My 10 Snapshots of the National Railway Museum

Advantages: free entrance, fantastic collection of railway related memorabilia.

Disadvantages: none that I could see.

The National Railway Museum (often shortened to NRM) in York has been open to the public since 1975, and now has become one of the largest and richest collections of railway related material in the world. It has won many awards including the European Museum of the Year Award in 2001.

NRM is located in Leeman Road, next to York railway station. There are three main areas open to visitors: Great Hall, Station Hall and Outdoor Play Area. Historically the Great Hall was York’s North Motive Power Depot (an engine shed) which originally had 4 locomotive turntables. Station Hall was the main goods (freight) transhipment station for York and the Works was the York Diesel Locomotive Depot until 1986. Today mainly in the Station Hall there are displays about the historical development of the railway industry and British locomotives. In the Great Hall there is a collection of locomotives from around the globe as well as other items related to worldwide railway history.

The NRM is huge and it has so much to see. An ordinary visitor could easily spend 4 hours there, and a railway enthusiast could use up more than a day. Although I’m not a train fan, I still felt excited by what I saw there. From my visit of NRM in October 2009 I have to say the British people do know how to display their history, and the UK still plays a very important role in the railway industry around the world.

When I write this article and look at pictures I took during my trip many fragments of memory flash through my mind like snapshots. So now I would like to share with you 10 of these snapshots

Snapshot 1: Turntable show

There is a big turntable in the Great Hall. Every day at 11am two staff will work the turntable and explain to audiences how they change the direction of a locomotive. It was the first time ever in my life to see the procedure, and it was completely different from what I imagined. The show is short, but easy to understand, and you really have to see it to believe it is possible to turn around a locomotive.

Snapshot 2: Gladstone engine

It is displayed in a corner of the Great Hall, next to the turntable. I came across it by accident after watching the turntable show. When I read the information panel I realized this engine has a special meaning in history.

It was built at Brighton in 1882 and named after the then Prime Minister William Gladstone. It’s the only surviving British front-coupled express passenger locomotive and is notable for being the first locomotive to be preserved by a railway society.

Snapshot 3: Ellerman Lines

How does a steam locomotive work? To many people it would be a very complicated question; however NRM made it easier for you to understand. They cut a cross-section, longitudinally through an engine named Ellerman Lines. Thus you can see into the three parts of the locomotive: i.e. tender, footplate and firebox. If you are patient enough and follow the introduction numbers bit by bit you will find out what does what. When I finally had worked my way from the tender to front end of the firebox I almost considered myself as a qualified engineer.

Snapshot 4: Cast Iron Footbridge

Historically over 50 cast iron footbridges were used to connect adjacent platforms of ordinary double track stations in the North Eastern Railway region, the first being built in 1891. Today several of the bridges are still in regular use. The bridge on display at NRM came from Percy Main station and is set amongst the engines in the Great Hall. When I walked up the steps I felt I was about to commence a journey, but I was so happy the feeling was more like I just came back home.

Snapshot 5: Chinese Locomotive

This giant locomotive is the largest in the National Collection. The engine was made in Britain and was used in China. Now it has sailed around half of the globe to be back in the country where it was built. I was delighted to be able to see a display from China, in particular when I read the Chinese writing inside the cab.

Snapshot 6: Japanese Bullet Train (as known as Shinkansen)

It is the only Japanese Bullet Train outside Japan and it represents one part of the world’s fastest passenger rail network. It was donated to the museum in 2001 by the West Japan Railway Company. The fascinating thing is that you can climb aboard and sit down to watch TV footage about the use of these trains in Japan. At the time I felt I was on a trip going somewhere in Japan and the train was flying fast.

Snapshot 7: The Duke of Sutherland’s Saloon

It was unusual to have a private saloon on a train in late 19th century. However as a main owner of London and North Western Railway, the Duke of Sutherland owned such a saloon. The carriage displayed in a corner of Station Hall was built at Wolverton for his personal use. One picture on the information panel shows the Duke of Sutherland and Edward VII. Coming from a different culture it’s interesting to see how ‘money could talk’.

Snapshot 8: Palaces on Wheels

This section occupies a large area of Station Hall. It displays Royal Carriages, which once belonged to Queen Victoria, Queen Mary, King Edward V and the present British Queen.

Walk along the red carpet and listen to voice explanations above your head whilst you view the comfortable and luxurious lives that such people lived as they travelled about the UK. When I saw these carriages, which were fully furnished with wardrobes, beds and full bathrooms I thought I was in a mini house instead of a railway museum.

Snapshot 9: Railway collecting dog Laddie

Between the end of 19th century and middle of the 20th century railway collecting dogs were familiar sights at large stations around the country. Laddie was one of these dogs and during his 7 years of work collected over £5000. The amazing thing was after he died in 1960 he was stuffed and returned to Wimbledon Station to continue his collecting career until 1990 when he became part of the NRM collection.

Snapshot 10: Workshop

The Workshop is located on the first floor of the Great Hall. Here you can search for almost any information connected with railways using their computers as well as their extensive library.

There is a very impressive exhibition at the entrance of the Workshop. It shows that since 1828 Britain has exported engineers, workmen, money, carriages, locomotives, wagons, signalling equipment and everything else you need to build and run a railway. So far Britain has laid enough rails to circle the globe twice. It has exported over 45000 locomotives and still earns millions from railway exports. I was surprised with what I read as I know these days that Japan and Germany are the leaders of railway development.

These 10 snapshots were the principal features I recall from my four hours stay there. I know there are still many things I did not see. I’m referring to activities such as: the Flying Scotsman display, taking a ride on the miniature railway in the Outdoor Play Area or a visit to The Works where an interactive gallery offers a live link to York station’s electronic signal box and the chance to catch a glimpse of trains on the real railway. I left the museum telling myself I must visit NRM again one day.

Last but not least don’t be surprised when I tell you NRM is FREE! The museum is open daily from 10am to 6pm (except Christmas day). You can also find a locker to store your personal items while you enjoy your visit. When you feel tired you can always find a seat to take a break on this spacious site. By the way there is a restaurant in the Station Hall and a cafĂ© in the Great Hall too.

Summary: The National Railway Museum is definitely worth your visit.