National Railway Museum

This article is about the British National Railway Museum. For other uses, see National Railway Museum (disambiguation).
National Railway Museum
Established 1975
Location Leeman Road, York, England
Type Railway museum

971,591 (2011)[1]

Director Paul Kirkman
Science Museum Group

The National Railway Museum (NRM) is a museum in York forming part of the British Science Museum Group of National Museums and telling the story of rail transport in Britain and its impact on society. It has won many awards, including the European Museum of the Year Award in 2001. It is the home of the national collection of historically significant railway vehicles, as well as a collection of other artefacts and both written and pictorial records.


The National Railway Museum in York displays a collection of over 100 locomotives and nearly 300 other items of rolling stock, virtually all of which either ran on the railways of Great Britain or were built there. Also on the 20 acres (8.1 ha) site are many hundreds of thousands of other items and records of social, technical, artistic and historical interest, exhibited mostly in three large halls of a former motive power depot next to the East Coast Main Line, near York railway station. It is the largest museum of its type in Britain, attracting 727,000 visitors during the 2014/15 financial year[2] (the largest in the world in terms of floor area of exhibition buildings is La Cité du Train in the French town of Mulhouse, although this attracts far fewer visitors than the National Railway Museum).

The National Railway Museum was established on its present site, the former York North locomotive depot, in 1975, when it took over the former British Railways collection located in Clapham and the York Railway Museum located off Queen Street, immediately to the south east of the railway station;[3] since then, the collection has continued to grow.

A panorama of locomotives arranged around the turntable in the Great Hall

The museum is a short walk from the railway station in York, either on the road or via a staircase from the rear of the platforms. A "roadtrain" runs from the city centre (near York Minster) to the museum on Leeman Road during half term, holidays and summer. York Park and Ride also serve the museum from the car park entrance, on Line 2 (Rawcliffe Bar-York). Admission to the museum has been free since 2001. It is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm from February to November and 10am to 5pm during the winter months.

Locomotion – the National Railway Museum in Shildon, County Durham was opened in October 2004 and is operated by the NRM in conjunction with Durham County Council.[4] It houses more of the National Collection in a new building and a historic site around the former workshop of Timothy Hackworth and in the most recent full year for which figures have been published (2011–2012), it attracted more than 210,000 visitors.

National Collection

Mallard record plate

There are approximately 280 rail vehicles in the National Collection, with around 100 being at York at any one time and the remainder divided between Locomotion at Shildon and other museums and heritage railways. The earliest are wagonway vehicles of about 1815. The permanent display includes "Palaces on Wheels", a collection of Royal Train saloons from Queen Victoria's early trains through to those used by Queen Elizabeth II up to the 1970s, among them some of the first rail vehicles to be set aside for preservation.[5][6][7] Other key exhibits normally to be seen at York include the 1846 Furness Railway No. 3 "Coppernob" locomotive, and the more modern express passenger steam locomotives London and North Eastern Railway Class A3 No. 4472 Flying Scotsman (added to the collection in 2004),[8][9] its streamlined sister Class A4 No. 4468 Mallard and London, Midland and Scottish Railway Princess Coronation Class No. 6229 Duchess of Hamilton.[10] Flying Scotsman is among the exhibits intended for operation on the National Rail network from time to time.

The museum has imported several major vehicles for display: the Chinese Class KF7 4–8–4 locomotive donated in 1981 was built in Britain and the Wagons-Lits sleeping car donated in 1980 had been used on the Paris-London Night Ferry service. The single exception to the rule of exhibits associated with Britain is the Japanese 0 Series Shinkansen leading vehicle which was donated to the museum by the West Japan Railway Company in 2001 and which now forms part of an award-winning display, and is the only Shinkansen vehicle on exhibit outside Japan.

Rail vehicles on display are exchanged from time to time with other organisations, and examples of new-build stock from the current industry sometimes visit the museum for short periods.

Other physically large exhibits are the Stockton and Darlington Railway Gaunless Bridge and several stationary winding engines used on railway inclines.

The many other two and three-dimensional elements of the collection include signalling equipment, road vehicles, ship models, posters, drawings and other artwork,[11] tickets, nameplates, staff uniforms, clocks, watches, furniture and equipment from railway companies' hotels, refreshment rooms and offices (including company seals) and a wide range of models, some of which are operated on the museum's O scale model railway (originated in 1982).[12]

Search Engine

The National Railway Museum holds a large open library and archive of railway related material. This includes an internationally significant collection of locomotive and rolling stock engineering drawings from railway works and independent manufacturing companies. Copies of many of these engineering drawings are sold to the heritage railway movement to assist with their new build locomotive and restoration projects. They are also sold to modellers who can use the drawing to produce accurate scale models. The library holds more than 20,000 books[13] and 800 journals of which around 300 are active.[14] The archive also holds a large collection of technical and test records, as well as timetables including a large number of Bradshaw timetables. The archives also hold some 1.75 million photographs covering the earliest era of photography to the modern day.[15] These include official collections from railway companies and collections from enthusiasts like Eric Treacy and H. Gordon Tidey.[16][17][18][19]

In 1999/2000 the Museum began to collect recordings of former railway staff for a National Archive of Railway Oral History. It also holds the archive of steam train recordings by Peter Handford.[20] In 2009 The Forsythe Collection[21] of travel and transport ephemera was acquired for the collection.[22] Many of the museum's artworks and posters can also be viewed through Search Engine although these are now displayed in a series of temporary exhibitions in the museum's new art gallery which opened in 2011.[23]

The Search Engine facility opened in late 2007 and is open from 10:00 to 17:30 Wednesday to Saturday. The archive and library collections can be viewed by anyone without an appointment although the website recommends pre-booking archive materials at least 24 hours in advance. The majority of its collections have been listed on its website for people to view what materials are available prior to their visit. For those people that cannot visit the museum itself there is a research service offered by the museum called Inreach.


Although there had been amateur attempts to establish a national railway museum from the late 19th century, the National Collection today results from the fusion of two long-running official initiatives. One was led by the State museums sector, evidencing pioneering technology, and the other by the railway industry, in which the key contribution came from the North Eastern Railway as successors to the historic Stockton and Darlington Railway.

What became the Science Museum collection was begun in the 1860s by the Patent Office,[24] whose museum included such early relics as Puffing Billy, Stephenson’s Rocket and Agenoria (sister locomotive to Stourbridge Lion), which was outhoused to York at an early date.

Preservation of redundant equipment by the railway companies themselves was a matter of chance. Sometimes relics were stored in company workshops and offices and some were destroyed as circumstances changed. Where put on public display at all the equipment was usually mounted on railway stations in a case or on a plinth. Coppernob at Barrow-in-Furness, Derwent and Locomotion at Darlington and Tiny at Newton Abbot were long-lived examples of this form of display.

The first railway museums were opened at Hamar in Norway (1896)[25] and Nuremberg in Germany (1899). These inspired talk of doing the same in Britain, both in the 1890s and again in 1908,[26] but this came to nothing at that time. Indeed, two of the Great Western Railway’s earliest broad-gauge locomotives, North Star and Lord of the Isles, which had been set aside at Swindon Works, were cut up in 1906 for lack of space and several other relics were similarly lost in subsequent years.[27]

From 1880, J. B. Harper of the North Eastern had been collecting material much of which was exhibited on the occasion of the S.& D.R. centenary in 1925;[28] and which then formed the basis of a museum opened at York by the London and North Eastern Railway in 1928 under the curatorship of E. M. Bywell.

The smaller exhibits were housed in the old station buildings and the rolling stock and other large exhibits in the former locomotive erecting and repair shops of the old York and North Midland Railway (demolished after the museum closed).[29][30][31] Despite this however, the locomotives were displayed on short lengths of track acting as plinths, very much in traditional museum style. It was only when the NRM was formed that Britain acquired a rail-served railway museum where large exhibits could come and go with ease.

The collection was dominated by items from the North Eastern Railway, together with Great Northern Railway items. The other three ‘Big Four’ railway companies showed little interest in contributing to the LNER’s initiative, though eventually one locomotive representative of each did find its way there: the Great Western's City of Truro, London and North Western Railway Columbine and London, Brighton and South Coast Railway B1 Class Gladstone.

The GWR assembled a valuable collection of small objects, mounted privately in a long corridor at Paddington station, and in 1925 it built a replica of North Star. It preserved City of Truro[32] and Tiny in 1931 and Shannon in 1946.

The LMS had its own collection of small objects at Euston. It also began to build up a collection of historic locomotives, which included Caledonian 123, Columbine, Cornwall, Hardwicke, Highland 103, Midland 118 and Pet. Three others, set aside for preservation at Crewe Works, were scrapped in a change of policy in 1932. The LMS set aside one further locomotive (Midland 158A) before it was overtaken by nationalisation. It also succeeded in preserving a collection of historic royal saloons at Wolverton and built a replica Rocket, with six replica carriages, for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway centenary in 1930, and a replica Grand Junction Railway Travelling Post Office.

The Southern Railway inherited three preserved carriages of the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway, long displayed at York and at Waterloo Station, but otherwise had no policy of preserving redundant equipment. Ryde was preserved from 1934 until cut up in 1940; the only other locomotive preserved by the Southern was Boxhill in 1947. (Gladstone was preserved by the Stephenson Locomotive Society as a private initiative and much later (in 1959) donated to the British Transport Commission.)

Great Northern Railway Class C1 990 Henry Oakley, first Atlantic in Britain, at its birthplace, Doncaster Works

The nationalisation of British transport in 1948 gave the opportunity for a more consolidated approach and a report was produced by the British Transport Commission in 1951.[33]

Amongst other things this recommended a curator be appointed for the Commission’s holdings (John M. Scholes), retention of the York museum, creation of other regional museums (not carried out in the way proposed), a small relics display in the old Great Hall at Euston railway station (done on a temporary basis) and a large museum of collections elsewhere in London. For the latter, the former station at Nine Elms was originally favoured as a site, but what was eventually opened in 1961 was the Museum of British Transport in a former bus garage in Clapham.[34][35] An official list of locomotives for preservation was compiled,[36][37][38] and many were stored in sheds and works throughout the country, others being placed on loan to local authority museums. The 'Steam' Museum at Swindon still displays a large number of items from the National Collection, while the Glasgow Museum of Transport was also indebted to it, although many of the Scottish relics (including NBR K 'Glen' Class 4-4-0 No. 256 Glen Douglas currently at the Bo'ness & Kinneil Railway) no longer form part of the National Collection.[39]

The Beeching Report recommended that British Rail should stop running museums, and a campaign was led by transport historian L. T. C. Rolt and others such as the historian Jack Simmons to create a new museum.[40][41] Agreement was reached under terms in the Transport Act 1968 for B.R. to provide premises to be occupied by a National Railway Museum which would be a branch of the National Museum of Science and Industry then under Dame Margaret Weston and the first English national museum outside London – a move which was at the time criticised by Londoners.[42]

The building provided was the former locomotive roundhouse at York North (rebuilt in the 1950s), alongside the East Coast Main Line. The old museum and that at Clapham were closed in 1973. A Sainsbury's supermarket now stands on the Clapham site. Some items were retained in the capital and formed the basis of the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. Some from York were re-located to the Darlington Railway Centre and Museum. Exhibits from the previous museums at York and Clapham moved to the new site were supplemented by vehicles taken from storage at Preston Park in Brighton and elsewhere and restored. Creation of the York museum was largely in the hands of its first keeper, Dr John Coiley,[43] his deputy Peter Semmens,[44] John Van Riemsdijk[45] of the Science Museum and David Jenkinson.[46]

Growth 1975–2000

Locomotives arranged around the turntable in the Great Hall

The museum was opened by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in 1975. The opening coincided with the 150th anniversary celebrations of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, for which several working exhibits were provided. By comparison with the museum’s predecessors coverage of ordinary passenger coaches and non-steam motive power was enhanced, but a popular new exhibit was ex-Southern Railway Merchant Navy Class No. 35029 Ellerman Lines sectioned to show the workings of a steam locomotive. The new museum received over a million visitors in its first year and was favourably received by critics.[47][48]

Significant events of 1979 were the restoration of a train of appropriate vehicles to mark the centenary of on-train catering[49][50] and an exhibition to mark the centenary of railway electric traction which drew attention to the museum's important collections in this area.[51]

Also in 1979 the museum commissioned a working replica of Stephenson's Rocket for the following year’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway 150th anniversary.[52]

This has since represented the museum at events around the world.

Another working replica was added to the collection for the 150th anniversary of establishment of the Great Western Railway in 1985: that of the 7 ft (2,134 mm) broad gauge locomotive Iron Duke.

In 1990, The Rev. W. Awdry's Railway Series Thomas the Tank Engine books were assured a permanent place in the NRM's collection of historical railway books, due to their role in maintaining children's interests in railways. In 1991, Christopher Awdry chose to fictionalise this event in Thomas and the Great Railway Show, where Thomas (the most iconic of Awdry's characters) was made an honorary member of the NRM collection by Sir Topham Hatt and the Director of the NRM.

Concerns about the condition of the concrete roof structure on the main building brought forward major changes to the museum in 1990. To maintain a presence at York, the former York goods depot across Leeman Road, already in use as a museum store (the Peter Allen Building), was configured to display trains as if in a passenger station, and this together with the adjacent South Yard was marketed as The Great Railway Show.[53] A further selection of exhibits formed the National Railway Museum on Tour on display for a season in the former Swindon Works.[54]

Meanwhile, the main building was completely re-roofed and reconstructed retaining only one of the two original 1954 turntables.[55][56]

It was reopened on 16 April 1992 by Prince Edward, Duke of Kent as the Great Hall giving enhanced opportunities to display large artifacts such as railway signals, a footbridge from Percy Main station and a segment from the Channel Tunnel.[57] The former goods shed display was retained as the Station Hall.

Semaphore railway signals in the Museum’s Great Hall

In 1995 the museum joined forces with the University of York to create an academic research base, the Institute of Railway Studies (and Transport History).[58] It has also since partnered with York College to create the Yorkshire Rail Academy to teach vocational skills. The museum has also provided engineering apprenticeships and participates in partnerships aimed at delivering heritage skills training.[59]

In 1996 the Museum Garden was created incorporating a 7 14 in (184 mm) gauge ridable miniature railway. A playground was also added.

Continued concern over the condition of the remaining 1950s buildings on the site led to their replacement by The Works in 1999. This gave several functional areas: the Workshop, for maintenance of rolling stock; the Workshop Gallery, from which the public can look down on this work; a Working Railway Gallery, giving an insight into current and recent operation including a balcony overlooking York railway station hosting a set of monitors showing live feeds from the monitors at York IECC;[60] and the Warehouse which provides an innovative open storage area, which has proved popular with both public and museum professionals.[61]

Developments in the 21st century

The inclinator between floors

In order to provide step-free access from the main hall to the Workshop Gallery, the Museum Inclinator was constructed. Besides its primary function, this also served to demonstrate the workings of a funicular railway. To that end its workings were exposed in the style of a larger open air funicular railway, rather than being concealed in the fabric of the building as is more normal for intramural lifts.[62] Unfortunately, due to lack of spare parts, it ceased working, and with no plans for repair it was removed from display by August 2013.

2004 saw several major developments at the museum. Several railway anniversaries were celebrated by a major "Railfest".[63][64]

Another took place from 25–30 May 2008 with a Sixties theme. The Locomotion museum was opened at Shildon, County Durham providing undercover collection care facilities for more rail vehicles (particularly freight wagons) from the museum's collection. In addition, the museum had a high-profile campaign, supported by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, to purchase Flying Scotsman[65] which arrived at the Museum as the climax of Railfest.

The first stage of a new centre providing easy access to the museum’s Library and Archives, called "Search Engine",[66][67] opened at the end of 2007.

From 18 July to 23 August 2008, a popular new venture was the staging by York Theatre Royal at the Museum of the play of E. Nesbit's The Railway Children, awarded five stars in The Guardian.[68][69] Following this success, it was repeated in 2009, from 23 July to 3 September, and the museum provided locomotives for subsequent performances at Waterloo International station and in Toronto.

Major plans under the name "NRM+" were made for refurbishing the Great Hall display, for which a preliminary Heritage Lottery Fund contribution was announced in 2009,[70] and seeking potential partners for a further outhousing project.[71][72]

There are other partnerships for development of the museum estate and the land around it (much owned by Network Rail) as "York Central"[73] but the economic situation during 2009 put these particular plans in abeyance[74] although a similar York Central project was launched by the city council at the beginning of 2016. The NRM+ project was cancelled in April 2011 due to lack of success in assembling the funding package.[75] However, major changes to the displays in the Station Hall began later in 2011.[76]

In 2012, the NRM decided to repatriate the two LNER A4 class steam locomotives, numbers 60008 Dwight D Eisenhower and 60010 Dominion of Canada from their homes at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wis. and Exporail in Montreal, Quebec, as part of the 'Mallard 75' event in 2013. The two locomotives would be on loan for up to two years, during which time the locomotives would be cosmetically restored, 60008 in BR Brunswick Green (as it appeared in 1963 on withdrawal) and 60010 as LNER 4489 in Garter Blue with its original Canadian Pacific Railway bell (as it appeared in 1939).

On 8 December 2012 it was announced that an annex to the National Railway Museum would be built close to Leicester North station on the Great Central Railway (heritage railway).[77]

Funding crisis point

In June 2013, the York Press reported that NRM was facing a funding crisis due to a potential 10% annual cut to the Science Museum Group's funding, an estimated real-terms 25% cut following lay-offs and disbandment of projects. The museum was considering scaling down its functions, re-introducing admissions charges or facing complete closure.[78][79] However, following a campaign by local residents the Chancellor George Osborne announced a 5% cut in the museum's budget. This prompted Science Museum Group director Ian Blatchford to announce two weeks later that the museum had been doubly saved he added that had the 10% cut taken place the Group would have chosen to close the National Media Museum in Bradford. [80]


The Yorkshire Wheel, sited from 2006 to 2008 at the NRM, was one of the museum's fund raising initiatives

Some have raised criticisms of the museum, such as that it has devoted insufficient attention to modern traction;[81][82][83] that it was neglecting scholarship in favour of commercialism;[84] or that its photographic collections constitute a "black hole".[19] The museum's response is that these criticisms do not always take into account the financial constraints under which the museum operates:[85] its Grant in Aid from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport amounts to £6.50 per visitor which delivers less overall income than for comparable London museums. For some of its funding the museum depends on money-making events such as the Yorkshire Wheel, which operated at the museum from 2006 to 2008 and visits from Thomas the Tank Engine as chronicled in Thomas and the Great Railway Show. The museum has also suffered a few thefts of objects.[86]

The museum can be allocated material from the railway industry by the Railway Heritage Committee. Because of the diversity of material falling potentially within the museum's collection policy and the problems of caring for it, decisions on acquisition of new items for the collection can be difficult.[87][88] Previously the museum has treated rolling stock as if it were effectively still in railway service and capable of undergoing repeated heavy repairs and restoration. Since being preserved many of the museum's locomotives have operated on the main line, heritage railways or at the museum.[89][90] More recently, there have been moves to less interventionist forms of conservation in some cases leading to some exhibits becoming non-operational.[91]

The Museum's management of the protracted overhaul of LNER Class A3 4472 Flying Scotsman was heavily criticised in an internally commissioned report in 2012.[92]

Since 1977, the Friends of the National Railway Museum have been in existence as a group to give financial and other support to the museum, such as financing the restoration of Duchess of Hamilton.

The 1990 "Great Railway Show" won the Museum of the Year award and in 2001 the museum gained the European Museum of the Year Award. It has also won White Rose awards from the Yorkshire Tourist Board, and in recognition of the several major developments in 2004 was given the Heritage Railway Association's Peter Manisty Award.[93]

Online presence

The National Railway Museum website offers a facility for visitors to plan their visit to the museum in advance. The museum also has a policy of improving access to its collections via its website. It has uploaded some of the recordings from the National Archive of Railway History to its website.[94] It has also created an iPhone App in association with East Coast that allows people travelling between London and Edinburgh on the East Coast Main Line through York to view objects from the collection in connection with locations on the route.[95] The museum's archives and library service Search Engine is increasingly making its collection accessible online by providing catalogues and lists for researchers to search before visiting and adding low resolution copies of its drawing online.[96] The library collection can be searched through the University of York library catalogue.[97] All of the museum's rolling stock and a large amount of other material has also been added to the website[98]

The National Railway Museum also has a presence on a number of other websites. Copies of many of its posters, photographs and artworks can be ordered through the Science and Society Picture Library.[99] The National Railway Museum has a presence on the National Preservation forums. Members and Readers are able to talk and comment directly to members of the staff. Providing both feedback and constructive criticism, a valuable source of information for the museum. Members of staff can usually answer questions when they are not busy and are part of the National Railway Museum group.[100] National Railway Museum staff also publish a blog via WordPress where staff write stories about events behind the scenes in the museum such as conservation work or preparation for major events[101]


These are a few of the Museum's locomotives (listed by operational state, and then by date the design was introduced).

Operational steam locomotives
Steam locomotives under overhaul/stored
Steam locomotives on static display
Steam locomotives located away from York

Heads of museum

Head Served
Dr John A. Coiley1974–1992
Andrew Dow1992–1994
Andrew J. Scott CBE1994–2010
Steve Davies MBE2010–2012
Paul Kirkman, civil servant with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport 2012–

See also


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Coordinates: 53°57′35″N 1°05′52″W / 53.95980°N 1.09771°W / 53.95980; -1.09771

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