Everyone, surely, has heard of Flying Scotsman? But how many know the full story behind the elegant lines, evocative name and classic apple green livery? Now that she is back on Britain’s mainlines, it’s time to tell the far from smooth story of the most famous steam engine in the world, and the engineering icon that the people of Britain have taken to their hearts as ‘People’s Engine’ – she stands above even Mallard in popular recognition and affection.
The Great Northern Railway’s (GNR) mid-morning departure from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh was commonly but unofficially known as the Flying Scotchman or Scotsman, as early as the 1850s, and the name has stuck. It is probably the only train name that most Britons recognise today.
The GNR, running from London to York, and exchanging traffic there with its ally the North Eastern Railway (NER), was one of the most important and prestigious railway companies in Britain, and this was reflected in its express locomotives, such as the famous and stylish ‘Stirling Singles’, of 1870. Those driving wheels are 8ft in diameter!
In 1898, the GNR was the first British railway to use the ‘Atlantic’ type locomotive, based on American practice and designed by Henry Ivatt. Ivatt’s Atlantics – notably the larger C1 class of 1902 – were among Britain’s best and most powerful locomotives for a quarter of a century, but by 1921, more was needed.
The GNR’s new Chief Mechanical Engineer was H N Gresley (1876-1941, and from 1936, Sir Nigel; seen here timing one of his trains between trackside mileposts with a stopwatch), and he also looked to America for inspiration. His new ‘Pacific’, with six coupled driving wheels, no 1470 Great Northern, appeared in April 1922, just months before Britain’s companies were merged into four companies, with the GNR and NER included in the new London and North Eastern Railway (LNER).
Like virtually all GNR engines, 1470 was built at the company’s own works in Doncaster, 150 miles north of London in Yorkshire.
The new engine was a carefully designed amalgam of the best of British and American practice; the boiler was based on that of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s K4 Pacific, suitably scaled down for the cramped British loading gauge. The K4’s was deliberately designed to generate huge volumes of steam – hence the wide firebox with a large grate area, and the tapered shape.
As built, 1470 had three 20×26 inch cylinders, powered by a boiler at 180psi pressure; driving wheels were 80 inches in diameter, giving a tractive effort of 29,835 lb/ft. Great Northern was 61ft long, plus an eight wheel tender carrying 8 tons of top-quality Yorkshire coal and 5,000 gallons of water. Total weight was 150 tons. This drawing, on linen, is dated 1923, and is signed by Gresley, in the bottom right corner
Gresley favoured a three cylinder layout for his large locomotives, for its better inherent smoothness, better balance of rotating parts and more even draw on the fire. He also used an unusual valve gear, patented as ‘conjugated’, believing it to be lighter and more easily maintained.
Conjugated gear used the Walschaerts valve gear on the two outside cylinders to drive the third central cylinder, with all three cylinders driving the centre coupled axle. Gresley was partly right – conjugated gear is lighter, but it has it downsides. Maintenance must be meticulous, which became an issue during and after WW2, and prolonged high speed running put an unequal load on the centre cylinder, leading to failures of the big end – which happened to Mallard on her world record run in 1938.
1470, the first of LNER class A1, was an immediate success, but faced in-house competition, from the six equally new A2 Pacifics of the NER. Named after the cities of Yorkshire and north east England, the A2s were imposing looking machines, but technologically a generation behind Gresley’s, and after brief trials between Great Northern and the NER’s City of Newcastle, the A1 was clearly proven to be more economical and powerful, and thus selected as the future standard – and the new company followed GNR locomotive practice thereafter.
Through 1924 and 1925, she was exhibited at the Empire Exhibition in London – something akin to a modern Expo, but featuring only the culture, achievements and industry of the British Empire.
The Great Western Railway (linking London with south Wales and south west England) also had a powerful new express engine on display – the Castle class 4-6-0. The Castle was smaller (by 19 tons) and more traditionally styled than 4472 – but the GWR described it as Britain’s most express powerful locomotive, citing its tractive effort. Tractive effort in a steam locomotive is analogous to torque in an internal combustion engine – it is evident at a standing start or on an incline; it is also calculable, and is therefore the standard for comparison, whereas horsepower has to be measured from observation
Pendennis Castle and A1 Flying Fox at the LNER Kings Cross engine depot, London, 1925
The LNER rose to the challenge and the two companies arranged a series of comparative tests. To the LNER’s embarrassment, and Gresley’s disappointment, the Castle proved to be more economical and just as powerful as the larger A1.
With hindsight, it is not surprising that the Castle outperformed the A1. The A1 was a new and significant development in GNR and LNER thinking, and expecting it to match the GWR straight out of the box was perhaps optimistic. The Castle was a development of the GWR’s successful Star class of 1906, with a larger boiler and cylinders but much commonality and straightforward evolution underneath. George Churchward, the GWR’s Chief Mechanical Engineer from 1902 to 1922, had studied French and American practice carefully, and drawn the significant elements into his designs, notably effective superheating and long travel valve gear. The first maximised the productive capacity of the steam; the second ensured that steam was fully used. Together, they reduced coal and water consumption whilst maximising performance.
The A1 had neither of these. However, Gresley learned the lesson, and the LNER began a programme to modify the A1s, most importantly through alterations to the detail of the valve gear that, in tests, reduced coal consumption by 20%.
Gresley was also keenly interested in the development of ‘superpower’ in the USA, which began with the 2-8-4 ‘Berkshires’ designed by William Woodard of the Lima Locomotive Company for the New York Central in 1925. Woodard used an enlarged firebox designed to burn the coal most efficiently, with a high pressure boiler and larger than normal cylinders capable of using the volume of high pressure steam that could be generated, all carefully designed to work together. These engines achieved a significant power increase and reduced fuel consumption, and without matching increases in size and weight, and could significantly outperform similar sized conventional engines. Today, the preserved Nickel Plate Railroad 2-8-4 no 765 shows what these could achieve. Gresley didn’t need to go as far as the Americans, but he applied the principles to his Pacifics.
From 1928, new Pacifics were built with boiler pressure of 220 psi and an improved superheater, and a slightly reduced cylinder diameter of 19in, and classified as A3. From 1929 onwards the A1s were progressively rebuilt as A3s. By 1935, the LNER had 79 A1s and A3s and by 1949, all the Gresley A1s had been rebuilt as A3s. 4472 herself was rebuilt in 1947.
The A3 never matched the outright speed of the later A4, but they were good load haulers – Gresley claimed they were designed to haul 600 ton trains at express speed, which meant a maximum of 80mph in the 1920s. Power output in horsepower was around 1800 – 2000hp, and remember that steam engines can, if properly handled, exceed their theoretical maximum power for short periods.
The A1s and A3s hauled the principal express services on the East Coast Main Line, from London to Leeds, York, Newcastle upon Tyne, Edinburgh and Glasgow, from the mid 1920s to the late 1950s. This is a postcard, but the scene is typical of Kings Cross in the 1920s and 1930s.
The LNER’s key competitor was the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), paralleling the LNER from London to Scotland via Birmingham and Manchester, with the Royal Scot and the Flying Scotsman competing like the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited and the New York Central’s 20th Century between New York and Chicago.
But the LNER and LMS didn’t compete on speed. Instead, under a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’, the two monopoly providers of long distance inter-city travel maintained schedules of 8½ hours for trains from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow – an average of under 50mph, for distances of around 400 miles!
In 1928, the LNER decided it was time to move forward, and announced that the Flying Scotsman service would run non-stop to Edinburgh – then, the longest non-stop journey on the world and still the longest ever in Britain – albeit still on an 8½ hour schedule. This also marked the first formal use of the name Flying Scotsman for the service, as well as for one of the locomotives that would haul it.
There was one huge hurdle to running 400 miles non-stop – the need to change engine crews halfway. Gresley solved this by building a corridor tender – a tender with a narrow passageway, just 5 ft high and 18 inches wide – along one side, just wide enough for the new crew to walk through and lit by a porthole to the rear, with a standard corridor connection to the leading coach of the train. 10 A1s were equipped with these tenders, the only ones of their kind in the world.
So, in May 1928, 4472 became the first locomotive in the world to run 400 miles non-stop, leaving King’s Cross at 10am, passing southbound no 2580 Shotover just north of York and reaching Edinburgh Waverley at 6.30pm.
From 1932, the schedule was cut to 7½ hours but, even so, the Flying Scotsman was not a fast service; it was marketed as the prestige and luxury travel option, with facilities and amenities not found on other British trains, such as cocktail bars, ladies’ retiring rooms, hairdressing saloons, cinema coaches and forced air ventilation, and as a flagship image builder for the LNER.
4472 herself was the LNER’s key publicity tool. She was regularly featured in advertising, posters and exhibitions. And she has always been popular with modelmakers, right from the 1930s to the present – notably the long standing and popular Hornby brand.
Speed was picking up across Europe in the early 1930s, as technology developed rapidly. Germany led the way, with the Reichsbahn’s Fliegender Hamburger diesel set in service between Hamburg and Berlin at an average of 77mph. Gresley was determined to compete, but not convinced that steam was finished yet, so he started a development programme to see how the A3 could be further improved.
As part of this work, in 1934, Flying Scotsman became the first locomotive to achieve an undisputed 100mph. while hauling a test train between London and Leeds, recorded by the LNER’s dynamometer car. Obviously, calling it ‘undisputed’ shows there were already many claims of speeds over 100mph. The GWR claimed its City of Truro achieved 102.3mph in 1904, and there were others from the US and Germany. This development work led in 1935 to the streamlined A4 Pacific. In a demonstration of the potential for steam, Gresley showed that, with minor development, his Pacifics could significantly outperform the Fliegender Hamburger.
The A4s were a development of the A3, adopting more superpower principles – higher boiler pressure, more superheat and better designed steam passages. By 1938, the LNER had 35 A4s, hauling high speed streamlined trains between London, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh, including Mallard, which set the world steam speed record of 126mph in 1938.
During the war, Britain’s rails inevitably bore the brunt of the transport required for the war effort, with equipment overused and maintenance neglected. Even Gresley’s Pacifics were painted in plain black, with the LNER lettering reduced just to NE.
Nationalisation of the railways as British Railways (BR) in 1948 brought a slow recovery. The livery became dark, rather than apple, green, and the number 60103. Flying Scotsman spent much of the 1950s, not on the ECML, but on the decidedly secondary route from London Marylebone to Sheffield, which was closed in the 1960s. But development of the A3s didn’t end; instead, they were modernised with a Kylchap double chimney, to provide additional draw on the fire and thus stronger steam production.
Adding the Kylchap exhaust created a problem of the exhaust not lifting fully from the boiler, and thus creating obscured vision for the driver. This was resolved by adding small smoke deflectors on either side of the smokebox, known in Britain as ‘German-style’ as they looked like those already in widespread use there.
60103 and the Deltic prototype
By 1962, the A3s were surplus and obsolete, and BR had no interest in the future of even Flying Scotsman, which was scheduled for withdrawal in January 1963 as the mighty Deltics swept away East Coast steam. Incredibly, even the nascent railway museum at York declined to save her – and all the other A3s were scrapped.
This seems unbelievable now – throwing away the most recognisable steam engine in the world.
Enter eccentric entrepreneur Alan Pegler. Born and raised in Doncaster, he was a lifelong rail enthusiast, and was already one of the leading lights in the preservation of the Festiniog Railway in north Wales (and worthy of a Trackside Classic of its own). Pegler bought Flying Scotsman from BR, reputedly for £30,000, and then spent several times that having her restored to her pre-war condition, with a single chimney, LNER apple green livery and a corridor tender.
As part of the purchase, Pegler secured the right to run the engine on BR until 1972 – a right which BR refused to grant to any other locomotive owners. Thus, from 1968, when BR mainline steam ended, and preserved branch lines were only beginning to emerge, Flying Scotsman was the only steam locomotive operating on Britain’s network. So, if you wanted your kids to see a working express steam locomotive in 1969, they saw Flying Scotsman, in apple green. Here she leaves Newcastle Central station, across the largest diamond crossing in the world.
The highlight of the Pegler years was a recreation of the first non-stop run of 1928, on its 40th anniversary. Departure from King’s Cross was from platform 10, the same as in 1928, but alongside a Deltic on the real Flying Scotsman service – now scheduled for just 5½ hours. The run to Edinburgh was accomplished non-stop – just; there was a very close call with signals near York. This BBC documentary recounts the story in more detail. Pegler had to acquire a second corridor tender to make this possible, as the water troughs used in steam days had been removed.
Pegler took Flying Scotsman to America in August 1969, with a schedule taking her from Boston, to San Francisco and then into Canada. This shot was taken by the father of CC’s Ed Stembridge in Atlanta, Georgia.
Ed is here, standing on his Mom’s left, in weather that looks more like Britain than Georgia.
But then it began to go wrong. By the time his engine reached the west coast, Pegler was broke, and unable to fund the repairs Flying Scotsman needed.
After the engine had spent 2 years trapped in California, another mercurial Brit, William McAlpine, bought her from Pegler’s creditors and brought her home in 1973. McAlpine restored Flying Scotsman to working order, and later to main line condition. She spent much of the following 15 years touring the preserved railways of Britain, and hauling main line specials, entrenching her place as the most popular and well known steam engine in Britain.
Australia celebrated the bicentenary of European settlement in 1988, and McAlpine agreed to let Flying Scotsman travel south. She spent 2 years down under, running 28,000 miles , including the longest ever recorded non-stop steam powered journey, of 422 miles en route to Alice Springs. She finally returned home in 1990.
But then another setback. McAlpine was unable to raise the funds for her repair to mainline standards. In 1996, Flying Scotsman was described as ‘just a pile of parts’ and McAlpine gave up, and sold Flying Scotsman to entrepreneur and steam fanatic Tony Marchington, for £1.5m. After a restoration that was projected to cost £200,000 and ended up at £1m, she returned to the mainline in 1999.
Marchington wanted Flying Scotsman to be the centre of a tourist attraction in Edinburgh. Ownership passed to a specially created company Flying Scotsman plc, which was floated on the London Stock Exchange before things all went pear shaped again in 2003 when the plans collapsed, leaving Marchington bankrupt and the engine up for sale by auction.
With a price around £3m, there were few individual Brits able and willing to afford Flying Scotsman, so the prospect of a foreign buyer and export was a very real one. Had the engine still been the property of BR or its privatised successors, the National Railway Museum (NRM) could have stepped in, using its statutory power to claim redundant railway equipment for preservation by the state; but the museum has no funds for the purchase of significant artefacts from private owners.
The UK’s National Lottery was able to offer some funds, but not enough. So here we meet the last entrepreneur in this saga – Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin record label, airline, rail franchises and everything else. He offered to match public donations to the NRM – and the funds flooded in. British railway enthusiasts, of all ages (full disclosure – I’m proud to say I was one of them), gave almost £500,000 in three weeks to seal the deal, and in April 2004, Flying Scotsman became once again a state asset.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Restoration to mainline standards was promised by 2009, but the engine is only now complete after nearly 12 years and another £7m.
But now the future looks bright for Flying Scotsman, at last. She has been superbly restored, by a specialist engineering company in Lancashire, and is now in the best condition she has ever been, and in the hands of the NRM, the best railway museum in the world, who will ensure she is properly cared for as the only surviving example of one of the most significant express locomotive classes in British history, and get her out to meet her public for as long as humanly possible.
The feature shots were taken at the NRM on 27-29 February, after a triumphant return from Kings Cross on 26 February, 2 days after Flying Scotsman’s 93rd birthday. Here, she leaves Kings Cross in front of huge crowds, live on BBC News and with 3 escorting helicopters. BR green, not apple green, as the NRM has a policy of strict historical accuracy for the appearance of its exhibits – and apple green 4472 had a single chimney, so 60103 and dark green it is.
Tickets for the trip to York were £450 each – and sold out in days. Here, she thunders through Sandy, 50 miles north of London – picture by CC’s own Roger Carr.
Here, she heads back in to Yorkshire, past Eggborough Power Station.
One journalist on board the train estimated the lineside crowds at 500,000 – on a weekday! Seems those kids who saw her in the late 1960 remembered the excitement and now want to show their kids and grandkids what a steam engine looks and sounds like. It certainly looks like most of Doncaster has come out to welcome her home, (and be photobombed by an HST.)
So Flying Scotsman is special. Why? The looks – a sports car among hatchbacks, especially in apple green among a sea of BR blue in the Pegler years. The blending of train and engine, meaning the glamour of the non-stop runs to Edinburgh, with the allure of luxury, style and exclusivity rests on both. The combination of engineering and beauty. The sense of personality that only steam engines have. The first to 100mph. The only survivor of 79 A1 and A3 Pacifics – the engines that pulled Britain into the superpower era. Her solo role in preserving British mainline steam in the dark years from 1963 onwards. The drama of visiting America and Australia – most Brits have been to neither, she has seen both. And, now, the drama of her rescue and recovery. And the name – the best name for a locomotive ever, period.
So welcome home, Flying Scotsman, it’s been quite a ride but at long last you’re in safe hands, and you’re looking and sounding superb!
If you’re interested in seeing Flying Scotsman (and you are, I can tell), check the NRM’s special website. But come to Britain – we’re not letting her go Stateside again! There are thousands of books and videos around of course – one I have recently enjoyed and strongly recommend is Giants of Steam by Jonathan Glancey – he loves 4472 too, and puts her and Mallard into the world context of superpower steam. And thanks to Ed and Roger for the use of their photos.