Coronation Scot – Britain’s Greatest Train?
The 1937 Coronation Class represented the most powerful locomotives that Britain ever built for her railways, and on 6220 Coronation’s first serious outing, she also became the world’s fastest steam locomotive (until Mallard's record-breaking run). So in 1937, it wasn't too difficult to see Coronation Scot as the country's greatest train.
But was it the country’s greatest train ever?
Certainly there were other famous trains. The Flying Scotsman service was sometimes hauled by its famous namesake locomotive, 4472 Flying Scotsman, but the carriages weren't "special", and the attached loco could be whichever suitable engine was available at the time. It wasn't really a train that you could recognise by sight. On the other hand, the Coronation Scot, with its custom-built locomotives and carriages, with the same uniform colour and continuous metallic speed-stripes running along the entire train starting at the tip of the locomotive’s nose, was recognisably a train. Unlike most of Britain’s named trains, it was conceived and built as a single object, with a single identity, colour and design style, from the locomotive’s front to the rear of the last carriage.
In terms of branding identity, perhaps the Golden Arrow may have been in the same league, when it was pulled by distinctive green Merchant-Class air-smoothed locomotives with the service’s "Golden Arrow" motif attached to the loco's front. Golden Arrow also had the glamour of being a connecting service to its continental counterpart, the "Fleche d’Or". But while the identifying logo attached to the front of the locomotive was iconic, it was partly to allow the railway the option of slapping the same mark onto different engines.
The Pullman-carriaged London-to-Constantinople Orient Express easily trumps Coronation Scot in terms of fame, but again, made use of a range of different carriages and locomotive types. In terms of legendary status, the "Express" probably can’t be beaten, but may not be a "winner when treated as a physical train.
The Orient Express’ luxury Pullman carriages also sprang from the American company started by George Pullman, and it was also an international service, so it might be stretching a point to call it the greatest British train.
Other trains in the UK used luxury Pullman rolling stock (the Southern Belle, Devon Belle, and so on), but with a range of different locomotives hauling them, which tends to rule them out as integrated trains, with the exception of the all-electric Brighton Belle, whose luxury London-to-Brighton service was a self-contained train with its own Electric Motive Units (EMUs), and whose additional "normal" Pullman cars were ordered specifically for it.
The Brighton Belle might well have a reputation for having been Britain’s most glamorous or most luxurious train, but "greatness" is a slightly different concept, and the power of the Coronations arguably gives them an edge. If we wanted to exclude the all-electric Brighton Belle without upsetting its fans, we could change the question to "Britain's Greatest Steam Train?".
What about more modern trains? Although more modern carriages and locomotives benefited from better track, better suspension and a higher-quality ride, it’s difficult to think of a post-war train (other than perhaps the Intercity 125) that really captured the public imagination, and recent trains tend to be rather anonymous white objects with side-decals that appear to come from a graphic designer’s pen rather than an engineer’s.
Somehow the 1937 Coronation Scot bullet-train still manages to look more futuristic than trains generations later, and the sheer effrontery and opulence of building a high-speed express train that looks like an expensive gold-or silver-tooled leather book or armchair is still impressive. It would have been difficult to make the train look more expensive short of giving it stained glass windows (like the Pullmans), cladding it in marble, or giving it fake gothic or Byzantine curves, or chandeliers (fancy staircases having been ruled out by the fixed external dimensions imposed by the UK railway network). The 1939 train that toured the US even had telephones by the tables so that passengers could phone the kitchen cars and order food to be sent to them.
If we rule out the post-war trains, and take the 1930s as being the high point of optimism and glamour on the British Railways before World War Two wrecked the track and the rolling stock and froze investment for decades, then other than the Brighton Belle, the Coronation Scot’s only real competition for the title probably belongs to the streamlined trains hauled by the LNER A4 Class locomotives, which to most people is summed up by the name Mallard – the locomotive that took the speed record away from 6220 Coronation in 1938.
Coronation Scot vs Mallard & Co
The LNER’s streamlined "The Coronation" train scored points over the LMS' "Coronation Scot" train in having an end carriage that was also streamlined, in the shape of a tapered "beaver tail" observation car that ran in summer months. By contrast, the back end of the blue 1937 Coronation Scot simply "stopped", and the end car of the red 1939 train had slightly rounded rear-end corners and a set of converging gold lines at the back to form a tail that referenced the gold "whiskers" at its nose, but painting streamlines onto the flat rear end of an otherwise streamlined train wasn’t a totally convincing exercise.
However, the LNER’s "The Coronation" didn't have quite the same scent of success as the competing LMS "Coronation Scot", partly because while the LMS train ran from London to Glasgow, the LNER competitor ran between London and Scotland’s other major city, Edinburgh. While Glasgow was built on trade and engineering, Edinburgh’s business tended to be more towards medicine and academia, and as the Mullay article points out, there may not have been sufficient demand to justify a regular prestige business train service between Edinburgh and London, no matter how good it might have been.
The LMS Coronations were definitely more powerful than the LNER A4s, and while we knew the maximum speed of the A4s, the maximums speed of the Coronations on suitable track was an unknown, even before the class got their upgrades.
The Coronation Scot also arguably beats the LNER’s "Silver Jubilee" and "Coronation" trains because its final improved version in 1939 was where the rivalry between LMS and LNER ended. No other British train company got the chance to respond to the combination of power, speed, glamour and luxury embodied in the 1939 Coronation Scot and go one better, because the outbreak of war effectively ended that phase of train development in Britain, leaving the red 1939 Coronation Scot as the last of the line. It was literally the "ultimate" British steam train, in the sense that it was the last.
So, when it comes to deciding Britain’s greatest train, we think that Coronation Scot probably deserves to wear the crown.
- A.J. Mullay, Coronation v Coronation Scot Backtrack: Recording Britain’s Railway History, Vol 6 no 2 (March-April 1992) pp.76-81