On the Foot­plate of the Fly­ing Scots­man

David Court, a for­mer fire­man and driver, shares his mem­o­ries of the much-loved lo­co­mo­tive

This England - - Sumario - John Greeves

On 25th Fe­bru­ary 2016, af­ter a £4.2m restora­tion and 10 years of wait­ing, crowds jos­tled on the plat­form at King’s Cross Sta­tion in Lon­don to glimpse Fly­ing Scots­man 60103. Re­splen­dent in its BR green liv­ery it be­came en­cir­cled by a me­dia cir­cus be­fore de­part­ing amid a plume of steam with a clam­our of hiss­ing valves and pump­ing pis­tons on its in­au­gu­ral run to York.

De­signed by the renowned steam lo­co­mo­tive en­gi­neer Sir Nigel Gres­ley and built at the Don­caster Works in 1923, the Fly­ing Scots­man be­came the flag­ship lo­co­mo­tive of the new Lon­don & North East­ern Rail­way (LNER). Her­alded as a sym­bol of moder­nity, whilst haul­ing the train car­ry­ing the same name it em­bod­ied the zeit­geist of the Roar­ing Twenties and was viewed as a “ho­tel on wheels” with such lux­u­ries as a ladies’ re­tir­ing room, a hair­dress­ing sa­loon, as well as of­fer­ing fine din­ing in an op­u­lent Louis XVI res­tau­rant car, where pas­sen­gers re­laxed and sipped their “Fly­ing Scots­man” cock­tail.

Its track record speaks for it­self, be­ing the first lo­co­mo­tive to haul a non-stop ser­vice be­tween Lon­don and Ed­in­burgh, the first to achieve an au­then­ti­cated 100 mph run, the first to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the globe, as well as hold­ing the world non-stop steam record of 422 miles 7.59 chains on its tour of Aus­tralia.

The love af­fair of many, it be­came the fi­nan­cial ru­ina­tion of sev­eral of its suit­ors. In 1962 BR an­nounced its in­ten­tion to scrap the lo­co­mo­tive, un­til Alan Pe­gler stepped in to res­cue it. De­spite a high-pro­file tour of the USA sup­ported by the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment, the eco­nomic costs of run­ning and main­tain­ing the en­gine were such that in 1972 Alan Pe­gler faced bank­ruptcy and had to aban­don the en­gine in the United States.

Worse could have fol­lowed had it not been for the ef­forts of Sir Wil­liam Mcalpine who shipped the lo­co­mo­tive across the At­lantic in 1973 and main­tained this costly mis­tress for 23 years. By 1995 it was all in pieces at Southall Rail­way Cen­tre and owned by a con­sor­tium in­clud­ing Sir Wil­liam. Again it faced an­other un­cer­tain fu­ture ow­ing to the cost of restora­tion and re­fur­bish­ment, un­til sal­va­tion came again in 1996 when Dr. Tony March­ing­ton bought the lo­co­mo­tive and, at a cost of £1m, re­stored it to run­ning con­di­tion.

The lo­co­mo­tive was then used reg­u­larly for the Venice-Sim­plon Ori­ent Ex­press and North­ern Belle as well as un­der­tak­ing other excursions. This steamy af­fair, how­ever,

would again end in bank­ruptcy. For a while, and af­ter a pe­riod of share own­er­ship, it seemed the lo­co­mo­tive was des­tined to be lost once again to the na­tion. Had it not been for the ef­forts of the Na­tional Rail­way Mu­seum which pur­chased the en­gine on be­half of the na­tion for £2.3m in 2004 (aided by a £1.8m grant from the Na­tional Her­itage Fund and the gen­eros­ity of the public’s re­sponse to the mu­seum’s ap­peal) this iconic lo­co­mo­tive could have been shipped abroad to form part of a static and life­less ex­hi­bi­tion.

Some of the trav­el­ling pas­sen­gers on the in­au­gu­ral run had paid up to £450 for a ticket, others were there be­cause they had played a part in the con­tin­u­ing his­tory or restora­tion of the lo­co­mo­tive. They came from all walks of life, bound by the love of steam cours­ing in their blood. Amongst them was David Court, a Yorkshireman who has driven steam and diesel trains all his life. Aged 69 he is very mod­est about his achieve­ments as a driver and fire­man on Fly­ing Scots­man. He started work with BR at the age of 15 as an en­gine cleaner. “My fa­ther was a driver in Don­caster,” he re­calls, “so I just loved steam from a very early age.”

Grad­u­ally, David worked his way up to fire­man and then to driver. In the early days he was just a ros­tered driver for the lo­co­mo­tive and didn’t think too much about it as it was all in a day’s work. Shifts could vary in the week start­ing at 1am one day, fol­lowed by 5am, 3am and 6am on the next days. You could be on af­ter­noons which started at 10am or on nights which be­gan at 6pm; it was a 24-hour op­er­a­tion which “spun the alarm clock dizzy”.

The steam-raiser or fire-lighter would have lit the fire six to eight hours be­fore driver David Court and the fire­man ar­rived at the shed. The crew booked on an hour be­fore and pre­pared the lo­co­mo­tive for its jour­ney. The fire­man col­lected his tools, shovel, lamp, firearm and all that was needed, be­fore they set out.

The fire­man’s main job was to en­sure a steady sup­ply of steam at the ap­pro­pri­ate pres­sure to pro­vide power to the en­gine. This was much more dif­fi­cult than it sounds with the en­gine’s steam re­quire­ments vary­ing con­sid­er­ably with load and gra­di­ent. The driver’s job was very skilled and com­plex, but es­sen­tially in­volved con­trol­ling the speed and di­rec­tion of the lo­co­mo­tive using the reg­u­la­tor (sim­i­lar to a throt­tle), re­vers­ing gear (to con­trol the pis­ton strokes) and the brake to bring it to a grad­ual stop.

“Ba­si­cally the driver and fire­man worked as a team with the un­der­stand­ing be­com­ing so good it of­ten didn’t need words,” David says. For him it’s never been about the ku­dos of driv­ing this iconic en­gine, but the sat­is­fac­tion he de­rives from get­ting the best per­for­mance out of any loco’. “It’s a sense of achieve­ment if you can get through your day with­out any bother and this is what gives me a sense of pride.”

On the oc­ca­sion he’s been given bad steam­ing lo­co­mo­tives in the past, it’s all about the chal­lenge of off­set­ting these dif­fi­cul­ties. In a typ­i­cal run from Lon­don to York the Fly­ing Scots­man would use a min­i­mum of five tons of coal and 8,000 gal­lons of wa­ter. In its hey­day the ex­press would drop a scoop at 60 mph at cer­tain points to re­plen­ish the ten­der.

In win­ter it was freez­ing on the left-hand side of the cab where the driver stood or sat, and roast­ing on his right where “2,000 to 3,000 de­grees came at you from a white­hot fire”. For the fire­man it would be the other way round. David ex­plains how in­side the cab you smelt sul­phur from the burn­ing coal and ev­ery­thing in­side was hot to the touch. In the early days he was only given a white rag and, un­like to­day, didn’t have any gloves. He de­clined his grease hat. “Most of the time you have the smell of oil and a white-hot heat com­ing at you from the fire hole,” he says. “There’s an in­vis­i­ble mist of oil float­ing about with a lot of dust. That’s why you’ve got black faces.”

In­side the cab the lo­co­mo­tive os­cil­lates from side to side, more so than the car­riages, and al­though the east coast run is fairly smooth this doesn’t pre­vent the move­ment sud­denly in­creas­ing over points and cross­ings. Vig­i­lance is an es­sen­tial virtue on the foot­plate, en­sur­ing the coal is burn­ing cor­rectly, that steam pres­sure is main­tained around 220 to 250lbs and that there’s suf­fi­cient wa­ter in the boiler at all times.

There’s a bond be­tween man and a 4-6-2 Pa­cific steam lo­co­mo­tive as David lis­tens to the sound of the “chim­ney top” to gauge the lo­co­mo­tive’s per­for­mance.

“When it starts off you get three heavy beats, from the three cylin­ders. These grad­u­ally be­come three muf­fled then hur­ried beats as you build-up speed as you take ac­count of the ter­rain all the time,” he says.

His fond­est mem­ory was when he was se­lected from 7,000 fire­men to be part of the 1969 Bri­tish Trade Mis­sion from Bos­ton to Hous­ton and spent nearly two months cov­er­ing 17 states in a 3,000-mile jour­ney. Fly­ing Scots­man was fit­ted with a cow catcher and an Amer­i­can-style whis­tle and a high­in­ten­sity head­lamp. The trip didn’t just in­clude the Fly­ing Scots­man lo­co­mo­tive, it also com­prised: nine-coach train (in­clud­ing two Pull­man cars); the lo­co­mo­tive crew pro­vided by Bri­tish Rail­ways (al­though paid for by Alan Pe­gler); an ob­ser­va­tion car that was con­verted into a pub; trade stands for Bri­tain’s largest ex­port­ing com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing BP and Pretty Polly tights; a pipe ma­jor (who had played at Churchill’s fu­neral); and a host of mini-skirted sales girls.

Even af­ter Alan Pe­gler’s mis­ad­ven­ture, David Court was to be­come one of those rare breed of men who con­tin­ued to drive the Fly­ing Scots­man for var­i­ous own­ers up to 2004. He cer­tainly feels proud to be a small part of its his­tory.

NA­TIONAL RAIL­WAY MU­SEUM/SCI­ENCE AND SO­CI­ETY PIC­TURE LI­BRARY

PETER BRUMBY

NA­TIONAL RAIL­WAY MU­SEUM/SCI­ENCE AND SO­CI­ETY PIC­TURE LI­BRARY

Above: The Fly­ing Scots­man head­ing south on the east coast main­line from Ber­wick-upon-tweed, 18th May 2016.

JIM GIB­SON/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO Op­po­site page: Noel Hart­ley of the Na­tional Rail­way Mu­seum fir­ing up the Fly­ing Scots­man in De­cem­ber 2015. Two pic­tures of the lo­co­mo­tive on 14th Jan­uary 1963 at King’s Cross be­fore its last jour­ney un­der BR own­er­ship. Below: Watched by his daugh­ter Teri, Mike O’con­nor ap­plies the iconic num­ber.

NA­TIONAL RAIL­WAY MU­SEUM/SCI­ENCE AND SO­CI­ETY PIC­TURE LI­BRARY

Scots­man in steam, De­cem­ber 2015. NA­TIONAL RAIL­WAY MU­SEUM/SCI­ENCE AND SO­CI­ETY PIC­TURE LI­BRARY

Right: David Court, for­mer driver of the Fly­ing Scots­man.

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