The Fastest Steam Train in the World

The record for the world's fastest steam locomotive was set in 1938. Will that record ever be broken?

The Fastest Steam Train in the World
The Mallard is the fastest steam train in history. Photo: Wikimedia.

A steam locomotive burns combustible material to heat the water in the boiler until it becomes gaseous. This gaseous expansion is what provides the power of a steam engine. What is the fastest Steam Train in the world?

The Mallard set the record for the fastest steam locomotive on July 3, 1938, when it reached 126 mph or just over 200 km/h. It was faster than the previous record of still of 124.5. The Mallard's record still stands today.

Let’s take a look at the steam engines, the World record setting Mallard, and if its record will ever be broken.

Steam Engines

Steam locomotives were developed in the United Kingdom in the early part of the 19th century and used until the middle of the 20th century. The first steam locomotive was built by Richard Trevithick and used in service at Pen-y-darren in 1804. The first commercial steam locomotive was built in 1812.

After the first steam engine was used to transport passengers in 1825, the steam locomotive saw rapid development and usage.

Sir Nigel Gresley

Sir Nigel Gresley worked for the Great Northern Railway and as the Chief Mechanical Engineer for London and North Eastern Railway. His steam engine designs are considered aesthetically and mechanically eloquent.

He designed the LNER Class A4 4-6-2 and the LNER Class A1 Pacific engines. These became two of the most famous locomotives in Britain. The A1 Pacific Flying Scotsman was the first steam locomotive to exceed over 100 mph during a passenger service. The A4 Mallard still holds the record as the fastest steam locomotive.

The Mallard

The A4 4468 Mallard was built in 1938 and used on the London and North Eastern Railways. It was a wind tunnel-tested and streamlined design that provided long-haul express passenger service. It was 70 ft in length and weighed 166 tonnes or 369,600 lbs. It is painted garter blue, which is based on the blue used on the Bugatti racecars.

The Mallard covered over 1.5 million miles or 2.4 million km before it was retired from service in 1963. It is currently part of the National Collection and preserved at the National Railway Museum in York.

Breaking the 100 MPH Barrier

The British Railway steam haul service was limited to 90 mph line speed before the war. The A4s had to travel well above the 90 mph limit to keep on schedule. They would regularly reach 100 mph. The first steam engine to break the 100 mph barrier was The Flying Scotsman.

On November 30, 1934, the Flying Scotsman was authenticated as the first steam locomotive to reach 100 mph or 161 km. The Flying Scotsman toured the United States and Canada from 1969 to 1973. Later while in Australia during 1988 and 1989, the Flying Scotsman set the record for the longest nonstop run by a steam locomotive. On August 8, 1989, it ran over 422 miles while in Australia.

Setting The World Record

The previous world record was held by a German locomotive. It was set at 124.5 mph in 1936. The English record was only 114 mph and set by an LMS locomotive in 1937.

On July 3, 1938, Sir Nigel Gresley set his sights on breaking the 124.5 mph record. He reduced the train's length to 6 cars and a dynamometer car was set to record the speed among other parameters. Besides the train conductor Joe Duddington and the fireman Thomas Bray, none of the rest of the crew was informed of the purpose of the run.

The record-breaking run was scheduled when the Mallard would be descending Stoke Bank between Grantham and Peterborough. The Mallard only reached 120 mph during the five-mile descent before the train then needed to slow down for a curve at Essendine. There was, however,  an additional opportunity for it to accelerate and capture the record.

The Mallard was able to reach a steady 125 mph and topped 126 mph for a distance of 144yds according to the recording data onboard the train. The Mallard now stood alone as the world's fastest steam train.

Post World Record Speed Run

The breaking needed for the curves at Essendine was enough to cause the big end of the front three cylinders to fail. The locomotive was removed for repair when the train stopped in Peterborough. It was able to return to duty and covered over 1.4 million miles before its retirement in 1963.

It was soon put on display at the Museum of British Transport in Clapham. The Mallard was moved to the National Railway Museum in York for its grand opening in 1975.

End Of The Steam Engines

The introduction of electric locomotives early in the 20th century and the diesel-electric a short time later began the decline of the steam locomotive. When diesel power became more reliable in the 1930’s transition from steam engines was sealed.

By the 1950s, the last steam engine was taken out of service in North America. In Europe, the last steam engine in service was removed much later in the 1970s.

Many other countries however used steam locomotives until the end of the 20th century.

Will The Record Stand Forever?

With the retirement of the steam engine, it is probably a good bet the world record is safe with the Mallard. It has held it for over 84 years. There may be a contender for the title in 2030. The T1 Trust a non-profit organization is designing and building a steam locomotive that should rival the Mallard's record when it is finished.


The Mallard continues to hold the steam locomotive speed record at 126 mph set in 1938. This topped the previous record of 124.5 mph set by a German steam engine in 1936. It was designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, who also designed the Flying Scotsman, the first steam engine to break 100 mph.

The Mallard's record still stands today, but after over 84 years a non-profit organization is building a steam engine that could break the record upon its completion in 2030.