Derby in 1973, becoming a Senior Technical Officer. After 6 years with BR, he then joined Westland Helicopters as an Advanced Project Engineer, before joining Westland’s Hovercraft division on the Isle of Wight. Later roles included commercial manager for Pilatus Brittan-Norman working with the Ministry of Defence and other overseas Defence agencies. His stories about selling Trilander aircraft were hilarious and entertained young and old alike! In 1996 he returned to railway work, overseeing Adtranz’s signalling installation on the Kuala Lumpur monorail system. It was during this latter period that David’s relationship with the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust gathered pace – initially in a voluntary capacity – becoming heavily integrated in the design and construction of Tornado.
David was concerned about some preservation practices of the time, seeing old components painstakingly restored when a new one would have been much the better and cheaper solution, and was therefore most interested to see an advert for a project promising to build a whole steam locomotive from scratch – and an LNER A1 to boot! He responded offering his services on contracts and commercial aspects and was invited to the King’s Cross roadshow in March 1991. On arrival he was surprised to find that his seat was on the stage rather than in the audience! As the first professional engineer to join the management of the Trust, he adopted the role of Technical Director – whilst the job title changed through the years, David held this post until his death.
For virtually the entire construction period, David has been the driving force behind the Trust’s major engineering efforts. In each case, his philosophy was to take the original drawings and adapt and redesign them to incorporate modern technological and fuel efficiency measures but keeping the externally elegant appearance unaltered. The result has been, in the case so far of Tornado, an exceptionally efficient and powerful steam locomotive with very high degrees of reliability, which is essential when operating on Britain’s high speed main lines. His personal drive, innovation, imagination, and ability to enthuse those around him, has resulted in a locomotive which in all respects is a natural recreation of how the steam locomotive might have progressed if it had remained in regular service.
David with Tornado on the day of the day of the locomotive's first steaming.
David’s presence during main line operations, discussing issues with crews, has been of major reassurance. One particular run of note was the occasion in 2017 when Network Rail granted permission for Tornado to ‘go for the Ton’. Between Thirsk and York, the locomotive achieved an incredible post-steam era record of 101 mph, thus delighting and thrilling a large section of enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike, bringing much kudos to the Trust specifically and UK railway heritage more generally. This would not have been allowed without the high degree of faith the industry placed in David’s engineering capabilities.
Tornado is currently being fitted with the new European Train Control System (ETCS), the first steam locomotive in the world to receive this state-of-the-art digital in-cab signalling system. If steam is to survive on the mainline for the long term, then it is essential that ETCS be fitted, not an easy task in the hostile environment resulting from steam, heat, hot water, oil and ash. David has been central to the integration of this highly complex system, demanding even greater supplies of electricity than the locomotive has hitherto been capable of generating, all to be fitted discretely, and it is no exaggeration to say that the task of Network Rail and Thales (the international electronics contractor) has been made significantly easier through David’s imaginative, can-do, and untiring engagement.
Once Tornado was complete, David had the opportunity to right a long standing wrong! One of David’s most cherished childhood books was his father's copy of the 1947 Model Railway Handbook by W J Bassett-Lowke, where on page 65 was a picture of a 2 1/2” gauge model of Cock o' the North. He asked his father to take him to see it and was devastated to hear that the P2 had been rebuilt into a Pacific.
The inspiration for No. 2007, the Bassett Lowke model.
David’s work on P2 Class, No. 2007, has been even more in depth than that required on Tornado. The P2 Class, of which Prince of Wales is the latest incarnation, were designed by famed CME of the LNER, Sir Nigel Gresley, responsible for world steam speed record holder Mallard. The P2 was an exceptionally powerful locomotive yet undoubtedly had design problems when conceived in the 1930s. The intervention of World War II and Sir Nigel Gresley’s untimely death resulted in these not being addressed. To make the new P2 viable, David has completely designed-out these original challenges, and with the aid of 3D CAD and computer simulation such as CFD has demonstrated to the rail industry that the locomotive will be a remarkable performer. His crowning glory has been the complete re-design of the three-cylinder monobloc which in its original form was sub-optimal in its performance. The cylinders were also physically too wide for today’s railway, with the chance of making contact with platform edges. David has redesigned the cylinders, innovatively using a 3D printed model to help inform the building contractor of the correct approach to fabricating this highly complex component. Its delivery in October ‘23 undoubtedly marks the culmination of David’s contribution to the UK’s steam heritage scene, in spectacular fashion. Work will begin later this year constructing David’s final design, the complex valve gear, the component which will make the P2 Britain’s most powerful steam locomotive. David went international with his research, with critical information from South Africa and the United States aiding the redesign. Such is the significance of David’s influence on the new locomotive that it will forever be known as the ‘Gresley-Elliott’ P2. A supreme accolade and personal tribute.
David’s engineering accomplishments are only outshone by his warm and friendly personality, coupled with his wit and good humour. He always had time to explain his work, and has enthralled numerous enthusiasts with occasionally lengthy, yet always accessible, presentations on his beloved locomotives and their key design features – wearing his trademark black shirt! He passed on his skills to those with whom he worked, always seeking to educate the next generation, and we are fortunate that his knowledge was shared with individuals who will continue his work on the P2. We have been moved and humbled by the outpouring of respect and support since David’s death. David leaves a widow, Dominique, with whom he moved to Bishop Aukland to take on the A1 project. There will be no formal funeral, but a memorial service is likely to be held in the spring.
A1 Steam Locomotive Trust Chaiman, Steve Davies, stated, “Whilst we were all aware that David was unwell, we were greatly shocked and saddened at his passing. His reach across preservation was immense, with projects across the UK, in Australia and the United States benefitting from his expertise. His legacy in the UK will live on through Tornado and Prince of Wales, the many other projects he has helped and the people he has inspired. Our thoughts are very much with his family at this time, and the whole A1 Steam Locomotive Trust Community will forever remember his contribution fondly.”
David with Prince of Wales - Jack Boskett