Training pays off after 18 long years

Shepherd & Wedderburn's marketing director has helped make a dream come true for a group of steam enthusiasts, writes Christopher Mackie

IN DECEMBER, Mark Allatt, an amiable and extremely tall Yorkshireman, took up a post as business development and marketing director of one of Scotland's leading law firms.

Ten days ago, just eight months into his new role at Shepherd & Wedderburn, the former global brand director of Deloitte celebrated a major milestone in his marketing career – and there wasn't a Scottish lawyer in sight.

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Three days before today's 40th anniversary of the end of the use of steam by the then-nationalised British Railways, Allatt and a unbelievably dedicated band of volunteers watched with pride as the fruits of a love affair that began in 1990 emerged from a Darlington warehouse.

As chairman of the charitable A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, Allatt heads a team of enthusiasts who have spent 18 years building a steam locomotive from scratch, raising more than 3 million in the process. The A1 Class engine, originally designed by Arthur Peppercorn and christened Tornado, moved under her own power on Friday 1 August, the first newly built steam train to do so in Britain for almost 50 years.

"People love steam," Allatt enthused ahead of the launch. "If you say to a kid, 'Draw a train', they will draw a steam locomotive, they won't draw a diesel."

But a simple love for steam is not enough to see a vast project like Tornado completed. After years of steam train restoration by organisations using engine frames salvaged from scrap yards, correspondence from the trust's first chairman in Steam Railway News magazine proposed the all-new construction of an A1 class of engine. A steam train lover, Allatt volunteered to help during a public meeting to discuss the idea.

"People started to say, 'After all of these restorations of preserved locomotives, why not build one from scratch?'" he says. "Someone said, 'Yes, it would be really nice,' sat down, got a small group together, and worked out what it would cost and how it could be paid for."

It was this initial, and continuing, focus on the funding that Allatt believes is the key to its success.

"There was a deliberate decision taken, right at the start, to get people to enter into what was a deed of covenant. The idea was a lot of people giving a little on a regular basis. People signed up to give the equivalent of the price of a pint a week and we collected monthly. It was 5 a month, because beer was 1.25 a pint in the North-East!"

Allatt admits that at first such an ambitious project was hard to sell, even to the dedicated steam community: "Because we were starting from scratch, and because we were a group that hadn't started with a locomotive that had been withdrawn from service in the 60s, it was hard work.

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"A lot of people thought it would never happen. But we are now raising more money than ever before, and have more people coming on board than ever before because they know it's going to be finished and want to be part of the success. But even up to two years ago, it was a struggle."

There are 2,000 donors signed up for regular contributions, and a total of almost 4,000 contributors, including industrial sponsors such as Rolls-Royce and principal backer William Cook Cast Products. The Trust's efforts are more impressive when you consider the lack of Heritage Lottery funding – not granted to new-build steam projects.

The Trust has depended on these structured donations as the project cost has expanded each year, with an unexpected increase more recently. "The budget is forever expanding, and one of the reasons has been, in the last three years, demand from China for raw materials. We have seen things like copper double or triple in price," says Allatt.

Global metal prices have not been the only engineering challenge: "When the project was launched, the estimate, from an engineering perspective, was that it could take four years. But you have to make components from scratch; it's like industrial archaeology."

Before the casting of parts could begin, three years were spent locating and cleaning up construction drawings. "When Doncaster works stopped building steam (engines], the drawings were sent to the National Railway Museum (in York] and put in a cupboard," says Allatt. "We had to find these and scan them into a computer. We had 1,300 drawings.

"It's not like an Airfix kit. There is no material specification on these drawings, they say things like 'best Yorkshire iron'. And there are no instructions on how to put it together."

As well as deciphering these engineering drawings, the Trust has had to comply with an onerous safety regime ahead of Tornado's eventual service on the mainline. She is equipped with modern brakes and train warning system, a radio and much bigger electrical system than the original A1 Class. Following her maiden journey, Tornado will spend the coming months being tested at Loughborough and Derby before receiving her livery at the paint workshop of the NRM. From there, she will work for her keep, pulling charter trains on the country's main lines.

She is expected to make an appearance in Edinburgh, as a tribute to the Peppercorn A1's regular appearances in the capital on the East Coast main line.

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Allatt estimates that after 18 years of hard marketing graft, Tornado will be left with 800,000 of debt to be cleared by her own efforts.

But what of Mark Allatt's future? Having spent almost half of his adult life on the A1 Steam project, does he fancy a crack at another historical mode of transport – a plane or car perhaps?

"No, we've got the skills, knowledge and the fundraising method and base that works for building steam locomotives, and I very much suspect we're going to build another one of a different type," he says. "We're not a club or society, we're a company limited by guarantee with charitable status; there is no internal bickering.

"We get people to do for the Trust what they do for a living. I do marketing during the week, and what do I do at weekends and evenings? More marketing! But hey, better me doing that than someone trusting me to do welding."