AS the Great Goodbye A4 exhibition in County Durham comes to an end, Duncan Leatherdale joins the thousands-strong-throng to see The Mallard and her sisters together for the final time.
SEVENTY-five years after it became the World’s fastest ever steam engine, The Mallard is still breaking records.
The A4 class engine and her five remaining sisters have been seen by more than 120,000 visitors to the Locomotion National Railway Museum over the past nine days, more than half the attraction’s usual annual attendance.
And Saturday (February 22) saw the museum in Shildon, County Durham, smash its highest-ever one day attendance with almost 18,000 flocking through the doors to see the six engines.
Traffic queued for more than a mile to get into the museum on the penultimate day, and Locomotion manager George Muirhead admitted the public’s enthusiasm to see the six far surpassed his expectations.
He said: “We expected between 70,000 and 80,000 across the whole event, but now we reckon it will be more like 120,000 by the time the museum closes on Sunday (February 23).
“It has been wonderful.”
On July 3, 1938, The London and North East Railway (LNER) number 4468 Mallard, set a speed record that still stands today.
On a slight downward stretch of track on the East Coast Mainline just south of Grantham, the engine reached an unbeatable speed of 125.88mph, beating the previous best set by a German DRG Class 05 002 in 1936 by 1.38mph.
The A4 Class engine, which sported an aerodynamic body, was designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, whose name adorns one of the last six engines.
Getting the remaining six, two of whom, the Dwight D Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada, live on the other side of the Atlantic, together has proved a huge undertaking.
Mr Muirhead said: “It has been a triumph of logicistics with a lot of planning going into it, but it has worked wonderfully and we owe a huge debt of thanks to all our partners.
“This will almost certainly be the last time these six engines are together and people have come from across the world to see it, that is what is so unique about this exhibition.”
The Mallard, Union of South Africa, Sir Nigel Gresley and Bittern will all have returned to their various UK homes by Thursday (February 27), but the two cross-Atlantic engines will be at the museum until April while waiting for favourable conditions to return to Wisconsin in the USA and Quebec in Canada.
A fleet of volunteers from both the museum and individual engine crews have been ensuring the exhibition has run smoothly.
Mr Muirhead said: “It has been very busy with the museum practically open 24/7 what with the evening events we have put on and early morning photography sessions.
“The volunteers and staff have done a tremendous job.”
The Bittern and Sir Nigel Gresley have been taking it in turns to run trips along the half-mile long museum track carrying up to 50 people at a time.
Saturday also proved a particularly emotional day for 38 men who worked on the engines as drivers and footmen back in the heyday of steam travel.
The group were formed by the Mallard 75 exhibition team after a national search to find them.
Sarah Towers, marketing communications officer at Locomotion, said: “These gentlemen have travelled a long way to take part in this event which is an emotional reunion for many of them.
“They have a most personal connection with all of the Class A4 locomotives.
“We are delighted that they have been able to join us today.”
About 21,000 visited Locomotion across three days to see The A1 Tornado’s visit in 2010, the last major attraction held at the museum.
Seventy-five years after The Mallard set an unbroken record, its latest visitor-number feat also looks unbeatable.