Tornado sets out on its 75mph main line trial from York to Newcastle
By Trevor Timpson
Thirsk station, a Tuesday evening in November. Why is the down platform of the North Yorkshire station full of silently expectant people? Why have people brought their children and grandchildren, and why are they setting up elaborate photo tripods?
Out of the darkness, a whistle is heard - shrieking joyfully, again and again. A train thundering up the line from York.
In seconds, it is all over. A cool grey shape, smoke from its funnel, a line of carriages, mostly dark, the whistle again and again, and a diesel loco on the end - just a passenger on this trip.
All vanish into the darkness, leaving a smell like a hundred coal fires all at once, and the sound of the whistle.
For anyone who thinks of steam locos as 60-year-old veterans puttering down preserved tracks, the sight of a main line engine screaming by on a 75mph test is quite a shock.
It was quite something to see how much pleasure it gave everybody
That was Tornado, the first mainline steam engine to be built in the UK for almost 50 years. It is 170 tonnes of A1-class locomotive pulling 550 tonnes of train and a great mass of gentle British goodwill.
There are no cheers, just muttered satisfaction as the watchers pack up their cameras and go.
"It'll go well on YouTube, will that!"
"All the way from Nottingham, and worth every mile," says ex-policeman Graham Ward, one of the well-wishers who had gathered.
"Marvellous, absolutely marvellous."
Sense of loss
Tornado is "a sterling example of the truly amazing things that can happen if people pursue their dreams wholeheartedly - and with incredible professionalism", says Andrew Scott, director of the National Railway Museum.
But the price of beer also had a lot to do with it.
At Newcastle Central, hundreds greet Tornado. Among them are two of the founding fathers of the A1 Steam Trust which built it - financial consultant David Champion and solicitor Stuart Palmer.
Tornado in Sheffield on 6 November, in this video sent by John Bird
"It was a magnificent sight," Mr Champion said.
"We got up in the cab - it was quite something to see how much pleasure it gave everybody."
Earlier, the pair spoke of the business strategy that enabled the trust to raise some £3m to build the engine, which should enter service pulling excursion trains in the new year.
It grew out of a real sense of loss for what Mr Champion calls "the rock'n'roll and steam generation".
The East Coast Main Line in the 1950s and 60s was the home of a series of magnificent steam engines - including the world record-breaking Mallard.
An example of every major class has survived except the A1, designed by Arthur Peppercorn in the late 1940s. Every single one of them had been scrapped.
"I think it was a bit like if you'd taken the Beatles away from us in 1965," Mr Chamption says.
"At a very formative stage of your life, something you love and are enthusiastic about, they just take it away from you for ever - that created a sense of loss which in 1990 we were able to tap into."
Tornado attracts crowds of wellwishers wherever it goes
At the core of the plan was a fundraising idea in which supporters were encouraged to donate the monthly equivalent of the price of a pint of beer per week - about £1.25 in north-east England back then.
Mr Palmer says: "It was David who invented the funding mechanism and it's all down to that that the thing was built... it was sold on the basis of an A1 for the price of a pint of beer a week."
If he had asked contributors to pay £80 a year, says Mr Champion, "that's asking for a lot of money. If you ask for the price of a pint of beer a week, it makes no difference if you have one more or one less".
This system gave the trust its faithful core of "covenantors" - individuals who undertook to pay regularly each week by standing order - which has given it a steady, reliable income.
"We made a policy," says Mr Palmer.
"We wouldn't have collecting buckets at events; we wouldn't be selling off 25p biros or badges - that was not the way we were going to do it.
"But it wasn't just a question of getting covenanted income - in the early days it was largely down to David going round by himself attracting considerable sponsorship."
"When I think back to the 1950s and 60s a good 30-40% of the boys at school at one time or another were trainspotters; it was a big thing then," says Mr Champion.
"It therefore followed that about 30-40% of the people running British industry had an active or a latent interest in steam engines.
"So there would be a point in my presentation when one of the directors would say, 'You know, I remember flying down Stoke Bank behind one of those things'. And I would think 'I've got you!'"
He told suppliers he did not want a freebie: "But bearing in mind the kind of publicity you're going to get out of this and the fact that it's just a nice thing to do, you might wish to give us a discount.
The clever part is not the engineering; it's raising the money
Engineer Ian Howitt
"And the usual discount was about 70% - but we had a contract, all the certification papers..."
Together, for every pound that contributors gave, the tax reclaimed on charitable donations and paying only 30% for components "meant I'm getting £5 value for every £1 that's coming in at the front end of the trust".
"All the stars came together right," Mr Champion recalls.
"Stuart and I were at the right stage of life when we had the professional expertise to put this organisation together.
"The contributors were at the right stage of life where they were starting to get some disposable income... the demographics were absolutely spot-on."
The engineering achievement of building Tornado has been praised.
Engineer Ian Howitt's firm has produced dozens of components for Tornado, including the frames for the tender.
However, he says: "The clever part is not the engineering; it's raising the money - because if you've got the money, you can get the engineering.
"The bravery of saying right, we're going to build this thing which originally was going to cost £1.5m and practically it's cost about £3m - that's the clever bit, the organisation and linking it to the cost of a pint of beer."
Many thanks to those of you who sent comments, pictures and video of Tornado. A selection of the comments we received:
I don't think a diesel loco would attract the same attention. I am 59 so remember when these locos ruled the line. To me its sad that to those children standing at Thirsk its the first time they have seen a steam loco at full steam ahead. I agree you cannot beat the smell. A bit like ah bisto. I bet Tornado was making light work of 550 tons. Plenty of power as long as the Fireman was feeding coal into the Firebox at a great rate. Yes coal that is beneath our feet and not forgetting a few thousand gallons of Water as well. Finally a big thank you to the crew who provided us "little boys" with something that is magical. Ted, Windsor
It was purely by coincidence that I was at Newcastle station last Tuesday. I had no idea what the crowds and cameras crowding the main line platforms were for, but couldn't help but be struck by that same spirit of calm, patient excitement that Trevor Timpson describes on the platforms of Thirsk. When the great visitor arrived in a swirl of steam and whistles I followed the mass that streamed from the footbridges to the head of the platform, caught up by a thrill I hadn't known since early boyhood. I was suddenly back with my father, religiously leading my brother and me to the front of every train we boarded, solemnly instructing us to consciously take in the towering, greasy locomotives as they were part of history, about to disappear forever. I for one can't wait to see these wonderful monsters back on our main lines again. Gordon Simpson, Carlisle, Cumbria
I saw Tornado at Newcastle Central and for what I could see through the lots of photographers and enthusiasts was not just an A1 but a great achievement of British engineering. I, like many of the other enthusiasts at the station, was taking pictures and I'm proud to say I stood on platform two to see the first A1 back in Newcastle Central for more than 40 years. Being 19, to see a steam train come to Newcastle Central instead of these horrible units was a sight for sore eyes. If only we had more loco haulage in the country we might see more of the enthusiasts so interested. Matthew Edwards, Newcastle Upon Tyne
I have not been on Tornado, but I worked on the LMS engines at Crewe from 1948. I fired on all the big engines like Duchess of Hamilton and the 6201 models, Scots and Black Fives. I loved it all and feel famous from my experiences. Even Pete Waterman has not done anything like my thrills. Marvellous. Crewe had them all. Geoff Hillyard, Crewe, Cheshire
I took a video camera and tripod to Sheffield Midland Station on the night it went from York to Barrow Hill via Sheffield and back via Doncaster which we found locked so no videos there then. I managed a good shot of its entry to the Midland station, some stationary footage and a good few minutes of it leaving. It looked glorious and handsome and brought back many memories of some of the more privileged trips I was taken on as a toddler. Bird, Rotherham, South Yorkshire
My son will be opening his first OO train set very soon. I hope that it will not be too long before he can add a Tornado to his collection! Stephen Hall, Hampshire, England
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