Flying Scotsman

The route – a race to the North

In the late eighteenth century, if you wanted to travel between London and Edinburgh, the stagecoach service was available once a month, and the journey took a fortnight. That’s if the weather was kind! By 1848 one could travel the whole way by train, via the west coast route in twelve and a half hours.

In 1860 Walter Leith – General Passenger Superintendent of the Great Northern Railway – suggested that the three companies that operated on the East Coast route (then the GNR, the North Eastern and the North British) share the cost of new coaches for the route from London the Edinburgh. The result was the East Coast Joint Stock and in June 1862 a new service began using these coaches. It departed from London Kings Cross going north and from Edinburgh going south, simultaneously at 10am, passing each other roughly half-way.

The train was referred to as the ‘Special Scotch Express’ by Bradshaw’s guide and it took ten hours inclusive of a meal break half-way at York. Up and down the line railwaymen, rail users and railway enthusiasts began to refer to it as the ‘Scotch Express’, the ‘Scotchman’ or, the ‘Flying Scotchman’. At this time the 10am service catered only to wealthier passengers – up to 1887 it carried only those that could afford the first and second-class tickets.

'Going North, King's Cross Station', London, 1893. By James Earl. A busy King's Cross station as wealthy friends gather to head north for the grouse-shooting season. The East Coast Joint Stock coaches are in the background. (SSPL Image Ref. 10302079)
‘Going North, King’s Cross Station’,  by James Earl. A busy King’s Cross station in 1893 as wealthy friends gather to head north for the grouse-shooting season. The East Coast Joint Stock coaches are in the background. (SSPL Image Ref. 10302079)

Somewhat inevitably, rivalry with the West Coast route started early. When the East Coast companies advertised a journey time of nine hours for the London to Edinburgh trip, the West Coast clearly had to respond. The resulting ‘Races to the North’ between the rival routes led to carefully arranged engine changes and reductions in train length in order lower the journey time between the two capitals. By 1888 the East Coast ‘Scotchman’ has got the journey time down to 7 hours and 27 minutes for the whole run (three whole hours less than in 1862).

From the 1870's the 10am 'Scotchman' was hauled by Patrick Stirling's 'Singles'. Their driving wheels were eight foot in diameter (Image ref: 10276492)
From the 1870’s the 10am ‘Scotchman’ was hauled by Patrick Stirling’s ‘Singles’ class of locomotives. Their driving wheels were eight foot in diameter. This image of the preserved ‘Stirling Single No.1’ is from 1975, on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (Image ref: 10276492).

Conditions on board were fairly basic, but in 1883 corridor coaches were introduced and some even had heating and on-train lavatories. When these features became ‘standard’ on the coaches in 1900, the lunch stop at York was dropped altogether, meaning the journey could be marketed as being even quicker.

While the ‘Race to the North’ rivalry was good for publicity, it wasn’t so great for either their bank balances or the safety of both railwaymen and passengers. By the end of the second ’round’ of races in 1895, the rival routes had agreed to stop racing and agree on a minimum time for the journey – 8 hours and 15 minutes, an agreement that lasted until 1932.

By 1892 a dining car was provided for the first time for first-class passengers and the following year Railway News referred to the train as the ‘Flying Scotsman’, although it would be thirty years before it was officially known as this. By 1923 the various operating companies were grouped into the ‘Big Four’, resulting in a much less competitive but more sustainable and coordinated environment for associated infrastructure to develop around the route.

In 1928 LNER engineer Sir Nigel Gresley introduced a new feature for his recently built A1 class of locomotives that were then the mainstay of the Flying Scotsman route – a corridor tender. Ingeniously, it meant that the train wouldn’t need to stop to changes crews – the relief crew could simply swap round when they needed to, half-way through the journey, having travelled in the train for the first part of the journey. It also allowed the company to sidestep the ‘eight-hour’ rule and haul the train non-stop from London to Edinburgh. Locomotive number 4472 – previously star of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924/5 and now officially named ‘Flying Scotsman’ – was used for the first non-stop journey on 1 May 1928 from London to Edinburgh.

The A1 locomotives were gradually developed  into a more powerful form (class A3)– and although they were later replaced on the ‘Scotsman’ by the A4 design, A3’s could still occasionally be seen  hauling the service into the 1960’s, by which time  it was being hauled by the powerful Deltic diesels. Deltics  were capable of sustained speeds of 100mph including hauling heavy loads, thanks to their two Napier diesel engines. The Deltics reduced the journey time between London and Edinburgh down to 5 hours 41 minutes and remained the mainstay of the Scotsman service until the advent of the InterCity 125 in 1978.

The Flying Scotsman service continued being noted as such in the timetable through the late British Rail period and it has enjoyed a renaissance in the era of privatisation. The Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) branded all of it’s trains with ‘The Route of the Flying Scotsman’ and one of the class 91 locomotives that have worked on the route since electrification holds the record for the quickest time between Kings Cross and Edinburgh Waverley: 3 hours 29 minutes. Today, the Flying Scotsman train service is operated by Virgin Trains East Coast, lead sponsors of the National Railway Museum’s Flying Scotsman season. In October 2015, a new-look Flying Scotsman train was unveiled in its striking new Virgin Trains East Coast livery at Edinburgh Waverley station.

Since the 1800’s the Flying Scotsman’s route along the east coast railway has offered travellers the opportunity to appreciate the beauties of Britain’s natural and built heritage. The route affords views of Peterborough Cathedral (resting place of Catherine of Aragon), York Minster, and Durham Castle and Cathedral. Further north the cottage at Killingworth can be seen, home of George Stephenson ‘the father of the railways’. Then the silhouettes of Bamburgh Castle, the Farne Islands and Holy Island. The Royal Border bridge at Berwick-upon-Tweed is one of the great engineering masterpieces of Robert Stephenson, and affords fantastic views across the town and estuary. Then, the route hugs the spectacular coastline before sweeping through East Lothian and arriving at Edinburgh with Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh Castle providing a dramatic backdrop to the train’s approach into Waverley station.

In its heyday the LNER recognised the view from the train was an essential part of the passenger experience and passengers could buy guides describing features of interest seen from the train. In 1928, all the Flying Scotsman carriages were oriented so that the compartment windows were on the seaward side, giving passengers the best views. The route was, and remains, one of Britain’s greatest railway journeys.


Discover beautiful images and interesting stories in Andrew McLean’s stylish, illustrated The Flying Scotsman: Speed, Style, Service hardback exhibition book on ‘the world’s most famous train’. Andrew McLean is the National Railway Museum’s Head Curator.