IT was The Flying Scotsman that nearly wasn’t – a great crowd-drawing occasion with hundreds keen to see the iconic train make its historic first trip on the reopened Borders Railway.
But a major glitch with Network Rail very nearly resulted in cancellation.
The Flying Scotsman’s visit was arranged by excursion operator Steam Dreams which said it had been working with Network Rail for months to ensure it went ahead smoothly. But late on Friday afternoon Network Rail told the company it did not have the right data to “gauge” the Flying Scotsman – a process which involves checking if it fits within structures such as platforms and bridges.
The cancellation led to an outcry. More than 400 anxious passengers had paid up to £150 for tickets to ride in the vintage carriages behind the former east coast main line express engine.
Network Rail officials worked through the night on Friday to complete safety checks to ensure the train would fit past bridges and platforms, after it was realised the work had not been done.
Little wonder Scottish Transport Minister Derek Mackay was furious. He described the blunder as “appalling incompetence”. The body’s chief executive, Mark Carne, duly apologised and promised a full investigation.
The episode could have been highly damaging, not only for the reputation of the train and the Waverley line but for Scottish tourism more generally. Confidence in further excursions would have been seriously undermined had not the sternest messages been sent to Network Rail’s main office in Milton Keynes where the problem was understood to have arisen.
A high-profile outing such as this for the world’s most famous railway engine should surely have required basic checks to be made weeks beforehand. Instead it was left to a nail-biting emergency inspection at the eleventh hour.
That’s not nearly good enough, and it’s as well that Network Rail has admitted to it.
Fortunately, the event proved a great success, with crowds flocking towards the locomotive as it arrived at Waverley. It pulled out surrounded by a phalanx of camera phones, steam billowing past the windows as first-class passengers dined on asparagus and Champagne. It was a day that delighted children and seasoned steam buffs alike – but a day that because of basic ineptitude very nearly wasn’t.