The curse of the Flying Scotsman may be about to strike again. Bids are being sought for the world's most famous and most financially draining locomotive.
All its owners - apart from British Railways - have found that the engine makes a massive hole in the wallet. Many of those who have rescued the old engine from the scrapyard have ended up in penury.
The multimillionaire music promoter Pete Waterman, once a joint owner of the engine, declared yesterday there was no question of him stepping in to save it. He told the Today programme on Radio 4: "It's a bit like the Tutankhamun curse. Everyone who's owned it so far goes bankrupt. I only owned it for six months and it didn't half put a dent in my finances."
Sir William McAlpine, the construction magnate who bought the Scotsman in 1973 and co-owned it with Waterman for a time, once said: "I had 20 years of fun with the Scotsman but also lots of expense."
The National Railway Museum in York came forward yesterday as a potential saviour for the locomotive which was built for the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923 and was the first to run at an officially authenticated 100mph.
The magnificent machine is being put up for sale after the present owners failed to win the permission of Edinburgh council to set up a visitor centre based round the engine. Peter Butler, chief executive of Flying Scotsman Plc, said: "Once we saw that our plans could not be put into effect, we decided it was time someone else had a go."
There is also the matter of a £1.5m bank loan which directors of the company are finding it hard to repay. Flying Scotsman Plc declared a loss of £474,619 for 2002 and the company's principal shareholder, the pharmaceuticals entrepreneur Tony Marchington, was declared bankrupt last September. Mr Butler said that like any other commercial deal, the successful bid would be the highest.
Jim Rees, engineering curator at the National Railway Museum (NRM), admitted that if it was successful in acquiring the Flying Scotsman, it would be taking on an enormous commitment. The 81-year-old locomotive needs a complete overhaul every six to seven years to ensure it complies with modern safety standards.
Mr Rees said: "It's just like looking after an historic building. It will need maintenance work to keep it in good condition. It is a huge, long-term commitment and that's why this locomotive needs an institution like the NRM to keep it running as it should for future generations to enjoy."
Mr Rees was among experts who were giving the engine the once-over yesterday before submitting a bid to keep it running on Britain's railways.
Although the Flying Scotsman - or, more correctly, Gresley "A3 4-6-2 No 4472" - went out of regular service in 1963, it still makes occasional appearances to draw special trains for enthusiasts. Mr Rees said the museum's intention was to keep the locomotive in Britain and keep it running on the main line. "Rail enthusiasts worry about it being sold abroad. But the other thing they worry about is it being shut up in a museum and never working again."
He added that if the Flying Scotsman went to York, it would be to work. But to realise that dream, the museum is hoping to galvanise enough public support to attract national funding.
Despite securing £220,000 in public donations, the museum has just two weeks left before sealed bids have to be in on 2 April. The owners say it is worth about £2m, although £800,000 is more realistic.
Andrew Scott, head of the NRM, said the locomotive was part of the national heritage. "When it was built in 1923, the Flying Scotsman was a great technical leap forward. It was the first engine to travel at 100mph, and it was the first rail service in the world to travel further than 400 miles without stopping between London and Edinburgh. As a result, it became famous as an icon of the railway. It would be a great disappointment if it was sold abroad."