Flying Scotsman: how Scottish is it?

I am a cynic, a former train- spotter, and great grandson of a top-link engine driver on the Furness Railway, who drove William Gladstone when he was grappling with Irish Home Rule. So I feel obliged- and competent – to comment on the recent excitement about the “Flying Scotsman”.

Built at Doncaster, and completed in February 1923, it cost £7,944. Name and habitat apart, its Scottish connections are few. Although the designer, Nigel Gresley, was born in Edinburgh (because his mother was there seeing her obstetrician), he was quintessentially English: his father was a baronet in holy orders in the Church of England, his school was Marlborough, and his engineering career started with a premium apprenticeship requiring the payment of a substantial fee to the head of the Crewe railway works.

The big question is how much of the original engine remains. On the balance of probabilities, nothing except its colour. Originally designed to run from Kings Cross to York, soon after it was built its chimney and cab had to be lowered by 3 inches to allow it to work north of the border because of the smaller Scottish loading gauge. However, its high coal consumption of 52 lbs/mile precluded trips there from London. Changing its steam valve settings to those used by the Great Western Railway (induced by poor performance in the 1925 trials versus engines from that company) reduced consumption to 36lbs/mile, and the non-stop London to Edinburgh service started on May 1 1928.

The locomotive was rebuilt in 1946-7 with a new boiler. A multi-nozzle exhaust system and German–style smoke deflectors were fitted in 1959 and 1961, substantially changing its appearance. They remain. After withdrawal by British Railways in January 1963, the engine was sold, and restored at Darlington. It was overhauled again in 1968-9, 1973, 1978 (with another boiler), 1989, and 1999. It was bought by the National Railway Museum in 2004, costing £2.3M. Its most recent overhaul started in December 2005 and was completed in January 2016.

The recent Network Rail debacle about banning its running in Fife and on the Borders Railway, and then in short order reversing its decision, is yet another unhappy footnote to its history since it left British Railways. Two subsequent owners have gone bankrupt. And it sits well with another example of the propensity of “iconic” status to induce unintended but bad financial and temporal outcomes. The “Flying Scotsman” took its name from the train; it could also be said that the Scottish Parliament is considered by its inhabitants to be full of “Flying Scotspersons.” The restoration of the locomotive by the National Railway Museum was estimated to cost £750k and take a year. It cost £4.2M and took ten years. The Scottish Parliament overrun was shorter – it was only 3 years – but the overspend was greater. It cost £414.4M against a Holyrood new build initial estimate of £50-55M. In both schemes the project management teams were out of their depth.

Why Scots should drool so much over the “Flying Scotsman” is a puzzle. It may have something to do with the image created by very successful publicity campaigns run by the LNER in the 1930s, extolling the virtues of the Gresley locomotives. It cannot be denied that they were big, fast, and handsome, even if their design was not revolutionary but based on contemporary English and US practice. Mawkish sentimentality about the “golden age” of steam and other past glories undoubtedly plays a part as well. After all, the “Flying Scotsman” was a prime exhibit at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

However, wearing my train-spotting hat, I am sad that Gresley’s West Coast rivals have lost out. They performed just as well on the international expresses, notwithstanding Shap and Beattock. And I used to take their numbers, long ago. But there is one exception, W.H.Auden’s “Night Mail”, written in 1936 as a verse commentary to a documentary film with music by Benjamin Britten celebrating the Travelling Post Office. The engine featured in the film was the “Scots Guardsman”, designed and built in Glasgow in 1927. But TPOs stopped operating more than a decade ago. So it is appropriate for Auden’s opening words to celebrate the Barnett formula instead:

                                                             “This is the Night Mail crossing the border

                                                             bringing the cheque and the postal order”

Photo: Alan Wilson via Flickr Creative Commons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *