Go Back To Trains

The Golden Arrow

The Golden Arrow is a model of a train that, as I grew up, I learnt was a special train. The Golden Arrow was out there somewhere in an expensive life style about which I knew nothing, and which I was not even "peeking into" Streisand style. However, curiously, actually seeing the train was a very normal thing for me, as I shall relate. But, in recent years, I have realised that my experience was the relatively unusual one. Not that it was unavailable or privileged, it was just something that most people did not do because they had no interest in trains, not even the Golden Arrow; and, furthermore, did not have the special access that I had. As I write, I wish I had paid much more attention than I did, so that now I would know more; but I was young. What follows is not a history, nor a full description, and certainly there is no claim of accuracy; it is just what I remember.

The Boat Trains

Trains ran between London and the European continent, with a sea-going ferry used for the English Channel crossing. Today, there is a tunnel that goes under the Channel, and the ferries are of significantly diminished importance. Dover and Calais, Folkestone and Le Havre, were typical ports for the interchanges. Mostly, passengers walked from the train to the cross-channel ferry. Luggage was centralized in luggage vans and was transferred to and from the ferry by crane. There were sleeper trains, some coaches of which were loaded onto the ferries; but the daytime trains did not travel that way. Nonetheless, from a railway point of view, and hence my point of view, all the trains that connected with cross-channel ferries were "boat trains". Boat trains had top priority on the railway because they had to be punctual to make their sea-faring connections.

Most boat trains did not stop at Tonbridge, my home town station, they were "through" trains. But some did stop. And the hustle and bustle as the station staff got people, luggage, and mail, off and on the train in just, as I remember, two minutes, was plain exciting. All big railways, in all countries, have these top-of-the-line trains; in my world they were the "boat trains". And, of course, the Golden Arrow was a boat train; it was the most important boat train, the top of the top.

My Grandparents' House

I spent time at Tonbridge station watching the trains; but my special access was my grandparents' small terrace house just north - the London side - of Tonbridge station. The main line from London is (still is) fairly straight for a few miles before the house. And it has the longest straight on the British Railways Southern Region, as it was, east of Tonbridge station, which is the Channel side. Starting a couple of hundred yards north of the house and extending almost into the station is an 80 degree curve with a 50mph speed limit. Thus, the row of houses is right inside the two curved main line tracks between London and Dover. And so the scene is set. The boat trains would come barrelling down the line from Sevenoaks at about 80mph; have to brake for the curve; and then accelerate to about 90mph once through the station. I was watching from inside the curve. Of course it was the same in the other direction, but the up (to London) trains do not stick in my head quite so much as the down trains. Maybe that is because the down line was a little closer to where I stood. The point is that it was all exciting. This was a time when some enginemen still cared about their performance and time-keeping reputation, and real skill was required to keep that reputation. The driver had to slow his train adequately for safety but then get the regulator open as soon as possible after the curve. The fireman had to manage fire and water through the large steam demand changes produced by this go-slow-go activity. All of this hot action came through to me whether I was watching from the station platform or grasping a fleeting glimpse from the bottom of the garden of the terrace house. It was all urgent and important. I was just fifty to a hundred feet from the trains as they went past, so it was smelly and noisy too, which made it even more urgent and important.

This is how I saw the Golden Arrow many, many, times, The Golden Arrow left Victoria station at 11am, and got to the house a little before lunch. The Fleche d'Or left Paris at the same time, and the connecting Golden Arrow got to the house in the late afternoon.

The Golden Arrow

Information and history about the Golden Arrow is available on the internet and in books. Here I shall write simply that it was, in its heyday, a full length, heavy, all-Pullman train hauled by the Southern's best express engines. There were other equally wonderful trains elsewhere in Britain and the world. But those trains did not leave London, connect with cross-channel ferries and the Fleche d'Or, and take people to Paris and on to the French Riviera. And they did not go past my Grandma's house, either.

The Engines

The engines that I remember seeing pulling the Golden Arrow are Bulleid's Merchant Navy heavy pacifics in their original form and, later, British Railways Britannia pacifics. But probably I saw others, Bulleid light pacifics, and re-built Merchant Navys are likely, just possibly even the older Lord Nelsons. The only specific engines that I remember are the two Britannias that were allocated to the Stewarts Lane maintenance shed tasked with providing Golden Arrow engines: 70014, Iron Duke; and 70004, William Shakespeare.

These all were magnificent engines in their day; my personal favorites were the Bulleid Pacifics. These came in two varieties, the heavy pacifics, all named after merchant navy shipping lines; and the slightly smaller, lighter, less powerful, engines named after either towns in the West of England, or entities connected with World War II. A significant number of these engines, heavy and light, are currently operational on Britain's preserved railways; although, sad for me, none of the heavy pacifics escaped re-building.

Bulleid was an innovator, in a time when innovation was somewhat impertinent - even in America, despite the, oh-so-popular, contradictory rhetoric. Thus, a key feature of the engines is a novel valve gear, as part of a three cylinder configuration. Originally the valves were designed to be gear driven, but they ended up being chain driven because of war-caused constraint. I think that the main constraint must have been a limit on gear-cutting, which would have been a premium machining process; it is hard to believe that quantity of steel used was the problem since the chains and sprockets are steel. Other important features of the engines were magnificent free-steaming boilers, and disdain, bordering on hatred, by other locomotive designers. As far as I could tell, the cause of the disdain came down to Bulleid's innovations, especially since they worked, and the quantity of them: fancy valve gear, electric lights, nasty American inventions such as BoxPok wheels, etc.

But they got back at him when the railways were nationalised and centrally controlled a few years after WWII: they de-rated the boiler by reducing its working pressure from 280 to 250 psi, bringing it into line with the lesser performance of the other engines. And they re-built a lot of the engines, removing the different valve gear and 1930s vintage streamlined casing, so making the engines look just like the others.

The Coaches

The Golden Arrow was an all-Pullman train; George Pullman being the same man who created luxurious trains in America. I do not think that I was especially impressed by luxury, but the cream-and-chocolate livery emphasized the special nature of the train, and that did get to me. I felt let down toward the end as green Southern coaches crept into use alongside the Pullmans. The train had both first and third class sections during the time I saw it - it was exclusively first class at one time - but one thing that impressed me during my fleeting glimpses was the table and table lamp at every window. I never rode on the train.

See It

See the Golden Arrow at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rp5eztEvqYY. This clip is fifty years old, dark, and grainy; do not expect too much. The train is going up to London through Tonbridge station, i.e., just approaching the 50mph curve. The fireman has not quite got it right, and so the engine, a re-built Bulleid pacific, is blowing off excessive steam (free-steaming boilers, you remember); the safety valve will be shut within twenty seconds as the driver opens up to accelerate after the curve.

The Model Train

The engine is an Aster model. As described in the note about the Green Train, the company's first model was a Schools class engine. The Bulleid light pacific was produced by Aster thirty years later as an anniversary model. This struck a cord with me simply because I grew up with the two full-size engines; and so I have both of the model engines and their trains.

Unlike the Schools, the Aster Bulleid is not an elegantly spare design. Rather, the Bulleid is crammed with features that, in my view, are somewhat awkward on a model so small, and are rather hard to use. Larger scales permit the human to sit behind the engine, astride the track, or even on-board the engine, and then real-time control of everything is possible, and fun. I did this kind of miniature engine driving during my teenage years - the period during which I watched the full-sized Golden Arrow.

So the complex Aster Bulleid Pacific has three cylinders, properly reversible valve gear, a run-time water pump, a more complex boiler design than the Schools, and so on. Aster did not try to copy Bulleid's chain driven valve gear, but produced their own Walschaerts gear instead. This engine can be run continuously (until human exhaustion) by topping up the methylated spirits and water in the tender; there seems to be plenty of capacity for steam oil, although that can be topped up too. Unlike the Schools, the fuel and water systems are not well balanced, the tender water tank being far too small and needing very frequent attention.

I have fitted radio control to the engine, and this enables remote opening and shutting of the regulator whilst the engine is running. No other control via radio has been attempted; apart from anything else, there is no room for another servo.

The Model Coaches

The coaches were made by David Leech, who is well-known in the gauge 1 community. These coaches are truly excellent, practical, models which match the detail of the engine and produce a train that is quite beautiful - well, beautiful to aficionados. The engine and coaches all are identified as being part of the Golden Arrow - the Fleche d'Or; the engine via flags on the front and arrows on its sides; the coaches via boards on their sides.


The model train does not run well on the NG&DR. The engine is not sufficiently responsive to changes in regulator setting; it is very easy to stall a train going uphill, and runaway going downhill. The railway gods have given me an out, however: one of the curves is just a little greater in radius than the recommended minimum, and the engine jumps the track at a junction on the curve. Probably I shall have to give up trying to run this express train on my NG&DR track.

However, the train goes well enough on a level track with large radius curves where the engine has time to settle down. And so the train has become something of a static display, except for annual visits to steam ups at large tracks.

So, that is my model Golden Arrow. I hope that you enjoy seeing it, perhaps in action.

David Outteridge
January 2012

image: Rick Parker

Go Back To Trains

last-modification-date: 7 Sep 2013