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"The National Railway Museum" by Andrew McLean: Edinburgh meeting of 20 March 2018.

Andrew McLeand

Andrew McLean

© John Yellowlees, 2018

Being the son of former BR and Virgin Trains public affairs manager Allan McLean, Andrew grew up in a railway household before commencing his curatorial career in the distilling industry from which he moved to the Marquess of Bute's home at Mount Stuart and then the National Trust in the north east of England.

As a child Andrew attended with his dad the opening of the National Railway Museum, which is now a member of the Science Museum Group along with the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and the enormous library and archive at Wroughton near Swindon.

As befits the country that gave railways to the world, NRM boats the world's greatest railway collection, and had its origins in one created by the North Eastern Railway and opened in 1927 at Queen Street in York to mark the centenary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Kept going with contributions from other railways including the Great Western's City of Truro in the 1930s, the York museum was joined after nationalisation by the British Transport Commission's Museum of British Transport at Clapham in London to which went items like the Euston clock.

Dr Beeching wanted the British Railways Board divested of any interest in railway relics, and in the face of a campaign led by Lord Montagu of Bealieu to keep a combined museum in London the Labour Government's arts minister Jennie Lee took the decision to site the new National Railway Museum in York, the first national collection to be located in the north of England, where it would compliment the city's other attractions including the Minster. The steam locomotive shed whose roof had taken a direct hit in the Second World War was thus converted to the new museum's Great Hall in time for the Stockton & Darlington's 150th anniversary on 27 September 1975.

Soon the new NRM was being emulated in other countries, and the Japanese national railway museum in Tokyo is an exact copy. The adjoining diesel shed was converted in the 1980s to become the Open Store, housing most of the Museum's twelve thousand items, and Locomotion opened in 2004 at the place where railways began, Shildon the starting-point of the Stockton & Darlington railway where Timothy Hackworth built Rocket rival Sans Pareil and the site of a wagon works provided new storage which passed from Durham County Council into Science Museum ownership only last year.

The wartime damage came back to haunt the Museum when the replacement roof developed concrete cancer in the 1990s, and whereas locomotives represent a mere 0.0014% of the collection, they occupy 95% of the space at York, where development is constrained by railway lines which lock NRM into a teardrop-shaped area. A wider vision is required in order that the present layout of locomotives, located where they can best be fitted in round a turntable, may be replaced by something that is easier to interpret. Thus NRM along with Network Rail and York City Council is supporting the York Vision for a £100M development of the area, which is three times that of the Kings Cross Railway lands. Leeman Road which crosses its present location would be diverted and a new building put up to unite the two halves of the site.

In these new surroundings NRM will be able to interpret its collections according to much clearer themes. The Railway Revolution and Mania will be recalled as an era originating with the Willington Wagonway that inspired George Stephenson and other pioneers to preside over construction on a challenging scale - more died by proportion building Woodhead Tunnel than in the British Army fighting at Waterloo - and will be celebrated later this year by bringing the replica Rocket, surely one of the ten most important objects in the world, to Newcastle, while George Hudson will be remembered as the rascal who damaged the fortunes of people from the Brontes to Stephenson. Victorian Wonders will show how achievements from Brunel's Great Western Railway to the Forth Bridge inspired the spread of the rail revolution across the world, and Railways and People will mark the transformation of people's lives to an extent achieved by no other invention. Commuter Travel will range from workmen's trains to Metroland, while Leisure Travel will recall mill outings and the spread of day-trips and holidays. Railway Operations will be commemorated in an exhibition of Cuneo paintings opening soon at Hull, and will embrace the harmonisation of time, development of timetables and notices, ticket machines to prevent fraud and the taking of a stake in rival and complimentary modes of transport including air and sea.

Railway staff are represented by the largest industrial collection anywhere of uniforms, while prosthetic limbs made in wartime to get people back to work will be included. Parts of the first Tay Bridge will be included in relics that recall events that changed the way railways evolved, and Signalling will include the reconstructed Borough Market Junction signalbox as well as the clock from Quintinshill, scene of Britain's worst rail disaster - also recalled will be Thirsk in 1892 when a bereaved signaller who had been forced back to work dozed off on duty. Serving the Nation will recall how rail transport expanded markets for products like milk, promoted literacy through the presence of W H Smith and John Menzies bookstalls on stations, and bore the burden of being a common carrier obliged to convey unlikely items such as circus elephants.

War brought innovations such as the ambulance train but also wore the railways out, resulting in changes of ownership. The British Rail era will be remembered not only for Beeching but also for high-quality design and for new products like Freightliner. Railways and Nations will tell the stories of pioneers like George Turnbull from Perthshire who built the Kings Cross tunnels before developing the railways of India, the country which today relies on them more than does any other : Cecil Rhodes developed his Cape to Cairo vision with the tourist potential of Victoria Falls in mind, and when Alice Treadwell's husband died she took over his rail-building contracts. The new nation of Belgium led the way in Continental railway-building, and when Germany followed suit the locomotive Adler and its driver came from Newcastle. The museum's largest steam locomotive has come from China to NRM in a diplomatic spin-off that is possibly more useful than giant pandas!

The Way Ahead will champion the legacy of BR Research in Derby, including the reminiscences of Alan Wickens now in his 80s about his studies of the rail-wheel interface. The Shinkansen on its dedicated high-speed line will be contrasted with the Advanced Passenger Train and its successors which tilt to exploit the full potential of existing tracks, and the work of Professor Eric Laithwaite will be recalled in pioneering Magnetic Levitation which may lead one day to delivery of Elon Musk's hyperloop.

Redesigned around these themes, the Great Hall will be complimented by access to the outside area where steam locomotives are prepared to haul mainline excursions and by an interactive gallery and reconfigured open store featuring the locomotive Ellerman Lines that has been sectioned to show how a steam engine works. By embracing the stories of how railways have developed from early origins through more recent times towards a vision of rail technology's continuing relevance for an exciting future, it is hoped that NRM will win back the role under which it led the way among the greatest railway museums of the world.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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