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The Royal Scot took the Royal Mail to Scotland

Posted in Historical articles, History, Railways, Scotland, Transport on Monday, 29 October 2012

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This edited article about the Royal Scots originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 773 published on 6th November 1975.

The Royal Scot, picture, image, illustration

The Royal Scot

The order that arrived at the Glasgow headquarters of the North British Locomotive Company towards the end of 1926 might well have daunted a similar firm half a century later, but there could be no mistaking the requirements. The Directors of the new London Midland and Scottish Railway needed a powerful locomotive capable of hauling non-stop express trains from London to Glasgow not only at high speed but with economy and reliability as well. And they wanted it in service within a year.

Today, to the sorrow of all steam enthusiasts the design and manufacture of these 85-ton monsters is something of a lost art, but in the 1920s such a challenge could be met with enthusiasm. Not only did the North British engineers design and build a prototype within the time allowed, but they made the first fifty of a final total of seventy-one engines as well.

The L.M.S. had come into being through the amalgamation of a number of smaller companies, and the locomotives it had inherited from them were simply not capable of meeting the competition from rival lines. A borrowed Castle class engine had shown the kind of power that was going to be required, and when the new type was put through a brief trial it was clear that it could produce all the performance that was necessary and more.

The North British monster had three 457 x 660 mm cylinders, each with its own independent valve gear, driving coupled wheels 2 metres in diameter. The huge boiler was pitched some 2.8 metres above the track and the size of the smokebox resulted in an exceptionally short chimney that was only around 180 mm high, even though the overall height of the locomotive was more than 4 metres. This, and the fact that it was coupled to the standard Midland form of coal tender, which was much narrower than the cab, gave the new engine an appearance that most people agreed was more striking than handsome, but which was certainly easily recognised and gave an immediate impression of tremendous, brute power.

The train that this locomotive was to draw was the famous 10 a.m. from Euston to Glasgow, retimed to make no passenger stops anywhere. It was a distance of almost 500 kilometres, the longest non-stop passenger run in the world, and it included a haul of 420 tons over such well known climbs as Shap Fell. It was a task that up till then had been accomplished by using two engines coupled together, and to launch a brand new design on such a task with a minimum of trial was asking for trouble, but that was what the L.M.S. did.

Looking back, the company probably had very little alternative, because it already had a deadly rival, the Flying Scotsman on the East coast route, and something dramatic had to be done if valuable business was not to be lost. So the new schedule for the Royal Scot train came into effect on 26th September, 1927, and the locomotives designed for it were naturally enough called the Royal Scot class. Nobody was to know at the time that they had hit on a name that was to go down in railway history.

There are some famous machines that through genius or luck are made right first time, but oddly enough the Royal Scot was not one of them, although fortunately the faults that showed themselves were not ones that were easily spotted by the public. If they had been the result would have been disastrous, because the Royal Scot, the crack train of the Royal Mail to Scotland, was put into service with a tremendous fanfare of publicity. The first 25 engines were all given regimental names, and the name of each locomotive was displayed on a special plate.

Handled by picked crews, the Royal Scots did well from the start, but they soon proved to need a lot of skilled maintenance and, as time passed, a vast amount of fuel. Brand new, a Royal Scot would cover the London to Scotland run on only a little over 5 tons of coal, but after only two years of service the same engine was likely to gulp down almost double that amount. Similarly, the manganese bronze axle boxes proved unequal to the strain put upon them by the sideways thrust of a heavy train travelling at continuous high speed.

The problem of high coal consumption was solved by designing new rings for the piston valve heads and a steel casting for the axle boxes. But a more serious problem arose in 1931 when one of the Royal Scots was involved in a serious accident at Leighton Buzzard, when the train entered a crossover at three times the regulation speed, ran off the rails and overturned. Both the driver and his fireman were killed, as well as a dining car steward and three passengers. But why? The crew was highly experienced and the maximum speed of 32 km/h had been clearly posted. What could have possessed them to ignore such a vital warning?

The enquiry that followed brought to light a trouble peculiar to locomotives having large boilers and short chimneys, which was that exhaust steam clung to the boiler barrel and beat down into the cab. The reason why the driver had ignored the speed restriction was simply that he hadn’t been able to see it, and in consequence all Royal Scots were immediately fitted with their characteristic smoke deflectors.

After that the Royal Scots settled down to make history until the last days of British rail steam. Nobody has ever tried to prove from statistics that they were the biggest, fastest, most powerful or even the most magnificent steam locomotives ever built, but they managed to make it known that they were the best. What gave them this special quality? Possibly it was their appearance as much as anything else, for even people who were not normally interested in railways found themselves recognising a Scot in full flight at close on 160 km/h.

On the occasion of the Chicago Exhibition a Royal Scot crossed the Atlantic to take part, and afterwards it travelled over 17,000 kilometres of American railroad, in the course of which it was admired by well over 1 million people.

Today, the only Royal Scots to be seen are in railway museums, because the last of them was retired in the late 1960s. There must be many railway enthusiasts who wish they could see and hear one of them at full speed again!

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