Harsh reality behind the steam dream

For the first time, the story of how jealousy and financial disasters nearly caused the Flying Scotsman to run out of steam is being told

In some circles, Andrew Roden's approach to the story of the Flying Scotsman would have been enough to see him strung up on charges of blasphemy.

While the mere mention of the locomotive's name can turn grown men glassy eyed, nostalgic for a time when coal was king and steam the only way to travel. Roden's motivations were much less romantic.

"I suppose I wanted to debunk a few myths," he says, aware such sentiments have no place in polite company. "The Flying Scotsman is not the oldest or the fastest locomotive, yet it has become a talisman for the railways.

"It's almost impossible to have a rational discussion about railway history without her looming large and I always wondered why her close cousin and speed-record holder, the Mallard, hadn't managed to be embraced by the public in the same way."

His cynicism didn't last long and soon after he began researching the book, like many others before him, he fell under the spell of not just the Flying Scotsman, but of the series of individuals who allowed their hearts to rule their heads over the locomotive.

There was the Flying Scotsman's original engineer Nigel Gresley, a man whose designs revolutionised the industry, there was Alan Pelger who faced bankruptcy because of his refusal to give up on his steam dream, most curiously of all there was Pete Waterman who helped to launch the careers of Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley and in between half a dozen or so other characters without whom railway history might have been very different.

"It wasn't, shall we say, the book I intended to write," says Andrew author of the simply-titled Flying Scotsman.

"There were some people who said, 'what's left to tell?' and it was a fair question, but while a lot of people know about the technical side, every detail of the time trials and how it was made, for me the really interesting part was the people involved in its creation and survival.

"You can ask 1,000 different people what the Flying Scotsman means to them and get 1,000 different answers, for me it was about looking at the passion which really drove the locomotive and the weird twists of fate which raised it out of the ordinary.

"The story is one of tremendous ups and downs and despite my doubts when I began to look into the real story I became convinced that she deserved her place in history."

Andrew describes the Flying Scotsman, which was the star attraction of the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, as the locomotive with nine lives and a symbol of the golden age of rail which, seen through a pair of rose-tinted spectacles, was a period when every train ran on time and where drivers were regarded as craftsmen of the steam age.

"The country depended almost totally on the railways to a degree unknown today," says Andrew.

"The national newspaper you bought in the morning would have been delivered by the railway overnight and almost everything carried more than a few miles was sent by rail.

"Basically, the time was right for a marketing genius to exploit the romance of the rails and William Teasdale stepped forward. In truth, working on the railways was an incredibly hard and often incredibly dirty job, but his art deco images lent a certain gloss to the industry and with the London and North Eastern Railway, which was responsible for the Flying Scotsman, holding open days where members of the public could ride on the footplate. Railways had a certain glamour which masked even the fact the company was broke."

While the glamour saw rail through the inter-war years, the bubble finally burst during the Second World War. With the government taking control of the railways, practicality ruled. LNER's famous apple green locomotives were deemed too visible and painted black, many stations had their name boards removed, a maximum 60mph speed limit and the demand for passenger trains waned. However, while the Flying Scotsman survived the war, it's days almost came to an end during what should have been a routine journey from Leicester to London in the early 1950s.

"One day the injectors failed which meant there was no way of getting water into the boiler," says Andrew, associate editor of the International Rail Journal. "Things were looking serious and there was very real danger the boiler could have exploded. They needed a miracle and fortunately they got one because all of a sudden they started working again.

"No one could understand quite what had happened, but when they drained the tender they found three buckets of live fish – roach, bream and rudd – all swimming around happily.

It turned out the shed where it was being kept took its water from a canal and it seems the fish who nearly destroyed a national icon were sucked up through the pipe.

"It's the kind of thing which could have only happened to the Scotsman. After that there were many occasions when it was so close to being scrapped yet at every turn it seemed to sidestep disaster."

With more and more people owning cars and diesel making steam look like a museum piece, the Flying Scotsman was in need of a guardian angel and it came in the form of Alan Pelger, whose family owned the Northern Rubber company in Retford.

Pelger had been one of the many thousands of visitors to the British Empire Exhibition and when it came to pursuing his love of rail his enthusiasm knew no bounds.

"He was a real Boy's Own sort of character and I think a lot of people these days would admire him for following his passion and doing what he really wanted to do even if it cost him his fortune," says Andrew. "Pegler was instrumental in restoring the Ffestiniog railway in Wales which really set the pattern for much of the preservation movement and without him it seems likely the Flying Scotsman would have joined her sisters in the scrapline .

"In 1962, he bought the locomotive out of his own money and with his backing it managed to survive long after many of her contemporaries had been replaced by diesel engines and even when the end came in this country he came up with the plan to take her on the now infamous trip to America.

"It was incredible really," says Andrew. "Initially he was hoping to secure sponsorship for the venture, but when that fell through he once again decided to put his hand in his own pocket and go anyway.

"The Flying Scotsman briefly became San Franciscos' top tourist attraction, but ultimately Pegler's passion wasn't a replacement for hard cash and he was soon being chased by creditors and facing bankruptcy."

The sheer cost of preserving the Flying Scotsman for posterity was a problem faced by all its later owners from construction boss William McAlpine to music mogul Pete Waterman, but when it came onto the market in 2004 and following the high-profile Save Our Scotsman campaign, it was the public who ultimately finally helped to ensure her place in history and she is currently being overhauled in York.

"The tale of how the Flying Scotsman came to be and how she became so universally recognised and adored is one of human ingenuity and of how just occasionally, the seemingly impossible can happen.

"If I had to choose a single locomotive to represent the age of steam, in its engineering, operation, marketing and social aspects 200 years hence it would have to be the Flying Scotsman."

Flying Scotsman, (Aurum, 14.99) is available to order on the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. Post and packing is 1.95