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.