When the last pair of Gresley ‘A4s’ were retired from their swansong Glasgow-Aberdeen services on September 3 1966 – 50 years ago this month – we all knew that steam was on its last legs.
While it was remarkable that the ‘Streaks’ had survived so long, the Southern Region was now the only one using steam as express passenger power, and that was also being run down at an alarming rate.
What a great couple of years it had been in Scotland, and how much was it the enthusiasm of senior management as opposed to sound business to take over a significant number of displaced East Coast ‘Pacifics’?
Whatever, their arrival at Aberdeen Ferryhill and Glasgow St Rollox sheds allowed inter-city service timings to be cut to three hours.
The 275-ton loading was hardly taxing for such a powerful engine, and was normally a rake of seven coaches (a motley collection of maroon BR Mk 1 and pre-Nationalisation stock). This was sometimes increased to eight in the summer, packed to standing room-only thanks to the number of enthusiasts out to savour the experience. Intermediate stops were Stirling, Perth, Forfar and Stonehaven.
At the outset, there were enough ‘A4s’ to handle other services such as the West Coast Postal from Carstairs to Aberdeen, stopping at Stirling to add coaches and vans off the 4am from Glasgow Central, and arriving in Aberdeen about four hours later. St Rollox was not fussy about finding other work for its regular pair, Nos. 60027 Merlin and 60031 Golden Plover, and they were seen on Waverley Route duties as well as local freights and even block cement trains - not exactly what their designer Sir Nigel Gresley had intended.
By late summer 1966, only two ‘A4s’ – Nos. 60019 Bittern and 60024 Kingfisher - were fit for service, and some of us making the long trek north suffered the disappointment of seeing regular ‘Black Five’ substitutions on the Aberdeen runs because a ‘Pacific’ was unavailable.
Unlike their unkempt Glasgow-based shedmates, Ferryhill’s engines were regularly cleaned, and even after the official curtain had come down on September 3, No. 60024 had a final fling after its 5.15pm Aberdeen-Glasgow turn, being sent back the following morning with the 8.25am northbound service.
Then, our beloved pair went their own ways. Bittern, of course, was immediately selected for preservation, but Kingfisher was not so fortunate, having its nameplates burned off for a final journey with earlier withdrawal No. 60034 Lord Faringdon to the North East for breaking up, which took place at the end of the year. Surely someone could have found £3,000 to save one of them… many say that six ‘A4’s is never enough.
Scottish steam was almost at an end, and even without steam, further change was in the wind, with the closure of the more direct Glasgow-Aberdeen inland route from Stanley Junction (Perth) to Kinnaber Junction via Forfar on September 4 1967. Finally, there was considerable satisfaction among steam-chasers that the North British diesels that replaced the ‘A4s’ quickly proved to be duds and were laid aside within a very short time.