Helping to make Heritage Railway History

The Flying Scotsman is 100 years old in late February 2023. To mark the occasion, there is a huge program of events planned. These include:

The celebrations kick off with a Centenary Festival at the National Railway Museum in December 2022, and gather steam well into 2023. In addition to all the static exhibitions, there will be many celebratory excursions the length and breadth of the nation.

Of course, the Flying Scotsman itself will take centre stage. Consequently, there has been a lot of work behind the scenes to ensure this exceptional piece of heritage railway history is fully prepared. None more so than on the engine – as we think you’d agree, a crucial component.

This is the story of the part played by Precision Product’s bespoke piston rings.

Riley & Son – the natural choice for Flying Scotsman’s centenary tuning

The National Railway Museum partnered with Riley & Son in 2013 to complete an overhaul of the Flying Scotsman. After the restoration, which was finished in 2016, Riley & Son successfully managed the locomotive’s operations for a further two years.

At the time, then NRM Director Paul Kirkman said, “Saving Scotsman for the nation has been a complex project but eminently worthwhile. Since its return this year, the spectacular sight of this most famous of steam locomotives has captured the imagination and been a life enhancing experience for thousands, possibly millions of people.”

With such praise for the work of Riley & Son, it was no surprise that the firm was commissioned to ensure that the locomotive is in tip top condition for its centenary year.

The Challenge is Set for Precision Products

The problem with engines is that you don’t know what issues you will find until you strip them down. That’s a complex job when you’re working on a steam locomotive with the heritage of the Flying Scotsman.

“There’s a lot that we do during annual maintenance work on steam and diesel locomotives. But some work must wait until it’s necessary to carry out, and you don’t discover this until you have the engine in bits,” says Ian Riley, Founder and Engineering Director at Riley & Son. “What we found in our work on the Flying Scotsman this time round was the piston rings were shot.”

Time was not on their side. Having worked together in the past, Ian contacted us at Precision Products.

“We needed to be certain that the piston rings produced for us were of the highest quality,” Ian explains. “From previous experience, we knew that Precision Products would deliver the quality we needed. So we contacted them, explained the situation and our requirements, and moved full steam ahead – pardon the pun.”

But the need for exceptional quality of product wasn’t the only challenge that Riley & Son set. They also needed bespoke piston rings. While this adds complexity, it is something that we are used to doing for our clients.

The final challenge was the toughest. It could have scuttled the entire project.

A job like this usually takes 10 to 12 weeks to complete. Riley & Sons didn’t have this time available to them. All they had was four weeks. Were we up for the challenge? You bet.

Speed to match the Flying Scotsman’s records

In its lifetime, and during its time in regular service the Flying Scotsman travelled more than 2 million miles on the tracks and set two notable world records.

In 1989, it set the record for the longest non-stop steam train run at 422 miles.

But its most famous record was for speed. On November 30th, 1934, the Flying Scotsman became the first steam train to travel at 100 miles per hour.

During its time in regular service, it travelled more than 2 million miles.

We had originally quoted the time to produce the bespoke pistons required by Riley & Son at 10 to 12 weeks. Ian wanted the job completed in four. We sat down, considered the work, and examined our schedules.

We also realised the critical nature of this work.

No piston rings equal no engine. No engine means no Flying Scotsman. We couldn’t allow this to happen. Our railway heritage is part of the fabric of our nation. Besides, we love a challenge. And we take pride in making the impossible possible for our clients.

So we agreed to the four-week timetable.

Then we set our own speed record, by delivering the finished product in two weeks.

How does Precision Products manufacture bespoke piston rings at such speed?

Reducing the cycle time from 12 weeks to two? Is this something of a speed record itself?

We were able to do this because of how we work, and five things that, when combined, make us somewhat unique:

1.      Our staff

We have almost 100 employees working for us in Chesterfield. They are like family to us – experienced and dedicated to the work we do for our clients. With hundreds of years of specific tooling and production experience within the company, and a passion for the work they do, our people are integral to the partnerships we build with our clients.

2.      Our client-first approach

We understand that there are situations in which our clients need super-fast results. The work we did for Riley & Son is one example. The call on the time of the Flying Scotsman is seasonal, and there are only small windows of opportunity to get essential remedial work completed. The centenary celebrations condensed this even tighter.

3.      Our approach to inventory

We took the conscious decision many years ago to maintain a high level of inventory. Understanding that our clients do have urgent needs for bespoke pistons, we felt that we could not work to ‘just-in-time’ practices. So we have the materials to manufacture readily available to us.

4.      We only use quality materials

Piston rings are subjected to high temperatures and great strain. If they become damaged during operation, they will allow engine oil to become polluted by hot exhaust leaking from the cylinder into the crankcase. Therefore, when crafting piston rings, we understand that only the highest quality materials will suffice. What piston rings are made of matters. The materials we use provide minimal friction, high elasticity, and all-round strength.

5.      We manufacture in the UK

When a client orders parts from us, they know they will receive a high-quality, UK-manufactured product delivered promptly. There are three major benefits of UK-made piston rings and metallic seals:

  • Our compliance with BS EN ISO 9001:2015 Quality Management Systems ensures a high-quality product and excellent service
  • You can also be certain that the piston ring or other product you order will be made from high quality materials
  • Buying a product that is made in Britain removes the uncertainty of delivery delays and custom fees to pay

Doing our part to maintain the rich heritage of railway in the UK

We are delighted to have been given the opportunity to help Riley & Son ensure that the Flying Scotsman’s centenary year will be remembered for another 100 years. But what is even more delighting to us is knowing that we have become part of the unseen history of Heritage Railway in the UK.

If you need high-quality, UK-manufactured, bespoke piston rings and metallic sealing rings to get your steam locomotive engine on track, contact Precision Products. We’ll explain how our expedited process can benefit you and your unique requirements.