There was a time not so long ago when the most frequent question you got asked working at the National Railway Museum was, ‘Where is Flying Scotsman?’ This probably even came in ahead of ‘Where are the toilets?’ And of course ‘Where is Thomas?’
The restoration project for this iconic locomotive has taken ten years, cost over £4 million, and I am personally very excited that the answer to the ubiquitous question is once again that Flying Scotsman is working and here in the museum. It isn’t here for long of course. It it about to go up to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and will be touring around the country over the next couple of years. But during the last few days since the inaugural run on February 25th, I have had the opportunity to spend some time with this celebrated piece of railway heritage and I am honestly a little surprised by the degree of my own excitement.
When I started work at the museum, over two years ago, I knew nothing about trains beyond having traveled on them. I still wouldn’t call myself a railway enthusiast. But I have developed an appreciation for steam locomotives in particular, both as an important part of our heritage and as an engineering marvel.
Flying Scotsman has been lauded by some as the most famous steam locomotive in the world. Designed by Sir Nigel Gresley for the LNER and built in 1923, it was the first locomotive to be recorded reaching 100 mph. It took its name from the 10.00 AM Flying Scotsman rail service from London to Edinburgh and was also the first locomotive to run a nonstop service along that route. The locomotive’s initial rise to fame was launched by its appearance at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, but each of these achievements added to the mythos.
The public interest and the emotional response that Flying Scotsman has generated around the country (and around the world) has been overwhelming. While part of the restoration was paid for by grants from National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, a large portion of the cost was donated by members of the public. Naturally there has been some debate over the project, primarily regarding the decision to restore Flying Scotsman in its British Rail livery rather than LNER apple green.
However, there are certain features of the locomotive as it exists today which date to its later life in mainline service rather than its early days as LNER No. 1472, and then 4472. The smoke deflectors and the double chimney are both in keeping with its restoration in British Rail green.
There is another debate of course, one which would inevitably surround any project with such a price tag. Among railway enthusiasts the debate is over which locomotive should have been restored, with some arguing that there were other candidates in better initial condition. But I have had at least one person suggest to me that such a sum of money should not have been spent on restoring a locomotive at all.
My answer to both of these arguments is to point to the public support for the restoration. If we say that people vote with their wallets, then the ballots are in and we have a winner. For my part, I cannot see money spent on heritage as anything less than a crucial investment in our future. I only wish that more projects received this level of funding and support.