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The Great North Road of Steel

An Epic Story of the Courage and Endurance that Built Britain’s Highway to Scotland


The 10 am exodus from King's Cross

THE TEN A.M. EXODUS, showing the five north-bound trains leaving King’s Cross. The “Flying Scotsman” is the one on the extreme left.

TEN a.m. is not the usual hour for the regular enactment of a drama. Neither is a busy railway platform the usual place for it. But it would be difficult to find elsewhere in the pageant of modern travel a more inherently dramatic scene than that enacted daily at ten a.m. on the number ten platform at King’s Cross.

At that hour, precisely, the “Flying Scotsman” is due to leave for the North - as it has done for over seventy-two years. And at the same moment the south-bound “Flying Scotsman” pulls out of Edinburgh to perform again the miracle of linking with almost absolute punctuality the two capitals four hundred miles apart. Every day these two famous trains are due to pass one another at a point just north of the city of York. And so regular is their running-time that the exact spot (near Tollerton) where engine passes engine can be named to within a few yards, and the time to within a few moments.

In the face of such an accomplishment, year in, year out, the bare figures of the time-table cannot conceal that there is more than mere organization concerned. Even the most unimaginative passenger on the “Flying Scotsman” is aware, if only vaguely, that the run is romantic. Its unbroken regularity is representative of man’s achievement in applying steam locomotion to his use.

Safety, rapidity and reliability - those were the ideals of the far-sighted men who pioneered the world’s railways. In the performance of the “Flying Scotsman” the fulfilment of their dreams is epitomized every day.

The exact distance covered between the London terminus at King’s Cross and Edinburgh is 392¾ miles, and the journey takes seven hours, forty minutes. This means that the average speed from start to stop is well over 50 miles per hour - not run under special conditions, nor in an attempt at record-breaking, but as a matter of ordinary everyday routine.

During the summer months, when the “Flying Scotsman” has to be run in several sections, the train accomplishes almost four hundred miles without a stop - a world’s record run. This requires that half-way between London and Edinburgh the engine crew should be relieved by another, carried on the train, since it is impossible for the men to undertake such a responsibility as working throughout the whole journey.

To enable the relief crew to take over, the engine is provided with a specially constructed tender, which has a passageway running through it. In this way it is possible to reach the footplate of the engine from the train itself, and thus the engine crew can be relieved without stopping the train.

Some idea of the exacting duties of an engine crew can be gathered by considering the amount of coal required - 7 tons are shovelled into the furnace during the journey. The five thousand gallons of water with which the engine begins its run must be frequently replenished as it is used up in the boiler. The tender is accordingly fitted with a device for replenishing the tank as the train is travelling. For this purpose long water-troughs are laid between the rails - at Stevenage, Peterborough, Newark, Scrooby, Northallerton and Belford - and at the appropriate points the engine-driver operates a control lowering a scoop, up which the water is forced by the speed at which the train is travelling. By this method an additional eight thousand gallons of water are picked up - a total of thirteen thousand gallons for the journey - and every “pick-up” must be timed to the instant, since the scoop is in the water-trough for only a few seconds.

A Huge Load

The magnitude of the task accomplished by the engine may be gauged from the fact that the weight of the train, when full of passengers, is approximately five hundred tons. Only about twenty tons of this weight represent that of the passengers and their luggage, but there are two hundred and sixty tons of iron and steel, and well over two hundred tons of timber. Five hundred tons to be carried four hundred miles!

The twice-daily transportation of such loads at average speeds of over fifty miles an hour is an amazing accomplishment.

It is fitting that such a world-famed run should be performed on a British railway system, for it is to Britain that the world owes its railway inspiration. In fact, the “Flying Scotsman” actually runs through the very district in which railways were born, and it passes, at Darlington Station, the carefully preserved first locomotive ever used on a large-scale public railway!

In the contrast between this locomotive - George Stephenson’s world-famous Locomotion No. 1 - and the “Flying Scotsman” as it thunders through lies the whole story of railway development. It is a page in history.

To-day the steel roads have become almost commonplace - accepted without thought by the travellers who use them. But a little over a century ago they existed only in the minds of far-seeing men who were scoffed at for their visions of the future.

The weaving of the network of steel which covered Great Britain and spread to every continent in the world was the product of many minds.

On the technical side men like Trevithick, the father of the steam locomotive, the Stephensons - father and son, builders of the “Rocket” - and Brunel, the great civil engineer, are all remembered for their inventive genius. But a host of others believed in the railways, staked their all on them, and fought to make them possible.

Fortunes were made and lost in the financial battles which ensued and great figures dominated railway development, linking the cities and planning the routes along which the lines now run.

One picturesque autocrat, omnipotent for a few months, was George Hudson, the “big swollen gambler”. He was a financial prodigy, having amassed a fortune while still in his twenties. Hudson foresaw that the new method of travel would have a long fight for recognition unless energetic stimulation was applied. He decided to apply it. At a critical moment in railway development, before public confidence had been gained, he stepped into the arena to uphold the cause of the railways.

The great north road of steelHe was a public figure, eagerly followed, and from the day he championed steam locomotion lethargy and indifference to the railways were dispelled.

So magnetic was his influence that there followed a swing of the pendulum, an outburst of wild and reckless investment in which restraint and discretion were thrown to the winds.

Lost Fortunes

Speculators in all walks of life, forgetting the lessons of the South Sea Bubble, risked their all in the rush to get rich quickly. For months there raged a railway boom, when money poured into the new projects from all over the country; but finally the bubble burst, with an inevitable aftermath of ruin.

George Hudson’s part in trading upon the public’s credulity has been fiercely assailed. But it was he who strengthened the railway movement at the very time when a strong impetus was imperatively needed. And although thousands of speculators suffered at the time, posterity has benefited.

Despite his courage, his foresight and his brilliant grasp of the possibilities of railway development, George Hudson had that common failing of the autocrat - a contempt for opposition. Intoxicated by success, he came to think of it as inevitably his. He resented any attempt to alter or thwart his schemes, and tried to brush aside everything that tended to restrict his power.

TWICE A DAY this route is traversed by the “Flying Scotsman”, the up and down trains always passing one another at the same point near York, and at the same hour.

The Midland Railway was the pivot on which his strength rested, and his plucky and resourceful handling of his projects enabled him to spread a comprehensive network of railways covering north-east England, which he came to look on as his own preserve.

His great objective - attained after prolonged and severe fighting - was an entry to London for the Midland line. He secured this by persuading the rival London and North Western system to let him share its terminus at Euston, paying a heavy consideration for the privilege.

But other forces were at work, especially in the territory east of the Midland’s line between London and York, which was awaiting development, and promised a rich reward. A new line here, with connexions to the north, would follow the route of the Great North Road, where the stage coaches had flourished for so long. So a scheme was evolved to build a railway from London to York.

A similar project had attracted another group of business men, who planned the Direct North Railway. And for two years there was bitter strife between these two, until it was realized that Hudson was benefiting by the dissensions of his rivals. So the London and York and the Direct Northern projects were fused into one formidable concern demanding a Parliamentary charter. Such competition threatened Hudson’s schemes with ruin.

A long legal fight ensued, and at one time George Hudson was spending over £5,000 a day to maintain his hold. But the opposition, after many setbacks, played a trump card by asserting that on their line coal from Yorkshire to London could be carried direct and more cheaply. It proved to be a telling argument, and the charter was granted.

Outmanoeuvred, George Hudson made a memorable flank attack before construction of the new railway had fairly begun. He took advantage of his Midland line’s penetration to York to make that city the base of the new attack.

Between York and Newcastle there were various stretches of railway without through connexions, so Hudson determined to complete a chain by making new links where necessary, thus providing an unbroken line from York to the Tyne.

the “Flying Scotsman” accompanied on its northward journey by the Imperial Airways liner, “Heracles”

FLIERS BOTH. This remarkable picture shows the “Flying Scotsman” accompanied on its northward journey by the Imperial Airways liner, “Heracles”. On this occasion wireless telephone communication was established between train and ‘plane, first time in history that such a feat had been attempted at a speed of sixty miles per hour.

This made possible a continuous route from London to Newcastle, and the three hundred miles - at that time the longest line in the country - were to be traversed without changing carriages, in twelve and a half hours. From Newcastle, the chief towns and cities of Scotland could easily be reached by coaches running in conjunction with the service.

There was intense enthusiasm when the new route was opened, and the inaugural train was received at the Tyne terminus with frantic cheering and flag-waving - a tribute to the people’s belief in the genius of George Hudson.

His rivals, however, continued to press forward with their Great North Road, and the question of inter-connexions between different systems became one of paramount importance to the travelling public. It soon became evident that rival lines actually assisted one another in many ways, since passengers were brought by one system to travel onwards by a rival system -a fact which caused some modification of the bitter rivalry between Hudson and his opponents. But his reign as railway “king” was doomed to an inglorious ending. One by one he lost the high offices he held on the railways which he had organized, and finally he went abroad to live in obscurity. Nevertheless, George Hudson had left his mark upon a whole country, and our steel roads to the north still testify to his genius.

His traditional methods continued to influence railway development long after his own retirement, and just as he had fought for the traffic between London and the Tyne coalfields, so his successors waged war to secure the Scottish traffic.

The Great Northern was regarded as an interloper in this field by the London and North Western, while the Midland also resented the filching of traffic from what it considered to be its own field. So these two lines made common cause against the Great Northern, and attempted to isolate it.

A long drink: a locomotive picking up water at speed

A LONG DRINK. A locomotive picking up water at speed from a trough laid between the lines. A scoop is lowered from the engine tender when the train reaches the trough, and water rushes up to replenish the tank. The troughs are automatically refilled as required from the large containers seen at the side of the line. These tanks contain chemicals which soften the water and so prevent excessive scaling in the locomotive boiler.

They acquired control of many neighbouring smaller lines which normally would have acted as feeders to the Great Northern, but which now operated to starve it. But they failed to acquire the vital links which carried the Great North Road beyond the Tweed.

It was here that the latter broke free of the last shackles, and finally an amicable settlement was arranged giving continuous communication between London and Scotland by the East Coast route.

About this time the fight for territorial rights by the various railways afforded some amazing incidents that are still legendary among railwaymen. There was the “battle” of Nottingham, for example.

When the Great Northern secured an entry into this city its coming was fiercely resented by the Midland faction. The first passengers were treated to such indignities that they must have sighed for the comparative calm of the old stage-coach days. It is recorded that when the first Great Northern locomotive reached Nottingham it was surrounded by Midland engines and forced into a shed, its escape being prevented by the effective expedient of tearing up the rails behind it !

Similar liveliness marked the occasion when the Great Northern secured running rights to Manchester by completing an arrangement with the Manchester and Sheffield Railway. Passengers arriving in Sheffield by one of these new trains found themselves surrounded by hostile crowds and exposed to the direst threats of what would happen if they dared to travel by the interloping line again.

The Fight for Fares

Apparently the hardiness of the Great Northern’s passengers was equal to this, for the next move was a rate war, in which travellers were tempted by low fares.

This was a more serious deterrent to the Great Northern than was violence, since their income from fares fell enormously, and at one stage of the fight the passenger fare from London to York was only five shillings.

The heavy loss to the Great Northern can be estimated from the fact that it was costing them more to run over one short section of a rival line than they were receiving for the whole journey from London to York. And how they would have weathered the storm is still a matter of conjecture, because another factor intervened and changed the whole situation with dramatic suddenness.

This new development was an estrangement between the Great Northern’s rivals. The London and North Western had become alarmed because the building of bridges over the Tyne and the Tweed offered the Midland an alternative route to Scotland; so the alliance against the Great Northern was loosened, while a new struggle began between the former allies.

The London and North Western, tardily regretting the concessions granted in George Hudson’s day, refused to issue tickets at Euston to passengers who wished to travel to Scotland over the Midland route. To counter this move, the Midland made peace with its former enemy the Great Northern and obtained terminal facilities at their station, King’s Cross - an arrangement which lasted until the Midland secured their own London terminus at St. Pancras.

Another move in the railway struggle had meanwhile been taking place in the north-eastern counties. The fusions and amalgamations of the various interests covering this part of the country eventually coalesced into the North Eastern Railway, which quickly became a power to be reckoned with. To this group was ultimately attracted the world's pioneer railway, the famous old Stockton and Darlington line.

It has been generally appreciated that the tendency towards grouping, so successfully employed by Hudson, was an inevitable step in railway development. But it is not so generally realized that the rivalry which existed before the large-scale grouping took place gave extraordinary vigour to each and every section of the systems.

A good instance of the enterprising work carried out in these early days, when our railways were achieving adolescence, is the building of the Bramhope Tunnel between Harrogate and Leeds. It is well over two miles long, and occurs on one of the short lines launched when Hudson was “Railway King”. The proposal to build it was, indeed, a special object of his anger, since it threatened to provide a rival route between Leeds and the North, with a saving of fourteen miles.

His opposition was overcome, and the Leeds and Thirsk Railway - as it was named - duly received its charter, construction being commenced in 1845. The opposition presented by natural difficulties, however, was not so easily overcome.

The line runs through very difficult country, and the most formidable obstacle of all - the precipitous ridge separating Airedale from Wharfedale - could not be overcome otherwise than by tunnelling.

From the first the engineers were under no illusions as to the difficulties of the task, but their most gloomy forecasts fell short of the obstacles actually encountered. Their original tunnel as projected was to have been much shorter than the one which proved to be necessary. It was thought at first that a deep cutting would serve the builder’s purpose, but the experience of actual working conditions caused them to modify their original view, and the cutting was abandoned in favour of the longer tunnel, after considerable expense and time had been wasted.

When work began on the northern portal, the enterprise was considered one of the most ambitious and difficult ever undertaken by railway engineers. A double track was provided for, and the engineers had to sink no fewer than twenty shafts at various intervals, the depths ranging from 70 to over 400 ft.

The chief enemy was water, and time after time it drove the workers back, with loss of life. Standing in Otley Churchyard there is a remarkable monument to thirty men, buried in a common grave, who were drowned by the penetration of water into the workings. The monument is a reproduction of the northern portal of the Bramhope Tunnel, and it affords a striking reminder of the price in lives paid by pioneers of the railways.

Except for a slight curve at either end the tunnel is straight, and the arch is brick-lined throughout. But some idea of the menace to which these workers were exposed may be gleaned from the fact that about 1,560,000,000 gallons of water had to be pumped from the workings during its construction.

Across the Firth of Forth

ACROSS THE FIRTH OF FORTH - one of the mightiest cantilever bridges in the world. Two of the spans are 1,710 ft each in length.

Possibly not many travellers in the north-bound “Flying Scotsman” realize, as the train roars through Darlington, that bearing away to the east is the first public railway over which passengers rode behind a steam locomotive.

Less than fifty miles farther north, too, may be seen an ivy-covered house that stands close up to the line at Killingworth; it has a sundial over the door, and was once the home of George Stephenson, the genius who did so much for steam locomotion. Made by his own hands, that sundial has since marked the hours that have seen the spread of his work throughout the whole world.

As the “Flying Scotsman” travels still farther north, however, another example can be seen of the “Stephenson touch” in the railway crossing into Scotland over the Royal Border Bridge, designed by Robert, son of George Stephenson. The bridge was opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1850. Its twenty-eight arches carry the line over the Tweed at a height of

91 ft above water level, for a length of 720 yards. After crossing the border into Scotland the train runs over the historic North British Railway line, famous for two of the most notable triumphs of bridge building - the Forth and the Tay bridges.

Enormous public interest was aroused by these ambitious engineering projects, especially as the Forth Bridge had the largest cantilever spans in the world. There are twenty-four spans (two of 1,710 ft each), and the cost of this gigantic structure amounted to three and a half million pounds.

The Stimulus of Rivalry

Such an enormous outlay in those days shows clearly that the engineering of our main line routes was imaginatively conceived and boldly executed. The great markets and centres of population had much to gain from quick and safe intercommunication, and their needs were at once an incentive and a reward to the railway builders.

A spectacular race for records occurred in 1888, when the London and North Western sought to steal a march on its competitors by reducing the time taken between Edinburgh and London to eight and a half hours. The Great Northern brought their time down to seven and three-quarter hours. To this the London and North Western replied with a service that took only seven hours and thirty-eight minutes!

This spirited rivalry might have gone even further, but there was a public feeling against a struggle to save seconds, and it was found that the “race trains” were being avoided, except perhaps by the sporting fraternity who could not resist the thrill of speed. So finally both companies decided to abandon the struggle.

In our modern system of grouped railways, the whole country is now served by four great undertakings in which are incorporated, for the common good, the bitter rivals of bygone days. But the recalling of those separate entities and the recounting of some of their struggles have served to show that their development was from the first a vigorous growth - a mastery over many obstacles and an adventure carried out by courageous men.

Hope, courage, invention, and endeavour - these are what our forefathers put into their railway making. And that is why the great steel roads of the north endure to-day, serving the present age and paying their tribute to the men of the past.

The great Forth Bridge

THE BRIDGE THAT COST £3,500,000. The great Forth Bridge, carrying the railway from Edinburgh to the North, forms one of the most vital links on the route of the “Flying Scotsman”. The structure is 1½ miles long, and each cantilever towers 361 ft above water level.

A steel network in the sky

A STEEL NETWORK IN THE SKY. This unusual view of the Forth Bridge, taken from below the railway tracks, gives a graphic impression of the wonderful structure.


You can read more on “The Flying Scotsman”, “The Forth Bridge” and

“The Romance of the LNER” on this website.