Go back to article: Flying Scotsman: modernity, nostalgia and Britain’s ‘cult of the past’

Modernity versus nostalgia

With Flying Scotsman ‘restored’ and operational, the locomotive became – as evidenced by her 1966 Blue Peter appearance, the 1968 documentary and the Reverend Awdry’s children’s stories – a nostalgic symbol. But it would be too simplistic to say that Britain was only interested in the railway past. Indeed 1968 hadn’t just witnessed the end of steam but it was also the year in which the British Railways Board was finally given the go ahead to push on with the revolutionary Advanced Passenger Train (APT) project (Baily, 1968). This project aroused interest from across the world as it proposed developing a train capable of speeds of 155mph and being able to tilt on conventional tracks (an idea of developing hover trains was quickly dropped when the APT project became reality). The Times was enthusiastic and, as he explained on Desert Island Discs, Alan Pegler was supportive (Baily, 1969). Nevertheless the legacy of that period tends today to be viewed through the fog of nostalgia focusing on the end of steam while the optimistic future has been largely forgotten. This was in part due to the hollow nature of Wilson’s ‘white-hot technology’ vision – APT suffered from the start from much government indifference. As one of the APT project team Hugh Williams has written, part of the reason the project was dogged by problems was a succession of Governments ‘turning the investment tap on and off at will’ (Williams, 1985). Indeed the relatively Spartan budget of the APT project (approximately £40 million from 1968 until 1984) did not compare favourably to the other great British transport innovation of the 1960s, the joint development of Concorde with France, on which £2 billion was spent between 1967 and 1976 (Wickens, 2008). The partnership of the two countries on the supersonic plane contrasts with their respective attitudes to High Speed rail.

Figure 9

Black and white photograph of an advanced passenger train on tracks in the 1960s

In 1968 British Rail ran its last main line steam hauled service but was also given the go ahead to progress the revolutionary Advanced Passenger Train project.

APT, therefore, was poorly funded but it even faced opposition and indifference from within BR itself, due in large part to the project seen as being run by ‘an expanding Research department staffed by non-railway personnel’ (Williams, 1985, pp 109–111). Contrast this with the French High Speed TGV project which received full government and industry backing. It was true that the BR Research Department was staffed with a large number of people from a non-traditional railway background, most notably Alan Wickens, a graduate of Loughborough University who joined the department in 1962 from the aerospace industry (Williams, 1985 p 8). Wickens would undertake world leading research on High Speed rail but his name is largely unknown in the UK. This indifference can in part be put down to established senior railway figures failing to move on sufficiently from the end of steam, a problem perhaps best highlighted through the problems APT faced with ASLEF, the Trade Union for locomotive drivers. APT had been designed as a one-man operation but ASLEF, which had been set up as the union for steam locomotive drivers and firemen in 1880, blacked the new train and insisted the cab be crewed by two men. This ludicrous situation lasted for some time, causing significant delays to the development of a truly ground breaking and innovative train on the basis of steam era operations, an example of how a fixation on the past caused significant damage to innovative and forward thinking in the UK rail industry (one-man operation posed no difficulties for the TGV) (Williams, 1985 pp 34–37 and 111).  

From the beginning APT had not received strong enough backing by Wilson’s government in the late 1960s. Despite all the talk of ‘white heat’ the railways continued to receive poor levels of investment. The modernisation programme begun in 1955 and the ‘reshaping’ of the railways as instigated by Beeching in 1963 may have been continued by the Labour government but there seemed to be no real coherent scheme for the railways. In December 1964 it was announced that Beeching, who had been appointed by the previous Conservative Government, would not be taking charge of a survey into the integration of the British transport system which Tom Fraser, the Minister of Transport, wished to complete (The Times, 1964). This snub was captured by the Daily Express cartoonist and arch Wilson critic Cummings in a cartoon showing Beeching disembarking from an ancient looking train, with the Prime Minister, standing on the locomotive footplate, calling after him: ‘You don't realise, Dr Beeching, that what we need is a Gothic railway system – as George Stephenson intended.’ The train was headed by an antiquated locomotive with the slogan ‘Modernise with Labour!’ painted on the tender. The name of the train was painted above one of the wheels: ‘The Flying Scotsman’ (Daily Express, 1964). Beeching left British Rail shortly afterwards claiming that he had resigned with the government happy to give the impression he had been sacked. Four years later Beeching would stand up in the House of Lords and dismiss the APT project as ‘no more than a gimmick’ (Baily, 1969).  Moving Britain’s railways forward was clearly not going to be easy.

The conflict of modernity versus nostalgia is further seen in Pegler’s most audacious Flying Scotsman stunt when his locomotive became the figurehead of a mobile UK trade mission to North America in 1969. The tour was to take in ten American cities starting in Boston and work its way across America with Flying Scotsman at the head of a train (accompanied at various points by two Routemaster buses) featuring numerous hackneyed British cultural referencing points including Beefeaters, a Churchill impersonator (played by Churchill’s own nephew John Spencer Churchill), a Pipe Band Major (to ‘entertain crowds during many of the stops’), ‘a bevy of attractive young Englishwomen to handle souvenir sales’ (each dressed in tartan mini-skirts), an Old English tavern (named ‘The Fireman’s Rest’), a butler (supplied by Fortnum & Mason) and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, a man dressed in a full suit of armour (Edmonson, 1970). However, the trade fair did not sit easily with many in the UK. Some businesses shunned it as being too ‘gimmicky’ with The Times asking ‘is this really doing much to promote the image of Britain as a major technological industrial nation, able to compete in America’s razor sharp markets?’ As one Philadelphian businessman remarked: ‘We all go for the English tradition bit…but the only way to sell me machine tools is with an expert salesman and a fine product.’ Flying Scotsman’s ‘unique British American trade mission’ gets to the root of the dichotomy between contrasting what The Times called the ‘Traditional Britain’ image with the desire of Harold Wilson’s government to show Britain as a modern country at the forefront of new technology and innovation (The Times, 1969).[19]

Figure 10

Black and white publicity photograph of a double decker bus with Flying Scotsman printed on the front and a number of young women surrounding the bus

Publicity photograph for the ‘Flying Scotsman’ trade mission to the USA, 1969. Two Routemaster buses from which souvenirs were sold accompanied the tour.

Figure 11

Colour photograph of the Flying Scotsman steam train after restoration in the 1960s in Texas USA

Flying Scotsman draws admiring looks at Lometa, Texas in 1970.

Flying Scotsman’s North American tour proved to be the culmination of Pegler’s remarkable ownership of the locomotive. The trip ended in his own financial ruin with his beloved ‘4472’ impounded by the American authorities.[20] Alan Pegler would return to the UK where he was declared bankrupt. In the official receiver’s report into his application for discharge from bankruptcy it was noted that his continued sinking of his funds into the tour was prompted by ‘his unbounded enthusiasm for the Flying Scotsman.’[21]  He was discharged in the Bankruptcy Court in 1974, expressing no regrets for getting involved with Flying Scotsman. As The Times reported:

After the hearing the great locophile, a cheerful engaging man in mutton-chop whiskers, penniless but unbowed said: ‘I do not regret buying the Flying Scotsman. It was the chance of a lifetime, and I would have kicked myself if I had not taken it.

Of course, I cannot say that I do not regret losing all my money, my house, my country house, my flat in Italy, my Bentley and my Volvo, and being left only with what I stand up in. But life is about taking the rough with the smooth.

He looked less like a man eaten with regret, than somebody still entranced by the distant vision of a great steam monster puffing over the Cheviots. The Flying Scotsman…is at present stabled at Carnforth, a permanent challenge and temptation to romantic railway visionaries (Howard, 1974).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160507/005