This story will interest the many ... er ... more mature gentlemen who, like The GOS, maintain an interest in the steam railways of their youth.
The iconic and beautiful No.4472 “Flying Scotsman” is probably the most famous locomotive in the world. A member of the A3 class of 4-6-2 express locomotives designed in the 1920s by Sir Nigel Gresley, it spent its working life mainly running between London and Edinburgh on the East Coast main line and set two world records - the first steam locomotive to be officially clocked at 100 miles per hour in 1934, and the longest non-stop run by a steam locomotive when it ran 422 miles in 1989.
4472 Flying Scotsman in wartime black livery
Retired from British Railways service in 1963 after covering over 2 million miles, “Flying Scotsman” has passed through several owners and spent time in both the United States and Australia. It now belongs to the nation, as represented by the National Railway Museum in York, which is part of the Science Museum and therefore taxpayer-funded.
Working steam locomotives have to undergo extensive overhauls every ten years. Because boiler-related accidents can be highly dangerous, their boilers are only certified as safe to run for ten years, and before they can be re-examined and issued a new certificate there is usually some major and costly work to do. This is more pronounced with preserved engines because, unlike the old British Railways locos, they don't run every day and the process of repeatedly heating up and then cooling down again causes stress in metal parts. Owners therefore plan to do all the non-boiler maintenance at the same time.
Eight years ago “Flying Scotsman” fell due for such an overhaul, in this case a particularly thorough one which might almost be classed as a restoration job. The work was to be done in the Museum's own extensive workshops and the budget was £750,000.
Now, eight years later, the overhaul is far from finished and the cost has risen to about £3 million.
In an attempt to find out the reasons for this embarrassing cockup, the Museum commissioned an independent investigation, and the results were reported recently in the specialist press. To quote “Steam Railway” magazine, “there was no system of work, work had been carried out in a haphazard manner and loco parts were scattered all over the works. The Chief Engineer started to distance himself from any involvement in the programme/task planning, he stopped attending meetings, and had a negative approach to any form of planning. It was clear that the Chief Engineer was not giving instruction to the workshop staff, and they were getting frustrated with the lack of direction.”
“Loco parts were constantly being moved around the workshop, parts had become lost, loaned to other locos, removed from the loco and not inspected, and placed in the stores van and forgotten about. A vast amount of time was wasted looking for parts and starting overhauling parts that should have been properly assessed when they were removed from the loco. There was no sense of urgency, but a sense of entrenched laziness.”
Wow. And this is the National Rail Museum, spending taxpayers' money, with its own lavishly equipped workshops, its own professional staff, and presumably all the specialist expertise that befits the curators of the national railway collection of over 280 locomotives and other railway vehicles.
The reason we're reporting this story is that it shows with dreadful clarity the abuses that can arise when public servants are allowed to spend public money. By contrast, The GOS knows a small group of railway enthusiasts who are slowly rebuilding – not just overhauling, but rebuilding from what was pretty much a kit of worn and rusty parts – a steam loco on a budget of just under £100,000 which they raised themselves. And that includes the cost of buying the loco in the first place. They are doing it by learning how to do jobs themselves – and none of them are proper engineers – and by getting parts made and mended by small local firms on a piecemeal basis, which takes many hours to organise but keeps costs way down.
Admittedly it's no Flying Scotsman and it won't ever run on the main line at 70mph with hundreds of passengers behind it. It's about half the size and weight, and will run at a stately 25mph – but the restoration budget is not half Flying Scotsman's, it's only one thirtieth!
The same magazine recently reported about a splendid chap called John Beesley, who spent the last 17 years restoring “Beatrice”, a little tank engine that lives on a preserved line in Yorkshire. Despite living 200 miles from the loco, he completed most of the work by himself and raised most of the £100,000 cost himself as well. The restoration was very thorough and he made many of the new parts himself, part of the time working in the open under a tarpaulin.
One imagines that John Beesley would be bitterly amused at the news that Jubilee class loco “Bahamas”, another major express engine, is to be overhauled with the help of a lottery grant at a cost of £700,000.
The London Transport Museum is another public body with grand ideas. To celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the underground they got £422,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and another £150,000 from their own Friends' association, and spent it on restoring ... wait for it, not a locomotive, not a station, not a stretch of railway line, but ... a coach. One wooden coach, that used to run on the old Metropolitan Railway.
All right, it's said to be the oldest underground coach in existence. But how the hell do you spend £572,000 on rebuilding one coach? They could have bought an entire bloody train for that, couldn't they? They could have restored FIVE little tank engines, or provided nearly a hundred African villages with clean water and drains, or bought a lovely detached house and put some Middle Eastern terrorist detainee and his family in it. We're sure it's a lovely coach, all made of wood panels and beautifully painted in authentic colours and wonderfully upholstered and historically accurate in every detail, but what's it going to do after they've celebrated the 150 years? Sit in a museum, probably, so people can look at it and say “Wow, so that's what half a million quid looks like!”
There's a really serious problem here. The GOS is totally committed to preserving beautiful and interesting things from the past – he's a fairly beautiful and interesting thing from the past himself – but he's also committed to the idea that money should be spent sensibly by sensible people. A few blokes getting together, putting some cash in and restoring an old steam loco is brilliant. It's so brilliant that they ought to get some help from the lottery, but of course they won't.
To get lottery money you have to be an organisation, you have to have proper headed notepaper, you have to have nice upper-class people talking hooray-henry-speak all over the place, you have to have nice premises and a comfortable office to phone the Lottery Fund up from, and you have to be really good at throwing other people's money around.
A couple of blokes in a field with a blow-torch, a socket-set and loads of enthusiasm? Forget it.
The GOS says: Actually, this article was just an excuse to publish a picture of a wonderful steam engine. So here's another one ...
ex-GER Class N7 0-6-2T
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
Copyright © 2012 The GOS