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13 July 2013

James May on: steam power

Steam locomotives haven’t been seen for years. But James and a band of warriors are bringing one back to life…

James May
Car image



A couple of years ago, we took TopGear back to the late Forties. Not literally, fortunately, or we’d all have been coughing from consumption and would never have seen a banana. Just for a quick race.

In the car corner was the Jaguar XK120. The motorcycle was championed by the peerless Vincent Black Shadow (they knew how to give bikes proper names in t’olden days). Finally, representing the golden age of steam was a Peppercorn A1 Pacific locomotive, Tornado.

The odd thing about this race was that the newest contestant was, by more than half a century, the steam locomotive. The work of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, it had taken half a lifetime to build from scratch, largely by volunteers. It remains the nation’s biggest and most terrifying O-level metalwork project.

Anyway. The bunch of – to be frank – madmen who built it are so pleased with the result that they’ve had a go at something even bigger: a Gresley P2 2-8-2 engine.

Now, let’s be clear about a few things. Britain – or anywhere else, for that matter – does not need a new steam locomotive. Diesel/electric, and eventually pure electric, came along for a very good reason, and rather late in the day at that. Steam engines were complicated and expensive to make, difficult to maintain, arduous to drive and manage, a bit messy, and inefficient.

Steam engines were never really mass-produced in the way that cars are. They were merely series-produced, and, in effect, built by hand. This made every one minutely different, adding to the maintenance woes, and this will be particularly true if just the one is being built. Spare parts – and steam engines always need them – are not going to be over-the-counter items.

Gresley’s P2 was not even considered, in its time, to be an especially useful engine. It was designed to haul express trains up some of Scotland’s challenging gradients without the need for banking or double-heading; that is, using a second locomotive to either shove the train from behind or give it a helping tug from the front.

Hence the extra set of driving wheels of slightly smaller diameter than those found on other express engines, the effect being to improve grip and, put in car terms, change down a gear for the climb.

Sadly (because it was a good- looking beast and would have been perfect for shoeless grubby urchins to wave at from a picket fence), it didn’t work that well. The P2 gained a reputation for breaking axles, derailing in yards and graunching its flanges on tight bends. The few P2s were controversially rebuilt by Gresley’s successor, Edward Thompson, as conventional 4-6-2 Pacifics. And maybe he had a point.

Poppycock, cries the Peppercorn mob. With a bit of modern analysis and a few corrections, it can be made to triumph. It’ll only take five years and truckloads of cash. So, off we go.

I like this idea. It’s gloriously daft and ambitious but probably not rubbish, and gives the country a chance to refresh some of its metal-bashing abilities.

Now, I’m not about to start banging on about lost skills and all that, because I don’t really believe it. Britain is actually full of people who can cast, forge, mill, turn and beat apparently invincible metal into all manner of componentry. They just need a good public pedestal for their efforts, and what could be better than a steam locomotive? Nothing lurks in the collective public consciousness quite like a good steam engine. It’s why the road sign for a railway still shows the silhouette of one, even though the vast majority of people driving around cannot remember a time when they were still in service. Thomas the Tank Engine will be with us for a bit yet.

Best of all, though, the P2 will, to some extent, be built by The People, by enthusiasts. What we are when it comes to cars – a slightly misunderstood and faintly repulsive societal subset that knows too much about one particular thing. This is good. It produced the Bugatti Veyron, and now it’s going to produce a steam locomotive.

And the whole spectrum of manufacturing brilliance will be represented in the P2. At one end, boffins will programme computerised plasma-cutters to produce – more accurately than could have been imagined originally – the massive frames of the engine’s chassis. At the other, someone might produce a small control handle at a bench, using just a vice and a few simple files in a scene that has gone largely unchanged for two centuries.

And one very, very small part of it is going to be made in my shed.

Tags: james may

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