Full-steam ahead at 100: the Flying Scotsman set for centenary UK tour

The iconic green locomotive, which turns 100 next year, is about to leave the station for a fortnight of special trips – and celebrated by a new story book from Michael Morpurgo

It’s looking pretty spry for a centenarian. Its body painted in mirror-finish British Rail green, its wheels and smokebox gleaming black and its name picked out in bright gold. The Flying Scotsman, the world’s most famous steam locomotive, turns 100 in February, and for the past six months has been undergoing a thorough overhaul in a Lancashire workshop in preparation for a national programme of events to celebrate its birthday.

Fans can get a first look at the famous engine this weekend at Kings Cross station in London (tickets sold out). Next week, it will arrive in Dorset in time for half-term, and run on the heritage Swanage Railway from 22 to 26 October. Before that it will be on static display at Swanage station on 20 and 21 October – and later from 27 October to 6 November – giving steam fans the chance to stand on its celebrated footplate (tickets from £10). The public will also be able to book tickets to ride behind the Flying Scotsman in a rare Pullman observation car, Car 14, which the locomotive pulled on routes in the US in the late 1960s and early 70s.

The Flying Scotsman in its heyday.
The Flying Scotsman in its heyday. Photograph: National Railway Museum/Science & Society

Centenary celebrations will continue in 2023 with an exhibition of artist Michael Foreman’s original watercolours in the Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday Ever exhibition at Danum Gallery, Library and Museum in Doncaster (11 Feb-17 June 2023). There will also be a celebration in the locomotive’s home city of York from 1-16 April, which will include family activities at York station as well as the launch of a VR experience at the National Railway Museum, which takes visitors back in time.

The Flying Scotsman was built for the newly formed London and North Eastern Railway at Doncaster railway works in 1923. The cost was £7,944 – about £534,000 in today’s money. Designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, the train was renowned for both its looks and engineering. It got its name a year later after it was used to pull the London to Edinburgh train service – burning about 50,000lb (22,680kg) of highly polluting coal during the return journey.

The famous green locomotive in Scotland
The famous green locomotive in Scotland. Photograph: John Cooper-Smith/Science & Society

The train went on to set two world records: for the first steam locomotive officially recorded as having reached 100mph (in 1934); and making the longest non-stop run by a steam locomotive (422 miles in 1989, in Australia). During the second world war it was repainted in black, in common with all railway stock, returning to its original green after the conflict ended.

After retiring from British Rail in 1963, the Flying Scotsman had several private owners before being bought by the National Railway Museum in 2004. “The Flying Scotsman is one of the world’s most recognisable steam locomotives and still draws excited crowds wherever it goes. It is one of the jewels in the crown of our world-class collection,” said museum director Judith McNicol.

To celebrate its birthday the museum (entry free, book online) is preparing a new exhibition and film, Flying Scotsman: 100 Years, 100 Voices, that will tell the human stories behind the legend. Members of the public are being asked to share their memories of the train through film clips, diaries, letters or photographs. The film will feature 100 distinct “voices” of people connected to the locomotive, including former drivers, railway workers and passengers.

The call has also gone out to the US, which the Flying Scotsman visited in 1969. Specially fitted with a cowcatcher, a bell and a US-style whistle, it ran from Boston to New York, Washington and Houston, Texas, and the following year took in Chicago, the National Railroad Museum at Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Niagara Falls.

The Flying Scotsman
The Flying Scotsman was named after the daily 10.00 am London to Edinburgh rail service. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Also marking the centenary is a new children’s book, Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday Ever, by one of the UK’s best-loved storytellers, Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman. It features, pleasingly, a young female railway enthusiast, Iris, whose father drives the famous train, and who hatches a plan to join him in the driver’s cab one day.

“I grew up on steam trains, remember the sound of them, the smell of them, the rhythm of them. I went on holidays on them, went to school on them. So when Michael Foreman asked me to write a story about the greatest, most iconic steam locomotive of them all, I sat down at once and just did it … All the memories came flooding back,” Morpurgo said.

“I loved writing my story, but now all I want to do is fulfil a lifelong dream, to get up on the footplate of the Flying Scotsman and drive it, and be at last the engine driver I wanted to be. With me up there driving, we would be in Edinburgh faster than you could say Flying Scotsman.”

• This article was amended on 20 October 2022 to clarify that the figure given for the weight of coal burned by Flying Scotsman on a London-Edinburgh service is approximate, and for a return trip.


Liz Boulter

The GuardianTramp

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