He drove the Cheltenham Flyer


Driver J W Street (right) with Fireman Frank Sherer on the footplate of “Castle” class locomotive number 5000 “Launceston Castle” in 1931.

Jim (J W) Street, started work at age 15 on the Great Western Railway (GWR) as a cleaner in 1891 on a wage of 1/9d a day. By 1895 he had qualified as a fireman on a daily rate of 3/- a day plus 6d for some special duties. As a fireman, he worked a few turns with Driver Moses Clements who had achieved the record speed of 102.3 mph with “City of Truro” in 1904. Then in 1902 he had become a pilotman driver on 5/6d per day for duties such as working empty

coaching stock and shunting. He worked his way through the system of “links” and by 1919 was a top link driver at London’s Old Oak Common shed driving express services. In 17 years in the top passenger link, he calculated he’d driven 1,060,800 miles – or over 42 times round the circumference of the Earth (an under-estimate in the eyes of most). Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses had been some of his passengers. Clearly not a superstitious man, he kept his paybill number of 13 throughout his career.


Some of his many passengers timed their journeys with him and submitted the logs of runs to the newspapers and railway magazines. One such was a boat train from Plymouth to London in 1924 which was accomplished in 223 minutes for 226½ miles with “Star” class locomotive “Princess Helena”. The top speed was 92½ mph. It was not the easiest of runs as there was a three-minute stop at Exeter and seven permanent way speed restrictions to be observed that day.

Street wasn’t that impressed with the GWR’s attempts at streamlining locomotives at the time when the LNER and LMS were streamlining some of theirs. The ugly bulbous nose fitted to a “King” and “Castle” class locomotive were said to be the product of an experiment playing with Plasticine in a wind tunnel. Street said, “I have had a great deal of experience with these engines and am convinced that streamlining gives no advantage whatever.” His favourite locomotive was “Castle” class number 5006 “Tregenna Castle” which he described as the best engine for her work he ever had.



5006 “Tregenna Castle” at speed passing Hayes and Harlington with a down South Wales express in 1961. Photo: Mike Peart.

25th March 1936 was retirement day for Jim Street. He earned a press headline, “SPEED KING OF RAILS RETIRES”. On this final day he drove the “Cheltenham Flyer” the 77¼ miles from Swindon to Paddington in 60 minutes. Reflecting on his work, he said, “Always keep calm and cool when difficulties arise – as they often do – and then you will be able to see more clearly how to act; that has been the policy which I adopted all my life and there is not the least doubt this had a great deal to do with my absolutely clean sheet on retiring.” He worked hard to earn the respect of his colleagues. When he was a fireman, he had said, “I made up my mind, if I ever got so far as to have charge of a locomotive, to treat men on the left side – that is the firemen – as a human being.” As something of a national celebrity for his work driving the “World’s Fastest Train”, and capturing the world record for a start-to-stop train speed from the Canadian Pacific Railway, in 1931 he was invited by the winner of the Schneider Trophy for racing seaplanes and other record-breaking airmen to fly over the “Cheltenham Flyer” express at speed between Swindon and Reading. With his wife, both in their Sunday best, this was duly done and reported in the national press.



A “Castle” class locomotive at the head of the “Cheltenham Flyer” during the 1930s.


In his retirement, he wrote the book, “I Drove the Cheltenham Flyer”, published in 1951. His advice on what makes a good engineman is as good now as it was then. He must continually keep his mind on his work, which includes amongst a number of items a cultivated ability to detect defects of valves and pistons when a locomotive is running. Another good rule is never to allow a locomotive to prime, as this means loss of lubrication, broken steam-pipe joints etc. When working mineral or freight trains, mentally learn every slight rise or fall of the gradients no matter how slight, as this will be a great asset in later years when perhaps you may be in charge of heavy and crack expresses. I have always found it advisable to make the effort to see signals for myself – despite Automatic Train Control – if only for a moment when about to pass, for it is always better to be sure of a signal than to be sorry afterwards.”



A 1930s luggage label worth sticking on any luggage!


J W Street’s younger brother F W Street was also a top link driver at Old Oak Common shed with 44 years’ service. He was another record-breaker with the delightful nickname “Quality Street”!

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Islesseries, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961.


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