Sir William McAlpine talks to Andy Milne

Sir William McAlpine talks to Andy Milne

30 Jun 2006

Few people have proved so consistently popular in railway mythology as Sir William McAlpine.

His name will be forever synonymous with the rescue of the Flying Scotsman in 1973 and the establishment of the Railway Heritage Trust. Well wishers in the rail industry are gathering together to wish Sir William well in this his seventieth year. Humorous, self deprecating and hard working, Sir William McAlpine remains a fountain of common sense and integrity amidst the shifting sands of the modern railway industry. His interest in railways dates back almost seventy years, a cradle railwayman, if ever there was one.

‘I’ve always been fascinated by railways. My earliest memories are of being taken to watch the trains and, when Nanny wanted to leave, saying, ‘Hold on, there’ll be another one along in a minute.’

There was a railway near the family home in Surrey and young William was regularly taken to see the trains. His interest deepened with his first model railway.
‘My father bought me an O gauge three-rail Hornby electric railway when I was four. It was on a trestle in the nursery. Then the war came along and the house was requisitioned and the railway was packed up. I didn’t see it again for 18 months - it was never quite the same afterwards.’

Dorchester Hotel

Sir William McAlpine was born three years before the start of the second World War at the Dorchester Hotel, London, which his family owned. The McAlpine construction company was founded by Robert McAlpine, Sir William’s great grandfather, nick named Concrete Bob for his pioneering use of concrete in railway engineering. Glenfinnan viaduct remains one of Sir Robert’s most enduring triumphs.

Sir William was educated at Charterhouse school leaving at 16 to get to grips with the family business. ‘I couldn’t wait to leave quite frankly. My father used to take me onto building sites when I was four. There was usually a locomotive connected with the site.’

With only wheel barrows, pre-1914, to move timber, bricks and cement - and concrete - most construction sites would sport a narrow gauge railway to move in materials and take out spoil and waste. Although increasing use was made of motor vehicles this was still largely the case in the 1930s and 1940s. ‘We had over 100 locomotives, used for moving material on site.’

Childhood visits to bustling building sites complete with narrow gauge steam railways fired the imagination. As a teenager he travelled by rail on the steeply angled mountain railways of Switzerland. ‘People I have talked to who are really interested in railways are born with it. It happens in very early days. Maybe there’s something psychological about it.’

Apprentice engineer

The post-war construction boom was a busy time for McAlpines. Sir William worked in all aspects of the company starting his training as an apprentice engineer at the Hayes Depot in Middlesex, a 30 acre site which housed the McAlpine locomotive and wagon fleet.

One day 13 years later Sir William was back at Hayes. ‘I was in our workshops and the foreman said, oh that’s our last steam locomotive, it’s going to be cut up next week for scrap. I said, well, how much can we get for the scrap? One hundred pounds! Well, I said for 100 pounds send it to my home.’ The Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0ST 31 duly arrived.

To accommodate the locomotive Sir William decided to lay a few yards of track at his home at Fawley Hill. This marked the start of a private railway over a mile long with its own stations, signal box and level crossing.

The mid-sixties was a desperate time for railways in Britain. Dr. Beeching had closed down hundreds of miles of now sorely needed capacity. Boilers grew cold in thousands of steam engines across the network as the British Railways Board converted to diesel and electric. Many old stations and sheds were dismissed as surplus to requirements and torn down. To staff and enthusiasts alike it seemed much of Britain’s unique railway heritage was being forsaken for a drab, utilitarian, modernity.

Pendennis Castle

Shortly after starting the railway at Fawley, Sir William, with Lord Gretton, purchased 4-6-0 Pendennis Castle which was subsequently housed at Market Overton in Rutland. More rail vehicles would follow onto the metals at Fawley, including brake vans and wagons, a GER saloon with observation platform and a class 03 diesel.

Over the years a sizeable museum of railway memorabilia grew up at Fawley. A GER railway station from Somersham was rebuilt on the line and a former Midland Railway signal box from Shobnall Maltings now stands sentinel to the railway. The line itself, over a mile long, boasts one of the steepest gradients, 1 in 13, of any passenger railway in Britain.

At the same time Sir William became involved in a plan to save the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway and became its chairman. He now chairs the Dart Valey Railway and the the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch and is president of several others.

Greatest triumph

The rescue of A3 No. 4472 Flying Scotsman from the American west coast and sundry creditors marked perhaps his greatest triumph. ‘I was rung up by Alan Bloom. He and some others had said, we think the Flying Scotsman’s in trouble.’ In fact it had gone bankrupt on its American tour and was becalmed in San Francisco.’

‘I suggested we get hold of George Hinchcliffe who had managed it over there on this US tour and who was a school master at the time. He said ‘I’ll go and see what the situation is,’ and off he went. I paid his fare. He phoned me to say, if you want to save this locomotive you’ve got to ring this man in the morning. Simple as that. I asked myself, do I want a locomotive in San Francisco?

So I said, if I buy it can you get it back?’ Hinchcliffe reckoned he could. Fortuitously he had struck up a conversation with a shipping manager on the plane going over who was intrigued by the Flying Scotsman story and was prepared to arrange shipment of the locomotive home via the Panama Canal. ‘He, Hinchcliffe, said yes, he could. So that avenue of escape was gone! So I said if we get it back will you manage it for me? He said, well I’ll think about it very seriously! I didn’t honestly believe him, that he could get it back but he did.’

Sir William paid off the debt owed to US and Canadian railways, the cost of the shipping and bought the loco itself for £25,000. The Flying Scotsman returned to the UK at the height of winter arriving in February 1973. Restoration works followed at Derby. Trial runs in the summer of 1973 took place on the Torbay Steam railway. Britain’s most famous locomotive was saved for posterity.

Construction came first

All this went on as Sir William continued as a director of Sir Robert McAlpine. His job entailed running the Scottish and North Eastern division from Glasgow. ‘Running railways has always been a hobby with me. Construction came first, meetings took priority, it was always a secondary interest. I have always got a lot a of pleasure out of railways and always thought of them as a good thing.’

To help a new generation understand the magic of steam Sir William ran charter train tours from Steamtown, Carnforth in Lancashire. Later he teamed up with Pete Waterman to take on the Hull Pullman and the InterCity Special Trains Unit, a fleet of locomotives and 100 carriages. The two subsequently divided the company into L&NWR, based in Crewe, and Rail Charter Services, retained by Sir William. They remain good friends.

British Rail chairman, Peter Parker, remains a hero of Sir William’s. The origins of the Railway Heritage Trust lie in Parker’s fury at the behaviour of the press. ‘Peter Parker got very irritated by Simon Jenkins writing articles in the London Evening Standard about the way BR mistreated its heritage. Parker thought if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em and he put Jenkins on the board of British Rail.

Peter Parker then said, well what are you going to do about it?’ The result eventually was the Railway Heritage Trust, a separate company, independent of the Board. BR gave the trust a working capital of £2 million. ‘Simon Jenkins asked me to chair it. It was too exciting a challenge to turn down.

But I didn’t quite know how I was going to handle it. Lesley Soane was retiring as General Manager Scotland and I’d known Lesley for years.’ Soane joined the RHT and proved a great asset. ‘Basically we are a catalyst. The idea was we should attract money from outside. We attracted more money than our budget from local authorities. I was very surprised when we started that local authorities would help BR with stations. The fact that we were involved helped.

Somebody actually said to me, ‘I’d give money to you I wouldn’t give to British Rail!’ We managed to attract income. We could say, yes we’ll put 10,000 into that project while everybody else was mumbling and fumbling. It made them put their cards on the table. Even on the railway there could be lots of departments.

If we did a tour we had the general manager and the architect, the engineer and the estates guy altogether and we could say this should be done shouldn’t it. They brought things to us saying here’s something we want to do. Will you give us a grant?’

A shrewdness and first rate business acumen

One of Sir William’s skills is to get people sitting round a table and sorting out a problem or a project. His affability and diplomatic good manners have won friends and respect in equal measure. However, they mask a shrewdness and first rate business acumen. The fate of the modern rail, industry concerns him.

‘I’m for privatisation on the basis that nobody can run anything worse than the government. Having said that to privatise the railway by splitting the track from the trains was a disaster and I think under the circumstances everybody has done very well. The system has evolved to a reasonable extent. There is a tremendous amount of investment, far more than there ever was in the old days.’

He is a firm supporter of Crossrail and the much discussed north-south high speed rail link. ‘I think we should build it. Obviously we are running out of capacity. These schemes - everybody holds up their hands in horror and says they’re not possible and it would be very difficult. But we built the Channel Tunnel and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.’ Railways need vision, and visionaries like Brunel.

‘I think Brunel was a bad man to the share holders and a good man to history. He certainly had wonderful designs. The engineering came first and the money afterwards.
The status of engineers has completely collapsed. I mean Brunel said, this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it.’

He remains equally supportive of railway staff. ‘I believe the staff enjoy their job. The standards of railway managers are better than their counterparts in oil or pharmaceuticals. I think people from outside bring a fresh approach but they get infected with loyalty to the railway and love of the job.

The railways exert a sort of magic. What’s the point of working all week at something you don’t enjoy? I think in national terms staff were poorly paid across the board. Advantage was taken of loyalty because people loved doing the job.’

Adverse criticism from the media

If Sir William praises railway staff he feels very strongly about the adverse criticism from the media. ‘We tend to knock everything we do. There’s a hell of a lot of things we have finished on time like the CTRL. Numerous projects we’ve built that you don’t hear about.’ Adverse press coverage affects the grand vision. ‘20% of the people in this country want to do things and 80% of the other people want to stop them.’ He points out that the press often does not understand the issues at stake.

‘Peter Parker really changed the attitudes of railwaymen. The grumble I have always had with the railways - and I’ve sat on a couple of boards - is that PR can be disastrous and non-existent I’ve said why don’t you take journalists around and show them control rooms, signal boxes and the railway. Then they see what’s going on instead of grumbling that their train was late. Peter Parker was very good at that.’

Bad press leads to low morale. ‘The attitude was, well we’re going to be criticised. Anybody can run the railway better than you do! I think since privatisation public relations have been much better. I mean people are quite nice about GNER now aren’t they? You just have to keep bashing on don’t you? The amazing thing is that railway PR from 1923 to 1939 was brilliant. But it was always about crack trains like the Coronation Scot. The rest of the system was pretty ordinary.’

Fairbridge Trust

Sir William’s interests extend way beyond railways. The park at Fawley is stocked with wildlife, including lamas and emus - a bird not an electric multiple unit. He serves as a school governor although, he maintains, ‘I prefer on the job training!’ He is active in the Airey Neave Trust which funds research on tyranny and injustice. He has been mentioned as a possible clan chieftain for the re-established Clan McAlpine.

With his wife, Lady Judy McAlpine, he backs the Fairbridge Trust which helps young people avoid a life of crime. It has a highly respected success rate. 70% of participants do not re-offend. He is chairman of Railnews, coming to the rescue of the title, after BR closed it down, with the highly respected Cyril Bleasdale and Peter Parker’s former press secretary and PR chief, Alan Marshal. The library at Fawley has a compendious collection of engineering and railway publications.

‘Railways are an addiction. Some people keep it quite well hidden. It used to be if I went to a dinner party and the woman next to me said what are you interested in and I said railways she’d turn around and talk to the person on her other side! There’s a tremendous bond. It’s a very British thing, it’s not quite the same in the States.’

What is his best remembered rail trip? No one journey stands out although the network tours of the early seventies remain the stuff of legend. ‘Having my own two saloons and travelling all over the country - which you couldn’t do today - would be the one.

In 1970 there were a whole lot of saloons being phased out. In those days a general manager had a saloon and a civil engineer had a saloon and then there was this edict that they had to go. A lot of these saloons came up for sale and I was able to buy some quite reasonably including Great Eastern No. 1 which has a balcony on the back.

Later on I bought a sleeper out of the Royal Train which has four beds and two full bathrooms on board. You could be attached to a train for very little money. For a comparatively small amount they’d let me attach my two coaches.’

Sir William travelled the length and breadth of Britain from Mallaig to Penzance and Ipswich. He still relishes travelling by rail accompanied by his wife and fellow polymath, Lady Judy McAlpine. Looking out of the carriage window if he sees a toddler waving out of his or her pram Sir William McAlpine always makes a point of waving back.

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