We all love Flying Scotsman don’t we? No matter what your Big Four allegiance, or what mast you stick your colours to, there is a part of every enthusiast that admires the big green ‘A3’.
The “general public” love it even more. By “general public”, I am of course referring to those that have no prior railway interest beyond the train they commute to and from work in. The Severn Valley Railway reported that 15,000 people bought tickets to their recent Pacific Power event and twice as many again took to the lineside to witness the meeting of Flying Scotsman and new-build ‘A1’ No. 60163 Tornado for the first time in history.
Most other enthusiast galas could never hope to attract even a fraction of those figures. It begs the question: just what makes Flying Scotsman so special?
At this point, it’d be easy to reel off a list of No. 60103’s achievements and accolades – the first locomotive to officially reach 100mph and its ground-breaking non-stop run to Edinburgh at the head of the train it was named after: ‘The Flying Scotsman’. It holds the status of being the first LNER ‘Pacific’, and there’s its starring role in the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 and its other starring role in The Flying Scotsman – a film made specifically to celebrate both locomotive and train and one of the earliest ‘talkies’ ever made to boot.
But that list of achievements is not the real reason why Flying Scotsman is the world’s most famous steam locomotive.
The thing is, after 1938 when ‘A4’ No. 4468 Mallard broke the world speed record for steam traction and thus becoming the flagship engine of the LNER, Flying Scotsman by and large faded into obscurity. The year after Mallard’s run, war broke out, thrusting Europe and the rest of the world into global conflict. The era of luxury expresses was over and Flying Scotsman joined the rank and file, slogging away supporting the war effort.
Post 1945, Flying Scotsman and the rest of her sisters once again returned to the front line of main line express work. Gresley’s innovative 4-6-2 was still a celebrity, and its place in history was by then already assured, but it was no longer a ‘star’. The Peppercorn ‘A1s’ had taken the ‘A3s’ place at the top table, and the ‘A4s’ would continue to put in sterling performances, particularly on the Edinburgh-Aberdeen route.
So how did Flying Scotsman become the world’s most famous steam locomotive? Why does it still draw hoards of people wherever it goes? I think I may have cracked it: the British Transport Commission.
In 1961, when the BTC was drawing up a list of locomotives that would become the National Collection, Flying Scotsman was conspicuous by its absence. The BTC’s reasoning at the time was that only one example of a particular wheel arrangement from each designer could be selected. Not surprisingly, the Gresley 4-6-2 they chose was Mallard - and rightly so. After all, the ‘A4s’ were a refinement of the ‘A3s’ and Flying Scotsman wasn’t even the fastest of its class; that accolade belonged to No. 2750 Papyrus.
But, the BTC not selecting No. 60103 for preservation was the best thing that could have happened to Flying Scotsman. Their decision caused uproar. Campaigns were launched to ‘Save Our Scotsman’ – a slogan that captured the idea that Flying Scotsman belonged to the nation, long before the NRM hailed it as the ‘people’s engine’.
Like a species threatened with extinction, the BTC’s decision not to preserve Flying Scotsman made the locomotive’s stay of execution a matter of national public interest. No expense or effort should be spared to save ‘Scotsman’ (sound familiar?) so when the charismatic Alan Pegler swooped in and bought Flying Scotsman, it was the fairytale ending the public craved.
Since that moment, Flying Scotsman has transcended being just a locomotive and will remain forever dear to the nation’s heart. For many, it is a symbol of a bygone age, a testament to British innovation and engineering and harks back to a time when Britannia really did rule the waves.
Think about this: had the BTC preserved Flying Scotsman and made it part of the National Collection, that’s all it would have ever been – a small part in a very big collection. It’s future would have been secure and while it would have certainly been deserving of its place alongside Mallard and Evening Star, it would have been as remarkable (or unremarkable) as other exhibits in the National Railway Museum.
It would have been one of the rank and file again; just another preserved locomotive. It would have been destined to linger inside the museum, only to rarely ever venture out onto the main line. It would have been the darling of enthusiasts undoubtedly, but for the rest of the nation? I doubt it.
Imagine if it was announced that Evening Star would be returning to steam. Would that generate the same furore that Flying Scotsman did when it made its comeback earlier this year? Would the public swallow the same £6.8million cost if that money was being spent on Duchess of Hamilton? Would people put their lives at risk just to catch a glimpse of King George V steaming by as they have with ‘Scotsman’?
To the enthusiast, each of those engines is special and if any of them were to steam again, they would be dancing in the streets. But to everyone else, they are just locomotives. Flying Scotsman is more than that. It proved unequivocally that we really don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone.
If you’ve read this month’s edition of Steam Railway, you’ll have seen on pages 8 & 9 our story about Birmingham’s controversial Big Art Project.
For those of you not in the loop, allow us to enlighten you. Birmingham City Council wishes to erect a sculpture outside Curzon Street station, to create a piece of public artwork that will put the city on the cultural map.
One of the shortlisted entries depicts what resembles a pair of crashed steam locomotives, twisted almost out of recognition, lying on their sides.
The artwork is one of five shortlisted sculptures of the Birmingham Big Art Project, a £2million scheme to create a sculpture for the city that is “imaginative, interesting and thought-provoking, photogenic and interactive.”
The locomotives in question clearly have been based on one of William Stanier’s ‘Princess Coronation’ class ‘Pacifics’. No doubt the artist, Turner Prize-nominated Roger Hiorns, used No. 46235 City of Birmingham, currently incarcerated inside Birmingham’s ThinkTank museum, as his basis.
The editorial team at Steam Railway could hardly be described as art connoisseurs, but this proposed sculpture for Birmingham Curzon Street station is certainly “aesthetically challenged” – and that’s putting it mildly.
As if it wasn’t creepy enough already, the sculpture, which is as-yet untitled, would be modelled in stone and given the texture of human skin.
What’s most disturbing about this already misguided piece of “art”, is that this pair of locomotives has a disturbing resemblance to the battered remains of ‘Princess Coronation’ No. 46242 City of Glasgow in the aftermath of the Harrow & Wealdstone disaster.
On the morning of October 8 1952, Britain experienced its worst peacetime rail disaster. 112 people were killed (including the crew of City of Glasgow), 340 were seriously injured and two locomotives (‘Jubilee’ No. 45637 Windward Islands and ‘Princess Royal’ No. 46202 Princess Anne) were written off as a result.
Compare the picture of the wreck No. 46242 to the proposed sculpture for Curzon Street station.
It is appalling that any authority would even remotely entertain the idea of going forward with this, let alone shortlisting it in the first place.
Roger Hiorns says: “The image of the locomotive in bodily transition is proposed as a symbol of the shaping of our sexual and physical identities by technology.”
But let’s take the Harrow disaster out of the equation. Even if that wasn’t a factor, at the end of the day, you still have a sculpture resembling a train wreck outside a busy station. One can hardly imagine Heathrow or Stansted deciding to have a sculpture of a crashed plane outside on of their terminals. What sort of message does that send to passengers?
Such a sculpture is in staggeringly poor taste, and offensive to those who survived the disaster. Why should they be reminded of their traumatic experience every time they pass through Curzon Street station?
Do you know what makes our blood boil the most? The fact that Birmingham City Council wants to spend £2million on this monstrosity.
Maybe we’ve got a bee in our bonnet over nothing and we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Perhaps to you, this is just a harmless piece of art that we shouldn’t be making such a fuss over. That’s fair enough.
But for our money, the controversy surrounding the Gresley statue in King’s Cross is nothing compared to this.
Let’s be honest – trainspotting isn’t “cool”. To the outside world, trainspotting is seen as the reserve of socially-awkward middle-aged men, obsessed with something so trivial as collecting train numbers, standing around on wet, cold, grey platforms with Thermos in one hand and notepad in the other.
It’s a cruel stereotype. While it is not without foundation, it certainly doesn’t reflect the wider enthusiast community.
This image creates a problem when the time comes to admit, somewhat ashamedly, to our friends, colleagues and loved ones that we are railway enthusiasts. By association and assumption, we are therefore trainspotters. Being a railway enthusiast is synonymous as being a trainspotter. But it’s time to set the record straight.
All trainspotters are, by definition, railway enthusiasts. However, not all railway enthusiasts are trainspotters.
Speaking as an enthusiast, I can completely understand why trainspotters are the target of such derision. Back in the 1950s, trainspotting was all the rage and with good reason. The network was populated by then-modern BR Standard designs, engines from Big Four and even pre-Grouping eras. Then, if you were that way inclined, there were the latest diesels and electrics. In short then, plenty to spot and take interest in. No matter where you went in the country, you were sure to spot some remarkable motive power in one way or another.
Nowadays, locomotive-hauled trains are almost a thing of the past, and what remains is largely limited to Class 66s and the odd Class 37. Passenger trains now are all multiple units. The designs are standard with little regional variation. The railways of today are boring, uniform, devoid of character and substance.
This view was exacerbated by the recent ‘Trainspotting Live!’ programme (complete with exclamation mark to make it seem exciting) on BBC Four. It attempted vainly to make trainspotting mainstream, to give it the renaissance that The Great British Bake Off has done for home-baking.
Sadly, all it achieved was to perpetuate the notion that we’re all a bunch of weirdos whose sole reason for living is to spot trains. Trying to get excited about a pair of HSTs standing side-by-side at King’s Cross really didn’t help – far from being the rare coincidence espoused by the programme, HSTs at Kings Cross are a common experience for the majority of commuters on the ECML. You’re not going to get “the man on the street” excited by something he takes for granted.
On the whole, ‘Trainspotting Live!’ was a patronising, demeaning, ill-informed and uninspired look at a misunderstood hobby. Its biggest problem is that it did nothing to enhance the image of the preservation movement and therein lies its ultimate failing.
Railways across the country are crying out for volunteers, especially from the younger generation who are more time-rich than their parents. The youth of today are the preservationists of tomorrow. How on earth are railways going to recruit these people if railway enthusiasm is portrayed as being sad and pathetic?
For instance, if you spend all your time, money and energy into restoring and running a classic car and taking it to rallies, you’re seen as a perfectly normal human being. Do the same with a steam locomotive and you’re labelled a weirdo. The hypocrisy here is that the locomotive and car in question may be of the same vintage and that said individual may be interested in both classic cars and locomotives.
Volunteering these days is a major platform for younger people to enhance their skills and employability. In a world where gaining practical, meaningful work experience is nigh-on impossible, and going to university is increasingly becoming beyond many people’s financial reach, volunteering is almost essential. It’s a hugely rewarding experience where, especially on railways, you’ll make friends and learn skills for life. And who knows, if you’re lucky, you may even gain full-time employment on the railway.
Enthusiasts are some of the friendliest, knowledgeable and open people you’ll ever meet, happy to impart their experience and skills onto the younger generation. Yes, you get the odd anorak, but certainly no more so than any other hobby.
But railways will continue to suffer from a lack of younger volunteers if the enthusiast community doesn’t address its image problem first.
So, the BBC’s Trainspotting Live! made it onto the front page of The Sun, putting our hobby under the full glaring spotlight of the national tabloid press. The scandal? Claiming that footage of a Class 66 was live when, in fact, it had been shot months previously.
Which pretty much summed up the entire programme, truth be told. If it had deliberately set out to portray us all as a bunch of sad, obsessive, sociopathic geeks, it couldn’t have done a better job.
“Being tortured would’ve been more pleasant” was one comment that we heard. “An anorak’s wet dream” was another. Sadly, that last one was closer to the truth than he realised – for by far the worst part of it was when they showed that vile (sorry – did I put ‘vile’? I meant to say ‘viral’) footage of the American ‘foamer’ getting rather too excited over the sound of a diesel horn.
Honestly – telling us that “an anorak isn’t obligatory, but make sure you dress for the weather”? Using Pythagoras to teach us that you couldn’t read a train’s number if it was passing you at Mach 1? Patronising, mickey-taking rubbish, the lot of it.
There were just two tiny rays of light in this programme that almost made the rest of it worthwhile. I stress ‘almost’.
One was the poem by Ian McMillan that rounded off the first episode – a beautiful elegy to Flying Scotsman that, all on its own and in little more than two minutes, should have done a better job of explaining our passion than the previous hour had managed. The other was Tim Dunn.
The viewer might reasonably surmise that he’s hamming it up for the cameras – but when you read his explanation of why he wanted to be involved, you might just think again.
“Steam engines,” he writes on the programme’s website, “are probably the closest we’ve ever come to creating artificial life. They’re elemental. Forget Frankenstein’s monster: talk to any driver or any person who’s ridden on a steam locomotive footplate or stood next to one in repose as steam gently whiffles from a valve: these things feel alive. They have personalities. Created from steel and iron, hacked from beneath our feet by men in times past, these creatures are fed by coal made from ancient life, watered from rain from the sky and lit from a burning flame. These things come together to create new life – a movement, a breathing, oscillating machine that responds to its environment. And like a real creature, when we see one in danger, or when it is hurt, railway enthusiasts run to save it, to help it, to repair it.”
Almost brings a tear to the eye, that last bit. Because isn’t that exactly why we preserve steam locomotives? Doesn’t it sum up precisely how we feel when we see some forlorn, forsaken Barry hulk rusting away, seemingly without a chance of ever living again? Even if he’s not a hard-core steam enthusiast by the normal definition, he understands what makes us tick all right.
His words, and Ian’s poem, truly sound as though they were written from the heart. What a pity they had to get involved with television that was such utter tripe.
Welcome to Gauging Reaction – the new Steam Railway blog. Here we will put the world of preservation to rights and pick apart the good, the bad and the ugly of steam railways. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine but we hope that they inspire, provoke and entertain.
The last time we checked there was only one Evening Star in the National Railway Museum in York. Imagine our surprise then when we were told of two BR Brunswick Green-liveried locomotives standing in the Great Hall.
No doubt you can also imagine our dismay when we learned the second Evening Star was a Class 66 diesel, No. 66779.
That name is arguably the most symbolic ever fitted to a steam locomotive. In terms of its significance, Evening Star means so much more than Mallard or Flying Scotsman. It marked the end of an era; the last main line standard gauge steam locomotive built in Britain, the culmination of over 150 years of development and progress.
To commemorate this, the Western Region embellished the Riddles ‘9F’ with a Brunswick Green paintjob, a copper-capped chimney and a name - the only member of the class to receive such embellishments until the advent of preservation.
How apposite then that the name chosen for the last British Railways steam engine was Evening Star, voted for by three WR staff. The name Evening Star is sacrosanct as far as we are concerned.
When it came to celebrating the building of the last Class 66, was this really the best that anyone could come up with?
No doubt someone “upstairs” decided that it would generate great publicity to give No. 66779 a British Railways livery and name it in “honour” of No. 92220. They even went to the trouble of making facsimile nameplates and commemorative plaque (complete with a ‘Built 2015 Muncie USA’ Swindon-style worksplate, a ‘9F’ power classification and a Western Region blue route availability spot. Why not go the whole hog and give it a copper exhaust silencer on top?)
We can argue about whether or not we think the livery looks good, or whether the title demeans its magnificent 2-10-0 namesake, but what it says most of all is ‘we have no imagination’.
Perhaps GBRf believed, albeit misguidedly, that imitation is the finest form of flattery.
But from a National Railway Museum that jealously guards the identities of its collection, it does rather smack of double standards, doesn’t it?
When the West Somerset Railway asked for permission to run green-liveried ‘9F’ No. 92214 as Evening Star during its recent ‘Somerset & Dorset 50’ gala – to recreate one of the real locomotive’s most famous exploits, hauling the last ‘Pines Express’ over the S&D – they were refused.
So it’s okay to pinch the name, and livery from a historically priceless, National Collection steam locomotive and stick them on a diesel, but when a preserved railway wants to renumber another ‘Spaceship’ for a few days, for the simple purpose of recreating some railway history, and commemorating a significant anniversary of one of our most revered lines… no, that can’t possibly be allowed? Honestly, where’s the line here?
But are we right to get worked up over what is, and let’s be honest here, just a publicity exercise? After all, GBRf has free reign to do with their rolling stock what they will.
And that’s all it is – publicity. There’s no historical precedent beyond that the ‘9F’ and Class 66 are both the last of their respective classes.
No. 66779 doesn’t embody the end of an era, it wasn’t built in Britain and it certainly wasn’t a BR locomotive. If any diesel was worthy of the “Evening Star treatment” (and inclusion in the National Collection) it was the last Class 58, No. 58050 - the last diesel main line locomotive built in Britain.
In fact, No 58050 was earmarked for the NRM by the Railway Heritage Committee in 2002 (as suggested by our Editor, Howard Johnston), but it currently languishes across the Channel.
Had the Class 58 been given the same treatment, would it have been seen as a shallow, publicity-chasing exercise?
What's most disappointing about the whole affair is that the National Railway Museum, the custodian of our railway history and legacy, has authorised this. Are they not aware of [the proper] Evening Star’s significance? Are they so in need of publicity (have they forgotten their flagship exhibit, Flying Scotsman?) that they would throw history and reverence out the window to grab headlines?
Yes, there were other locomotives that came before No. 92220 that carried the name Evening Star, but to railwaymen and enthusiasts everywhere, there will only be one – and that’s the one built in 1960 in Swindon, not 2015 in Indiana.