Social mobility: the power of the Flying Scotsman

The Flying Scotsman came from London to Edinburgh on Saturday, and a friend of a friend posted a video of the train’s progress as it passed through Berwick-upon-Tweed, just short of the Scottish border. 200 people – young and old – turned out to watch it, to film it and to wave. What drew them to this spectacle, as it drew observers all along the route, was more than just a train – it was everything that this train represented, including a powerful vision of mobility and opportunity, questing and journeying.

As any expert in the railways will tell you, the name ‘Flying Scotsman’ has been given to a number of different trains over the years, ever since the first London-Edinburgh train service began in 1862, when the journey took 10 and a half hours (including a stop in York for lunch). The engine that made its powerful trip north on Saturday, however – and the engine that history most associates with the name – is the LNER Class A3 4472 engine, built in 1923, which set two world records during its lifetime: it was the first steam locomotive officially to reach 100 miles per hour (on 30 November 1934) and it set a record for the longest non-stop run by a steam locomotive when it ran 422 miles on 8 August 1989 while ‘on tour’ in Australia.

When this particular Flying Scotsman began its lifetime of service, it represented speed, modernity, power, connection and opportunity for the many thousands of people who travelled on it, and whose vistas, lives and work it enlarged. Now restored after a sojourn in the National Railway Museum in York, the train is off on its travels again, and it carries with it all of these connotations and more – we recognise now, through the lens of history, just how impressive a feat of engineering it was, just how much it opened up the country, and just how its tireless energy (and the energy and vision of its creators and drivers and all those who were part of its existence) affected the lives and prospects of so many. It brought capital cities closer and closer together, it facilitated communication, and it made mobility seem possible and within the grasp of many more. In short, it contributed to the creation of opportunity.

Steam trains – and especially the Flying Scotsman – may now be an object of historical curiosity, but they are much, much more than this. They represent the power of human achievement, and if we are lucky enough to see them, then part of what we experience as they storm and puff past in a cloud of steam, noise and air, is that they touch that part of our souls which is always questing – questing for movement, questing for opportunity, questing for change and growth. And who can fail to be excited by the quest and journey that the Flying Scotsman represents?

The Flying Scotsman earned its status as an iconic engine almost a century ago; it was an age where opportunities for personal and professional growth were much, much more limited than they are today. When we look back, we recognise how far we have come in terms of social mobility; it is heartening, today, to know that we have achieved so much. What the Flying Scotsman reminds us is that we have a journey still ahead of us, and yet it is a journey that is eminently possible and within our grasp.

Helen’s most recent book, Powerful Schools: How schools can be drivers of social and global mobility, was published by John Catt Educational Ltd in May 2016.

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