IN the cradle of the railways, on the site where thousands of wagons rolled out, a remarkable renaissance quietly, still metaphorically, gathers steam.

Class G5 tank engines, nameless but by no means anonymous, were workhorses with a proud bloodline.

Between 1894-1901, 110 were constructed at North Road Workshops in Darlington, and sent to sheds throughout the North-East.

All but two saw service until the 1950s, gradually withdrawn – a euphemism, meaning scrapped – as diesel multiple units artfully approached.

Not one survived the cull.

Now a new G5 is being built from scratch – the first steam locomotive to be made in Shildon since the pioneering days of Timothy Hackworth.

It’ll cost almost £1m, weigh 58 tons, measure 37ft and be almost identical to those produced ten miles away in the distant days of Queen Victoria.

Its driving force, the hand that rocks the cradle, is Spennymoor GP Mike Wood, 63, a medic with his finger firmly on steam’s still beating pulse.

A train spotter since formative years in the West Riding, Dr Wood had the idea of building a new loco in 2005. Sometimes he calls it his brainchild, sometimes – appropriately – his baby. However long the gestation, the new arrival will be female.

He also owns four carriages and the diesel rail car, another Dr Wood baby, which works the Weardale Railway. His knowledge, he says, has come from diffusion.

“The appeal of steam may be genetic.

You can’t help it, it’s not curable,”

he says. “Maybe they were workhorses, but these G5s were loved and appreciated. They were sexy.”

He has invested more time, and very much more money, than he would like the column to disclose.

Pat, his wife of 40 years is “tolerant”, he says.

“None of the G5s had names and people would take great offence if there were one now. The engine will be a ‘she’, of course. If it were to have a name, it would probably have to be Pat.”

MIKE WOOD is managing director of Rail Restorations North-East, based in Shildon and employing ten people on what’s now called the Hackworth Industrial Park. Four of them are former Wagon Works men – “really talented guys,” he says.

David Elliott, the project engineer, also worked on the wonderfully successful Tornado class A1 loco, made in Darlington.

Other projects include restoration of a 1936 United bus that worked between Darlington and London. It was the express and only took nine hours, says Dr Wood.

The Northern Echo: Richard Maughan
Richard Maughan

We’re joined there by fellow director Richard Maughan who’s also chairman of the Weardale Railway and by steam enthusiast Ian Taylor, himself a former GP in Coundon and Ferryhill.

Dr Taylor’s claim to fame, he says cheerfully, is that in the days when County Durham had 750 pubs – now there’d be about 75 – he’d had a beer in every one.

Richard Maughan’s father is also a major investor in the project. He grew up in North Wylam, in the Tyne Valley, travelled to school in Newcastle behind a G5, remembered roseately. He was hooked, says Richard.

“My earliest memory is of my dad holding me in his arms on Newcastle Central station. Mike’s right, steam’s genetic.”

The attraction, they agree, comes from the heart. “If it was the head,”

The Northern Echo: The engine’s new number plate
The engine’s new number plate

says Richard, “we’d never have started in the first place.”

Work’s well advanced, every bit of it British, the company debt-free.

The boiler took two years to design and be registered with Lloyd’s Insurance, but is now complete, the biggest built in Britain for 50 years.

Together costing £36,000, the four driving wheels are cast. The bogeys are painted in North Eastern Railway green, as will the engine be.

Cab, rear bunker and water tanks are well on.

The main-frame is assembled, the firebox complete. Much else is in place. The G5 will be ready for the railroad, they hope, by the end of 2014.

Thereafter it’s expected that she will haul passengers on heritage lines throughout the North-East, including the Weardale, which Dr Wood joined in 1993.

The Northern Echo: the new engine being built in the Shildon workshop
The new engine being built in the Shildon workshop

He, it’s said, dreams of running from Bishop Auckland to Eastgate.

Richard fancies extending to Westgate, and if they get that far then why not the original terminus at Wearhead, and if tomorrow is Wearhead then the day after that’s the world. Richard’s already a qualified steam engine driver. Mike, a fireman, hopes to pass as a driver next year. “We’ll obviously all have a turn,” says his fellow director, “but I don’t think there’s much doubt about who’ll have first go.”

MIKE WOOD still works four busy days each week as a GP, at least two on rail restoration. It’s quite common, says his mate, to get telephone calls and emails from him at 2am.

As well a GP might, Dr Wood talks of the problems associated with old age, but specifically means the elderly steam engines which valiantly serve the burgeoning heritage network.

The new boiler should be good for at least 20 years. Cradle to the grave, they hope that the loco itself should outlive its venerable ancestors and has been main line certified.

“Not having a G5 has been one of the big gaps in railway preservation.

It’s simple, reliable and lovely to look at. We anticipate a high demand wherever she goes. The Class G5 will be a real crowd-puller.”

The Northern Echo: An engine identical to the one under construction
An engine identical to the one under construction

Richard agrees. “You wouldn’t expect a Jaguar XJ20 to work perfectly every time and they’re of the same vintage as many of these old steam engines. Reliable locomotives are as rare as hens’ teeth.”

When it’s finished they contemplate building a second – “much cheaper and easier”, says Dr Wood.

For Shildon, and for steam power, there’s still plenty in the tank.