The Railway Races

The steam train was for many years the fastest method of surface transport, but there were constraints on the exploitation of the locomotives’ speed capacity. Braking distances, signal spacing, traffic density and curvature of the track all had to be considered in planning the timetable. Daily running was pitched at a level below the optimum. However, on two famous occasions the railways of the east and west coast routes pushed their trains to the limit. These were the so-called railway races of 1888 to Edinburgh, and of 1895 to Aberdeen.

The 1888 race was triggered by a Great Northern Railway announcement in November 1887 that it would admit third- class passengers to its 10:00 AM expresses between London and Scotland, then taking nine hours to Edinburgh. The west coast expresses from Euston already had third-class accommodation, but their trains to Edinburgh took an hour longer. Battle commenced the following year and culminated in August 1888. On August 13th the Euston train made the run in 7 hours and 38 minutes, ‘but the east coast got in late because of the wind’.  However, it made up for it on August 14th with a time of 7 hours and 32 minutes, and beat this time again by five minutes on August 31st.  Timings like these were too tight to be scheduled for regular operation all year round, and after the races they were lengthened to 8 hours and 15 minutes to Edinburgh by the east coast and 8 hours and 30 minutes by the west coast, whose route was seven and three quarter miles longer.

With the opening of the Forth Bridge in 1890, the distance from Kings Cross to Aberdeen became 16 miles less than from Euston. By 1895 tourist traffic to the Highlands was enjoying a boom and the east coast route was eager to exploit its advantage. In the summer months of that year both routes began cutting the time of their overnight tourist express to Aberdeen with scant regard to the published timetable. The best east coast time was 8 hours and 38 minutes, achieved on 22nd August. On the same date, the west coast train took 8 hours and 32 minutes, with an average speed of over 60 mph throughout, despite four stops en-route. In those days, and indeed after, doing ‘a mile a minute’ was viewed with some reverence, like Concorde’s Mach 2. The west coast train, hauled by a 2-4-0 locomotive ‘Hardwicke,’ surpassed that standard on every section of its run. The time was only bettered some 80 years later with the advent of InterCity 125 express trains.

The York to Selby line played a part in both the 1888 and 1895 races as the removal of the Knottingley loop improved journey times and allowed for high speed running because of the straightness of the track.

1880's - 1890's
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