The most famous steam locomotive in the world and record-breaker extraordinaire is about to return to Britain’s rail network as the oldest mainline working locomotive in the country. Not only was she the first locomotive in the UK to reach 100mph, she was also a trade ambassador, a screen star, a media celebrity and a staple of Hornby model railways. Having travelled to the United States and Australia during her colourful career she has more stamps in her passport than you can shake a stick at.
She is of course the Flying Scotsman. In 2004 she was returned to public ownership after a campaign led by the National Railway Museum in York and Shildon who appointed a specialist Bury-based locomotive engineering workshop called Riley & Son to bring the legend back to life.
Her record-breaking career began in May 1928 with the first non-stop run making her the longest non-stop passenger service train in the world. In 1934 the Flying Scotsman set another record, becoming the first steam train in the UK to reach 100mph. The driver, Bill Sparshatt, a known risk-taker, took the locomotive from London Kings Cross up to Leeds. On the return journey he hit 100mph going down Stoke Bank, just outside Grantham. Bob Gwynne, Associate Curator of Collections and Research at the National Rail Museum, tells us, ‘Fireman Webster, who was on board for the entire journey, shovelled about nine tonnes of coal in just five hours which is also a bit of a record for firing a locomotive.’
The story of the Flying Scotsman train service – the locomotive’s namesake – dates back to 1862, 60 years before the construction of the locomotive itself. Before the rail network was built, the journey between London and Edinburgh took a gruelling 48 hours by stagecoach. In 1862 Walter Leith, General Manager of the Great Northern Railway came up with the idea of creating a high speed ‘Special Scotch Express’ to connect the English and Scottish capitals in just 10 and a half hours including a stop for lunch in York.
From then on, at 10am each week day, two trains hauled by steam locomotives departed from London Kings Cross and Edinburgh Waverley respectively. The train service soon became known as ‘The Flying Scotchman’ or ‘Flying Scotsman’. As Bob explains, ‘Even today, if you talk about the train to Scotland and ask people to name the train they would probably say The Flying Scotsman; it’s almost in the dictionary’. At this stage there were various locomotives hauling the passenger trains to and fro on the line. It wasn’t until 1924 that a locomotive was officially named after the service.
Designed by HN Gresley and built at Doncaster Works in 1923, the Flying Scotsman was the first locomotive to be built by the new London & North Eastern Railway. In 1924, resplendent in apple green livery with shining brass splashers, the Flying Scotsman became one of the stars of the British Empire Exhibition at the new Wembley Stadium where she represented the LNER as their flagship locomotive. Over 27 million visitors came to the exhibition and the locomotive appeared in the associated Pathé newsreels which were shown up and down the country. She was quickly catapulted into the limelight and became a media celebrity.
The fame of the 1924 locomotive was in large part due to two marketing marvels of the LNER – Cecil Dandridge and his predecessor William Teasdale. Dandridge is a marketing great, who managed many of the publicity stunts in the Flying Scotsman’s career, turning her into a symbol of the steam age and British engineering. He ensured that Flying Scotsman paper weights, cigarette lighters, postcards and biscuit tins were produced so that everyone could have a piece of her in their home.
The LNER publicity machine also made sure the story about the 100mph run made it into the newspaper with a photo of the designer Sir Nigel Gresley shaking Bill’s hand – and of course the nation loved it. Unfortunately, this achievement was also the last triumph of Flying Scotsman the locomotive. A new locomotive soon replaced her, and after 1936 she never again hauled the train service from London to Edinburgh with which she had become synonymous. She was relegated to lesser duties, until 1963 when British Rail decided she would be withdrawn from service.
She would have been scrapped had it not been for rail enthusiast Alan Pegler, who bought her, fixed up her paintwork, and ended up taking her to the United States on a UK trade mission in 1969. She went from Boston to New York, Washington and Dallas, then from Texas to Wisconsin and Montreal and finally Toronto to San Francisco in 1971. It didn’t go well. The tour ended in financial disaster, and Flying Scotsman was sold to Sir William McAlpine who took her to Australia in 1989 where she set another world record non-stop run for a steam hauled train – 442 miles, a huge distance.
In 2004 her future was once again in jeopardy, with the threat of being sold to an individual who might keep her out of public view, a real fear for her adoring public. Andrew Scott, the Director of the NRM at the time, lobbied and raised the money to buy her with the intention that she would be returned to the tracks as a working exhibit and an iconic symbol of the steam engine. About £415,000 was raised by the public, £365,000 was donated by Sir Richard Branson and £1.8 million came from the National Heritage Memorial Fund – the locomotive was returned once more to public ownership.
The train was taken to the National Railway Museum in York where a team of engineers started taking her to pieces. The restoration has been one of the most complex and lengthy overhauls of a steam locomotive ever undertaken and has cost almost £4.2 million.
Once she was stripped back to her bare bones the engineers could examine all the problems that lay behind the exterior. All three steam cylinders were oversized and needed to be fitted with new liners and re-bored. Buffer beam castings needed remedial work and realignment, as did the slide bar and motion brackets. The locomotive needed partial re-wheeling and new components were made from scratch for the brake ejector to ensure the brakes are fit for purpose when working at full boiler pressure. The water gauge has been relocated to a safer location for the crew to access and she needed a new smokebox saddle as well as a new boiler.
Bob tells us that one of the most difficult parts of the restoration was fitting a new copper fire box to the boiler. The copper available in the UK has a different arsenic content to the copper they used previously so they needed to order copper all the way from China.
And now she’s ready. Well, almost. All the critical milestones have now been reached and the locomotive looks complete, but they are still working on some pipework and fitting the equipment needed to operate on the mainline – the Train Monitoring Recorder and the Train Protection and Warning System. Then there are 1000 miles of testing on heritage lines, after which she will be ready for her inaugural run as British Railways Green 60103: From London Kings Cross to York, departing February 2016.
Bob anticipates that thousands and thousands of people will turn up to see this cultural icon, and the NRM have planned a series of events and activities in celebration, including an exhibition retelling the story of her career; a Flying Scotsman display in the Museum’s Hall of Railway Greats; a chance to step inside the carriages as they would have been in her heyday; and the opportunity to ride behind the steam legend on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway in Pickering as well as other venues around Great Britain.
What has been a labour of love for many will be a rare and real historic treat for all.