Flying Scotsman: the race to the North

In 1888, driven by commercial rivalry, the East Coast and West Coast consortia started competing fiercely over the speed of their express services on these two routes. In 1895, a second ‘race’ broke out, but this time with the added excitement of arriving at the same station in Aberdeen. Indeed, after some 500 miles from London, the two routes converged to being in sight of each other just before Kinnaber Junction, from where there was a single track to Aberdeen.

To achieve the high speeds, very few carriages could be pulled and so a second, longer, slower train had to follow on behind. There was no benefit to the public in arriving so very early and, apart from the publicity, it made no financial sense.

After a fatal derailment at speed on the West Coast Main Line, an agreement was reached to reassure the public and slow the runs from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow; they would now take a minimum time of eight hours. This agreement lasted into the early 1930s, removing any impetus towards improving express train performance or scheduling, which became badly outdated as a result.

In 1927 the LNER started the famous express Flying Scotsman service from London to Edinburgh. The old agreement was respected and speeds kept low, but time was gained from 1928 by making the run non-stop over the whole distance of 393 miles (632km), the longest non-stop run anywhere in the world. The departure of the Flying Scotsman on its first non-stop King’s Cross–Edinburgh run on 1 May 1928 attracted worldwide attention (see image).

This was done through the introduction by Nigel Gresley of corridor tenders, which allowed engine crew changes at speed - the only examples of their kind. Nevertheless, the train kept to the same eight-and-a-half-hour schedule, so the average speed was just 47mph (75 km/h), the same as a later stopping train. It was not until 1932, no less than thirty-seven years after the race to Aberdeen, that the East Coast route was accelerated.

To add to the attraction, new trains were introduced that included a cocktail bar, hairdressing compartment and retiring room for ladies, sophistication that was celebrated by railway posters (courtesy of SSPL/NRM). But behind the glamour of the world’s longest non-stop run lay the inescapable fact that the LNER was the most impoverished of the big four, only able to invest very slowly in upgrading its suburban and goods services.