Steam Speed Records
In 1804, when Richard Trevithick’s pioneering locomotive made its journey along the Penydarren tramroad, its inventor operated the controls by walking along the track in front of it. In a letter the following day, Trevithick recorded that ‘The train while working went nearly five miles per hour’ no more than a brisk walking pace. This was perhaps the first ever steam speed record.
When ‘Locomotion’ ran from Shildon to Stockton 21 years later, it could only outdistance riders on horseback because marshes alongside the line impeded the horses. At full speed the locomotive could just manage 15 mph.
At the Rainhill Trials in 1829, Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ achieved 29 mph. This was eclipsed in tragic circumstances the following year, when ‘Northumbrian’ reached 36 mph as it conveyed the dying MP William Huskinson to Eccles after he had been run over by ‘Rocket’ at Parkside.
The contestants’ achievements at Rainhill were carefully recorded. Later it became difficult to establish accurate claims as speeds increased and railways spread throughout the world.
Unlike world speed records on land and in the air, there are no international standards for railways. For example, the effect of a strong following wind has never been taken into account and on almost every occasion a record breaking train was appreciably assisted by gravity. This applies equally to the TGV’s present world record of 320.2 mph as to ‘Mallard’s’ 126 mph in 1938.
Speed records were usually obtained by stop-watch measurements from mile or kilometre posts. In some cases the speed claimed at the time was later adjusted after the information had been examined further.
The performance of the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha expresses in the 1930s was accurately measured and the 112 mph record by the streamlined Atlantic N0. 2 in 1925 was adequately proved.
During the 1930s, there was considerable rivalry over maximum speeds between the LNER and the LMS. In 1937, the LMS claimed a maximum of 114 mph on the press run of their Coronation Scot streamliner train. This would have beaten ‘Silver Link’s’ record but the figure was not confirmed by a number of experienced recorders on the train. This left ‘Coronation’ sharing the record of 112 mph with the LNER A4 and Milwaukee Atlantic.
By 1936 the German Pacific No. 05.002 reached 124.5 mph and in 1938, ‘Mallard’ achieved an historic all-time record for steam of 126 mph.
All the fully authenticated world records achieved by steam locomotives are the maximum speed attained, rather than averages. Some top speeds, like ‘Mallards’ were sustained only for a few yards.
Although a record of 74 mph was achieved by a GWR locomotive in 1846, it was not until 1931 that the company ran trains at such speeds in everyday service. The Cheltenham Flyer was the first train in the history of railways to average regularly over 70 mph. On 14 September 1931, the express sweeps through Tilehurst, Berkshire on its way to London.