Businessman who saved the Flying Scotsman

Born: January 12, 1936;

Died: March 4, 2018

SIR WILLIAM McAlpine, who has died aged 82, was a director of the famous family construction firm and managed their Scottish operations for 40 years. He gained deserved fame when he virtually single-handedly saved the steam locomotive Flying Scotsman in 1973. The engine’s future looked doomed after a financially disastrous American tour but Sir William stepped in and proved a most worthy champion of the historic engine.

His fascination with railways led Sir William to construct a full-scale line in the grounds of his Buckinghamshire home. He led many campaigns to preserve and restore – and then reuse - historic railway buildings and their interiors. Sir William was a total enthusiast who displayed a shrewd commercial acumen in both his business career and his work in the railway industry.

He lived in a substantial estate in Oxfordshire which not only housed numerous railway memorabilia - a restored Victorian railway station, the steepest standard gauge railway track in the world and many locomotives - but also housed a variety of rare animals wandering around the grounds. The magazine Country Life once called it "the most bonkers estate in Britain".

William Hepburn McAlpine (known to many as Bill) was born at the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane, then owned by the family. His father was Sir Robert McAlpine, 5th Bt and later a life peer, and his mother Ella. His great-grandfather, “Concrete Bob” McAlpine, was the founder of the construction company and his late brother Alistair (Lord McAlpine of West Green), was treasurer of the Conservative Party and great friend of Margaret Thatcher. Sir William succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his father in 1990.

Sir William attended Charterhouse but left at 16 to join the family business starting at its 30-acre Hayes depot, west of London, which housed much of the McAlpine railway operation. Save for two years’ national service with the Life Guards, he remained with McAlpine as a director until 2007.

Sir William managed McAlpine’s substantial interests in Scotland with a canny combination of sound commercialism and prudent expansion. He did much to rationalise and develop the firm’s interests in the railways in Scotland.

The company had a distinguished record of major construction in Scotland – notably building the Glasgow underground, the Mallaig Extension Railway and the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Sir William also expanded the firm’s interests in domestic and commercial construction.

Sir William was hugely supportive of the Clan McAlpine and its society. He did much to get it recognised and had a meeting with the Lord Lyon King of Arms at a clan gathering in 2004 at Oban. Sir William said on the occasion, “It was a lovely surprise to see others wearing my tartan apart from members of my close family.” Sir William put up a convincing case - the clan, he argued, could trace its origins back to King Kenneth MacAlpine dating from the 9th century.

The MacAlpine Society paid tribute to his work on behalf of the clan and on the announcement of his death stated, “Sir William was one of our best known MacAlpines world-wide and we always appreciated his wisdom and support. He was very active in helping our effort to become recognized as a clan in our own right.”

His name will, however, be forever synonymous with the rescue of Flying Scotsman in 1973. The famous steam engine was in San Francisco on a world-wide tour which had proved disastrous with debts for upkeep mounting. Sir William bought the locomotive for £25,000, paid off what was owed to the US and Canadian railways and had it shipped home via the Panama Canal. Flying Scotsman returned to the UK at the height of winter and restoration proved a rather slow process at Derby.

Trial runs followed that summer and Britain’s most famous locomotive was saved for posterity and remains proudly in service today. It was a tremendous undertaking and not only demonstrated Sir William’s love of steam railways but his determination to see a project through.

In 1985, Sir William founded the Railway Heritage Trust (RHT) which funds the restoration of Britain’s railway architecture. He was greatly assisted in setting up RHT by Lesley Soane a former general manager of British Rail, Scotland, who joined him on the board. The two proved a formidable duo and the architecture of many stations and locomotive artefacts have been preserved.

Sir William is survived by his second wife Judith, whom he married in 2004 at the station on his private railway, and by two children, Andrew and Lucinda, from his first marriage to Jill Benton Jones.