A puff of steam and the sweet toot of the whistle announces to the world that the Peppercorn A1 is back from the dead and, with it, the last great locomotive is about to make a dramatic return to the track. Considering the intervening centuries since the technology was perfected, a period during which man has created flying machines that would take him to the Moon and beyond, it seems perhaps a little surprising that the sounding of a locomotive whistle on a grey summer's day in Co Durham should provide such excitement.
But, when it comes to steam trains and the passions they invoke among those who obsess about, chronicle and love these coal-fired kings of the permanent way with a searing intensity, rules governing human expectations do not apply. Here I must express a declaration of interest. My great uncle Bert drove the Flying Scotsman on the King's Cross to Grantham leg of its daily run to Edinburgh, serving his final days as a driver of the mighty A1.
To me, Uncle Bert was a family legend. He began his career shortly after the First World War, cleaning and oiling the machines idolised by every young boy in Edwardian Britain, eventually working his way up from to fireman to driver. Bert revelled in his status: express train drivers were the glamorous aristocrats of the working classes. In truth, he would have driven them for nothing and spoke of little else except trains, at least to the children who gathered eagerly round to listen to his stories of life on the footplate.
And so it is now. At the sound of the A1's first successful whistle test, members of the engineering crew laugh and punch the air, and others gaze dewy-eyed at what they have created in the past two decades. Today, 40 years exactly since the fabled "Last Weekend" when British Rail signalled the end of one type of world and the start of another by running its final scheduled mainline steam services, the new A1, bearing the engine number 60163 and now christened Tornado, will make its first public movement. Some 600 enthusiasts will journey to the North-east from all over Britain to see it and hundreds of thousands across the world will monitor proceedings over the internet. It took an army of 2,000 supporters 18 years to raise the £3m necessary to fund the 150,000 man-hours required to build, from scratch, the first new mainline steam locomotive Britain has witnessed for almost half a century.
For Mark Allatt, chairman of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, who has ruthlessly driven the fundraising process, today's short but symbolic shuttle a few yards along the tracks at Darlington, is the realisation of an audacious dream. The 43-year old-marketing director stands as tall as one of the locomotive's huge steel wheels, an impressive 6ft 8ins. And, just as he has for the past decade, he has given up the annual leave from his City law firm to be close to the engine he loves. The divorced father of one, a self-confessed steam freak, travels thousands of miles to beat the drum for Tornado. Like his fellow Trust directors, he is unpaid, does not claim expenses yet works on the project every day. "People said to me when we set out on this that it would never be done," he says. "They said you will never raise the money. I think we've proved a lot of people wrong."
In recent weeks the 15-strong team completing the final electrical and piping work has been working in top secrecy to keep today as genuine surprise. Chief engineer David Elliott has been toiling up to 70 hours a week on Tornado. After starting his career with British Rail he switched to building helicopters and hovercraft before returning to his first passion, moving his family from Cornwall to Darlington to be alongside the locomotive in 2001. He admits to harbouring a little anxiety. "It feels a bit like when you are in the waiting-room waiting for your wife to give birth for the first time," he says. "After all, this is the culmination of 18 years' hard work. Luckily, I have an extremely supportive wife. I never really have any spare time because even when I'm not working at the shed I'm thinking about the engine. Her view is that if I am messing around with this I'm not likely to be out chasing women."
Darlington occupies a unique position in the history of steam railways. Here, George Stephenson's Locomotion first shuttled coal from the outlying collieries down to be loaded aboard sea-going boats at Stockton-on-Tees. It was also here, at this key stopping-off point on the famous London and North East Railway (LNER), that the steam preservation effort began in earnest. During the white heat of the Victorian technological race, few spared a thought for the past as the railways hurtled into the modern age, battling each other to create ever more powerful engines and increasingly luxurious passenger travel.
But after the Second World War, the Luftwaffe had left Britain's railways in ruins. Britain was bankrupt, so the best coal and steel was sent for export to pay vast war debts. Clement Attlee's Labour government nationalised the railways in 1948 just as Arthur H Peppercorn, the last chief engineer with the LNER, was finishing the designs for his new A1. The prototype was designed to work within the economic limits of those straitened times, built to pull Britain out of dark, post-war austerity.
Cast out of "best Yorkshire steel" Peppercorn decided his locomotive should be able to run fast on the poor coal available and, with its revolutionary roller-bearings, be able to travel 118,000 miles between services. They were to be cheap, reliable and durable.
In just two years, engineers at Doncaster and Darlington produced 49 A1s. It was a proud testament to the engineering skills of the men of the day.
But there was no sentiment among the hard-headed BR managers. By the early 1960s, diesel was the future and the final A1 pulled into York station in 1966 with little fanfare. A working life that should have lasted 50 years was over in barely 18. Fate was to deliver another blow. The crisis in the Congo forced the price of copper to soar and within two years all 49 A1s had been shredded.
As enthusiasts gradually salvaged other locomotives from the scrapyards, the A1 appeared to have been forgotten. But a letter to Steam Railway News in 1990 by Mike Wilson, who went on to become the Trust's first chairman, suggesting that the technology now existed to create a new loco from scratch unleashed a wave of determination in the steam community. Today, the new A1 will start its new life with the late Arthur Peppercorn's 90-year-old widow Dorothy on the footplate. It promises to be an almost faithful copy of the original, but an inch shorter to allow it to operate from today's mainline stations. It will also be packed with state-of-the-art electronics, including a modern safety "black box". As a result, Arthur Peppercorn's baby will be able to pull passenger cars the length and breadth of the UK rail network and beyond at speeds of up to 90mph. A proud day too, for my Uncle Bert.