Is Scotsman running out of steam?

All is not well with the world's most famous railway engine at York. Alan Whitehouse explains what has brought Flying Scotsman to a standstill and why the begging bowl is being brought out again.

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Tucked away at the back of the National Railway Museum in York is a flight of stairs. It opens out on to a gallery overlooking the museum's small workshop.

Visitors peering down for a look at what is going on will see piles of components stacked around what is obviously a locomotive chassis. It has just one set of green painted wheels fitted to it. In the centre, a curved nameplate sits almost pathetically: Flying Scotsman.

And this really is the most famous locomotive in the world. Five years ago, children turned out their pennies and pensioners wrote their cheques in a frantic six-week appeal to ensure that Scotsman, up for sale because its owners were in financial trouble, was not sold abroad, but stayed in Britain.

Like many others, the Yorkshire Post supported the appeal and, like almost everyone, cheered when it was successful.

The railway museum bid 2m. Flying Scotsman was saved for the nation and the museum's director, Andrew Scott, got a CBE for his trouble. A good result all round.

And the promise was that the locomotive would be kept in working condition, there for anyone who wanted to see it in full cry out on the main line.

There for anyone to ride behind. The very last Doncaster-built A3 Class locomotive in the world was back home and safe forever.

That was then and this is now. It is over two years since Scotsman was last seen in public. The engine is in bits. The money raised to overhaul her is almost spent and on Burns' Night tomorrow, the museum will launch a new appeal, this time for a quarter of a million pounds, to bolt it all back together again.

What on earth has gone wrong? The steam world is ablaze with claim and counter claim. The museum's critics say it has simply got it all wrong. The job has been over-complicated and made more expensive than it need be. By the time it is finished, buying and overhauling Scotsman will have cost close to 3m.

That is exactly what it has cost to build the brand new steam locomotive Tornado – and this is not a patched up 80-year old veteran, but something new with a long life ahead of it.

The comparison – disputed by the museum – was made by Steam Railway magazine editor Danny Hopkins. Are they right? Or is this simply the curse of the Flying Scotsman which says that whoever takes on ownership will find their bank account emptied with the locomotive incapable of earning the money to refill it? It happened to Scotsman's first owner, Alan Pegler, who bought her from British Railways in 1963. He was followed by Sir William McAlpine, of the construction company.

He ultimately formed a partnership with Pete Waterman. They found it difficult to make Scotsman pay her way and sold out to Dr Tony Marchington, an industrial chemist.

Marchington had big plans, intending it to go on display in Edinburgh, in addition to trips out on the main line. A company was set up to finance the project and shares sold to the public.

By then, Scotsman had been out of use for three years and getting her back into shape swallowed more time and cash than anyone anticipated. The engine was overhauled and did get back into main line service, but, ultimately the cost of doing it caught up and once again the engine was put up for sale.

Looking back, Flying Scotsman had problems even as the National Railway Museum was bidding to buy her. After the sale was clinched, the plan was to return her from London to York in triumph, to appear at Railfest, a celebration of railways at the museum.

Museum staff who arrived at the engine shed in west London, to prepare their new acquisition immediately realised all was not well. On the trip north, Scotsman sprang a leaking boiler tube, a potentially dangerous fault. The run home to York was terminated at Doncaster.

"Water was absolutely pouring out," recalls Jim Rees, the National Railway Museum's curator of rail vehicles. "We measured it later and found a quarter inch perforation in one of the tubes." Instead of steaming proudly into Railfest, Flying Scotsman had to be discreetly shoved into position by a diesel.

And this was just the start. The locomotive had been earmarked for a timetable of summer trips from York to Scarborough, making two round trips per day, three days a week. A demanding schedule for a steam engine (they need more servicing and general TLC than modern machinery) but nothing beyond its capabilities.

Except that it was. Scotsman failed repeatedly. Rees and his staff quickly discovered the right hand cylinder had a crack, allowing steam to pour away.

Springs in the suspension system broke. It seemed that if it could go wrong or break down, then it would. On some days it was obvious that the engine would not be able to run and a substitute locomotive had to be found. On a few occasions there was no alternative steam engine available and the train ran with diesel power instead.

Not what ticket holders had paid for.

Led by Rod Lytton, the museum's chief mechanical engineer, the team worked impossible days – and sometimes nights – to get the engine serviceable for the next day's run. Small faults were left for the end of the week and another long weekend's overtime to fix them before the Scarborough service started up again the following Tuesday. And the engineers began to discover an alarming catalogue of defects. Flying Scotsman is fitted with air braking equipment for its carriages – the locomotive itself has a direct, steam operated brake. But when the air brake components were installed, the brake rigging on the tender was in the way. So someone, somewhere, simply cut it – disabling the hand-operated brakes on the tender wheels required when parking.

In everyday motoring terms, this was like your garage cutting the handbrake cables.

It meant every time her fire was allowed to go out, Scotsman's wheels had to be chocked to prevent her running away. Worse, the boiler's belly door – a sort of large plughole barrel – had been welded shut, making it impossible to wash out the boiler, which is part of the regular servicing and safety schedule. The list went on.

I was on board the locomotive once when it failed out on the main line. There had been some sort of niggling problem almost from the start and, after we reached Scarborough, one of the engineering staff asked the driver for permission to go underneath the engine to take a look – an awkward, hot and unpleasant business when there is no inspection pit.

You have to squeeze in and out of hot, oily machinery wielding torch and wrench.

We began the run back to York. At main line speeds, the footplate of a steam locomotive is a hot, noisy place. The crew use hand signals or stand mouth-to-ear to communicate.

The locomotive lurches and bounces along and it's far from the ride passengers experience in a carriage.

Scotsman's cab suddenly filled with steam and the brakes came on hard. It was difficult to see anything and the whole train was rapidly shuddering to a halt. I began wondering whether it was time to abandon ship.

I need not have worried. This was not a catastrophic fault, but it had disabled the engine. The brakes could not be released, and a diesel was sent to rescue. Once again, Scotsman went home in disgrace.

This incident revealed another problem: the quality of some of the components used to repair the engine down the years. The steam escaped because a pipe feeding the compressor powering the air brakes had failed. This was because the union nut connecting it to the compressor was inadequate. It was made of brass – not the required phosphor bronze.

Rees speaks contemptuously of the "central heating fittings" that have been used on the engine. He has a point.

You could buy something very similar to that union at any branch of B&Q. It is cheaper but it will always fail because high pressure steam leaches the zinc out of the brass and causes it to split.

"There is no doubt," says Rees "that when we got the engine it was in a very tired condition.

"When we decided it was time to overhaul it, there was not a lot that we did not know about. We knew there was a huge amount to do, but we believed we knew where the problems were." Danny Hopkins says it is now almost impossible to know who was responsible for the poor workmanship that brought Scotsman to a standstill.

"It is difficult to trace a trail of blame.

But this is not a situation that anyone would have wanted to end up in." Even at this point, it was all manageable. The locomotive would be late back in service, but the budget wouldn't be bust by much. That picture changed when the boiler overhaul began.

When the museum bought Flying Scotsman, it also bought a batch of spare parts including a genuine Doncaster-built boiler of the type originally fitted to the A3 Class and the museum's team decided it would make sense to return the engine as close to its historical state as possible.

But when the boiler was taken apart, a raft of undiscovered defects came to light. "You cannot blame anyone for this," insists Rees. "We had the boiler looked at by four or five firms all of whom had tendered for the job of repairing it and not one of them spotted what was wrong." Rebuilding it has taken longer and cost vastly more than the estimates.

The money earmarked for bolting the locomotive back together has effectively been spent on getting the boiler right and that is the reason for the new appeal for another 250,000.

Rees is adamant that the museum has done the right thing: "We could have put it all back together and had it back out on the line 18 months ago – and I guarantee that by now it would back in the workshops with another list of defects to be put right. We took the decision – took a deep breath and took the decision – that we were going to do this properly and the result will be that the locomotive isn't fixed just for the next seven or 10 years but for the next 25 or 30 years."

The question now is whether people will put their hands in their pockets again, especially in these recessionary times. The director of the National Railway Museum, Andrew Scott, concedes that it is "a big ask".

"But that said, the engine is one of half a dozen national icons that people respond to. When we bought the engine, we were overwhelmed by the public response. That convinced us that we should keep the engine running," he said.

Haven't those willing donors been badly let down? "I wouldn't say we've let them down, but we are asking them for their patience and a little bit more help over the next year to get Flying Scotsman back into service early in 2010."

What if the appeal fails and the museum is left with a kit of parts – a sort of 3D jigsaw of the world's most famous railway engine? "This is an issue that the heritage world faces all the time. We can't do anything without the help of funders. If we can't raise the money, work on the engine will stop. The engine will languish, or we will have to divert funds away from other projects to get it completed. Whatever happens, it would cause more delay before Flying Scotsman can run again." We will find out over the next few weeks. Flying Scotsman certainly still has friends. Hopkins says Steam Railway magazine will rally to the cause again.

"It is one of the few locomotives that transcends railway enthusiasm. As an ambassador for railways there is nothing better. It's a star and for that reason alone it is worth every penny." So is Flying Scotsman cursed? Jim Rees has a one word answer to that one: "Bo***cks," he says and heads back into his workshop to get his head around yet another Scotsman problem.

Alan Whitehouse is BBC Yorkshire's transport correspondent