York is the home of the National Rail Museum (NRM) which is a popular attraction in Britain receiving over 700,000 visits according to the latest data. It is part of the British Science Museum Group and champions the history and innovation of the railways in Britain.
The NRM displays part of the national collection of significant railway vehicles and other items of historical merit related to rail transportation. The 20 acres site is filled with a fantastic amount of railway rolling stock, which were almost exclusively operated in Britain or manufactured there. The three main halls are located next door to the East Coast Main Line in a former railway maintenance depot site.
The largest and most popular railway museum in the UK was established in 1975, with the amalgamation of former Clapham British Railways collection and the York Railway Museum. Its current location is just a short walk from York Station, and the museum offers parking at the cost of £10 per car. Entrance to the museum is free, and it opens daily from 10 AM, closing its doors at 6 PM in the summer months and 5 PM in winter.
The NRM, in cooperation with Durham County Council, operates Locomotion in Shildon. This expansion of the railway museum was only expected to bring 60,000 visitors to the area per year. Yet, in its first year of operation, it saw over 230,000 visitors through its doors.
Activities and Events
The Great Hall
Home to some well-known locomotives from the last 200 years, the Great Hall contains some historic and renowned engineering milestones. You can, for example, climb aboard the bullet train from Japan and learn about high-speed travel on the world’s fastest train system.
Steam Engine Rides
Relive what it was like during the golden age of steam travel. Wave to passers-by as you travel from the South Yard of the museum site, propelled by the Beattie Well Tank. This locomotive was constructed for the London and South Western Railway in 1874 and used to transport passengers in the London suburbs. It was originally numbered 298 but under British Railways, was renumbered 30587 in 1948.
Make Your Own Flying Scotsman
Construct your own version of the legend, out of cardboard. This model-making activity is available over the Easter period, £2 per model kit.
Experience the railway from a different perspective as you jump on board the miniature carriage. You will journey through the South Yard of the site, passed gigantic railway equipment, through the trees and foliage with this ride which is available daily. Rides cost £3, under 2s are free.
Once home to the main goods station in York and used up to the 60s, it is now home to an inspiring station experience. The hall, originally built in the 1870s, currently houses vehicles and station equipment which span over 100 years of history for you to explore. View archive films of station life through the decades take a break in the station inspired restaurant or roam through some of the carriages available.
The Royal Carriages are also found in Station Hall and shouldn’t be missed. Find out what it was like for the Royal family travelling Britain, from Queen Victoria’s opulent ‘palace on wheels’ to the smoking saloon favoured by King Edward VII. This is the greatest collection of royal carriages anywhere in the world.
See how the carriages built for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) were designed to protect the royals during the Second World War. They also have the oldest preserved carriage anywhere in Europe which belonged to Queen Adelaide, consort to King William IV. Royal carriages talks are available daily.
Learn how tons of locomotive rolling stock is turned around, safely and efficiently, with a talk and demonstration. The mechanics of the system will be revealed, and its uses to the railway. Talks and demos are available daily and are free.
The Testing exhibition allows you to discover how the latest railway technologies are created through experimentation and prototyping. This free exhibition gives you a look at the UK’s Hyperloop prototype from the University of Edinburgh, providing a glimpse into the potential future of transportation.
The Highlights exhibition is located on the balcony section in the Great Hall; it displays some of the more interesting pieces from the museum’s collection of over 1 million items. The locomotives and rolling stock are only a small part of the collection, and the Highlights display focuses on the facts and intriguing stories which are often overlooked. The exhibition includes photographs, paintings, ceramics and rare books which reveal secrets otherwise hidden within the collection.
Japan re-envisaged passenger transportation with the launch of Shinkansen in 1964. The Shinkansen (new mainline) project was the first line focused on transporting large numbers of people at high speed and in comfort. Speeds of 130 miles per hour were achieved by the bullet train, and the service was known for its reliability and excellent timekeeping. Bullet trains were, on average, arriving at their destination within 24 seconds of their planned arrival time. The train was donated to the NRM after its withdrawal from service in the year 2000.
Eurostar: UK’s Fastest Train
Learn the secrets of the engineering feat that faced the construction of the undersea tunnel to connect Britain to the European continent. Take a look at a section of the tunnel and the drilling machinery used in the construction to get a sense of the scale of the project completed in 1994. Then investigate the impressive technology of the Eurostar class 373 power car, that is part of the same series that holds the UK speed record, which currently stands at 208 miles per hour.
The Depot is where the operational locomotives are stored between trips. It is a working shed so expect the vehicles not to be as polished or pristine as the rest of the collection.
The Road Train
See more of York on your trip to the museum with the convenient Road Train journey to York Minster. The train leaves every 30 minutes, and the last return is at 4:15 PM most of the year. Adults are charged £3 and children £2 each way.
You can observe the restoration projects currently being undertaken from the workshop viewing balcony. Take a glimpse behind the restoration that goes into making sure that the locomotives and carriages are ready for display. The restoration workshop is located in the North Shed and is open daily.
The North Shed
Also in the North Shed, you will find the Working Railway Gallery to discover more about the work of a signaller. You can track train movements in real-time on the electronic signal display, learn about how a wheel drop operates and view historical archive films. The shed includes a large number of objects from railway history to give you a flavour of times gone by and find out more of the amazing Flying Scotsman history. The North Shed is also where you can step out onto the mainline viewing balcony to see the current day trains in action.
The Mallard Experience
Relive the dramatic sensation of standing on the footplate of the world’s fastest steam engine with the Mallard Experience simulator. Become immersed in the Mallard’s record-breaking journey into the history books and learn more about the people involved to make it happen. This simulator is located in the Great Hall and costs £3 per person.
How a Steam Locomotive Works
At 4 PM in the Great Hall, you can expand your knowledge of how steam engines work with a talk and a look at the inner workings of Ellerman Lines. The Southern Railway engine has been opened up to allow viewing of parts of a locomotive normally hidden. This locomotive ended its service in 1966 and subsequently had its right side opened up to reveal the construction of latter steam engines.
Imagine what it would be like to be a giant as you watch the model railway in action. Their O gauge models travel through an impressive layout of tunnels, stations and countryside across a panoramic display. The model railway is found in the Great Hall.
The Collections Store
Browse through the large number of historic railway items located in the North Shed. Take a glimpse into the lives of the people who used and worked on the railways through the years. They have everything from railway signs, tea sets, furniture, memorabilia, models and much more for you to see.
The Collections Store Tour
Delve deeper into the history on show in the Collections Store by joining a free tour of the exhibits. Fascinating stories will be revealed in the objects on show. From the seemingly mundane items to the rarities hidden within the collection, there are sure to be things to intrigue you amongst the thousands of pieces.
Working Railway Gallery
Have the life of a railway signaller revealed in the North Shed. Learn more about the people and technology which keeps the railway system safe and on time.
For more than a century the Lancaster and Yorkshire Signalling School used a model railway to test potential signallers. Now, this historic model is on display in the Collections Store to show you how railway signals operate thanks to the team of volunteers. Demonstrations are only available on certain Saturdays throughout the year and include operation of the layout, Single Line Token Instrument display and accident reconstruction.
Japanese Bullet Train
The museum is privileged to have the only bullet train outside of Japan. Free talks are given daily to give you more information on how it was designed and where these high-tech beginnings led.
Children’s Play Area
In the Great Hall, under 5’s can learn more about the history of railways as they play. Youngsters can build their own Stephenson’s Rocket as they don hard hats and hi-viz jackets. Engineers in the making can construct their own wood railway design and potential train drivers can pretend to work in the special mini railway station. Younger children can play in the soft pod which features an interactive wall in the shape of a locomotive.
From Rocket to Bullet
Available during weekends is a science and engineering show which reveals the scientific experiments which transformed the way people travel. Learn about Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion and how they affect train travel. Experience the power of steam and the forces at play in exciting scientific demonstrations.
Access to Locomotives and Carriages
Discover what it would have been like to be a driver or a fireman on some of the locomotives displayed when you climb on board. Become more knowledgeable about the working of steam engines thanks to guides available. Currently, there is access to the Bullet Train, British Rail Standard Carriage, Bodmin and Wadebridge Carriage, Tri-Composite Carriage and Post Office van.
The Need for Speed Show
This show, only available at weekends, provides a fast-paced journey to reveal the science behind the ever-increasing speeds offered by train travel. Learn why people always want to go faster and how engineers accomplish these great speeds.
Ambulance Train Exhibition
Discover the untold story of the ambulance trains which took injured and sick troops from the carnage of the First World War. Tour the historic ambulance train to get a feel of what it must have been like for the nurses and soldiers who were transported aboard it. This dramatic story is brought to life with a film presenting the stories of those who served aboard as well as the passengers, in their own words from diaries and letters from the time.
Station Hall is the location for a storytelling adventure for under 6s. The story takes the children on a special open-ended railway journey session that the listeners can participate in.
The South Yard section of the museum is an outdoor area which offers picnic tables, access to the miniature railway and the historic locomotive ride. You can also take a look inside the restored Borough Market signal box which was once the busiest signal box in the country.
The Search Engine section of the museum gives you access to the specialist library and archive which holds many hidden gems. Take some time, pick a comfy sofa and read from a railway book, magazine or archived file. The section also allows for deeper research to help you find that answer to the rail-related question you’ve always wanted to know.
The NRM holds around 100 rail vehicles at any one time out of the total of approximately 280 in the national collection. The other 180 vehicles are dispersed between Locomotion at Shildon and other heritage museums nationwide. The oldest vehicles in the collection are wagonway carts from around 1815.
Some of the permanent displays include a royal train collection, with examples from Queen Victoria all the way up to carriages used by the present Queen during the 70s. Other notable vehicles found in the York facility include the Furness Railway No.3 “Old Coppernob” from 1846, the LNER Class A3 Flying Scotsman, its more modern looking streamlined sister Class A4 Mallard, and the Princess Coronation Class Duchess of Hamilton.
Also found in the museum’s collection are a few examples of imported locomotives and carriages. The Class KF7 from China was donated in 1981 and the Wagon-Lits sleeping carriage which arrived in 1980. The 0 Series Shinkansen from Japan was donated by the West Japan Railway Company and is the only such example outside of the country.
The rolling stock is sometimes exchanged with other heritage societies, and brand new examples of current locomotives are occasionally lent to the museum for short periods of time.
Other parts of the collection include road vehicles, models of ships, signalling equipment, furniture, staff uniforms, stationary winding engines for use on rail inclines and the Stockton and Darlington Gauntless Bridge among many other items.
The Origins of the National Railway Museum
The establishment of the National Railway Museum traces its roots from plans set out by the railway industry with a large contribution from North Eastern Railway. The state museum sector also led an initiative to commemorate pioneering transportation technology created by British engineers.
There had been a number of amateur attempts at a British railway museum, but none were successfully established.
In the 1860s the Patent Office created a museum which included Stephenson’s Rocket, Puffing Billy and the sister locomotive to Stourbridge Lion, Agenoria. This would later become the Science Museum collection and was housed in York.
Spurred on by the first railway museums in Norway and Germany there were discussions for the creation of a British museum in the late 1890s and 1908 without success.
In 1928, London and North Eastern Railway established a museum in York. The basis of this establishment came from a collection started in 1880 by J. B. Harper of North Eastern. This collection was housed in old station buildings with larger displays kept in former engine repair shops from the defunct York and North Midland Railway. Locomotives were displayed on short sections of track in a traditional museum way, the idea of a rail-served museum was only enacted in Britain with the creation of the NRM allowing for rolling stock to be easily moved around.
At this time the collection mainly featured exhibits from North Eastern Railway with a smaller number from Great Northern Railway. The other large railway businesses didn’t show much interest in the project and it took a while for locomotive representation to appear from the other companies.
The railway companies did show some interest in preserving their history in their own ways, however. Great Western Railway created a small collection of valuable historic objects in a long private corridor in Paddington Station. The LMS company likewise housed its own small collection in Euston Station as well as building up a locomotive collection prior to nationalisation. The Southern Railway had three carriages from the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway. These had been displayed at Waterloo Station, and in York, aside from this, they had no inclination to preserve assets.
When nationalisation of the railways occurred in 1948, there was an opportunity to bring together and establish a much larger collection. The British Transport Commission produced a report to that effect in 1951. The report recommended that the collection build upon the already established museum in York and a curator be appointed on behalf of the Commission. They also recommended small regional museums as well but this never took place. A list was created of locomotives which should be preserved, many of these were located in depots all over the country.
A recommendation within the Beeching Report suggested that British Rail shouldn’t be operating museums. Following this, a campaign was started to create a new museum to preserve the collection. In 1968, an agreement was reached that British Rail would provide premises for the establishment of the new National Railway Museum. This was a branch of the National Museum of Science and Industry and was the first national museum outside of London to be created in England.
The building given to the project by British Rail was former locomotive roundhouse which had been rebuilt in the 50s. Collections from the previous York museum and the Clapham museum, which closed in 1973, formed the basis of the initial exhibition. Finally, plans became real with the opening of the National Railway Museum in 1975.
Museum Developments 1975–2000
Following the opening by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1975 the museum received positive reviews from critics, which led to over 1 million visitors walking through the doors in the first year.
Notable events in this time period included the commissioning of a Stephenson’s Rocket working replica in 1979 and an Iron Duke working replica in 1985. 1995 saw a partnership with the University of York to create the Institute of Railway Studies (and Transport History).
Following concerns with the structural integrity of the main museum hall, the former goods depot across the road, which at the time was used as museum storage, took over as the main display hall. They set this up as a mock passenger station and called it, along with South Yard, The Great Railway Show. After the main hall was once again structurally sound, they continued to use the area over the road and still do to this day.
The main hall was officially reopened in 1992 by Prince Edward. It now included a segment of the Channel Tunnel along with other large structures including a footbridge from Percy Main Station and railway signals.
In 1996, a garden featuring a children’s play area and a miniature railway was established.
Following more structural issues, some of the older parts of the buildings were replaced in 1999. This led to the creation of the Workshop, Workshop Gallery and the Working Railway Gallery which includes a balcony overlooking York Station.
Developments During the 21st Century
To allow for better access between the workshop and the main hall the Museum Inclinator was created. This was constructed in the style of larger funicular railways with exposed workings to show how it worked. This innovative museum feature was unfortunately removed in 2013, thanks to the system breaking and no access to the spare parts required to fix it.
During 2004 a major Railfest celebrated the anniversaries of several prominent innovations. Also in 2004, the Locomotion museum was opened in Shildon, County Durham. This provided more room to house more rail vehicles in undercover facilities. At the same time, the museum ran a high-profile campaign to bring the Flying Scotsman into the collection. This had the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and was ultimately successful with the Flying Scotsman arrived at the museum during Railfest.
Towards the end of 2007, the first part of a new “Search Engine” centre to grant visitors easier access to the museum’s archives and library was opened. This enhances the partnership with the University of York to build upon the research base already created.
During July and August of 2008, the York Theatre Royal staged the play The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. This proved very popular and was repeated the following year. The play was awarded 5 stars by The Guardian allowing performances of the play to be staged at Waterloo Station and in Toronto for which the museum provided locomotives.
2009 saw the museum push for funding to rejuvenate the Great Hall display. An application was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund under the project named “NRM+”, this was successful. However, the project required additional funding and sought potential partners for that, plus an annexe project to create more display room.
There were plans to form partnerships to develop the land around the museum under the title “York Central”. The timing for these plans was unfortunate as they came at the height of the financial crisis, resulting in their suspension. The NRM+ was finally cancelled in 2011 without meeting its funding goals. Despite this, the museum undertook a revamp of the displays in the Station Hall that same year.
The museum decided in 2012 to return home two LNER A4 class locomotives from the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA and Exporail in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. These steam locomotives numbers 60008 Dwight D. Eisenhower and 60010 Dominion of Canada were to be part of the Mallard 75 event arranged for 2013.
The National Railway Museum would have the locomotives for up to two years and in that time would cosmetically restore them to the colours they used previously. In the case of 60008, this was BR Brunswick Green which it was last painted in when withdrawn in 1963. 60010 was painted Garter Blue with the original Canadian Pacific Railway bell as it was last seen in 1939.
In December of 2012, the announcement was made that the long-awaited annexe to the museum would be constructed near Leicester North station on the heritage main line the Great Central Railway.
In 2013 the NRM was hit by a potential funding crisis. There was to be a 10% cut to the Science Museum Group’s funding which was estimated to amount to as much as a quarter in real terms. Plans started to be considered to cut back its operations, bring back entrance charging or even a total closure of the museum. Fortunately, this planning became unnecessary when, following a local campaign, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced only a 5% cut to the budget.
The museum’s website is designed to give visitors a better way to plan their visit in advance. The website is used to provide better access to their collections and archive films of railway history.
The NRM has an app which has been created in association with East Coast, which gives passengers travelling on the East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh the chance to view objects from the museum which are connected to locations on the journey. The app is available on the Apple store for iOS devices.
The Search Engine library and archive service are continuing to make its collection of materials more easily accessible on the website. Some low-resolution copies of materials have been added to the site as well as catalogues to enable researchers to better find documents before they pay a visit to the archive. Photo collections and information is provided for all of the museum’s rolling stock and many of the other artefacts as well.
The members of staff post to their blog, stories of restoration work they are completing and details of preparations for events the museum is holding. They are also available on the National Preservation forums to receive constructive feedback to help create a better museum experience.