The Flying Scotsman climbs up the hill out of Watchet as it works from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead on a visit to the West Somerset Railway.

Happy Centenary, Flying Scotsman

The Flying Scotsman climbs up the hill out of Watchet as it works from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead on a visit to the West Somerset Railway. image Geof Sheppard Wiki Commons

The most famous steam locomotive in the world, Flying Scotsman, turned one hundred years old last Friday (24 February 2023). Astonishingly, the engine is still in main line revenue-earning service as a charter operation. In front of huge crowds, the locomotive was celebrated in Edinburgh, at Waverley Station, were it was an almost daily visitor on East Coast expresses for over forty years.

Thousands turned out for celebrations at Waverley in Edinburgh. It is at that station where a memorial plaque is prominently displayed to Sir Nigel Gresley, the engineer who designed the Flying Scotsman locomotive and the “A4” class of which it is the most prominent example.

Still a record holder

The locomotive is not yet ready for its resting home at the National Railway Museum in York. Just a short distance away from there, the locomotive was commissioned in 1923 at Doncaster Works. Remarkably the works still remain in active service themselves, being home to many modern railway engineering and operational companies. The express logistics company Varamis Rail occupy offices that were once used by Gresley himself.

Remarkably, Flying Scotsman still holds a number of world records. It is the first steam locomotive to have recorded a running speed of one hundred miles per hour (160 kilometres per hour). That figure though is disputed by another British locomotive – but clever boffins at Doncaster have the paperwork to prove it. However, undisputed is the run in the outback of Australia where, while on tour, Flying Scotsman made the longest ever non-stop run for a steam locomotive, far in excess of the 400 miles (640 kilometres) often undertaken on demonstration runs between London Kings Cross and Edinburgh Waverley, skipping the only scheduled stop at Newcastle.

Could have been scrapped but toured the world instead

Flying Scotsman has not always been the icon it is today. In a mark of the shortsightedness of the authorities at the time, Flying Scotsman was scheduled for scrap in the late 1960s, when the nationalised operation British Railways was transitioning out of steam traction. An eleventh-hour bid from a private owner saved the day, and gave the locomotive a new lease on life.

The Flying Scotsman along San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.
The Flying Scotsman along San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Seen running on Jefferson St., Pegler is in the engineers seat and riding the tender is Joseph Silva, manager of the State Belt RR in 1972

Since then, Flying Scotsman has had a chequered career as a business proposition, but has never fallen out of public admiration. The locomotive continues to draw huge crowds wherever it visits. Although overseas tours are a thing of the past, and it is unlikely Flying Scotsman will ever again see San Fransisco or Sydney, it remains an incomparable draw at home. Famously, when the locomotive visited the small Scottish town of Stow, as part of the Borders Railway opening celebrations, it drew a crowd three times the size of the modest population – for a non-stop visit of just ten seconds.

From no name to a name to conjure with

Flying Scotsman was originally known simply by its serial number 4472. It was a year later, that the astute marketing department got in on the potential of the locomotive. The original London and North Eastern Railway (unconnected with the modern government-run shadow company of the same name) named the locomotive after their own prestige express train on the London – Edinburgh route, in an effort to win traffic from rivals on the route.

Virgin Trains East Coast Flying Scotsman naming, with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and VTEC MD David Horne.
Everyone gets in on the Flying Scotsman act. Back in 2015, in Edinburgh, Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon with David Horne MD of Virgin Trains, and piper Steven Dewar unveiled the Virgin Trains ‘Flying Scotsman’ at an event at Edinburgh Waverley station celebrating the return of one of the most iconic names in rail travel.
Photo: Professional Images/@ProfImages

Since then, the two have been conflated into the most famous paring on the world’s railways. Passengers on the East Coast Main Line have in the recent past seen operators brand the line “Route of the Flying Scotsman” – such is the iconic draw of the train and its celebrated locomotive. However, the nearest the modern traveller gets to the Flying Scotsman experience is a one-way very early morning train which heads south from Edinburgh before dawn. The traditional simultaneous departures at ten in the morning have long since been lost to the modern timetable.

The locomotive may have outlived the train, the company for which it was built, and even its engineering ‘father’, but today none of that matters as the lineside is crammed with well wishers keen to say “Happy Birthday Flying Scotsman.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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