Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
City of Truro or Flying Scotsman - which was the first to reach 100mph?
"When I was young we had a book about steam trains. In it was a photograph of a steam train - 'City of Truro', of the Great Western Railway - which it was claimed reached 102mph during the first decade of the last century. Recently, there have been radio and television programmes referring to the 'Flying Scotsman' as being the first train to exceed 100mph. Which is right?"
The answer is that both claims are worthy. GWR's City class no. 3440, City of Truro, which was built at the Swindon Works in May 1903, was hauling a mail train from Plymouth to London in May 1904 when it reached a claimed top speed of just over 102 mph. This was while going down a slope at Whiteball near Somerset.
The background of this engine is that it was one of 20 built during the first decade of the 20th century. By the 1920s it was thought to be out of date and by 1931 all of this class had been scrapped except City of Truro. This locomotive was then taken to the newly set up Transport Railway Museum - now the National Railway Museum. It has been brought out of retirement a couple of times previously, but this year it was overhauled and put back into working order at a cost of £130,000 for the centenary of the record run and the rail bicentenary, Railfest.
The 102.3mph run, however can only be a claim. It was recorded by railway journalist Charles Rous-Marten, but there was no second timekeeper to confirm his reading. City of Truro's record has therefore always been a matter of dispute.
By 1934, however, locomotives attempting records had a dynamometer car attached, with all sorts of devices for measuring speeds. The name 'The Flying Scotsman' referred to an express train service, which ran between London and Edinburgh. From 1925 to 1963, a Pacific steam locomotive pulled it and was itself named Flying Scotsman. It was designed by the engineer Sir Herbert Nigel Gresley. Flying Scotsman was the third of the A1 Pacifics to be built, and the first new locomotive built for the new London North Eastern Railway (LNER). The locomotive first ran in 1923 and in 1924 she was at the British Empire Exhibition. It was on 30 November 1934 that Flying Scotsman achieved the first properly authenticated 100mph for a steam engine. This was while she was running between Leeds and London.
The Flying Scotsman was saved for the nation this year and is now - like City of Truro - in the ownership of the National Railway Museum.
David Ross, British Steam Railways: A History of Steam Locomotives - 1800 to the Present Day (Parragon Publishing, 2004)
David Clifford, editor, The World's Most Famous Steam Locomotive: Flying Scotsman (Finial Publishing, 1997)
Michael Rutherford, City of Truro: Main Line Centenarian (FNRM Enterprises Ltd, 2003)
Nigel Harris, "City of Truro": A Locomotive Legend (Silver Link, 1985)
Charles Fryer, editor, British Locomotive Practice and Performance: Extracts from the Pioneering "Railway Magazine" Articles of 1902-8 by Charles Rous-Marten (Patrick Stephens Limited, 1990)
Places to visit and further information
Steam - Museum of the Great Western Railway
Kemble Drive, Swindon SN2 2TA
Tel: 01793 466 646
National Railway Museum
Leeman Road, York YO26 4XJ
Tel: 01904 621261
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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