Flying Scotsman – ‘What Went Wrong’

Published 6th November 2012

Yorkshire - Report into the overhaul of the National Railway Museum's A3 Pacific No. 4472

£750,000 overhaul tops £2.6million

Arguably the world’s most famous locomotive, Flying Scotsman was bought for the nation by the NRM in April 2004 at a cost of £2.3million. It ran intermittently until December 2005 (although it was out of action between September 2004 and May 2005 undergoing a ‘heavy intermediate repair’) when it was withdrawn for overhaul. At the time, the NRM said this would take 12 months and cost around £750,000. Flying Scotsman is still not ready to steam again and the cost of the work undertaken has spiralled to over £2.6million. The report, commissioned for the Trustees of the Science Museum Group (of which the NRM is part) to help understand quite why this overhaul has gone so severely adrift, was prepared by the respected steam engineer, Bob Meanley, assisted by a professor of engineering.

“The original budget and timescale for the refurbishment were not based on engineering reality”

The examination of the project by Bob Meanley, a steam professional from Tyseley Locomotive Works, well used to restoring locomotives and operating them on the main line makes fascinating reading. The sentence, “It is difficult to analyse drift in the project because there was no real plan against which it could be measured and new tasks were added to the workload as new problems were uncovered,” speaks volumes.

The report’s conclusions and key findings are introduced by confirmation that despite reviewing many documents and interviews with people involved in the project which involved discussion of over 200 questions, it proved difficult to find details of specifications and estimates for much of the engineering work. Moreover, it had been impossible to discover any original programme for carrying out the repairs that justified the public timescale or budget.

“The NRM engineering organisation was inadequate for the scale of the work”

The report confirms the locomotive was in very worn out condition when acquired by the NRM. To a large degree this has been well known, although reports commissioned at the time seem to have been overly optimistic. The NRM was plainly under pressure to secure the locomotive amid fears it may even be sold abroad, but is found not to have properly assessed the state of its new acquisition following purchase or to have drawn up a credible refurbishment plan. New faults are noted as having taken staff by surprise five years after its purchase.

The report also finds that inadequate attention was paid to detailed examination of the locomotive structure when it was stripped down, meaning serious latent defects in the frames were not detected. This had costly and embarrassing consequences. In May 2011 Flying Scotsman was ceremonially unveiled in York as apparently complete. The following month it emerged cracks in the hornblocks had been discovered, after the wheelsets were removed further ultrasonic tests revealed cracks in frame stretchers, the frames were found to be out of true and a misalignment in one of the driving wheels was discovered.

The locomotive had to be virtually dismantled again to correct issues many thought would have been identified back in early 2006.

“For much of the time, project management was ineffectual or non-existent”

The NRM team responsible for the project are found to have suffered disruption and discontinuity due to illness and staff turnover leading to a “degradation of the project team’s capabilities and knowledge of the standard of work necessary to complete the overhaul satisfactorily.” There were also conflicts between conservation (retention of original material in the loco) and the need for replacement of components unfit for main line operation.

Problems over repairs to the boiler (the ‘spare’ A3 boiler acquired with the locomotive when purchased – not the A4 boiler actually on the loco when it was bought) compounded the situation with greater work being required than envisaged when the contract for repairs was given and significant delays accruing in work being undertaken by a sub-contractor.

The report also notes a number of strategic issues which were observed during the investigation. These included the different kind of organisation and skills required to run locomotives on the national network compared with running a museum, the contractual requirements demanded by the museum being incompatible with the reality of heritage engineering businesses and apparent confusion over the role of a Vehicle Inspection Body (which should constitute a check on work being done rather than the design authority for the work) which seems to have resulted in a lack of clarity over where engineering accountability for the project resided.

Flying Scotsman will be completed – but not in 2012

The report avoids naming specific people (although most figures can be easily identified by the job titles they held) and does not allocate blame – although some ‘posts’ come out of this rather better than others. The objective is clearly to identify what went wrong to learn lessons for the future. Meanwhile, although the locomotive did appear during the June 2-10 ‘Railfest 2012’ event (albeit plainly incomplete) instead of returning to Bury at the end of July for completion as was said to be the plan, it is still in The Works at the NRM’s York museum. When it will steam again remains an open question.

On publication of the report, Steve Davies, Director of the NRM, commented, “I welcome the report along with its findings and recommendations. The National Railway Museum remains absolutely committed to the restoration of this iconic locomotive and to seeing it running once again on the British mainline. Paul Kirkman, who joins as Acting Director on 5 November, will use the recommendations to guide the final stages of the restoration.” Steve Davies left the NRM at the end of October to take up another job, hence the reference to the appointment of an acting director.

The NRM’s immediate reaction to the recommendations was the appointment of railway engineering consultancy firm, First Class Partnerships, to provide independent advice on the most effective approach to completing the final stages of the Flying Scotsman project. The NRM’s Advisory Board has also set up a working group to look at the future restoration and running of heritage locomotives from the museum’s collection. “Until the working group and engineering consultants have had more time, the National Railway Museum is not making any further announcements about any return to steam date, although it can confirm it will not be this year,” commented an NRM spokesperson.

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