City of Truro, the first locomotive break the 100mph speed barrier, will soon be back in action.
Robert Partridge reports.
Railways can excite deep passions. Britain gave birth to the steam locomotive 200 years ago, and its legacy of major bridges and splendid station buildings are prized national treasures. But for most enthusiasts, what gets feelings running at their highest is steam engines.
A handful of locomotives are particularly special. The City of Truro earned lasting celebrity on 9 May 1904 while pulling the mail train out of Plymouth bound for London. Mail trains prided themselves on speed of delivery and, racing time, City of Truro clocked 102.3mph, so becoming the first machine to break the 100mph barrier.
The 55t locomotive and its 37t tender were built in Swindon's Great Western Railway works in 1903.
Just over a century on, it is the only one of 20 of its class in existence.
Now work is under way to restore it to full working order and to equip it with modern safety systems that will enable it to run on today's main line network.
Restoration started two and a half years ago at the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York, with a modest government grant topping up the main source of funding - private donations. Project cost is strictly limited to £120,000 and is being undertaken by the NRM in partnership with the Gloucestershire & Warwickshire Railway, with consultant Halcrow advising on integration of new technology into the fire breathing beast.
'It is more than 10 years since the City of Truro was last in working order, ' explains Derek Brown, Halcrow project manager for instrumentation work on the project. 'Yet it must still reach current safety standards.'
At the end of last year it became mandatory for every locomotive using the main line to be fitted with the train protection warning system (TPWS), which is intended to prevent trains passing signals at danger. City of Truro has no pensioner's rights and must comply.
'City of Truro was a trend setter right from its birth, ' notes Andrew Scott, head of the NRM.
'Structurally it is a 19th century machine, built with an external frame. But the GWR's chief designer, GJ Churchward, incorporated up to the minute control technology that was being pioneered in the early 20th century. Today it is those control systems that have received a major makeover. ' Restoration work has required complete dismantling of the locomotive, down to the last nut and bolt. Each piece has been carefully repaired or replaced with old spares where available, or where no originals can be found, with newly machined parts.
The TPWS is carefully disguised in pseudo original Great Western style boxes but is completely demountable. This allows it to be stripped out of the locomotive, returning it to its fully authentic state when it eventually retires to become a museum exhibit.
In two months' time the National Railway Museum will mark the 400th anniversary of Britain's first railway. The City of Truro - a remarkable survivor from the days when steam locomotives were the fastest machines on the planet - will be carrying the message around the country.
City of Truro was built a century after Richard Trevithick ran the world's first steam locomotive, the Penydarren, in February 1804. It is effectively a complex steel framed building on wheels with powerful mechanical and electrical works.
Gloucester Warwickshire Railway's commercial director Ian Crowder says: 'Its class was the last to use double frame construction - it has a structural frame on each side of each wheel. This made the chassis stiff enough to cope with the unevenness of Brunel's longitudinally timbered track which still existed on sections of the Great Western Railway in 1903.'
Recommissioning the engine has required stringent adherence to rigorous safety certification standards.
Alongside painstaking attention to detail, time and effort, the project has required the completion of many forms.
On the historic day at the end of last month when the City of Truro moved under its own steam again, a member of the team was overheard grumbling: 'We could have fired the boiler with all the paperwork.'