Full steam ahead

One of the most famous locomotives in the world, the Flying Scotsman made her first famous non-stop London-to-Edinburgh journey 90 years ago this year. Mandy Appleyard took a trip to Lancashire to find out what it takes to keep this very British icon in full working order. 

When the Flying Scotsman visited Bury’s East Lancashire Heritage Railway recently, hundreds of people flocked to buy a ticket for a 12-mile trip into the scenic Irwell Valley aboard the legendary steam engine. Designed by Sir Nigel Gresley and built in 1923 in Doncaster, she was given the name Flying Scotsman after the London-to-Edinburgh rail service which started daily at 10am in 1862. She broke records as the first locomotive to hit 100mph and captured the nation’s hearts as a proud symbol of British railway engineering, clocking up 2.5 million miles in her long and illustrious history. After retirement from British Rail in 1963, she did a tour of America and Australia before coming back to the UK.

After a recent refurbishment lasting ten years and costing £4.5 million, she remains one of the jewels in the crown of the National Collection at the National Railway Museum in York, which owns her – and as a working museum exhibit she has garnered yet another record as the oldest mainline working locomotive on Britain’s tracks.

Fuel to the flames

There are two firemen working alternate shifts today, the first being Joanne Crompton, 41, who started work at 4.30am to help to prepare the engine. This involves cleaning and preparing the smoke box and ash pan. “This is my first day firing the Flying Scotsman and I’m so excited. My job is to shovel coal into the fire so the driver has enough steam to pull the train. It’s not all about strength, it’s also about skill and putting the coal in the right place in the fire to generate the steam – then hour after hour of firing. It certainly keeps me fit.”

Time to get hitched

A bookkeeper and accountant by day, Joanne makes some last-minute checks before the first excursion departs. “When I tell people I fire steam locomotives for a hobby, they are always amazed. I don’t think it gets better than doing what I do on the Flying Scotsman. The fire’s been going since yesterday: there’s a warming fire in because we like to bring her round slowly without stressing the boiler out. My grandad used to build model railways and passed away a long time ago, but I know he would be so proud of me.”

A big investment


Engineer Clive Goult is the representative of Riley & Son Engineering, the company responsible for operating and maintaining the Flying Scotsman. He was also part of the team who completed the multimillion-pound restoration of the engine from 2013 to 2016. He’s here today to keep an eye on his ‘baby’ to ensure today’s crew and passengers look after it well


Designated driver

Matt Earnshaw, 31, who’s in position on the footplate, is ready for the off. “Driving the Flying Scotsman is a dream come true. It’s such a very powerful machine, with 1,000 horsepower.” Surrounded by dials and gauges and perilously close to the raging fire which creates the steam to drive the loco, Matt works in searing hot temperatures. “I first saw the Flying Scotsman about 12 years ago and started as a volunteer engine cleaner about ten years ago,” he says. “Since then, I’ve become a full-time fireman and engineer with Riley’s. The dream is to become a full-time driver before long.”

No smoke without fire

Second fireman Paul Greaves is a car mechanic by day, but has been a regular volunteer on the East Lancashire Railway for 12 years. Today he will shovel four tonnes of coal into the furnace in 50 degrees of heat. “It’s so satisfying when you put a shovelful of coal in the right place and see a puff of grey smoke and the pressure on the gauge go up. Put that coal in the wrong place and nothing happens. The driver can’t pull his lever and move if I haven’t made any steam for him.”

Safe and sound

Volunteer guards manager Alex King grew up right beside the railway, and says it has always been a big part of his life. He is now responsible for keeping the train and everyone on her safe. “We make sure people get on and off without incident and they don’t hang out of the window too far. I have an emergency handbrake to stop the train if I have to, and look after the safety equipment,” he says.

At your service

Robert Cunningham is one of eight stewards assigned to their own carriage and responsible for ensuring everyone enjoys their special day out. He’ll check tickets and be on hand to answer any passenger questions. In years gone by, these carriages would have includeda ladies’ retiring room, a hairdressing salon, an opulent Louis XVI-style restaurant and even, for a short period, a cinema car.

Welcome party

Hundreds of fans come from all over the UK to catch a glimpse of the Flying Scotsman, jostling for the perfect position to get that all-important photo. The name plate and British Rail number, 60103, on her cab is the must-have shot.

Back-up team

Phil Ashworth is an East Lancashire Railway driver conducting the support crew who are with the engine today. He says, “I know the route and the railway, and I’m responsible for the loco while it’s on the railway. Days like this are all about nostalgia and history. People flock to see steam trains like this and the Flying Scotsman is the most famous of them all.”

Fine engineering

The beautifully preserved driving controls inside the cab are polished for the occasion. There is no steering wheel as such, as forwards and backwards are the only choices. Although the Flying Scotsman can do 75mph, today she is travelling at a sedate 25mph.

On time

Volunteer despatcher Malcolm Russell really enjoys volunteering for East Lancashire Railway. “I’ve been volunteering for nearly four years now and put in about 100 days a year,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by railways, and since I retired last year I have more time. I like meeting people from all walks of life, chatting to them and making them smile – it costs nothing and it’s what life is all about.”

Final journey

Kathleen O’Brien, 82, is here to scatter her late brother Derek Watkinson’s ashes. He was a lifelong Flying Scotsman fan but died two years ago at the age of 93, and never managed to have a ride on the famous locomotive. Kathleen, from St Anne’s says: “We’re scattering his ashes in different places, and today I’m asking the driver to scatter some in the fire box to power the train. Derek would have loved that.”

All things railway

Underneath the arches at Bury Bolton Street station is this tiny shop selling model trains, magazines, train-themed jigsaw puzzles, old rail timetables and every imaginable accessory for the rail enthusiast. It’s a home from home for volunteer Ian Simmonds, who chose to be on duty in the shop today.

In training

It’s a long day for trainee fireman Mark Crompton. He helped Joanne and Paul to prepare and clean the engine this morning and will be on hand to cool down the furnace and clean the cab ready for its journey back to the engine sheds. “Because you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like a chore,” says Mark, who can’t wait to graduate to fireman. “Maybe I’ll be doing their job this time next year,” he adds with a grin.

Photos by Claire Wood.

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