One return to the golden age of rail travel? That'll be £15bn

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The Independent Online

Alistair Darling's announcement on Wednesday of £15bn over the next three years to speed up the nation's train services recalls the golden age of rail in the Thirties, when the LMS and LNER vied with each other to provide glamorous, streamlined services to Scotland and the North.

It was not quite a race, but the two firms spared little expense, and no engineering effort, to secure this blue riband of the rails. In 1935, the LNER's Silver Link took the palm with 112mph. The response of the LMS was to begin building locomotives that, even today, take the breath away. In train buff parlance, the Coronation Scot locos were 4-6-2s with four cylinders and nickel steel boiler and firebox. To anyone else, they were as close as this country has come to producing a train that looked, and performed, like a bullet. The streamlining added two tons, and what it gained in aerodynamic efficiency, it lost in added weight. But it looked sensational, and that, in PR terms, was the point.

On a test run, on 29 June 1937, it proved it was not just a pretty startling face. With representatives of the nation's press on board, driver Tom Clark set a new world record of 114mph on the approach to Crewe. A little too close to Crewe, as it turned out, for the train was still doing 57 mph when it entered the 20mph-limit final mile. The brake blocks caught fire, and only some sterling work on the footplate and a pair of stout buffers prevented disaster. The crockery in the dining car was the only casualty. Soon it was operating a smooth six-and-a-half-hour run to Glasgow.

Railway fans were impressed, none more so than King Boris of Bulgaria, an enthusiast for whom spotting trains was never enough. He wanted to drive them too, and being a monarch, did so - most famously the Orient Express, which he was wont to flog at speeds far in excess of its normal stately progress. All the more surprising, then, that in 1937 the LMS let Boris mount the footplate at Euston and drive the Scot up to Bletchley. He reached 88mph, a new personal best.

With more ordinary, but safer, individuals at the controls, the Coronation Scot and its East Coast rivals were now providing a service which, for comfort, romance and style, has never been equalled over British rails. Alas, it was all too short-lived. In 1939 came war, and Coronation (and the rest of its class, named Duchess of this and that) was never quite the same again. War-time speed restrictions came in (45mph, later 60mph), dowdy liveries donned (blackened Duchesses were to be seen hauling coal on branch lines), and streamlining removed to make maintenance easier.

After the war, their glory never really returned, and by the 1960s these engineering aristocrats were being scrapped. Today, only three survive, and none is in the streamlined state you see on this page. Yet in the world of railway preservation, hope, if not money, springs eternal, and an appeal is now under way to re-clad the Hamilton in its original armour. One can't but help wish it all speed.

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