Bittern

Bittern was built in 1937 by the London North Eastern Railway Company and is sister to Mallard, the fastest steam locomotive in the world. Bittern spent her life operating from London to York, Newcastle and Edinburgh on the East Coast Main Line and in 2013 became the fastest steam locomotive in preservation, reaching 90mph on three historic runs.

  • Icons Of Steam
29 Years
service
80 Years
of age
90 Miles
Per Hour
104 Tons of
engine

Doncaster Works

One of 35

Bittern was built at the London North Eastern Railway’s Doncaster Works in the last half of 1937. The 24th member of the A4 Class she entered service with the LNER on the 18th December of that year. When built Bittern was fitted almost as she is seen today, with side valances hiding the top half of her driving wheels, and resplendent in Garter Blue livery and gold leaf lettering.

Part of a legend

The Flying Scotsman

The A4 Class were the successors to the LNER’s A3 Class, of which the world famous Flying Scotsman is a member. These locomotives were used on the very fastest services of the day, hauling trains from London to York, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Bittern was among the locomotives to haul renowned services such as The Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh and would have regularly been seen tearing along the East Coast Mainline with the most luxurious services of the time.

Changing times

Wartime and British Railways

During the Second World War the luxurious passenger services of the 1930s were substituted for much more mundane and taxing work. Bittern was repainted into a black wartime livery and would have been relegated to a mixture of passenger and freight work vital to the war effort.

Following the War the new Labour government decided to nationalise the rail network, spelling the end of the ‘Big Four’ railway companies and creating British Railways. Bittern was to receive a new number, ceasing to be No.4464 and becoming No.60019. She was to return to work on the newly reinstated express passenger services before the inevitable arrival of diesel traction in the late 1950’s and early 1960s.

End of an era

The demise of the A4s

As the new Deltic locomotives were introduced by British Railways on the East Coast Mainline, the A4’s were subject to less and less use. Bittern, like many of her classmates, was to spend the final years of her career based at Ferryhill in Aberdeen, working Scottish services to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Indeed she was to haul the final steam hauled passenger service from Glasgow to Aberdeen before finally being retired on 3rd September 1966 after just 29 years service.

Wilderness years

Entering preservation

Bittern was purchased directly from British Railways by the Drury family who had also purchased fellow LNER Pacific Blue Peter. She hauled a number of excursions from a base in York before her activities were curtailed by the discovery of cracked frames, a problem impossible to rectify at the time.

She was therefore relegated to a museum piece, and was even cosmetically restored as classmate No.2509 Silver Link for an event at the National Railway Museum in 1988.

Return to steam

Bringing back Bittern

Following a change of ownership, and with major advances in technology, in the early 2000s it became possible to repair Bittern’s frames and return her to steam. A major overhaul of the locomotive was started in 2001 at the Watercress Line in Hampshire and was eventually completed in 2007. Following testing she hauled her first passenger service in more than 40 years in July of that year, and made her main line debut in December.

Changing Identities

Dominion of New Zealand

In 2010 Bittern once again changed her name. Having returned to steam in British Railways green livery she was repainted to into LNER Garter Blue colours, was adorned with stainless steel numbering and lettering, and became sister locomotive No.4492 Dominion of New Zealand.

Entertaining Royalty

The Royal Train

In 2013, to mark the opening of the National Railway Museum’s #Mallard75 events celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Mallard’s record breaking 126mph run, Bittern was charged with hauling the Royal Train with HRH The Prince of Wales aboard into the museum. His Royal Highness was to open the event and by chance this was the very day that HRH Prince George - the Prince of Wales’ Grandson - was born.

To mark the anniversary all six surviving members of the A4 Class were reunited for three events in 2013 and early 2014, with record numbers visiting the National Railway Museum. The event included Dominion of Canada and Dwight D. Eisenhower, both of which had to be specially shipped from Canada and the USA respectively for the event.

Breaking Records

Fastest Steam in Preservation

As part of the 75th Anniversary of Mallard’s 126mph run a historic event was organised, three celebratory and ground breaking mainline excursions which, for the first time in preservation, would see a steam locomotive run at more than 75mph.

The first service ran on 29th June and achieved a top speed in excess of 92mph. The final two runs took place on the 5th and 7th December, where No. 4464 achieved a top speed of just over 93mph, a preservation record, and also succeeded in maintaining more than 90mph for a distance of more than 10 miles.

Bittern's historic 90mph runs were documented in full by Oldham Video Productions, who produced a full length documentary about the event.

Where did the time go

Ready for overhaul

With boiler certification of mainline locomotives lasting for only 7 years, all too soon it was time for Bittern to retire for her second major overhaul in preservation and, on a frosty day at the end of 2014, she hauled her last mainline service from London Kings Cross to Lincoln and back.

This was however not quite the end, a one year extension was granted for Bittern’s boiler, allowing her to operate for a few additional months on heritage railways at 25mph. She spent most of 2015 where it all started a decade before, at the Watercress Line. Bittern’s last passenger service was on the Bluebell Railway, on the 1st November 2015. From here she was dispatched to the maintenance facilities of LNWR Heritage in Crewe, where she is now awaiting her turn in the overhaul queue.

Title photo courtesy Geoff Griffiths.