Probably the most iconic Pacific Express design of locomotive in Great Britain, the LNER Gresley A4, with its streamlined casing, was a classic symbol of the attitude towards speed and design in the 1930s.
The 1930s saw increased competition to the railways from road and air travel and the LNER Board knew that they had to make travel between the major cities faster, more comfortable and more reliable. High speed diesel services were starting to make an impact abroad, in May 1933, the German State Railways diesel-electric Fliegende Hamburger entered service, running for extended periods at 85mph and by 1934, in the USA, Burlington Zephyr had reached 112.5mph during a longer 1,015 mile journey.
Nigel Gresley, the LNER’s Chief Mechanical Officer, travelled on the Fliegende Hamburger and was impressed by its streamlining, although he realised it was only efficient at high speeds. Gresley was certain that a modified A3 Pacific, with streamlining, could haul greater loads than the German or US locomotives, at the same speed or faster and a series of trials were conducted to confirm the A3’s suitability. With the trials successfully completed, the LNER Board gave Gresley the go-ahead to create the "Silver Jubilee" streamlined trains, the first of the new streamlined A4s. The streamlining of the A4s’ steam circuit, their higher boiler pressure and the extension of the firebox to create a combustion chamber, made them more efficient than the A3 as they consumed less coal and water, especially later on when they were also fitted with a Kylchap double chimney, improving their free steaming capabilities further.
Their streamlined design not only made them capable of high speeds, but created an updraught of smoke, avoiding the obscuring of the driver’s vision that was such a major problem on the Class A3 engines. The story goes that during windtunnel testing, after several unsuccessful efforts to get the smoke to lift clear, a thumbprint was inadvertently left on the clay model, just behind the chimney. This succeeded in clearing the smoke and was incorporated into the final design.
In total, thirty five A4s were built in four batches, 2509-2512, 4462-4469, 4482-4500 and 4900-4903, between 1935 and 1938. They mainly spent their working lives hauling express passenger services from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, via York and Newcastle and although the Deltics proved worthy successors of the A4s on East Coast Mainline express services in the late 1950s, other diesel classes were unreliable. The A4s were kept in service until the mid-1960s, the last service under British Rail being the Aberdeen-Glasgow service on September 14, 1966.
4493 Woodcock entered traffic on July 26, 1937, allocated to Gateshead, where for six months the locomotive was used on mundane duties, unless an engine failed on one of the LNER 'glamour' trains. A brief allocation to Doncaster in January 1938 was followed by a move to Kings Cross on February 25th, from where Woodcock was to operate until June 1963 when it moved to New England; being withdrawn from there in October.