Ocean Mails at 100 mph


The magic three figures of 100 mph have held, and in some cases still do hold respect in so far as speed is concerned. Around the turn of the century, perhaps this was nowhere more apparent than on the railways. Competition for traffic between the railways had always been keen, none more so perhaps than
the intense rivalry initiated between the East. and West Coast routes to Scotland. In this, the principal combatants, the London & North Western and Great Northern Railways vied with each other to claim the honours in the days of the railways’ “Race To The North” in the l890’s. Yet despite some formidable feats of haulage and speed; none more so than that of the diminutive Locomotive, “Hardwicke”, not once was the three-figure barrier broken.

The LNWR had already had the experience of its rivalry with the East Coast companies under its belt, when later, a similar “event” took place in the South of England between the London & South Western and Great Western railway
 companies. This time, the competition was for the much-coveted carriage of the West of England traffic, and the Transatlantic Mails.The Great Western was in this case the underdog, having much leeway to make up on other railway companies following its enforced abandonment of the broad gauge in 1892, it being a relative newcomer to the design and operation of standard gauge locomotives and rolling stock at speed.

At the turn of the century, competition between the LSWR and the GWR was rapidly growing in intensity and although the GWR had the longer of the two routes between Paddington and Exeter (The LSWR route between Waterloo and Exeter was some 23miles shorter), the LSWR competition was hampered between that city and Plymouth, by having to use through running powers over the GWR branch line to that place.

The competition for this traffic had its effect on the locomotive department and brought about the development of new designs for express passenger engines. On the LSWR, William Bridges Adams passenger Loco, designs must rank amongst the most graceful of all typical British 4-4-0 types. William Dean at Swindon would not see the GWRleft with second best however, despite his advancing years and the doubts being cast on his abilities and the rising stature of Churchward. Dean’s latest passenger designs were excellent machines themselves, a very attractive 7ft Sins single driver type.  
In the late 1890’s however, Dugald Drummond as Chief Mechanical Engineer of the LSWR, in succession to Adams, introduced the T9 class 4-4-0, and by 1900 had assisted that company in gaining the upper hand in the competition for the West of England traffic; the improved timings of the LSWR services obviously
 increased their patronage. The GWR however were not to be outdone, and the reduction in mileage of the Western’s route to Exeter by construction of the cut-off lines, improved the balance in that company’s favour. Following which, with the introduction of 4-4-0 designs of the “Atbara” and ever famous ”City’ class, the seal was about to be set on the GWR’s prestigious West of England services.

3293 was the 2nd of the class and named after the GWR’s Chairman at the time.  Built in 1897, and used in common with Atbara and Duke class locos on the Ocean Mails runs.   (c) Historical MRS

The greatest degree of competition occurred on the working of the Ocean Liner Specials between Plymouth and London, and despite its initial handicap of 23 extra miles on the Paddington route, the GWR was not prepared to concede to the position of runner up. The competition between the two companies actually arose from the extremely fast Atlantic crossings made by the German owned Holland-Amerika line vessels. Crossing between New York and Plymouth, the Holland-Amerika line ships took away the Blue Riband from the British Cunard White Star line, whose crossings were made from and to Liverpool, whence the Transatlantic traffic was traditionally carried via the London & North Western Railway to London. Not unnaturally the potential traffic of the Holland-Amerika Line was attractive to both the GWR and LSWR, consequently both companies were anxious to improve their facilities at the Plymouth terminus in order to 
obtain this highly prized Transatlantic traffic. The GWR gave its Millbay Station a ‘facelift’, whilst the South Western built a special station for the ocean traffic at Stonehouse Pool. That the competition between the two companies was fierce, would possibly be something of an understatement, and in 1900 began to reach its climax. In that year, two rival Holland-Amerika ships raced each other across the Atlantic, the passengers and mails from the winner, the SS “Deutschland”, were conveyed from Plymouth to Paddington, a distance of 246.7 miles, in 4hrs 40mins, with two intermediate stops. An average speed of just over 52mph start to stop, may not seem particularly fast today, but over that distance at that time the fastest journey time was booked as 5hrs 5mins, an average speed of 48 mph, hence that particular run was a noteworthy 

A dispute between the two companies over this traffic resulted
 ultimately in an agreement that from each transatlantic crossing, the LSWR would carry the passengers and the GWR the mails. In so far as the GWR was concerned, it had little, if any, of non-stop running and on the Plymouth route, rather surprisingly; its first attempt was made whilst conveying H.M. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra! The ‘Atbara’ class engine used on the train put up an average speed of over 55mph between Paddington and Exeter, and without the usual requirement of a pilot engine running 15mins in advance of the Royal Train! The GWR’s experiment with non-stop running at ‘high speed’ was
 consolidated in 1903, with a second and even more spectacular performance, once again with the Royal Train!

Though not precisely the Royal Train, it was the advance portion of the up “Cornishman”, carrying the Prince and Princess of Wales (Later, H.M. King George V and Queen Mary). The engine was one of the new taper boiler ”City’ class 4-4-0’s; No.3433, “City of Bath”.  The train was booked non-stop from Paddington to Plymouth and covered the distance of 246 miles in 3hrs 53 ½ mins, giving the very high average start to stop speed of 63 ½ mph.

During the course of the journey, some remarkably high intermediate average speeds were recorded, such as the 73.4mph between Nailsea and Taunton on 
slightly unfavourable gradients. Actually, the average speed from Paddington to passing Exeter was just under 70mph (67.3,to be precise). The sustained high speed running to pass Exeter in 2hrs 52imins necessary with a 4-4-0 type, was indeed remarkable, and indicated the potential for free running and high speeds developed by the “City” class 4-4-0’s.

The final development of William Dean’s 4-4-0s for the high-speed West of England service was the “City” class, and this engine “City of Truro” was (depending on your railway loyalty perhaps) the first steam type to exceed 100mph.
By Hugh Llewelyn – 3717Uploaded by Oxyman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24390196

This level of high speed running by the GWR evidenced by these two runs, obviously led to even more intense competition with the South Western company. Some extremely fast runs were made with increasing regularity on both routes, and culminated in the first authenticated run made at 100mph. It should however be pointed out that despite the more or less general acceptance of that achievement, doubts as to both the reliability of the witnesses and feasibility of the locomotives of the day to achieve such a maximum have continued to be expressed, almost since the details were first published. Some of this doubt possibly resulted from the almost daily reports of incredible speeds achieved in the USA with 4-4-0 types, many of which claimed speeds of 120 and 130mph and more! Of course such speeds were impossible with the machinery of that time, but the unreliability of such reports probably influenced the partisan feelings of those who doubted the achievement of the GWR on May 9th 1904.

The record run of this particular Ocean Mails special from Plymouth to Paddington was carried out with two engines, that section from Plymouth, Millbay Crossing to Pylle Hill Junction, Bristol by the ”City” class 4-4-0 No. 3440,”City of Truro”, and from there a “Dean”, 7ft 8ins ‘Single’, No.3065,
 “Duke of Connaught”, hauled the train the remaining 118.7 miles to Paddington
in 1hr 39 3/4 mins. Though it was the performance of “City of Truro” over the adverse section to Bristol which received the honours, the performance of the Dean ‘Single’ was unquestionably spectacular. Perhaps even more so in view of Chunchward’s far sighted locomotive design policy was bearing fruit in the shape of some extremely powerful 4-cylinder 4-6-0 types, not to mention the solitary pacific, “The Great Bear”.  “City of Truro” took the special from Millbay
 Crossing to Exeter, almost all of this route against the grade, a distance of
 52.9 miles in 58mins, a very creditable performance.

There then followed the
 most remarkable section of the run, from Exeter to Pylle Hill Junction, where the 74.9 miles were covered in a time of 64 ¼ mins. On this section of the run a claim was made by a well-known train performance recorder of the day, C. J. Rous-Marten, for a maximum speed of 102.3mph, reached on the descent of the Wellington Bank.  Rous-Marten, who took details of the run, it has always been insisted, was required by the authoriti.es not to disclose details for fear of alarming the public. His records were however subsequently made public, but it appears that full details had already been disclosed of the run, the day following, in the Western Daily Mercury, and replete with a further claim for a speed of 100mph achieved between Whiteball Summit and Taunton.

Whatever the reasons for publishing or not publishing such details, it is now generally accepted that the three figure barrier was broken with this train, on the run referred to.
  The mails special was also followed on that occasion by a passenger special, in competition with a South Western special from Plymouth, Stonehouse Pool to Waterloo.  The GWR train made the run from Plymouth to Paddington in 264 mins, just 32mins slower than its record-breaking predecessor, and with a decidedly heavier train.

Not carrying the “Ocean Mails” anymore, but the legacy of the competition between the GWR and LSWR for this prestigious traffic lasted into British Railways days in the 1950s and 60s.  Here, the down ‘Cornish Riviera Express’ is entering Exeter St David’s behind typical motive power – a “King” class 4-6-0.
By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15556548

As a result of these spectacular high-speed runs, emanating from the competition for traffic with the LSWR, the Great Western instituted regular non- stop services between Paddington and Plymouth on July 1st 1904.  This entirely new express service was booked to cover the distance, via the Bristol avoiding lines, in 4hrs 25mins; ultimately it became known as the “Cornish Riviera Express” – Which of course it has been known as ever since.