Trafalgar Square Post Office—gone but not forgotten.

24th December 2018 was a dark day, even for those used to the seemingly endless stream of announcements about post office closures. It was on this day that Trafalgar Square Post Office last closed its doors to the public.

Once claiming to have one of the longest post office counters in the world, the Trafalgar Square office finally succumbed to a combination of financial, policy and external changes that have dominated the recent history of the postal service. In fact the office had already been severely reduced, in 2001 losing much of its counter space and the frontage onto St Martin’s Place, which rather took away its street presence from the tourist trap of Trafalgar Square itself. It also meant the loss of the dedicated philatelic counter (also selling Royal Mint coins) although replaced by a smaller counter inside. This too, has now gone, though there are rumblings it might spring up, phoenix-like, in Broadway post office SW1, one of a diminishing number of crown offices that seems to be surviving.

The Trafalgar Square office opened on 27th November 1962 and was something of a showcase. And it was huge. It replaced the Charing Cross branch office near Leicester Square, an unsuitable office in Charing Cross Road opposite Wyndham’s Theatre.  It was one of the first new post offices to demonstrate the new corporate identity adopted by the GPO (General Post Office) for its customer-facing premises. Not a great deal of this identity system survives now, but it involved the usual angular metal and glass style, perversely being adopted by many other organizations at about the same time. Externally a stainless steel strip was favoured with lettering impressed in bold red capitals. Internally the latest plastic signage was evident together with the latest fad in typefaces, a modified version of the Clarendon typeface undertaken by designer Stuart Rose for the GPO public relations department (and castigated by another specialist design house appointed soon afterwards).

So proud of its new premises the GPO produced a handsome booklet to mark the occasion. It described all the facilities to be provided, including new features such as posting slots at each counter position and a lower floor provided with a large number of telephones from which (if required) international calls could be made in relative peace and tranquillity. (I must explain that in those days one was fortunate if one could dial more than 50 miles from central London without operator assistance, let alone abroad. However ‘Subscriber Trunk Dialling’ was becoming available in London and was available from this post office).


The GPO was ever so proud of this facility (referring to it as one of the finest Post Offices in Europe). The main counter, with its 33 service positions that occupied most of the length of the office also had a large parcels acceptance area at the Adelaide Street end. The GPO claimed that the counter was as long as Nelson’s Column was high. It was intended that the office operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Taking a leaf from the famous Windmill Theatre, the GPO for a little while used the slogan ‘we never close’. It is hard to say with certainty that owing to some external event the office never closed, but some press photos taken during the dark days of the 3-day week show it fully open for business and illuminated by lanterns and torches.


External view of Trafalgar Square office at about the time of opening. The yellow strip was a contemporary fad used to cheer up black & white images, in this case highlighting the area used by the post office.


Interior of the Post Office shortly after opening


One of the counter positions at or around time of opening. The woman (Miss Mervyn Pike DBE, MP for Melton, Assistant Postmaster-General) is posting a letter into one of the counter slots.

To see this post office first reduced to that of a normal-sized office, was depressing enough. The floor space was simply lopped off at one end to become a posh sandwich and coffee outlet, with a few other shops occupying space fronting William IV Street; the surviving area was little better than a lash up with long-standing decay now more obvious and very unattractive. A visit by the Financial Mail in 2004 found the office ‘a shabby disgrace’, and that ‘it looked appalling, with grubby floor tiles, broken lights and a gloomy interior’. Perhaps this and representations from others who had an interest in the survival of this office caused a rethink. I cannot recall whether this had the slightest immediate effect, but in 2011/12 there was a complete refit which ‘turned it into a welcoming place, busy with tourists and locals alike. Red leather sofas welcome customers who sit and wait to be called rather than queue. The 16 counters are almost all manned and there are four machines to handle postal needs if you do not require the personal touch’, said the Financial Mail commenting in 2012. It was hoped the premises was now secure. It was, for a while, but the position became unsustainable and it has now gone, and with it, its loyal staff. I have not found a date for the end of its 24-hour service but suppose it was during the early ’90s when late night collections ceased at all the main London sorting offices.


Trafalgar Square PO in William IV Street in 2008 after halving of its length but before refurbishment. The machines and shop seen here were once part of the PO frontage.  [Streetview]

I do not blame the Post Office, or, at least, not very much. Like various government bodies it has been a victim of long-term poor and unimaginative political control whose well-rehearsed solution to difficult problems is to put off any controversial action that can be pushed into the future, to reduce budgets (impacting on services and appearance) and to make arbitrary decisions to outsource bits and pieces (for reasons good and bad) with little comprehension about unexpected consequences. These problems are not unique to the Post Office but have manifested themselves particularly conspicuously in this area and with an irritating degree of inevitability (that is to say, some of the ills seen now could perhaps have been avoided).

For example, the Post Office (then known as the GPO) was once a single integrated organization providing postal, parcels, telecommunications and savings services. The buildings were provided and maintained by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, so the GPO itself had little infrastructure of its own except telecommunications apparatus. The Ministry sometimes co-located GPO activities within other government buildings, for example in Holborn the large Board of Trade office called Lacon House incorporated a large ground-floor post office on the busy Theobald’s Road frontage. To me this seems a very sensible approach. Successive reorganization of the GPO resulted in loss of its savings activities in the early 1960s, its setting up as a hands-off corporation in 1969 and the separation of telecoms activities in 1981. At each change, the consequential remnants acquired the property interests required to operate their respective bits of their businesses, central government ownership ceasing. This was problematic. Buildings designed as integrated premises, for example government offices with post offices inside, or buildings designed as integrated post offices, sorting offices and telephone exchanges, became divided up in a way inconvenient to manage as a whole.  The outcome was property in a form that was found inefficient and inflexible in the long term, increasing maintenance costs and making redevelopment awkward.

It is helpful to add to the two dates just given, that the Post Office Corporation became a stand-alone publicly-owned company in 2000 (you may recall it was first called Consignia plc but after howls of outrage—or, in some quarters, hilarity) it was rebranded Royal Mail Holdings plc. It presided over two subsidiaries, Royal Mail and Post Office Counters Ltd. The latter (essentially the high street counters) was eventually spun off and remains in the public sector as its shares are wholly owned by the government, whilst Royal Mail (which collects and delivers mail) was sold off. This further complicated matters of historic ownership.

Taking what became Post Office Counters Ltd, a 2005 report observed that the company owned the freehold of only 23 per cent of its estate, some 130 of the directly managed branches. However 31 per cent was owned by Royal Mail Ltd which, as just stated, was divorced from the Post Office and which, unlike the Post Office, has now been privatized. 46 per cent (256 properties) were leased from private landlords, about two-thirds from a wide range of other businesses or property companies and the rest from individual investors or local government. Seven percent was owned by BT, reflecting the two companies’ histories. At that time, of all the leased properties, more than half the leases had only five years or less to run. Renewed terms, even if renewing were possible, were bound to be on less favourable terms. All in all this was a very adverse financial situation for the Post Office to find itself in. Nor was it helpful that it could not be certain about its own future which did not help longer term planning.

Obviously, the explosion of electronic communication has severely damaged the concept of the traditional post office and some kind of change was inevitable. However, unless it is actually policy to shut every last one of them, then business viability would seem to me to involve giving them more useful work to do than perversely taking it away so that the illusion is given that somewhere else in the government’s repertoire something might be proclaimed cheaper (but ultimately might well not be). 

It hardly needs saying that with the government progressively withdrawing Post Office business, one might even think it strange that anybody thinks that survival at all might be possible. The Giro banking business (created by the Post Office) was sold, much government business such as pension payment is now done directly with recipients. The government is desperately attempting to put on line or outsource everything else, taking away further post office business and making what remains even more difficult to deliver. Yet under government control it has not the freedom to do entirely what it might otherwise like, such as filling the huge geographical gaps left as a result of banking closures. This of course deeply affects certain groups of people more than others, especially very old people who cannot use computers. For this group the Post Office was, and is, crucial and screaming headlines during 2019 that the whole organization was in crisis is not reassuring. It does sometimes make me wonder why Post Offices could not become more representative of government within the local community and perhaps at the same time even provide a third party ‘front’ for the larger banks. In the meantime, nearly all the news is negative. Unfortunately, it is often the case that when ‘in the interests of economy’ services are reduced, outsourced or just cease, the rump that is left, also becomes unviable as it cannot reduce overheads at the same rate and loses the power of scale of business. If it becomes more inconvenient to find a post office, let alone use one, then what is left will become an unusable service.

In the case of Trafalgar Square, we are given to understand that the building within which it was situated was not Post Office property. When built the land was part of the Crown Estate and the building was built as a private development with facilities for the GPO on the ground and lower ground floors. The actual Post Office element was designed by Philip Watkinson (of the Dept PB&W) but I am not sure if he was involved with the rest of the structure. The building in its existing form appears to be life expired and the present owners want to make profound changes to it and alter its usage, apparently with ground floor retail and a hotel (yes another one), roof garden and some residential. The usual sort of thing to delight a planning committee. In the circumstances it is not viable for the Post Office to remain. A banner outside explained the nearest Post Office branches were at Aldwych, Regent Street or High Holborn, none exactly a direct replacement.

A copy of the letter announcing the closure may be found HERE.

Naturally I regret its passing. I was once involved in an enterprise where large quantities of mail had to be dispatched and well recall late night visits to Trafalgar Square where one could buy stamps, had space to seal and stamp a lot of mail and post it at 11pm. It was busy too. Such a thing is now impossible and businesses having such a need get some third party organization to do this. It seems odd that in a World capital city one cannot do this now. Perhaps Royal Mail, no longer shackled by government, might set up its own post offices and use a bit of imagination about it.

Posted in London general interest | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

The London Passenger Transport Area – An Explanation


If I said that London Transport’s original operating area was a consequence of an expected shortage of electricity in London, you might be rather surprised. However, that is what I am saying, so I had better explain why.

Where London starts and finishes has exercised many minds for many years, and even today the comparatively modern Greater London boundary of 1965 is not satisfactory for all purposes, notwithstanding some adjustments of the border. For want of a sensible area within which transport services could be organized, there existed for 36 years an area called the London Passenger Transport Area. This essay explains what it was and how its boundary came about.

Metropolitan Police District

Throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, the want of any definition of London’s border had continually troubled the authorities. A convenient border arose in 1829 when the Metropolitan Police was formed. This boundary was pushed outwards in 1840 to embrace an area roughly 15 miles distant from Charing Cross, and it was often used as a proxy for the boundary of London.

During the early Victorian period, various measures were taken by the government to licence omnibus drivers, conductors and vehicles in the London area, but from 1853 these powers were delegated to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, and so began a system of tight regulation of public transport by road within the Metropolitan Police District (MPD). The police had already been landed with the management of the Public Carriage Office (PCO), to which these new duties were added. The PCO looked after the licensing and inspection of public carriages and cab drivers, including investigating their character and knowledge and the police only lost this responsibility in 2000.


The Metropolitan Police District. This was the area over which police control over bus routes was exerted (and amplified after the 1924 Act)

At this stage the Metropolitan Police was solely concerned with the compliance and licencing of drivers, conductors and their vehicles and, in the case of buses, was not concerned about the actual routes the buses chose to operate.

London Traffic Area

The London Traffic Act 1924 established a London & Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee to assist the Minister of Transport in determining policies for transport provision in the London region (mainly as this affected road traffic). As may be inferred from its catchy title, the committee had a remit within an area larger even than the Metropolitan Police District, and a ‘London Traffic Area’ was defined, by an irregular boundary extending from Welwyn to Redhill, and Beaconsfield to Wickford. This placed the boundary very roughly 25 miles from central London, the boundary itself following convenient local authority boundaries. The Committee produced many reports respecting transportation within this area until its abolition in 1962.

Within the (smaller) Metropolitan and City of London Police Districts, the same Act gave the respective police commissioners powers to act as licensing authorities to control the operation of buses. The police commissioners were thenceforth authorized to establish ‘approved [bus] routes’ between particular terminals and along particular roads and require buses authorized to ply for hire to adhere to the particular schedules, fares and fare stages they supplied in advance. The commissioners could also establish restricted streets over which the number of vehicles was controlled. Outside the MPD bus services remained wholly unregulated.

We must now ask why the London Traffic area was so large. There was much disagreement at the time about the size of this area, but attempts while the bill was in Parliament to constrain it to the Metropolitan Police District failed on the grounds that many of London’s traffic problems actually began well outside the metropolis.

The area was in fact quite arbitrary. The foundations of this Act go back to 1923 when this supra-local government body was first considered by the Ministry of Transport and it was found that there was no convenient boundary to which it could be tied. However, at that time the supply of electricity was also overseen by the Ministry and it so happened that a number of joint electricity authorities had just been set up in the hope that by pooling resources and working together to build larger and more efficient power stations, the rising need for electricity could be met by existing (mainly private-sector) suppliers. I should add that at that time there was no national electricity grid. Because of the way existing power stations were located, and existing transmission lines were laid, the areas needed to be quite large. For the London Electricity District an area of about 1980 square miles was chosen, forming a ring of about 25 miles diameter from central London. The area was to be the responsibility of the London & Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority. A large chunk in the Watford area was omitted from the scheme for some reason, and there were small gaps near Windsor and Dorking, but with those readily fixable imperfections the area seemed as good as any other and was in consequence selected as the London Traffic Area (the omissions near Watford, Windsor and Dorking now included).

The fall of the conservative government in 1923 meant the proposed bill did not get anywhere, but during a transport strike in early 1924 the draft bill was retrieved by the new labour government because the clauses relating to the regulation of buses, it was alleged, would reduce revenue abstraction by the so-called pirate buses, enabling the striking bus and tram staff to get a pay increase (the strike was politically embarrassing while the British Empire Exhibition was about to be launched). In some haste, the bill was pushed through Parliament intact, and the London Traffic Area was created, based on the electricity district and with little time or inclination to think of anything better.

Traffic Areas and Bus Regulation

The Road Traffic Act 1930 sought to regulate the operation of buses throughout the United Kingdom, and to this end divided England and Scotland into a number of traffic areas. Most traffic areas were regulated by a team of three traffic commissioners who took responsibility for licensing public service vehicle drivers and conductors, the issuing of licences for those vehicles and approval of fares and routes—the latter with a fairly light touch.

London (already heavily regulated) was different. A Metropolitan Traffic Area (MTA) was formed, comprising the Metropolitan and City of London Police Districts, and only one (Metropolitan) Traffic Commissioner was appointed. The Metropolitan Traffic Commissioner took over route approval for routes that were not classed as short-stage carriages, such as long distance buses and coaches passing to or through London. The Metropolitan Traffic Commissioner also took responsibility for issuing Public Service Vehicle Licences and certificates of fitness for all vehicles operating stage, contract or express services that operated within the Metropolitan Traffic Area. The Metropolitan Police continued to undertake approval of all drivers and conductors residing in the MPD and continued to apply existing legislation to so-called short-stage carriages (i.e. buses) operating local services along ‘approved routes’.

At the end of 1930 we have the Metropolitan Police District and the Metropolitan Traffic Area which shared a common outer boundary about 15 miles from the centre, and the much larger London Traffic Area with a boundary about 25 miles from the centre. Confusingly, the London Traffic Area overlapped several traffic areas set up under the 1930 Act, but as the LTA was not involved in bus regulation this appears not to have been a problem.

The Arrival of London Transport

This is not the place to set out the history of London Transport. Suffice to say that by about 1930 there was political consensus to set up a public board to which a public transport monopoly was to be given (or in the case of the railways, to be shared). The railway side of matters will be looked at later. But what was this area to comprise?

The London Passenger Transport bill was introduced in Parliament in March 1931. There was much debate about its area of control but the minister, Herbert Morrison indicated that the consensus was the area should include London and the whole of the suburban ring from which the to and fro daily traffic of London workers was generated. The London Traffic Area appeared ready made for this purpose and the principle of adopting it was quickly accepted.

The mechanics of this impacted on other jurisdictions. As first proposed, it was intended to expand the remit of the Metropolitan Traffic Commissioner to cover the much larger London Traffic Area (which enclosed very nearly 2000 square miles). This kept administrative responsibilities simple, with just the one boundary. London Transport was to be given a monopoly in carriage of passengers within the LTA and would be able to operate buses without road service licences. Other operators would be able to operate to and from London but would require road service licences granted by the traffic commissioner and could not carry passengers locally within the LTA (without London Transport permission). However London Transport was to be given powers to carry passengers anywhere outside the LTA if it obtained the requisite road service licence for each such service so far as it operated outside the LTA. The bill proposed retaining the duty of dealing with driver and conductor licencing with the Metropolitan Police inside the MPD, making it the traffic commissioner’s job outside. The bill recognized the difficulty caused by this split responsibility might be awkward and allowed for this to be changed, if needed, to make the Metropolitan Police responsible for driver and conductor licensing within the whole of the LTA (in a modified form this was done)

The Need For Compromise

These proposals generated furious opposition from bus proprietors. Objections centred on London Transport’s apparent freedom to operate anywhere in the country—which was considered unreasonable on several grounds. Even within the LTA, there were well argued concerns about the questionable impact its monopoly would have on established local services in many towns on the periphery of the area, the effect of which in no way served to benefit London but would seriously damage existing interests. The bill went before a joint select committee of both Houses at the end of April 1931, with legal representation for all interested parties. The bus proprietors made their objections very clear. Transport professionals argued that no sensible bus operation would work to this arbitrary collection of random local parish and district borders. Bus operators argued that borders ran through established bus operations, splitting them and making some services (and some operators) unviable. Towns that ought logically to be included were overlooked and those who looked outwards from London were dragged in.

Few felt that the intended boundary was not about the right distance out, but it needed to be adjusted to suit the local transport conditions area by area. This ought to have been no surprise since the intended boundary had been contrived to suit the needs of the electricity supply industry and related to the flows of electric power! The committee quickly saw that there was no particular need to resist accommodating these entirely reasonable matters and within a short space of time, during May and June 1931, London Transport’s architects willingly conceded that a fresh boundary line would be needed in many places.

Working with counsel for the various bus operators, a new boundary was contrived that sometimes followed the border of the LTA, but frequently followed an entirely new line, occasionally embracing additional towns or areas (such as Hemel Hempstead and Tring) but with instances where the boundary was pulled back to avoid areas where there was no strategic reason to serve them, such as the area just west of Woking. In many cases the boundary followed the route of main roads rather than administrative boundaries. The new area was known as the London Passenger Transport Area (or LPT Area) and it was crafted with meticulous care and compromise.

In reaching that compromise different complications arose. London Transport’s promoters wanted to reach certain important destinations, such as Aylesbury, but were content to avoid suggesting that it should form part of their operating area. This was achieved by excluding those places from the LPT Area but conferring operating rights along the key access roads—such as the A413 into Aylesbury and the A40 between High Wycombe and West Wycombe. The corollary of this was that there were places within the LPT Area that formed natural traffic objectives for operators from without, and they were given rights to use certain defined roads without requiring London Transport approval. Examples of these may be seen at Old Woking and in Beaconsfield.

The treatment of London Transport’s powers now needs explaining. The new board had powers to run buses throughout the whole of the LPT Area and on certain roads to traffic objectives beyond this area. Following the protests referred to earlier, the board was not given powers to run services anywhere else.

However, about four fifths of the LPT Area, as now defined, also lay within the LTA. This coincident area was known as the ‘Special’ area and it was within this area that London Transport was granted an absolute monopoly of carriage of passengers by stage and express carriages (or buses and coaches, in everyday parlance). Within the special area other operators were not actually prohibited, but they were forbidden to pick up and set down anyone within that area, though they could freely carry anyone starting outside and finishing their journey within London, or vice versa, providing they had a road service licence issued by the Traffic Commissioner. This was usually self enforcing by either not having a published fare for a local journey within London or publishing the same fare as would apply to the first stop outside London, making it very unlikely anyone would pay it. London Transport could permit another operator in writing to both pick up and set down passengers within the special area, but this privilege was very rarely granted. As alluded to earlier, in certain cases other operators could use certain roads to reach objectives within the LPT area (including special area) set out in the bill (Staines, Shepperton and Weybridge being examples of towns served by outside services in this way).

It was also considered helpful to allow a further degree of latitude in how far away London Transport could operate services, reflecting the possibility that circumstances can change faster than the law can keep up. This was done by giving London Transport a general power to run services beyond the LPT boundary, but only to a ‘convenient terminal’ not more than a mile beyond the boundary of the LPT Area in the case of Berkshire, and half a mile everywhere else. In the case of contract carriages (or hired buses) the distances were five miles beyond the boundary into Kent but ten miles anywhere else. It was not permitted to have a separate fare for such a destination. Equally, other operators were allowed to intrude within the special area without London Transport’s consent, by up to half a mile to reach a convenient stand or terminal.


This map of the new LPT Area (the two coloured areas) can be compared with the London Traffic Area, the dotted line sometimes inside and sometimes outside the LPT Area. It may be seen that although the areas are about the same size, the LPT Area has departed very significantly from the LTA during the course of the bill.

Redefining the Metropolitan Traffic Area

One consequence of this new approach to settling the LPT Area is that the role of the traffic commissioner had to be revisited.  Neither the LTA nor the LPT Area was suited as the boundary of the traffic commissioner’s jurisdiction so the Metropolitan Traffic Area had to be enlarged. The general principle was that the MTA was enlarged at least to the LPT Area boundary, or the LTA boundary where this were larger. However, in certain instances where the LPT Area passed through a town, the MTA was further enlarged to meet a convenient administrative boundary. For example in High Wycombe, the LPT boundary lies in the town centre while the Metropolitan Traffic Area encompasses the whole town.

It may be seen from what has been said that three boundaries had been created where previously there had been only one, and these boundaries might in places run together and in other places zig-zag all over the place and crossing over each other quite incoherently.  The challenge now was to communicate what had been done to interested parties.

Defining the Boundary

An outcome of this iterative method of determining the boundary was that it was impractical to describe it by means of the customary aggregations of existing administrative areas—which could usually be achieved by words alone. Instead, the boundaries were drawn on a huge signed map submitted to Parliament in June 1931, and the LPT Area remained so defined until it was abolished in 1969. The signed map was a composite of the appropriate Ordnance Survey half-inch sheets, trimmed to just beyond the LPT Area, with the coloured boundaries drawn on and legend and title in manuscript. So that the various boundaries were available for inspection, the promoters hastily printed versions of the map for the benefit of parliamentary officers and apologised for the fact that the overprints were a little out of register, referring interested parties to the signed version where precision were needed. To date, no copies of these printed maps have been located.

The true definition of the LPT Area is given in the seventh schedule of the 1933 Act, as follows: The London Passenger Transport Area shall consist of the area comprised within the continuous purple line shown on the signed map (… the map signed in triplicate by the Rt Honourable the Earl of Lytton … and has been deposited, as to one copy, in the Parliament Office of the House of Lords, as to another copy, in the Committee and Private Bill Office of the House of Commons, and, as to a third copy, at the Ministry of Transport). With so many interested parties concerned with the precise location of each of these administrative boundaries there came an urgent need for readily available copies of maps that showed them at a tolerably large scale, and so was born the Ordnance Survey one-inch  sheets of the London Passenger Transport Map.



The label and the key to the LPT Map signed and retained in parliamentary archives. Part of the overprinted boundaries just visible on left hand side.

The Ordnance Survey is the government’s mapping agency and had the job of producing detailed maps showing these boundaries. This was achieved by means of 12 maps at the 1-inch to the mile scale, about the minimum where the boundary lines could be interpreted on the ground. A small section of one of these is illustrated here, showing the High Wycombe area. The Metropolitan Traffic Area is shown green, the LPT Area in purple, and the London Traffic Area in yellow.


Naturally, the need to consult 12 sheets in order to gain an impression of the boundary locations could be very inconvenient and for routine use a whole range of maps were produced at a wide range of scales.


The largest I know of was a special production comprising relevant sections of the OS black & white outline maps at 1-inch scale with the various boundaries and other information overprinted in colour. It is dissected and stuck on a thick linen backing, the whole lot folded in a gold-printed cover. It is absolutely vast and I have no room large enough to unfold the whole thing.

A more practical proposition is the half-inch map. My copy, again specially produced, comprises 9 dissected panels on linen, this time of the relevant parts of the OS coloured half-inch map, again carefully over-printed. Mine is folded in maroon covers. There is some evidence this was produced in-house by F.H. Stingemore. It is still rather larger than the average office desk.



This map from my collection, uniquely has the various areas between the confusion of boundary lines shaded in different colours to aid interpretation. The illustration shows a single panel.


A more convenient size map was based on one of Stanford’s 3-inches to the mile maps of London (mine is dated 1947) and again overprinted in colour. This one is very much an at-a-glance edition and gives a reasonable amount of detail, good enough for most purposes. But there were lots more maps showing these areas and these appeared in lots of documents and reports.


This shows about a quarter of the whole map.  London Traffic Area black, LPT Area purple and Metropolitan Traffic Area green. Just visible at bottom is part of the Metropolitan Police District in yellow. Several roads in Dunstable/Aylesbury areas available for use by London Transport.

Dealing with the Railways

So far as London Transport’s railways are concerned the need for a map was less essential since, being static and well defined, railways coming into new ownership could be described within the body of the 1933 Act itself. On the maps, all railways usually appear in the same form as they would on an ordinary map; any stations within the LPT Area boundary being deemed to be subject to the 1933 Act, whether main line or London Transport stations.

A major feature of the new legislation was the creation of a Standing Joint Committee of London Transport and the four main line railways. One function of the Committee was to manage the statutory revenue pool, already mentioned; the LPT Pool achieved cooperation conspicuously well until the Second World War put paid to it. The original intention was that the pool would comprise railway services between all stations within the LTA, but as events unfolded this became more complicated. In essence, the main line companies were required to pool revenues with London Transport within the new LPT Area, the LPT map clearly showing which stations were in or outside.

However, a difficulty arose where London Transport was authorised to run bus services beyond the boundary. In this event, the same external catchments would then be served by both pooled (bus) and non-pooled (railway) operations and this was felt undesirable. In the end it was decided to include railway stations that were outside the LPT Area where they abutted such roads; these are shown on the LPT Map underlined in purple—see both West Wycombe and Wendover by way of examples. These stations were shown with a purple underline on the official map and the 1-inch versions, but rarely appeared on the small scale versions.

Demise of the London Passenger Transport Area

The LPT area survived nationalization unchanged and even survived the setting up of London Transport as a separate board in 1963. The LPT area even defined a special fares area within which British Rail participated. When the Greater London Council was created in 1965 it was given full responsibility for traffic and traffic planning and the London Traffic & Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee and London Traffic Area were abolished. The London Passenger Transport Area was abolished at the end of 1969 when a new and far smaller London Transport area was defined, coincident with the new Greater London Council area—now the area of the Greater London Authority (GLA). It might be added that when the GLA was established in 2000 the Metropolitan Police District was adjusted to the same boundary and no longer follows the line shown on this map.

The boundary of the Metropolitan Traffic Area was altered in 1983 during wider changes to the traffic areas. In 1984 the surviving powers of the Police Commissioner to grant driver’s licences for buses and coaches was transferred to the Metropolitan Traffic Commissioner. Subsequent changes have seen the Metropolitan traffic area dismantled, the areas south of the Thames and the whole of Greater London passing to the South Eastern Traffic Area, and areas to the north of Greater London passing to the Eastern Traffic Area.

I will leave it to others to consider the abandonment of a plausibly sensible regional approach to transport operations and the creation of a relatively hard boundary so close to central London and cutting across the commuter belt the way it now does. The new, smaller London Transport area suited the politics of the day but it is awful from the transport planning point of view with large towns such as Watford, Epsom, Epping, Brentwood, Swanley and so on being separated from a coherent transport plan for the natural requirements of the area by an arbitrary political boundary (witness Met line Watford Junction extension and the politics of it). In 1933 this was addressed by a flexible approach, a degree of revenue pooling and some common sense. These days there is much to be said for a much larger area for transport planning and the 1933 approach might be worth revisiting.

Posted in British Transport, London Buses, London general interest, London Rail, London Underground, Main Line Rail, Our Government, Road Transport | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Thomas Cook & Son – part of British Transport

Thomas Cook first showed enterprise in the travel business in 1841. Since the company’s recent demise, quite a few bits and pieces have appeared in print concerning its long history. These have omitted a certain amount of detail that I thought interesting and think some of my readers might too. I won’t repeat the early historical stuff which is reasonably well documented already.

The company was essentially family-owned until 1928, when Frank and Ernest Cook, the two surviving grandsons of Thomas Cook, retired. At that time the headquarters was in Berkeley Street, having moved there from Ludgate Circus in 1926. They sold the business to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens. Although Thomas Cook had been under English control, its substantial worldwide interests made the (Belgian) Wagon-Lits company a logical home (at that time it ran many international services).

At the start of the Second World War Belgium was overrun by the invading German army who took control of the transport system. As a consequence the assets of Thomas Cook were seized by the Custodian of Enemy Property in England. There were three Custodians, one each for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and these were set up on the eve of the 1939 war under the Trading With The Enemy Act, 1939. The custodians were to act as trustees of property and businesses in the UK that were actually owned by the businesses and individuals of enemy countries. The intention was not to confiscate the assets, but to hold them in trust until matters could be resolved at the end of the war, perhaps in the form of compensation. This process was carried out during the Great War, though not very well, and promises were given that a better job would be done this time around.

Thomas Cook was owned by the Belgians but was under German control. However the British business, though much circumscribed by wartime conditions, was capable of trading on its own account and it was desired the British side of the firm carry on regardless in Britain and accessible parts of the Empire. It was felt that this could not be satisfactorily arranged whilst in the hands of the Custodian. It would seem that there was a degree of government encouragement of the four main line railway companies to take over the Cook’s business which needed direction from those who understood its business. It took many months of discussion to resolve this but during 1942 a deal had been agreed, subject to the the railways jointly obtaining the necessary statutory powers. The four companies were sold 25 per cent of the equity in Thomas Cook and its subsidiaries for £1 each; the mechanism was that ownership of Thomas Cook was vested in Hays Wharf Cartage Co, a cartage company that was owned in equal shares by the big four railways. The finances of Cook during this very difficult period were slightly precarious and Hays Wharf agreed to make certain financial guarantees to Thomas Cook, and in turn each railway company had to back the guarantee, which caused a little disquiet amongst shareholders and required another Act to be passed. The railway companies did think there was a long term future for Thomas Cook after the war and pledged to keep the existing experienced management in place. The takeover involved only the tourist business and not the banking subsidiary, although the tourist business did operate a substantial traveller’s cheque operation.

In fact Thomas Cook’s logistical skills became a useful contribution to the war effort. A job that arose quickly was repatriation of large number of British tourists and businessmen stranded abroad when the countries they were in were unexpectedly occupied; they also arranged for foreign tourists to be quickly sent back home before transport became impossible. Early in the war Thomas Cook & Son was given responsibility for conveyance of private mail between the UK and occupied territories on the continent, the Post Office being prohibited from doing so directly under wartime conditions. The Lisbon office (Portugal was neutral) assisted the movement to the States and elsewhere of jews who had escaped from occupied Europe. Other offices may have done something similar and this is a part of the company’s history that might be better known.

At the end of the war, the main line companies compensated Wagon-Lits out of the resources of Thomas Cook and agreed to give back to Wagon-Lits 25 per cent of the overseas activities of Thomas Cook (but not of the UK business). This arrangement pertained on the evening prior to the nationalization of the railways on 1st January 1948 and explains how it was that Thomas Cook & Son became part of a nationalized industry. Readers may already know that the railways and all the odds and ends that came with them (which were substantial) became part of the unwieldy British Transport Commission (BTC).

As it happens, Thomas Cook was not the only travel agency finding its way into the BTC. Dean & Dawson was another company owned by the railways, this time wholly-owned by the LNER. Then there was British Holding Estates (BHE); this was 50 per cent owned by Thomas Cook and 50 per cent by the LMS. BHE had hoped to build a chain of holiday camps throughout the country but the war intervened and only one, at Prestatyn, was established. Thomas Cook also had a freight subsidiary, England and Parrotts Limited, which also meandered its way into the BTC.

From 1948, Thomas Cook became a wholly-controlled subsidiary of the BTC ‘not engaged in the principal activities of the Commission’. This meant it operated as far as possible as a stand-alone company controlled by its directors but with (most) shares owned by the BTC. For many years all branches of Thomas Cook in the UK, and many abroad, had stocked main line railway tickets and sold them as agents of BR by the million. We must remember that before the electronic age, and when travel within the UK by rail was pretty much the only way for people to get about, it was perfectly normal to buy one’s ticket in advance from a travel agent. My family did this all the time as it provided certainty of getting the ticket without the faff of going to a station and having to queue. The tickets cost the same as buying them at the station (the agencies got a commission and the opportunity to present you with holiday brochures at the same time). Thomas Cook remained profitable during its time with the BTC.

At the end of 1962 the BTC was abolished and the activities distributed amongst a number of successor boards. Those activities that did not conveniently sit amongst these successors were transferred to the Transport Holding Company: Thomas Cook was one of them. The THC was organized into divisions and most of its activities related to freight haulage by road or the operation of bus companies. In either case the holding company owned some or all the shares but the individual companies (of which there were well over a hundred) were stand-alone companies expected to produce a net profit. By comparison with the vast number of transport businesses, the Travel and Tourism division, substantially Thomas Cook, looked a bit thin, though in 1968 it was joined by Lunn-Poly a ‘reliable’ tour operator (my parents used it) which I doubt anyone knew was government-owned.

However, restless government activity resulted in the bus interests being shifted into the new National Bus Company, and the freight interests into the new National Freight Corporation, both with effect from 1st January 1969. An attempt was made to get rid of Thomas Cook during this process, but the move failed. This left an exceedingly lean Transport Holding Company with Thomas Cook and a small number of other diverse interests, mainly shipping. This arrangement could clearly not be left indefinitely and the remnants were disposed of with the holding company wound up in 1973. During the 1968 debates it was suggested that Thomas Cook was perhaps suffering because of the rapid overseas holiday competition that was developing and that government ownership was something of a constraint to responding adequately to this. In hindsight it is at least likely that whether or not it was a constraint, government ownership was of no assistance.

Thomas Cook was actually sold only in 1972, to a consortium of Britain’s Midland Bank, Trust House Forte and the Automobile Association, as random a collection of owners as one could find. Perhaps more focus was given after Midland Bank became sole owner in 1977. Midland (‘the listening bank’) had its own problems and sold Thomas Cook in 1992.

Some more about the history of the company can be found HERE, with some rather nice illustrations.

There is also some information about the Prestatyn Holiday Camp HERE.

I should add that there is great concern about the records of Thomas Cook which, before its bankruptcy, maintained its own record office available for research. You can see from what I have hinted at about its wartime activities that there is still a great story to be told. It would be very regrettable if the records should leave the UK or cease permanently to be available to the British public. Those interested in such things should keep eyes and ears open about the future of these records.


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The Excitement of Luminous Trains

In the fascinating world of railways there has never been a shortage of ideas. Many come from outside the industry and some of them even have practical applications, for which I am sure we are immensely grateful. Most, though, are not really very well thought through. One of these ideas involved lighting, and my excitement was heightened when I discovered a link with a possible ancestor of mine (and possibly two of them). The idea involved free lighting. Who would turn that away?

It came to pass that one day, early in 1880, the Metropolitan Railway was induced to take an interest in the idea of free lighting. The Metropolitan Railway, being an underground railway was perhaps more interested in lighting than many other railways at that time and I would describe its attitude as mildly curious rather than hugely enthusiastic. Nevertheless, if the idea worked, it might show promise.

The idea was demonstrated in a First Class Great Western Railway carriage that ran on the through service between the home counties and Aldgate. The interior of the carriage was painted in Professor Balmain’s luminous paint; this comprised a mixture of Calcium Sulphide and a particular kind of varnish and on casual inspection looked similar to the white or cream paint normally used. However, during its passage in the open air during daylight hours, the mixture absorbed a certain amount of light energy and became phosphorescent. When the carriage entered the underground railway tunnel sections east of Paddington, its interior surfaces glowed. Reports at the time acknowledge that when it went into the tunnel, the illumination was barely perceptible but as passengers’ eyes got used to the gloom the phosphorescence appeared to become brighter and endured sufficiently long to last to the terminus (topped up by daylight in the open sections). After a while, in the gloom, it became just possible to make out other passengers in the compartment.

The circumstances around all this are obscure. Balmain died in 1877 at the age of 60 and the press at the time explained he had left the ‘secret’ of the paint to his assistant, whose name was A.J. Horne. Horne carried on working on the formula and was able to improve the recipe further. It emerged that Calcium Sulphide on its own is an imperfect phosphor and needs traces of certain other elements to achieve maximum luminosity (these being selected from Manganese, Copper or Bismuth). He established from tests that blue and violet light readily generated a white output from the paint. On the other hand red and yellow had little effect but tended to diminish output. Horne apparently succeeded in making these alterations to the formula and is found a few years later manufacturing the paint from an establishment in Bromley Road, Catford.

I have not established the detail, but it seems that A.J. Horne involved the partnership of Ihlee & Horne, of 31 Aldermanbury, in attempting to raise the profile of the paint and create a market for it. There is evidence of some success here. However the Horne involved in the partnership was a Mr William Cullen Horne (who is described as a merchant). It seems very unlikely this was a coincidence and I suppose he was a relative of A.J. Horne. The man called Ihlee was an engineer, a German who came to the UK as he didn’t like what Bismark was doing creating the nation of Germany from the previously independent states. Their loss, for he was a very good engineer. Anyway, this partnership attempted to ‘work’ the patent and part of this involved holding exhibitions and demonstrations of what the paint could do. The partnership carried out a number of roadshows around the country and sought to gain railway interest.

Ihlee & Horne saw tremendous advantages in using the paint when light was only needed for short periods; they acknowledged that the paint would hardly displace the use of all oil or gas lighting inside railway carriages, but might be useful in short tunnels (though it wouldn’t if there was no time for the eyes to adjust). It was alleged at the time of the Great Western/Metropolitan experiment that the Great Northern Railway had also volunteered to provide a carriage for demonstrating the luminous paint. I have also found later reports that the Midland entertained the idea, and the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, which apparently thought it had more advantage for longer tunnels.

The partnership of Ihlee & Horne was dissolved in 1884; Ihlee found another business partner and I note that many years later W.C. Horne filed a patent for a fly trap involving a phosphorescent compound, this time involving radium, which, being radioactive, kept the phosphor alight, so to speak, even when not exposed to light. The Balmain phosphor was not radioactive.

Although I do not at the moment know if luminous paint was the subject of any more trials, I can say with a degree of certainty that it was not adopted by any railway company as a means of lighting. One can perfectly well imagine why such a system would not be thought satisfactory for general lighting, and the quest anyway was for much brighter lights, achieved within a few years by electricity supplied by dynamos and batteries. Even so, it is worth pausing for a moment why it might not have been pursued as a means of emergency lighting if the paint production cost was satisfactory (originally a premium was charged [it cost £1 8s per pound weight] but the constituents were so cheap that it could have been sold at virtually the same price as ordinary paint).

As far as I know we hear no more of luminous paint for railway carriages, though it was thought useful for a number of other purposes. For an underground railway one might even have thought it went into the ‘just do it’ category, but it did not.

I now need to find out more about these Hornes and whether they are anything to do with me!

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Prisons and the Metropolitan Railway

Whitecross Street Prison

My attention was recently drawn to the plaque in the accompanying photograph. Cunningly designed in the style of official commemorative blue plaques, I noted the building so commemorated before realizing the plaque was not official and that the building referred to would (to my mind) have been in an odd place between the dates referred to. Enquiries suggested this was one of four plaques erected in June 2010 in connection with a street party in Whitecross Street (an interesting and historic old street with a strong sense of local community and still boasting an active street market). You can look up Hedonist London for yourself if you like!

plaque-whitecross debtors

Having been alerted to the existence of Whitecross Street prison, I quickly discovered it was actually located near the south end of that road, unsurprisingly within the City of London walls, in the area known as Cripplegate. That area was flattened during WW2 and the corresponding section of Whitecross Street expunged, a short section surviving as part of Silk Street. I can best indicate the site of the prison as the place which is today the Barbican Centre.


Whitecross Street Prison may be found on this map of London in the centre. St Giles Church is perhaps the  most recognizable of the very few buildings from this time still standing (and this is reconstructed from a wartime ruin), This is from Wyld’s map of London produced during the 1790s.

My interest in the prison was much excited by its association with the Metropolitan Railway. The prison did not actually have a long life. It was designed William Montague, Clerk of the City Works. Alderman Matthew Wood laid the first stone in July 1813 and the building was completed in 1815, intended to be purely a debtors prison. It was designed to hold 500 people in six entirely independent wards, one set apart for females and another for freemen of the City. Those liable to be imprisoned included quite a large number who owed as little as a shilling who could be committed for up to twenty days. This alone was thought to account for 2000 prisoners a year. Curious to say, prisoners were fed at the cost of philanthropists who were allowed to display boards outside, an early kind of sponsorship, perhaps. The defective logic behind imprisoning decent people so they could not attend to their business, making the debt problem worse, was not addressed until 1869 when the Debtors Act put a stop to this kind of treatment for trivial sums and the prison soon closed (the remaining inmates being transferred to Holloway).


Whitecross Street Prison

The Metropolitan Railway was extended from Farringdon to Moorgate in December 1865, the line taking a slightly indirect route to skirt round the north wall of the prison. However, during 1864 it appears that the Metropolitan had second thoughts about whether their station at Moorgate would be large enough to accommodate the trains not only of its own railway but those of the Great Western, the Great Northern, the Midland, the London, Chatham and Dover and, according to The Railway News, the London & South Western Railway (presumably from the Richmond direction unless it was a mistake and London & North Western was meant). To that end, it was proposed to purchase extra land to the south of its authorized line between Aldersgate and Moorgate, including the whole of Whitecross Street prison, powers being obtained in the Metropolitan Railway Act 1865. The Railway News claimed this was because the Metropolitan wished to extend the terminal station facilities, though exactly what kind of terminal was in mind we do not know. The prison could only be purchased by consent, and then with 18 months’ notice to quit, while the existing line was in an advanced state already. In fact the station opened with seven platform roads and with no requirement to serve LSWR/LNWR trains and this appears to have been quite adequate. Notice to acquire the prison site at that time was not therefore given and the huge expense to the company that it would have entailed (which included enlarging Holloway prison as a substitute) was avoided.

The 1869 Debtors Act, already mentioned, resulted in the number of prisoners at Whitecross Street being reduced to about thirty, and in 1870 the prison closed its doors (28 prisoners, including 2 women, were taken to Holloway at the beginning of August but allowed the same privileges as they had enjoyed previously). The Home Secretary designated Holloway Prison as the future home of debtors and on 11 October 1870 ordered that Whitecross Street prison be pulled down and the materials comprised in the old prison be sold.

The Metropolitan Railway arranged to acquire the prison site, no doubt relieved that the requirement to pay for Holloway to be enlarged no longer applied. The Metropolitan therefore found itself in possession of a large area of land bound on the north by their railway, on the east and west by Whitecross and Redcross Streets and on the south by a school and some other buildings fronting Fore Street. Whether the land was bought speculatively I have not determined, but with extension to Bishopsgate and Aldgate in hand and (apparently) sufficient space available at Moorgate it is hard to see any need for the space for passenger traffic. Possible use for goods is more likely.

This rather awkward site soon attracted the attention of the Midland Railway which was keen to have a goods depot with the City and arrangements were made to lease the site from the Met, powers being authorized to provide a connecting line into the depot in the Midland Railway Act 1873. The depot opened in 1874. The cost of erecting the vast new buildings were a £120,000. The works were not completed until 1877 and opened 1st Jan 1878. The Midland had to pay the Met a minimum rental of £2500 a year from 1874. The goods station was entirely under cover and comprised a vast red brick and stone building covering an area of 2000 square yards and having a floor area of 4300 square yards. The main building was 250ft long by 50ft wide and its six floors (including basement) rose 70ft above the street. The Midland Railway’s history offers a further description, as follows:

Thirty-six iron columns, placed in two rows, support the floors, each of these columns being practically continuous from the basement to the tie-beams of the roof; all the floors are fireproof. Hoists are provided, which enable goods to be transferred to any of the floors, and railway wagons, with their load complete, can be raised from the level of the Metropolitan Railway to the first floor. Adjoining the principal warehouse is a large area of ground, covered by six bays of roofing. The roofs are of iron, supported upon columns and girders, and receive light through broad belts of glazing. This great space is for the sheltering of the carts and vans during the times of loading and unloading goods.

A technical description in 1890s explains that there were nine hydraulic platform cranes of which two could lift 50 hundredweight (cwt), five 25cwt and two 20cwt. The two wagon hoists could lift 20 tons each (more than a very well loaded wagon). There were two cage hoists that could lift 20cwt and two jigger hoists that could each raise 30cwt. Fifteen hydraulic capstans could haul a ton each. Five traversers were provided, three worked by the capstans and two by direct hydraulic power. The hydaulic power was stored in two 20ft stroke accumulators and distributed by 6-inch main. The power was created by a pair of steam driven hydraulic pumps and the steam pressure of 100lbs per square inch was created by three boilers. Later descriptions indicate that some of the capstans were installed or converted to electric operation.

A connection with the Metropolitan was made just east of Aldersgate Street station and sorting sidings were installed at basement level with goods shifted mechanically to higher levels. Road access allowed goods to be delivered or collected by road and there was considerable storage space.


This shows the basement plan of Whitecross Street depot, Metropolitan line at bottom. Wagons were moved around  by capstans, traversers and turntables. A pair of wagon lifts connected with ground floor level. North is towards bottom on this diagram, Whitecross Street to left and Redcross Street to right.


From a map of 1895 the arrangement of the interior of the depot mat be seen at street level. Bear in mind this has north at the top when comparing with basement level plan above where north is at bottom. Wagons were brought to and from street level by hoists and moved by capstans and traversers to a convenient point to exchange goods with road vehicles. There appear to be three road entrances from Redcross Street on left. he main warehousing is on right with separate entrance from Whitecross Street.

Within the depot trains were brought into one of the two reception roads and wagons were detached from the middle and moved around individually using turntables and electric or hydraulic capstans and ropes. Lifts were used to take wagons to the upper level for goods trans-shipment. The area on the Whitecross Street side looks as though it was used for warehousing traffic with a separate loading area.


Whitecross Street depot (Redcross Street entrance at west end of depot) in 1929.

Although traffic through the depot dropped over the years, during the early 1930s it was still dealing with about 6000 tons a week. However, there were moves to concentrate the transfer of goods between road and rail to a smaller number of large depots and Whitecross Street lost its direct rail connection from 1st March 1936. It remained open for storage and the collection and delivery of goods and parcels by road vehicle. It was soon being described as a parcels depot. Unfortunately part of the depot was destroyed by bombing on the night of 29th December 1940 during the blitz. The depot was hit and seriously damaged, in the stables 99 stalls were destroyed by fire but fortunately loyal staff managed to extract the horses safely. It looks as though part of the premises was repaired as a 1953 telephone directory still lists the building as a parcels depot, though maps suggest the entrance in use was the one at the other end of the building in Redcross Street. However the naughty Great Northern Railway had many years previously also opened a goods and parcels depot on the East side of Whitecross street (opposite the Midland depot) and by 1938 is found sharing the old GNR building with the LNER instead of maintaining its own office accommodation. This might sound odd as the mantra is that these railways were in competition. They were not. All parcels, much freight and all the Anglo Scottish passenger traffic was pooled and both companies cooperated in order to save costs. Clearly the LMS depot was maintained in the other side of the road until the war ot we would not know about a damage report, but which of these two premises is being referred to in 1953 I cannot at the moment say.


Whitecross Street entrance to the goods depot (looking south, depot on right), after the 1940 bombing raid. Although badly damaged much of the structure remained standing and was not in fact demolished until Barbican site clearance began in 1960.

Whitecross Street Jn

This wartime view, looking east, is taken from the Jacob’s Well Passage (footpath) bridge towards the tunnels lying either side of Redcross Street shortly after heavy bombing. This is the site of the junction connecting the Widened Lines (centre tracks with trucks of rubble) and the Whitecross Street goods branch, which passed through arch on the right. Track is still visible along the branch although trains had already ceased to served the depot.


The City of London Collage collection includes a 1942 picture looking towards the west, showing the goods depot building, surviving amongst the devastation. It is the large building, upper centre, with Whitecross Street in front. Just visible is the Metropolitan Line snaking round its right hand side (bridges can just be made out). Nearest left-right road is Moor Lane, and the Metropolitan Railway (Moorgate) substation is visible beyond, next to railway. St Giles Cripplegate church visible at top left.  [Collage Collage Record No  36618, Catalogue No  M0020324CL]

The old Whitecross Street land remained at least partly derelict until absorbed by the Barbican development in the 1950s/60s. During this work the kink in the route between Moorgate and Aldersgate was removed when the Circle Line and Widened Lines were rerouted a little to the south, passing right through the centre of what had been the goods depot (and under the Barbican Centre).


This 1946 view looking south-east shows Moorgate station towards top left with Aldersgate (now Barbican) just out of shot bottom right. The connecting Metropolitan Line is visible. The wartime devastation is very obvious. In the centre, just above the railway, may be seen Whitecross Street goods depot, damaged during 1940 bombing (roof damage can just be made out and looks as though there was not much attempt at repair). Whitecross Street is the road at east (left) side of depot and Redcross Street runs along west (right hand) side.


This view looks west from Moorgate station and as diesel locomotives are in operation but there is no sign of ‘A’ stock, I estimate the image to be 1961. Little work has yet taken place on the Barbican development and, although the building behind the Whitecross Street frontage may partly have gone, the characteristic sheds at the rear (top left corner) appear intact and may well still be in use.


This view from a crane west of Moorgate station early 1964 shows work having just started laying out the new route to the left of the existing one, looking towards Aldersgate. Near the top left may be seen a lone surviving stone arch next to what had been Whitecross Street. I think this is the base of the tower at the southern end of the former goods depot, the rest having disappeared to make way for the excavation for the new line.


This 1965 view from a tower Crane next to Moorgate station looks west from smae position as previous photo but in following year later. The old Metropolitan route to Aldersgate (now Barbican) is visible to the right of the train with the former bridges at Milton Street, Whitecross Street and Redcross Street, in sequence from camera. The new route lies in the concrete box from which train is emerging. The box passes through the centre of the old goods depot site, to the left of the old Whitecross and Redcross Street bridges.


This 1964 view looks east from the Aldersgate (now Barbican) station end with Circle Line on left and Widened Lines on right.. In foreground is remnant of Jacobs Well Passage and beyond this is the partially demolished Redcross Street bridge. There had been a third arch under Redcross Street, to right of these tracks, which was the rail access tunnel to the goods depot beyond the bridge (see earlier image); the actual junction was in the foreground at Jacobs Well bridge.  Work has just begun setting out the diversionary route which passes through the old goods yard site.

You will appreciate that the old prison was about 400 yards from the rogue plaque and it made me wonder why the mighty City of London has not itself erected a plaque to the prison on its Silk Street flank wall. However, I believe there had been a plaque to the prison on the wall of the goods depot. It would be good if any photographs of this have survived.


Whitecross Street Goods Depot site today. This image was taken looking south along what had been Whitecross Street. The original path of the Metropolitan and Circle line passes left to right roughly where the main entrance is seen. The goods depot was immediately beyond, if you can imagine the road continuing south rather than turning away. The location is therefore slightly to the north of the wartime image above, but as close as I could get.

Middlesex House of Correction

The Metropolitan Railway had already had a brush with the prison business when its original line was being designed. The route devised in 1853 was a little to the west of its eventual alignment and was to run in a long tunnel beneath the high ground south of Kings Cross, which took the route directly beneath the Cold Bath Fields prison (then called the Middlesex House of Correction) and Cold Bath Square. Since the line was in tunnel it is not apparent why it was felt essential to use this route and no other, but this was likely to prove very expensive. The Act noted that under general legislation the railway would have to purchase the whole of the lands of the Cold Bath House of Correction and detailed conditions were laid down about how this was to be done. Amongst other things, the Metropolitan was to obtain and deliver to the Middlesex quarter sessions fifty acres of freehold land within Middlesex, located between six and nine miles from the general post office, which was suitable for a prison and which was within half a mile by road of a railway station. The site having been approved, the railway would then have to build at its own expense a new prison upon it, suitable for 1500 inmates as well as the necessary staff, and including all fittings and a secure boundary wall. The Act then set out what was required, including that every prisoner would have their own cell and all details were subject to approval of the prison authorities. With the best will in the world, this was going to be extremely expensive.


Aerial interpretation of the Cold Bath Fields prison site. This is shown not for the detail (which can easily be looked up) but to show the scale of what the Metropolitan Railway would have had to replace.

What was more, the railway could not enter upon any of the lands of the existing prison until the new one was built. Nor could they exercise its borrowing powers, except for constructing the prison and buying the land for its construction, until the prison was finished. The Act also required the company to build a station in the vicinity of the old prison and provide free travel over their entire system for prisoners and their keepers going to or from the new prison for whatever purpose, if necessary in reserved carriages. This sound particularly onerous in view of what we know about the railway’s later development, but at the time in discussion (1853-4) the Metropolitan was only planned to go between the City and Paddington and any prison would probably have had to have been some distance from it and huge abstraction of traffic was correspondingly unlikely.

Why the Metropolitan acceded to all this in the Act I have not gone into, but when the significance of the obligations had sunk in, moves were made to get rid of these onerous and expensive requirements. Discussions at first centred on whether the prison authorities would simply allow the Met to obtain a wayleave to tunnel under the prison but the authorities were unshakeable that this was not going to happen. I suppose one can understand why the authorities were actually quite reluctant to allow large scale tunnelling beneath a live prison; there might have been some interesting branch tunnels.


This is from the deposited plans and shows the prison area and the centre line of the Metropolitan running directly underneath the cell block. Kings Cross to left, Farringdon to right.

In due course, the railway concluded that it really did not want to engage in prison building and that the only solution was to alter the route. A further Act of 1855 authorized the route to be diverted to the north, running under Bagnigge Wells (now Farringdon) Road, just outside the gates of the prison, and avoiding the need for its purchase (and thereby avoiding the need to enter the prison-building business).

I can add that the prison opened for business in 1794 and took its name after the cold bath spring, a medicinal (chalybeate) spring discovered in 1697 and available for a while from a small building in Cold Bath Square. After early abuses, the prison eventually adopted the silent association system where talking was forbidden between prisoners. There were some less pleasant innovations, such as the treadmill. Being found increasingly out of date after the government took over prisons, it closed in 1885 and the land was transferred to the Post Office in 1889 and gradually rebuilt (the last of the old sections was rebuilt only in 1929). After a variety of postal uses it became the Mount Pleasant sorting office, about as inappropriate name as one could find for the present dreary buildings (and adjacent bombsite). In fairness post-privatization Royal Mail has seriously attempted to make these unpromising buildings more attractive and I think I must concede a measure of success.


View of Mount Pleasant post office building from south east corner, Farringdon Road on right. The building follows the site boundary of the former prison. It had been intended the Metropolitan would have passed under this site in tunnel about half way along the frontage visible here.

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McFarlan Moore Lighting and the Central London Railway

The name Daniel McFarlan Moore may not be familiar to many people, a shortcoming I shall try to redress. He was a distinguished American electrical engineer and inventor who died in 1936; the circumstances were very unfortunate because he was shot dead at his home in New Jersey by an out of work rival inventor. It appears the rival had expected commercial success from some new development and was annoyed to discover Moore had already patented it. The murderer, Jean Philip Gebhardt, later committed suicide.

Moore is probably best known for his 1917 invention of the later-ubiquitous neon indicator lamp. Although, now, less common than they used to be, neon indicators were once to be found in nearly all household and commercial electrical equipment to indicate presence of a high voltage, such as connection to a mains power supply. They had the advantage of glowing quite brightly while generating minimal heat and having a very long life. The invention was not specific to the one gas and although neon (which glowed orange/red) was perhaps the most common, variants using other gases glowed a different colour, such as argon which glowed blue. The lamps usually comprised two electrodes in a small glass capsule and the presence of a high voltage between the two caused a coronal (light emitting) discharge around the negative electrode; alternating current produced a discharge around both electrodes during the corresponding negative cycles. The same effect was produced in other later applications of the invention, such as the ‘nixie’ tube where a glass bulb (like an old radio valve) contained a wire cage which formed a single positive electrode within which were ten negative electrodes comprising thin wire shapes in the form of the numbers 0-9, stacked one behind the other. When a negative charge was applied to any one of these shapes the corresponding figure would illuminate brightly, enabling the tubes to be used as numerical read out devices. If you would like to see a lot of different types of counting tube that were developed from the humble neon indicator, you can do so by clicking HERE.

Prior to the invention of the neon lamp, Moore had been experimenting with the production of light by means of a gas discharge through a glass tube. The object was to produce a high quality light that could provide even illumination at low cost. He was able to demonstrate the possibilities as early as 1894, but it was not until 1904 that a commercially viable solution was achieved. It is necessary to recall that his research started at a time before the tungsten filament lamp had become a practical means of illumination (from 1911) and until then the choice was between arc lamps and early incandescent lamps that were fragile, not very bright and not entirely reliable. The arc lamp suffered from the disadvantage (among several) that it gave out an extremely intensive light that was too bright when close; they were quite unsuited to use in relatively small spaces and their point sources created deep shadows. Moore attempted to produce a lamp that created adequate light evenly over a large area, without shadow and with high reliability. Moore had previously worked with Edison and did not think much of Edison’s incandescent lamps, telling the great inventor they were too small, too hot and too red, before departing and setting himself upon the task of making an efficient lighting system.

The Moore lighting system consisting of a single, continuous glass tube of at least 1¾ inches in diameter that was sealed at both ends. The tube was typically between 200 and 300 feet long and was filled by a suitable gas at low pressure (a thousandth of an atmosphere is indicated in scientific paper describing the arrangement). At the ends of the tube, carbon electrodes were arranged and a very high voltage was applied between the electrodes, a minimum of 5000 volts being required. Some of the later reports describe the use of a 3-phase supply (to avoid the discernible flicker that a single phase produced) but I have as yet been unable to establish how such a supply would be wired up or below what frequency it was desirable. The high voltage caused the low-pressure gas to become excited and the excess energy was released as light, causing the gas inside the tube to glow. If air were used the gas glowed a rosy red, if pure nitrogen were used the colour was pinkish-red and if filled with carbon dioxide it glowed white (almost equivalent to daylight). The efficiency of Moore’s lighting was reckoned at about 70 per cent, depending on how it was measured. Edison’s throw-away incandescent lamps were lucky to achieve two or three per cent.

Unfortunately, it was found in practice that the ongoing electrical discharge slightly increased the intensity of vacuum in the tube, tending to reduce lamp efficiency. To counter this, an ingenious form of regulator was devised which measured the circuit resistance; if this altered as a result of unduly low pressure the regulator allowed a minute quantity of gas to enter via a porous plug to correct the deficiency. If the tube was filled with air, this was straightforward, but if with pure nitrogen or carbon dioxide a certain amount of chemical apparatus was required to create a small reserve of the preferred gas.

During the period when the Central London Railway was being extended to Liverpool Street (opened in 1912) the company sought to provide better lighting than on its original system, and particularly sought to avoid arc lights, which the company was trying to remove. A challenging problem arose along the three inclined escalator and stair shafts in the connection with the Great Eastern Railway, the station being provided with escalators from the beginning and the company not having had to contend with lighting an inclined shaft previously. Discussion with Moore suggested installation of one of his tubular lights would fit the bill. The resulting tube was 274ft 8ins long, and as we know each shaft was about 90ft length, this suggests a single tube would wend its way along all three shafts in one continuous length (such a labyrinthine arrangement of Moore’s tubes was not unusual). The main practical problem was the welding together and bending of the various short tubes to make a continuous tube, requiring glass-welding skills. The electro-motive force required across the electrodes for this particular installation was about 17,500 volts, created by a transformer. The output was stated to be 55 candle-power per yard and at 1.3 to 1.7 watts per candle this would rate the equipment at roughly 82 watts per yard, or a little over 7.4 kW for the entire installation, probably a little more than would have been the case with incandescent lamps.

Light and lighting.

This shows the lower landing at Liverpool Street. The Moore’s tubes are visible arriving at the lower level down the three shafts and (just visible) the tubes can be seen connecting the various shafts together at high level and contributing slightly to the illumination of the concourse.

It may be seen that the design was complicated by the need to include the regulator mechanism and in later installations it was found possible to fix the electrodes to the outside of the glass and this made the internal pressure stable, avoid the need for the complicated regulator altogether. Even so, the advances being made with cheap and easy-to-install incandescent lamps reduced the commercial attractiveness of Moore lighting except for specialist installations, which is why few people have heard of him. Moreover, Moore lighting did not have an indefinite life and was difficult and expensive to replace.


This shows the upper landing and one of the two escalator shafts. The Moore’s tube may be seen running centrally down the shaft. In addition (and fed from the adjacent conduit) may be seen several Siemens bulkhead lamps provided in addition either as standbys or having been fitted before the experimental system and left as a backup.

Contemporary lighting magazines stress that one of Moore’s objectives was to produce a lighting system that contributed to the architectural effect as well as providing high quality light. It appears its main customer had been department stores around New York and we know the first installation was in 1904 at a hardware store in Newark (New Jersey). The largest installation was in the US post office in New York, involving seven 200ft tubes. In England, before the Liverpool Street installation, there had been another in London in the forecourt of the Savoy hotel, installed within the glass porch in 1907. This installation involved a nitrogen-filled tube of 176ft total length and the soft light it produced introduced no shadows and no glare. A problem arose as the local electricity supply was direct current and a small motor generator had to be installed to produce the alternating current required. A further installation at about the same time was made at Salisbury House involving an 85ft tube filled with carbon dioxide. However, it is doubtful that any new installations of ordinary lighting were made after the Great War as other technologies were now found more suitable.

Pages from uc22

This shows the front of the Savoy Hotel from Savoy Court with the porch roof above the vehicle turning circle. The Moore’s tubular lighting may be seen suspended below the roof in the form of a rectangle.

Moore’s efforts were by no means in vain. In 1912 he sold his patents to General Electric and they later became a component in the work done in developing the fluorescent tube during the 1930s. This differed from the Moore tube in introducing mercury in addition to the ionizing gas such that the emitted light was in the invisible ultra-violet region and used to excite a phosphor on the inside of the tube; it was the glowing phosphor that created the light output. London Transport tested fluorescent tubes in 1944 at Piccadilly Circus and it is fitting that they were first used on a large scale on the 1946-49 Central Line extensions that began at Liverpool Street.

I have not yet found when the Moore installation at Liverpool Street was removed, and would be interested if more information comes to light.

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Automatic Trains on the Hammersmith & City Line (at last)

New Signalling as part of the sub-surface lines modernization (updated)

On Monday 28 March, I spent a little while at the western end of London’s Hammersmith & City Line watching the new automatic trains doing their business: this was the first day the system was actually in passenger service. Travel west of Latimer Road (the present boundary of the first stage of automatic operation) was noticeably different from performance further east, in particular the trains accelerated more quickly. Coming into Hammersmith was interesting. There is only a 3 metre or so space between the approved stopping point and the buffer (behind which is the concrete mass of the station concourse) and special measures have been taken to make sure there is no possibility of a train not following the stopping profile or unexpectedly powering up.

AutoTrn-DSC05776This is the first stage of the resignalling programme for the whole of the sub-surface network. You will recall the various contractual failures that have much-delayed the new signalling; this has hopelessly disrupted the expectations set at the start of the century that we would have had the improved train services across the whole of the sub-surface lines by now. Although we still have not had most of these improvements, nor will we see most of them for a couple of years or so, the apparently successful introduction of new signalling and automatic operation is at least an encouraging sign it is on its way.

However, even the present signalling contract has hit snags and this modest section of automation (Hammersmith to Latimer Road) should have been in service last summer. After some problems were identified during trials, the decision was made to hold off until all worked perfectly. I dare say this was prudent. In any case it was rather the point of doing this small section in advance. I am led to understand that many of the challenges were software related; this seems to be the way of things at the moment in the railway (and apparently the airline) industry.

Assuming this section now performs OK, it is hoped to make up lost time elsewhere as equipment installation has been carrying on in the meantime. I believe the plan is to introduce the rest of the west end of the H&C and the whole of the north side of the circle (and Met to Finchley Road) in one go when the existing section has proved itself. I’m looking forward to seeing how well Baker Street and Edgware Road cope with this.

Some observed benefits

One of the more visible changes, and a useful one at that, is the display of the train ready-to-start signal in the form of white indicator lamps on the train exterior. Regulars will probably work out quite quickly that this means the doors are likely to close very soon and for those in the know it is easier to spot the bright white lights than the old starting signals (all the old signals have been taken out of use).

At Hammersmith, I was surprised to hear the happy sound of the quick-acting air-operated points that have been retained for the time being, and I hope the new electric point machines that will doubtless turn up in due course are not too much slower.  I understand the old (1951) signal box closed on Friday evening (25th) after traffic, leaving only four lever-operated signal boxes left on the system, at Edgware Road, Whitechapel, Harrow and Rickmansworth.

Coming back into town during the evening peak I was reminded how heavily used this line is, especially east of Paddington. Also observable is the enormous amount of development along the line which will at some point be further adding to train loadings. At Edgware Road passengers waiting near the front already had difficulty getting on. The present 5-minute train service really does struggle to handle the demand east of Paddington. As the new signalling is introduced, and as I understand the train service proposals to be, intervals will be improved to 4-minute intervals, and finally 3¾-minute intervals. This is obviously better than now and I look forward to it. Of course the arrival of Crossrail ought to ease the loadings at Paddington H&C, when it finally arrives, which I suppose might be next year (or the year after).

But is performance any better?

Returning to the new automatic section at the Hammersmith end, I think it is worth asking what success looks like. From a strictly technical point of view I have no doubt ‘success’ will be suggested by very high reliability, nothing untoward being discovered, and perhaps train performance falling broadly within expected parameters. It is this last area that interests me. As a railway operator I am less interested in the technical wizardry than the outputs that are required to run the service. For example, can the service match the traffic presenting itself to appropriate levels of performance and reliability? By performance, I mean that bit of magic that minimizes journey time by maximizing train performance and eradicating unwanted and unexpected delays. We have been promised much during the endless process of getting modern signalling, but during the six visits I have now made to this fully-automated section I have been left wondering what has changed.

In a nutshell, I have measured wheel start to wheel stop times between stations and find that on the automated section the start-stop timings are virtually unchanged from pre-automatic days, and to the extent there is any difference, timings are now a tad longer. As one who is used to the brisk performance on the Victoria Line this is slightly disappointing.  Analysis of the run times suggests that top speeds are unchanged, acceleration rates have improved so that top speed is reached ten seconds faster than hitherto, but braking rates have much reduced, increasing braking time by about ten seconds. The slightly longer run at top speed gives some advantage in automatic, and although the net result would be a slightly quicker overall run we find that the automatic system introduces an extra delay before the operator can open the doors. I measured the average door open delay as 3.5 seconds on an automatic train compared with no more than 1 second in manual driving. This converted a slight overall speed improvement into a slightly slower run instead. (By door open delay, I mean the interval between wheels stopping and the doors beginning to open.)

The braking I found rather odd. Apart from its lack of vigour, the trains slow down to about 1 mph while the equipment appeared to be seeking the exact inch within which the train had to stop, which it then did abruptly. This, typically, added a couple of seconds more braking time than would otherwise have been necessary (and this does not happen on the other four automatic lines). It looks to me as though some tweaking is necessary, both with the braking arrangements and the door-open delay. This alone would claw back five seconds or so per stop.

Returning to the ‘moderate’ brake rate, I have found out that despite automatic trains having been around for decades there are still some unresolved challenges. These relate to the theoretical possibility of drift in knowing precise position (for example because of missing a track beacon and relying on a possibly poorly-calibrated wheel-speed sensor). There are also plausible opportunities for wheelslip, and therefore in predicting the actual braking rate of the train for any given demand for braking. Moreover wheelslip protection (provided by rolling stock manufacturer) is quite slow in operation, while position correction (and consequential adjustment in brake demand) is provided as part of the train protection and ATO systems and reacts faster; the two responses can attempt to counteract each other. Although this is unlikely to be dangerous, it might precipitate an emergency stop which is undesirable anyway on a passenger train and is more so if there is actually a wheel slide in progress. Although engineers have attempted to mitigate risk of temporarily losing position approaching a station by installing additional track beacons, the reality is that uncertain adhesion in the open air is thought most easily mitigated by reducing braking rate to a level where it is unlikely to occur. Hence my expectation of a brisk Victoria Line style stop isn’t going to be seen on the open sections of the Hammersmith & City any time soon.

I should add that although it is tremendously easy to reduce the braking rate compared with fixing the adhesion and positional uncertainties, it doesn’t come free. S Stock has an emergency brake rate of 1.4 metres/second/second (m/s/s), which is too much for passenger comfort and normal service braking is designed to fall in the range 0.2 – 1.15 m/s/s. These are nominal rates and at the higher end cannot be depended on for the reasons already stated. Perversely, it is expected that on manually-driven trains the operators will detect wheel slide issues and correct for them whilst automatic systems are apparently not trusted. Because high brake rates might be untrustworthy, a notional brake rate (the ‘guaranteed’ brake rate) is defined, and this is considered dependable; I believe the S Stock guaranteed rate is set at 70% of the maximum, which would be about 0.8 metres/second. However, at the moment, rates I actually measured averaged about 0.6 m/s/s (except at Hammersmith where it is lower). In fact for most of the deceleration period the rate was a tad higher (maybe as much as 0.7 m/s/s) and the average was brought down by the faffing about near the stop mark where the train was trying to find its mark.

Lest anyone thinks this doesn’t matter, if we take the Victoria Line as a fine example of what ATO can achieve, the nervousness about open air brake rates on other lines means a reduction of service brake rate of about 40 per cent. This adds 10 seconds to the running time between stations, at every station. This may not sound much, but on a run between Hammersmith and Barking that is roughly an extra ten minutes a round trip. It is not negligible. Looking at the whole of the subsurface system we are talking of perhaps half a dozen more trains than we would otherwise need simply to mitigate the effect of the constrained braking. And if you reckon a train as £10 million each, that is a lot of money tied up which you could argue might be better spent on finding a solution to the adhesion risk. This is all before we consider cost of extra journey time to passengers who are expecting service improvement. It is particularly galling to see (live) train operators accurately braking more efficiently than the new ATO system because they can look out of the window and assess wheel-slide risk, and have their experience to fall back on. I measured the stopping time at Ladbroke Grove (outside the ATO area) and the operator decelerated the same train more briskly and saved six seconds!

It is interesting how introducing automatic operation has allowed us a higher acceleration rate but a reduced rate of braking. I should add that the higher acceleration arises simply because the trains were previously limited to a performance similar to the old trains because of the traditional signalling and the need to keep within the safety envelope. With the old signalling decommissioned the full rate of acceleration could be provided.

I imagine that the braking rate in automatic operation will be significantly increased in the central London tunnel areas when the system is expanded, so we can look forward to some livelier performance. However, since the majority of the sub-surface lines are actually in the open air, there is a concern that most journey times will not be altered very much. It is true that automation and the overlaid train management system would be expected to improve regularity. It is also true that new signalling will reduce delays as the existing system is a bit crude, a matter not helped by the removal of signals and lengthening of signal overlaps to address perceived safety issues a few years ago. Some top speeds might be slightly higher. Reliability should also be much-improved. This is all to the good, but for the enormous cost of the new system, now a decade late, some livelier train performance was hoped for.

Train Working at Hammersmith

Irrespective of automatic train operation, to achieve the improved frequencies referred to earlier we will need smarter train working at Hammersmith than I saw whilst watching it and I wonder if we will get it with the present track layout, which has not altered since 1906 (this has the important crossovers a long way away from the platform ends, much increasing clearance times). The crossover leading to western platform is especially distant from it and holds trains unnecessarily far away from platform (it is located to allow convenient access to a goods yard closed 50 years ago). I watched a train unaccountably held at this very place during one visit, even though that platform had been empty for many minutes before the train eventually came in, and it caused at least a minute’s delay. I suppose the staff at the new signalling centre (next to which it had stopped) are still getting used to the new kit.

And Finally

Actually, Hammersmith is not a very satisfactory terminus. It is tremendously busy these days but very large numbers seem keen to interchange with the District and Piccadilly station or the bus station to complete their onwards journey. It is a rotten interchange too, and the need for very large numbers of people to cross two busy roads seems to overwhelm the crossings. Can we not do better than this?


Just out of interest I have been riding the automatic section of the H&C between Hammersmith and Latimer Road regularly, and usually time the journey to see how the tweaks (if there are any) are getting along. My last visit was 24th July.

I have tried to persuade myself that the time delay caused by the ‘hunting’ for the exact stopping mark has been reduced and that the door open delay in automatic mode has similarly been reduced. Although I think there have been some software-related performance changes, I am not, unfortunately, really persuaded overall performance is much better. Taking the wheel-turning time between Goldhawk Road and Latimer Road only, I find the run time was between 2m 53s and 2m 55s when the trains were driven manually, and they are taking 8-10 seconds longer now. Even if we use the lower number, this is disappointing and represents an extra 3 seconds or so a stop, which mounts up over a long journey.

Of course, there may be some improvements in the pipeline and as mentioned in the original blog the performance will probably be livelier in the tunnel sections. There will also be service improvements resulting from the use of a train management system (I hope). Even so, the exuberant public relations story we have been given for the last few years while the new signalling was being planned did not hint at potentially slower journeys!

I have also experience on my trips out further heavy overcrowding between Baker Street and Edgware Road and much passenger puzzlement at Edgware Road as visitors to London try and get to grips with the confusing operation of the Circle Line here (without much help from staff, I may add). The Baker Street to Hammersmith and Gloucester Road part of the Underground really isn’t satisfactory for today’s flows and I wonder if something more imaginative could be considered. I know Crossrail will (one day) help, but even so Edgware Road is not a satisfactory in-town terminus in today’s conditions.



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The latest Underground Diagram: a fallen icon?

A new version of the Underground pocket diagram recently appeared, dated December 2018, and this incorporates another new feature which, whether good or not, adds further complexity to a diagram that is now overloaded with information. It is surely time to begin challenging the design of the pocket map and asking what it is for and whether this is the best solution. The present administration, incidentally, call it Tube Map, but it isn’t a map and not everyone recognizes the name ‘tube’, so I’m sticking with ‘Underground diagram’. Having said that, one of the reasons it has become overloaded is the dropping into it of the various other TfL services, so it is surely more than simply an Underground diagram?

My concerns, set out below, is that it fails on one level because it has become too complicated, and yet, at another level, it does not maximise the transport connectivity opportunities that exist and which would support the need to switch as many people as possible onto public transport.

First I examine some positives and then question, with examples, whether or not the map in its present form might be reaching the end of the road.

A 10-minute rule

In the latest diagram we see the introduction of a new interchange symbol that defines certain interchanges as ‘under a 10-minute walk between stations’. The stations concerned in these interchanges each have one (or more) interchange circles and these are connected by a broken black line, representing the walking portion. There are 23 of these, including interchanges with the cable car. Of these, perhaps a third had previously been shown as ordinary interchanges on earlier versions, while the rest are new. I will call this the 10-minute rule.

One can quite see the pressing need for such a device. The traditional Underground approach meant that sight of an interchange symbol implied a degree of simplicity. Overlooking notable exceptions (such as Green Park Piccadilly to Victoria Line) an interchange would be no more than a short walk, might sometimes involve an escalator, would be fully signed, in the dry and within the ticket barrier line. The incorporation of new ‘between stations’ interchanges, of a less convenient kind, somewhat undermines the idea of simplicity that the old type of symbol implied, yet this has been tolerated for some time.

Let us look at some examples. At West Hampstead (between Overground and Jubilee Lines) the stations are quite close and within sight, though separated by a busy road and an inadequate crossing. On the other hand, Upper Holloway to Archway is a 400m treck along Holloway Road, although the route is fairly direct. The interchange at Walthamstow between Central and Queens Road (300m) is more tortuous and involves an alley and part of a housing estate. You can see this might come as a surprise to people expecting a cross platform interchange such as that at Oxford Circus.


This shows the 10-minute rule interchange style at West Hampstead and Euston.  I can see why Finchley Road is included, but if you were on Jubilee you would want to know that the Finchley Road change is 450m whilst that at West Hampstead is only about 100m

I naturally look for some logic in the interchanges selected for this new 10-minute rule treatment but find only a succession of questions. My first, is ‘what is ten minutes’?

Inspection of the various new interchanges suggests, in distance terms, the longest interchange is about 740m (South Wimbledon and Morden Road). There may be a longer one but this will do. To walk this in no more than ten minutes, ignoring time waiting to cross the road, implies a walking speed of 1.23m/s, or 2.75mph. This seems feasible for most people and I would say 3mph would be reasonable (though I charge along at 4mph myself). It would seem that in round number terms a distance between stations of 750m would capture the spirit of ‘within ten minutes’ unless there are tortuous subways or road crossings to deal with. On that basis I can see that introducing this new class of interchange suggests (1) significant new transport connectivity and journey opportunities than previously, which is surely a good thing, and (2) a gradation in how interchange quality is shown, which is also a good thing. The 10-minute rule particularly favours the utility of the Overground where the old North London and Gospel Oak – Barking lines, in particular, failed to connect conveniently with anything much except at Highbury and Willesden Junction.

I have been quite unable to understand why at least some of these 10-minute rule interchanges have been identified, but not others. The Underground diagram is littered with places where connectivity appears to be completely absent, for example between the Piccadilly and Central Lines anywhere west of the central area. However, North Ealing to West Acton isn’t far: at 620m it is under ten minutes and might be felt more convenient than the awkward round-the-corner journey via Ealing Broadway, where one could easily wait ten minutes for the connecting District train. Equally, Park Royal to Hanger Lane is only 670m and makes for a handy round-the-corner journey. In east London, another useful link can be made between the Central Line and Gospel Oak to Barking Line, where today no interchange appears possible; this can be done at Leytonstone where the Central Line is about 750m from the High Road station. This is just within the ten minute rule and seems to make a connection that is difficult any other way.

Nearer central London some reflection is needed as many stations are within ten minutes of each other anyway. Even so there are some awkward journey possibilities that could be highlighted. The Central Line at Lancaster Gate is only 515m from Paddington, which compares favourably to having to change for the Circle at Notting Hill Gate. Hampstead Heath and Belsize Park is about 700m and would surely make a handy interchange with the Edgware branch, which is otherwise awkward for those coming from the west, or vice versa. Harringay Green Lanes and Turnpike Lane (720m) would appear to make a useful connection. I am sure there are other examples.

I  mention these out of puzzlement as to what the criteria are for including this class of interchange and because they seem as justifiable. However this does invite some other observations.

I would have thought the long-standing out-of-station interchange between Euston Square and Warren Street (200m) deserves including, since changing from the eastbound Circle route to southbound Northern (and vice versa) is awkward and doing it via Euston (425m) is perverse and very much a long way round. You might have noticed that someone has taken a drafting short cut by moving Euston Square station to the wrong side of Warren Street, which is not helpful to anyone changing line here. Professional draftsmen have generally attempted to keep geographical relationships correct at stations nearby where people might walk between them, even if this makes the drafting more of a challenge. This battle was probably lost in May 2001 when accuracy was sacrificed on the difficult Baker Street to Paddington section: we no longer seem to have designers who are able to handle this kind of finesse or who understand the local circumstances they are attempting to chart.

A puzzle attracts my attention at Heathrow 1,2 & 3 (or is it now officially just 2 & 3?). The interchange between TfL Rail and the Piccadilly Line is shown as a normal one. It isn’t. It is outside the barriers and a long walk through tedious airport subways and takes some minutes. This should surely be classed as a ‘10-minute rule’ type interchange. Moreover the diagram implies the only way to get from TfL rail to and from T5 is to use this awkward interchange and use the Piccadilly Line. The daggered note, however, invites those people to use the free rail transfer (in reality the Heathrow Express trains to T5 that also serve T2 & 3 TfL platforms). It might be me, but I think this is not at all clear and will at best confuse people (though I accept there are announcements on the train). What exactly is the objection to showing the free airport rail link on the map?

And what is going on at Southwark? This is a purpose-built interchange with Waterloo East and used to indicate it was the interchange for Waterloo East. Suddenly, from the September 2009 diagram, reference to the interchange disappeared and it lacks even the national rail symbol. Surely nobody would recommend changing to South Eastern via Waterloo main line, from which it is a right old treck, particularly if they were coming on the Jubilee Line anyway? If it was removed in error, a decade has passed during which nobody has apparently raised the matter.

Not an entirely new idea

It must be said that the Underground has wrestled for years about how to deal with the variable quality of interchanges on a map that is uncomfortable with anything other than the binary ‘there is’ or ‘there is not’ an interchange. Stingemore was grappling with this before Beck had a go and they showed interchanges at Hammersmith (two stations even now), Notting Hill Gate (then two stations opposite one another) and dear old Paddington (two stations not even very near each other); Paddington remains an interchange about which opinion as to how to deal with it has varied widely. See 1934 map shown later.

However, returning to the innovation of the 10-minute rule, that is not a new issue either and the restless minds at TfL had previously fiddled with something comparable and then given it up. The idea of promoting walking between nearby stations seems first to have insinuated its way into London Transport’s mind at Bow Church station on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). This station first appeared when the DLR opened in 1987 and it was shown as an entirely separate station from any that pre-existed. From 1988 it was shown as an ordinary interchange station with Bow Road (District Line) station, even though it was 280m away. Something similar happened at Tower Gateway, also on the DLR. On opening, it, too, was shown as a quite independent station but in 1990 Tower Gateway also became shown as an ordinary interchange station with Tower Hill, even though the entrances are 100m apart and on opposite sides of a busy road. We thus have two early examples of stations where the lesser evil was to show nearby stations as full interchanges even though the interconnection was ‘low quality’ and involved a walk.


This shows how Tower Gateway and Bow Church were first dealt with, both shown as independent stations although they were within walking distance of pre-existing Underground stations.

A further change of policy occurred from the May 2001 edition of the diagram. This time the several notes relating to nearby main line stations were altered to give a specific walking distance (for example at Embankment where the ‘serves Charing Cross main line’ note was altered to show the distance instead, 100m in this instance). The opportunity was seized to treat the interchange at Bow Church the same way, a walking distance of 200m being added adjacent, though without altering the symbol. These distances were in very small type indeed and practically invisible. For some baffling reason the corresponding addition at Tower Gateway was not made. Whilst talking about the DLR, its display uniquely included the foot tunnel under the Thames to Greenwich (nothing then to do with LT), on the south bank, as a kind of hypothetical station, though it was marked as foot tunnel. Though a walk, no distance was offered.

For several years, therefore, we now only had the one form of interchange symbol, though some of them now included walking along the street. And so matters rested until the January 2008 map. For no obvious reason the interchanges at West Hampstead and Canary Wharf  (both out-of-station) were altered from ‘normal’ to a new type where the actual link between the two circles was formed by the distance between them in metres. The type size was impractically small and it must be doubted that anyone actually noticed it was a distance and not just a grey connecting line. The single interchange at Canary wharf, previously between the separate Jubilee and DLR stations of that name, now indicated interchange distance between Jubilee Line and Heron Quays as well as Canary Wharf (DLR). With masterful inconsistency the interchanges at Tower Gateway and Bow Church were not altered (though Bow Church was altered to conform in January 2009).

Very soon after this, the new stations at Wood Lane (H&C) and Shepherds Bush (Overground) came into use; these were both out-of-station and as at West Hampstead received the special interchange symbol including the walking distance (respectively 250m and 100m).


These extracts show (left) the style where distance is part of the connecting line and (right) the Bow Church treatment (and the Fenchurch Street distance). These distances are printed at 1.3 point size (under half a millimetre) and it defies believe anyone thought this was readable. The graphics quality on the left hand diagram is particularly hideous.

From September 2009 all of these ‘walking distance’ interchange symbols were dropped and they all became ordinary interchanges, just like the ordinary within-station ones. It is only now, as described at the beginning, that we see some of this revisited after many years of vacillation about how best to portray interchanges that are of secondary quality.

Why stop there?

If TfL is seriously interested in promoting public transport connectivity through more effective use of its existing services, there are other measures it might contemplate. Anyone looking at the Underground diagram can hardly fail to be struck by it being almost entirely focused around radial journeys, that is to say towards or away from central London. It is true we have the Circle Line forming an inner ring and London Overground’s old North, East, South and West London services, wholly in Zone 2, forming a kind of middle ring, and which the 10-minute rule interchanges will support. Beyond that the Underground has no apparent interest in connecting any of the separate branches and it doesn’t seem possible to make many through journeys without going towards London and then out again (or getting into the car).

I think we might do better than this. When, years ago, I was responsible for the Edgware branch I observed passengers whose whole knowledge of London was coloured by the Underground diagram and where other possible means of travel were either ‘difficult’, ‘non-existent’ or thought unsafe or unreliable. I have myself challenged someone wanting to go from Golders Green to Finchley Central by Underground and pointed out they could do the journey much faster and cheaper on a direct bus (there were lots along the Finchley Road and they would have been frequent, quick and not busy). I wonder, therefore, if one might consider a kind of virtual outer circle where obvious and potentially useful cross-branch bus links might be shown?

I have already suggested Golders Green to Finchley Central, but Edgware to Canons Park seems a reasonable connectivity option (or Queensbury to Burnt Oak). Mill Hill East to Edgware also beckons, and High Barnet with Oakwood would provide connectivity between these branches. Other possibilities suggesting themselves include Northwood Hills to Eastcote, West Ruislip to Ruislip, Uxbridge to West Drayton, Southall to Hounslow Central, Southfields to Richmond, Wimbledon to South Wimbledon, East Finchley to Bounds Green, Oakwood to Enfield Town and Southbury, Walthamstow Central to South Woodford, Gants Hill to Ilford, and Chadwell Heath to Becontree. I mention these only as connectional possibilities where the present diagram might work to discourage journeys between the various outer London branches because it looks hard (or time consuming) to make such journeys. There is no doubt plenty of scope for further debate about detail, it was the principle I am interested in.

Since the existing Underground diagram fails to mention the word ‘bus’ once, anywhere on the map itself or the accompanying blurb, I do not think it can be assumed anyone unfamiliar with London and using this diagram will quite grasp that journeys are possible that are not shown and that places a long way apart on the diagram might be quite close in real life. Uxbridge is quite close to Hayes, for example, and Wimbledon and South Wimbledon are well under a mile apart, but it looks a great deal more. In these circumstances perhaps it behoves TfL to do more to give potential passengers more visual clues about what is easy. It really is extraordinary that since TfL (and London Transport before it) began taking credit for ‘co-ordinating’ transport in London, the Underground diagram has studiously avoided mentioning the existence of the bus network.

And what about rail links?

In much the same vein, perhaps some key national rail lines should be included in our orbital aspirations. Clapham Junction to Richmond and to Wimbledon would seem likely candidates, providing ‘Metro’ type services and discouraging passengers from making silly circuitous journeys. Clapham Junction to Balham and Crystal Palace might avoid lengthy alternative journeys too. Sydenham (or Crystal Palace) to East Croydon would seem to integrate Tramlink more usefully with Overground. West Ealing to Greenford should be part of this.

Not an orbital example, but the Moorgate to Finsbury Park line would invite consideration. This had been an Underground line and when it transferred to British Rail in 1976 certain obligations were entered into to retain this section on the Underground map and to continue to portray it as part of the Underground system. I believe it was removed in error when the old North London line was removed in 1999 during a brief frenzy of decluttering. After an outcry, the North London line went back later in 1999 but the Moorgate to Finsbury Park line was not restored. For those in the City wanting Underground stations Highbury or north thereof the line from Moorgate is an attractive alternative to the awkward change via Kings Cross.

Existing diagram overloaded

These ideas for making London’s transport look a bit easier are open to obvious objection. There will be those who say ‘but it’s an Underground diagram’, or that ‘it would look complicated’, or that ‘there isn’t room’. Well, quite. However, I think those battles have been lost already, have they not?

It appears to me that after early experimentation based on the Beck design, the size was standardized as 9 inches by 3 inches in 1934 and is more or less the same today. To be more precise, the diagram area is actually 97.5% of that size today, a tad smaller. By my reckoning, the 1934 diagram incorporated 217 distinct stations whilst the 2018 version totals some 445. To be plain, there are more than double the stations on a map area a tad smaller. It is of course much more complicated as several flavours of TfL rail and tram services are now included but without inventing new colours they are portrayed differently in style and this contributes towards complexity. Incidentally, nowhere on the diagram is the significance of these modes explained—from passenger’s viewpont what is significance of the words Overground and TfL Rail and what differentiates these from Underground? National Rail is hinted at but not explained, and as already pointed out buses are just ignored. Riverboat ‘stations’ and services are mentioned but no further explanation is given.

The interchange issue alone has become very complicated. In 1934 there were 54 interchanges whilst in 2018 there were around 116. Interchanges have more than doubled, creating in their wake many extra design challenges to be faced. With all this overloading of material layout has inevitably suffered and with type sizes necessarily reduced by 14 per cent to fit everything in, the lettering is harder to read too. The current size is about 2.4 point, significantly less than that used by Beck on his designs, though his names were hand lettered. Beck lettered only in capitals whilst upper and lower case letters are used now. In practice this means that the lettering appears even smaller than the percentage reduction from Beck’s originals would indicate and I suggest the reality is that the type appears 30 per cent smaller. This is hardly calculated to make the diagram easy to read.

I should add that counting interchanges on the present map is problematic, particularly  at accessible stations. The decision to include two grades of accessibility with no difference between interchanges and ordinary stations makes one have to work harder to work out what is going on; it also makes interchanges look more complicated, for example both Victoria and Bond Street require two interchange blobs where in fact only one circle was hitherto thought necessary. There are places (Bank is one) where it is quite hard to work out what is going on. This arrangement is complicated and not really very satisfactory. These have an impact on overall geometry.

Without question the task required of today’s diagram is much more challenging than it was when the concept was invented: it is a challenge I am not sure is well met. Surely nobody really expects that trying to cram so much more information on a design format that hasn’t changed in 84 years could be expected to work well?


This design shows the 1934 version of the diagram after the card size had been fixed. The network was much smaller then, but even so, stations on lines projecting a long way beyond centre were shown in a box, avoiding the need either to reduce central area clarity or introduce excessive distortion. Although interchange symbols are also used at main line interchanges, nowhere is this explained.


This is today’s diagram, covering the same size of card. The only way to get everything on is to deploy considerable distortion so as to spread the material out as evenly as possible. The result does not seem to be entirely satisfactory. I fear Beck might not have been very happy with this approach

To me it seems that so much damage has already been inflicted on this once model of simplicity that maybe the time has come to rethink all this? I have already made suggestions about new features that might be included on a diagram serious about improving knowledge about transport connectivity.

Should the Underground diagram be reinvented to show just London Underground services, for example, whilst a more comprehensive map be produced showing other/all TfL rail (and core bus?) services, but on larger paper? I do think that a larger paper size would be helpful anyway: it is not simply about making the existing mess bigger (though larger type would help) but about allowing a more elegant design to be drawn, which would be possible if there was a bit of space in which it could breathe.

And what of the old London Connections diagram which shows all rail services in the Greater London area (ie including Underground, Tramlink and DLR as well as main line services). This map is still produced and maintained as a joint TfL/National Rail product (just called London’s Rail and Tube Services and it also incorporates the 10-minute rule interchanges) but I have never seen one on an Underground station and cannot honestly say I’ve noticed them at main line stations. What is it for? Who is it for? Why is it a secret? This diagram appears to fulfil the need for an all-systems map that most tickets can be used on, and if this were efficiently distributed I think it could plausibly be argued much of the clutter on the present Underground diagram could be removed, restoring its usability. Whatever the specific solution, the existing easily-available diagram is too small for what is now being asked of it and I think we should be asking even more. It needs to change. Whilst TfL constantly lauds Henry Beck and his map design (which we are told is an ‘icon’), it is nevertheless content (at least of late) to destroy Beck’s aim at simplicity at every opportunity.

I suspect TfL regards the diagram as a cost and it is only grudgingly produced at all in these financially challenging times. It is, of course, not free, but it is surely a cost of service in the same way as the electricity or the provision of escalators? Indeed if it were improved it would become an investment either because it generated travel by public transport or it contributed to some other transport initiative. I would be very interested to see what research TfL has done about the value of the pocket diagram. I hope I am wrong about TfL simply regarding the diagram as a cost, but having seen the demise of the bus map (which has directly impeded my use of buses) I am afraid that I do not entirely trust the organization to do things without external encouragement.

The addition of Crossrail to Reading will have to be undertaken in due course. That really will not aid legibility if this paper size is to be maintained. I attach the current artwork proposal (on grey rather than full colour base) that shows this and it seems to me that this has only been possible by yet further slight reduction to some of the other features.


Whether this is the final proposal for the diagram layout remains to be seen. It seems to have required moving the existing artwork to the right (making room for Reading) and a consequential tightening up of the space towards the right hand end. The Reading addition does seem to look like an afterthought (especially given how far away it is).

This poor old ‘icon’ is really quite full up. Surely we have reached the point where another solution is required? Perhaps the need to incorporate Crossrail might be an excellent opportunity to rethink all this?

Posted in London general interest, London Mayor, London Rail, London Underground | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Britain’s National Railway Museum: Part 5

Three Museums


Now (at last) I propose to say something about the NRM as it is today, following my first visit with this purpose in mind that I made last year. This proved difficult and gave me so much cause for reflection that I not only revisited York again this year but also visited two other transport museums so I could reflect on what I had seen at York with the benefit of having something to compare it with. It then became apparent that it would be better to offer my views of those museums as well, so sharing my comparisons with readers. I do not know whether I have quite achieved this but I trust this makes some kind of sense.

When I began I wanted to say something of the NRM’s aims and objectives and how it fits into today’s preservation scene but it was impossible to include any of that here and I will include it in a final wrap up essay.

I shall proceed by reviewing three transport museums and comparing and contrasting my findings, and then finish up with some observations about what has happened at York and why I believe it may have slightly lost its way. The three museums are ‘Steam’ at Swindon, the National Railway Museum at York, and the Riverside Museum (of Transport) in Glasgow. All three provide an opportunity for several hours of enjoyment, but I am interested more in what is preserved and displayed and how.


The layout of any museum inevitably affects the way visitors appreciate the exhibits. Of the three museums being reviewed, both York and Glasgow have unconstrained visitor flows whilst Swindon had only one entrance and (on the whole) a single route through the museum, though one did not feel ones movement was unduly regulated. Both York and Glasgow, on the other hand, extended the free flow of people to displays that were not tightly organized either, so defining any kind of fixed route would not be feasible.

Swindon is the smallest of the three museums under review. The whole museum is located within old railway workshop premises and this is made a major feature of the display. Swindon is really two museums. Firstly it is a museum paying homage to the vast railway workshops that once dominated the town and at one time employed 12,000 people on a site of 326 acres. This part exploits the atmosphere and some of the structural parts of the building to set out how the works developed and what it did. This is done by a series of cameo displays and workshop exhibits showing locomotive and carriage repairs and there is an area explaining the art of locomotive building which took place in the vast erecting shop. The displays with the exhibits (or replicas) are augmented with large photographs and background workshop sounds which work quite well to give the impression of space (and it would have been very easy to hash this up).


Once past the locomotive, one proceeds into what is effectively the second museum which is about the history and operation of the Great Western Railway. The visitor is less constrained in this section and having got past the history display one can wander about more or less at will for a while. There are quite a lot of exhibits relating to operation pre-1948 and relatively few steam locomotives, which were well-located and generally showed off in some kind of context. I particularly liked the signal cabin display where one could, under instruction from a video display, operate the full sized levers to shunt a train. There was a steam locomotive driving simulator (with sound effects and a shaking footplate) but the controls appeared to have no impact on the view ahead displayed through the cab window. There was a replica station building and platform with the inside of a proper booking office that could be inspected. On the way out there were further themed displays, with much space devoted to GWR publicity practices.


This view overlooks the station display at Swindon. Some attempt has been made to include most features found at a real station (though stopping short of a name board and plausible lighting). Some of the station rooms are used for displays about GWR publicity.

On the whole the displays were well thought out, substantially contextual, well lit (though a little more thought might have gone into spot light location) and the information panels were plentiful and well-located.

As observed in earlier articles, Swindon does not have very many locomotives, but from its own resources and those of the national collection it has a great deal of other material and this has been put to very good use. Perhaps, dare I say it, the lack of locomotives has been helpful, not only in requiring greater thought about what the museum tries to achieve but in not cluttering up the space with very large and awkward objects which as their numbers rise the additional information to be gleaned drops appreciably. I dare say space is never sufficient in museums of this kind and the amount of non rolling stock material is prodigious.

One can hardly describe every object, but describing themes is possible because of the way they are grouped. In the workshop section there are helpful descriptions of the growth of the works and these can be directly related to the building in which this is housed. The challenge does not arise at Glasgow where the building is new, and is hardly commented on at York following the reconstruction of the Grand Hall which stripped out most of the obvious railway features (except the surviving turntable). The displays then turn to what the works did and how it functioned and this provides the opportunity for several set pieces showing the bureaucracy at work using recovered materials set up as offices, stores and so on. I observed people stopping to look around and reading the display panels in areas that could have been any old industrial premises and not specifically railway premises. Of course, I can remember offices like this myself, but most youngsters may be surprised at all this stuff—and not a computer in sight (though there was a comptometer). How successful this is I cannot say, but the importance of a rigidly operated set of processes, paper based, was critical when the works alone held perhaps 100,000 components and was responsible for many thousands of locomotives and carriages. No railway could function without all this going on in the background and it seems to me that the attempt to hint at the scale of this is worthwhile.

The workshop areas I found interesting and a certain amount of the equipment with its belt drives has been saved. The carriage construction area was helpful, with a part constructed carriage visible and the loco repair area was shown during wartime which provided the opportunity to introduce women workers and wartime work. There were nice touches of unusual items shown in context such as the list of works hooter codes and times they were given.


Views of the various workshop spaces at Swindon

The final part of the ‘workshop’ section was occupied by the splendid apparition of Caerphilly Castle, as though the locomotive had just been completed and was about to be dispatched to its depot. It has virtually a gallery to itself. This was a significant decision given inevitable demands on space, but given what the museum is about it seems to me entirely justifiable. The space leaves plenty of room to drink in the view and take reasonable photographs. These days virtually everyone has a camera and wants to record what they have seen: this was not so important a point half a century ago.


Caerphilly Castle (like the other locos here) is actually part of the national collection and could once be viewed in the land transport gallery at the Science Museum in London. The underneath is accessible from steps at each end and is well lit. Unfortunately this requires guards around the access steps which slightly interferes with the splendid view one would otherwise get.

I took the view that even within the limitations of space and available exhibits, if I had gone in knowing virtually nothing about the workshops then I would have learnt a lot.

The first gallery in the main part of the museum effectively dealt with the company’s history. This is a huge challenge given the company’s size, long life and diverse interests and I wonder if this was a tad ambitious. One challenge (among several) is that railway exhibits usually have some particular function in time and do not on their own reveal much about a company history. The centrepiece is the North Star loco replica, but around the walls this zone was more heavily reliant on display boards than others. I would have liked to see more maps showing the growth of the company over time, and a family tree showing how all the companies that later became part of the GWR came together and when (apologies if it was there and I missed it).


This zone is called Building the Railway but includes something of its development too. There is some good material here but maybe it is not the most successful use of it.

Much of the rest of the museum was set out by theme and these are shown on the map at the beginning of this section. A welcome feature was the space given over to goods. It will be appreciated that much of the income earned from railways came from goods traffic but this is rarely given great prominence because many passengers are not so familiar with goods services (I would hazard a guess that there are railway users today who have never seen a goods train). In 1934, to choose a date I have to hand, the big four companies made £78m from goods traffic of all kinds compared with under £50m from passengers. Exhibits included several goods vehicles, a brake van, a goods truck being loaded and a goods delivery vehicle (I must point out that before ‘white van man’ appeared, the railways delivered most goods and parcels to people’s door or business and provided warehousing and delivery services for many companies. They were a crucial part of the economy.


The amount of space devoted to goods is entirely appropriate given its importance and diversity though I could see that perhaps even a little more was possible. Of course, the reduction and upheaval to goods services during 1960s and 1970s is omitted as this was long after the GWR ceased. The display above is one of several devoted to goods and descriptions do not confine themselves to the vehicles.

Of omissions there were glaring areas. Track was conspicuous by how little was said of it and how little was on show. It is a failing of all transport museums I have yet visited and seems perverse given that railways are ways upon which are laid rails: the hint is in the name. Perhaps they are not thought interesting by the great minds who run our museums, or perhaps they imagine the public isn’t interested. The point is that rails and the way they are laid are important, indeed crucial, to the operation of railways and it is up to museum curators to earn their money by finding a way to make them interesting — I do not ask for a track museum (though I would like to see one) but I would like transport museums to show a little more interest in showing off a few key technical developments and I know for a fact there is no shortage of the stuff to draw from. Railways were (and some think still are) at the cutting edge of technology. Why must this be kept a secret? (I echo what historian and academic Jack Simmons was saying in 1972, apparently without result.)

In conclusion I believe a visit to this museum by someone attentive, but without very much knowledge of railways, would get a good grounding about pre-WW2 railway work in general and the GWR in particular. It is not perfect (perfection is probably unachievable) but the museum sets out to tell a clear story and uses its exhibits to do most of the hard work. There is no shortage of background information boards and there are some video units and other electronic display equipment, if anyone feels the urge to use it, but it is not—as in some museums—intrusive. I thought it was all rather well done.


Upon entering the NRM from the station one is swept ahead into what is called Station Hall, a space into which the original museum expanded some years after opening. To give some idea of scale, Station Hall on its own is actually a little larger than the GWR museum at Swindon and accounts for about a third of the area of the NRM York site.


This map shows the general arrangement of the NRM, by far the largest of the three museums.  Since the museum is not rigorously divided into particular areas the internal labelling presumably reflects someone’s opinion about where supposed favourites are located, though the selection (for example ‘milk tank’) intrigues more than informs. Reference to the workshop and store are on a separate map in same leaflet.

The intent of the Station Hall layout, as I understand it, was to be able to display some of the locos and rolling stock in a realistic station environment by making use of the platforms in what had been a large goods transfer shed. I would describe this as a partial success in that the locos and rolling stock can be viewed from platform height enabling visitors to see into vehicles and generally view things as passengers would have viewed them. It was only on my second visit that I discovered against the wall on the west side of the hall another isle that was not very obvious or inviting; in here lurked a number of interesting goods trucks and road vehicles, but I felt the lighting in this isle was awful and the orange cast hardly showed items at their best and made photographing anything a serious challenge. The gloomy lighting did not serve to draw people into this area and I was completely undisturbed by other visitors whilst looking around this area.

Railway goods traffic provided a valuable sources of income and involved the use of hundreds of types of vehicle, sometimes of a specialist nature. In 1934 there were over 600,000 goods-carrying vehicles in use, excluding a similar number of privately-owned vehicles that became part of the British Railways fleet in 1948 (when wagons excluding brake vans totalled 1.1 million). The catalogue suggests the York collection amounts to 13 wagons and 3 brake vans. Eight of these are in a fairly remote part of Station Hall where they can be viewed from track level.


This part of the goods section is arranged to show typical small goods and typical handling plant and delivery vehicles. It is very unlikely different companies’ railway vehicles would be seen together like this and it might be better to arrange the display around one company’s asset and put the others together nearby with a generic explanation about what was going on (explanations about goods handling were a bit thin).

Not putting them in one of the platforms is perfectly understandable and enables some context to be added with piles of goods and several small road vehicles that would be meaningless if showed separately. The area is easy to miss and not especially signed as far as I  could see. Once in, however, the area probably had the most atmosphere of any part of the museum. There were odd pieces of interpretation but labelling was done in a rather quaint way with large tied-on tags unique to this particular section. The goods gallery, for want of another term, would have benefited from a more comprehensive introduction in the dead space to explain the general nature of goods traffic, how important it was and how it operated, particularly all the handling it got and the huge logistical operation that underpinned it.

This is the more important because it is not how things are done now. Once more I make the charge that so few vehicles are shown when so many were operated, compared to the comparative proportion of preserved locomotives. We should not forget that while young people today are used to ‘white van man’ delivering stuff to one’s door, there was a time before the 1970s when this service was substantially provided by British Rail road vehicles or those of its railway predecessors. This point is really not pressed.


A view of an apparent goods train, though a milk tank is an unlikely vehicle in a goods shed. The yellow cast is from the high pressure sodium lighting which is an interesting choice and rather gloomy (and not used in main part of shed). The purpose of the overhead signs is unexplained. They may have been left over from goods shed days.

There were some goods/parcels objects on display on the platform area. These felt rather contrived. Some (like cranes) had clearly been left from the building’s days as a transit shed but were usually unlabelled and visitors might have puzzled why such things would be on a passenger station. Other stuff was of the kind that went on passenger trains and labelling was very variable. Some objects were unlabelled and I began harbouring the uncharitable suspicion they were there for decoration whilst other items were copiously labelled, sometimes in odd places though findable by anyone interested.


This view (looking towards the restaurant) has me puzzled. Railways had been in the container business for many years and I was pleased to see these apparently fine examples. However, there are no explanatory labels (a huge missed opportunity) and  they are both decked out as small sitting rooms, with an invitation to sit. A furnished fish container: what is going on? Once more I began to wonder if these quite important elements of the railway story were just decorative and I was unable to find these items in the inventory, so I suppose they were. They might even be replicas as I note castors have been added. Surely we can make more educational use of them than this, even if they are used as an object of fun? It isn’t as though there is an actual container of this kind in the collection.

Despite thinking some small improvements could be made, I felt the goods display, though modest, was a good effort and one of the few areas of the museum where effort had been made to show off objects in a fairly realistic context.

Less successful, at platform level, was the attempt to recreate the impression of a station. It is true that the railings and platform ends were realistic enough and added some atmosphere, but no attempt had been made to provide or fit out the usual station facilities such as station offices, a booking office or anything like that (there was an implausibly located ticket booth but not contemporary with the vehicles). Many exhibits and associated displays were unlabelled.


An example of one of the station hall platforms. This particular view shows the huge potential of this substantial space but I fear it is only partly realized. I know it is mere detail but I would not myself have chosen British Railways post 1948 (North Eastern Region) signage as my standard here when virtually all the exhibits are half a century earlier.


Quite a lot of empty space.

There was quite a large amount of unused space which I suspect may pander to the needs of corporate hospitality, or perhaps school parties, but later reflection made me think more could be done with this display area, even allowing for the cafe area which was placed in the middle of it.

There is a lot of good stuff in Station Hall but I still felt that opportunities were being missed and despite the effort that had obviously gone into it more was and still is possible. Reconsidering how things might appear to (and be comprehended by) the visitors might induce some modest changes, including perhaps some kind of strategic introduction to what was being shown and why. And more context is possible by using material languishing a hundred yards away in store; there is enough for a proper ticket office at the very least.

Returning to the main entrance one discovers the subway under Leeman Road that leads to the Great Hall. I looked, but did not at first see on my way in, for any signs leading to this and wondered if any visitors might miss it (there was a large sign beyond the line of glass doors but one could easily miss it). The Great Hall is of course the location of the original 1975 museum which then comprised a converted engine shed and two turntables as already described. This original set of features at least provided the early museum with a railway-like character that might have rivalled Swindon, but the expensive roof problem resulted in what became in effect a modern building which has no particular character.


A general view of the Grand Hall giving some indication of its size (there is much more material out of view to the right, too). The high speed and overhead electric material is grouped together (though remote from other electric vehicles) but the layout makes it challenging to offer a coherent narrative about railway development from the plentiful exhibits present and I did not detect much attempt to do so. In background at first floor level are the library and research facilities. Here was once located a mass of small exhibits, many adding to the comprehension of the railway story, but this is now mostly in store and the paucity of small material is noticeable.

If I might start off with a general observation: the museum is dominated by locomotives and most of them are steam locomotives. According to the inventory there are 37 locomotives on site at York of which 27 are steam, 7 are diesel and 3 are electric. This includes the non-British material but excludes both Rocket replicas. This does seem rather a lot and I wonder how many locomotives are necessary in order to explain the basic working principles, the way they allowed railways to develop and important technical highlights.

One of the turntables has been retained and about half the large exhibits sit on the stub roads outwith the turntable. The turntable provides vehicle access with the outside world via the end glass doors. Having now seen a number of museums I have begun to dislike the turntable arrangement as it seems very wasteful of space. Apart from the substantial loss of space caused by the turntable itself the fan arrangement places the leading end of the exhibits a tad too close whilst the far ends are spaced some way apart. This makes it quite difficult to appreciate the vehicles fully, makes lighting (and photography) difficult and wastes a lot of space at the rear, not helped by the building being rectangular; the rears were also rather dingy.


The non-accessible turntable dominates, somewhat restricting the view. It sits, uncomfortably, in a rectangular building making the stub roads different lengths and allowing only quite short vehicles on some roads. This seriously impacts on ability to locate vehicles in any logical order. The museum lighting relies heavily on daylight flooding in from south end and central roof, illuminating vehicle fronts whilst sides and rear are comparatively gloomy. When the museum was opened, one turntable had a rotating wooden deck which the public had access to, so not so much space was wasted.


In order to make at least some productive use of the turntable a locomotive has been placed here. I cannot deny it looks splendid but of course this is partly because while it is on the turntable it is not surrounded by clutter. The down side, inevitably, it that it blocks the view of all the vehicles on the far side.


In these images one can see the compromises necessary. The fronts of the vehicles are hard to admire head on as they are so close to the turntable barrier, which is just in shot. On the other hand the slightly gloomy space at the rear is perhaps excessive and I thought more use might be made of it. The fanning makes it quite hard to appreciate some of the larger vehicles properly.

There was no route plan but as the exhibits seemed to be displayed almost randomly (from the visitor’s viewpoint) this may not have mattered much. The conjunction of displays seemed illogical with the early railway material freely mixed up with more modern material. Labelling was sporadic, with many smaller items unlabelled and even several of the large exhibits lacking any kind of description.

One of the most important exhibits was the sectioned Merchant Navy locomotive which provides a valuable insight into how steam locomotives worked (the sectioned Rocket replica makes an interesting contrast but was sufficiently far away to make comparison difficult). The display included a good description about how steam locomotives worked, but explanations of diesel and electric propulsion were, by contrast, lacking.


One of the most instructive exhibits at the museum. An information sheet with a photo and the key to the numbered parts would have been really helpful. I thought of doing one myself.


This sectioned replica of Rocket represents a very early steam loco whilst Ellerman Lines represents a very late one. Although the locos are quite close, the sectioned areas of neither are visible from the other and it would be much more instructive to place them adjacent so that the internal workings can both be seen and contrasted.

The labelling of the steam locomotives in the great hall appeared to follow completely different principles to labelling in the station hall. Labelling in the latter appeared more closely aimed at general visitors whilst many of those in the great hall seemed aimed at loco enthusiasts already imbued with knowledge which it cannot be assumed everyone will have. For example, an exhibit label for the Lancashire and Yorkshire tank loco described it as ‘the only 2-4-2 tank engine preserved’. Why is this in the least important and where is the explanation for why wheel arrangements vary and some are more suitable for particular purposes than others?  Indeed, is the Whyte wheel arrangement system described anywhere? There were several places where I felt the opportunity to provide explanation for why things were done was lacking. Although the displays are not solely devoted to rolling stock the other material is dotted about haphazardly and rarely in context with any of the exhibits.


Four examples of labelling. At top is what appears to be the oldest style of label which adopts a fairly technical approach. The second is typical of the style adopted in Station Hall where non-technical labels are the norm and an attempt is made to describe what the object is for and where it was used. The third, found in Great Hall, adopts the explanatory style but with some technical detail added (I query the suggestion that red and gold livery was ever used on the Coronation Scot when running 1937-39). The fourth style is another variant. I’m not sure this label is as accurate as it could be and it is surely a quarter century since boat trains last ran? I wonder how often labels are reviewed. Other labelling styles may be found too.

Some examples (above) are given of the various types of label in use within the museum. We can’t expect any museum to be constantly updating every label but the variety of styles and whole approach to labelling seems to have changed substantially and to have quite such a mixture seems most undesirable. Personally I find the labels that describe what the exhibits are and how they are used to be the most useful, but there is surely benefit to adding limited technical detail too (as some of the labels do). Is the vacillation about labelling policy symptomatic of  uncertainty about what the museum is trying to achieve?

Like Jack Simmons, I found very little track, or even much commentary about it. There is a small quantity of track amongst the early railways exhibits, themselves taking up a quite small area that was rather lost amongst the vast modern locomotives and carriages.


This area represents early railways (basically railways before the Liverpool & Manchester line opened in 1830); an early steam loco in included, just out of shot. Apart from the surprising juxtaposition with the locomotive behind, which dominates the view, this display is expected to pass muster as the story of about 150 years of railway development. Actually the display panels are interesting and informative, and seem to represent all the museum wants to say about the pre-history of Britain’s railways. But is this really all the space that is felt necessary to present this early story, and is it really felt adequate? To have any meaning to visitors (even if they can divert their gaze in this direction) it really needs to be presented to them before all the more recent stuff.


This is a closer view of left hand end of early railways area showing some early wooden and iron rails and the stone blocks on which they were carried. The explanation goes some way towards redeeming a display that looks as though it has been dumped there awaiting proper installation, and you cannot see stuff at rear without being tempted to step amongst the rails. This is really not adequate and it isn’t as though the museum lacks old trackwork; there was far more track on display in the old Queens Road museum. And what of modern track? Apart from odd photos elsewhere I cannot say I could see anything from the last 150 years (apart from what vehicles are standing on, about which no explanation is given). This is a railway museum, surely we can do better than this? The other two museums I am reviewing here do no better of course, but they are not claiming to be a national railway museum. The old truck, by the way, dates to 1797 and when the museum opened had its own display area showing it as part of a quarry and on its own plateway. What we have here is not an improvement!


By comparison, this is how the 1797 wagon used to be displayed at York. Other material was also displayed contextually, but isn’t now.

There is an upper floor with more detailed displays explaining some engineering and operating functions but exhibits are sparse by comparison with the number of display boards which tell an interesting enough story but left me wondering where the exhibits were. (I know where they were, they were in the store underneath.)

There are a number of display panels dealing with various aspects of railway operations, of which perhaps clocks (timekeeping) was the most successful set. Even so the complete domination of the museum by the steam locomotive dwarfs all this important stuff.


Here is part of the signalling display comprising (at left) an example of the ubiquitous mechanical signal frame. This is a good exhibit but only when staffed. There is not much by way of explanation when it isn’t. Compare with approach taken by GWR museum at Swindon. Why can’t we have some levers to pull, with something at the end of them? On the right is  much of the rest of the display comprising mainly display panels.

Although the main part of the signalling display explained the basics it did seem a bit mean given the amount of signalling equipment the museum holds and the comparative wealth of effort put into displaying locomotives. ‘Signalling’ is the lazy way of describing the basic safety systems by means of which it is possible for railways to function at all, and are therefore important (as well as being a technology in which the British led much of the world for many years).

In fairness I must compliment the museum for its display of real time operations on the east coast main line, in conjunction with some display panels. This certainly goes some way towards filling in a signalling gap (and the live train movements, also viewable through nearby window, will grab attention, though it is all modern stuff and doesn’t really use the objects from the museum’s formidable collection). Moreover, since the display was installed, we should bear in mind much of the information here can be called up on a fairly average smartphone.


Part of the live trains panel in the ‘East Coast’ display area.

I have hinted at various points that there seems to be no logical order to what is displayed. Whilst this objection is equally true of Glasgow, I should say that it was not always true at York. When the museum opened in 1975 there was not only an entire gallery at first floor level that showed off the relatively small exhibits, but it was called ‘The Story of the Railway’ and did just that. This gave you a feel for what the museum was trying to do and allowed you to work out where the larger exhibits fitted in when you came to them.

Moreover the exhibits were once arranged in a logical order with themed explanatory panels around the walls and (notwithstanding the turntables) the various rolling stock items were cunningly arranged into discrete zones. For example zones 7-9 were devoted to the development of carriages, with (say) zone 7 being all about the evolution of the 4-wheeled carriage, so you knew where stuff was. I find it interesting that that this was possible in a museum then smaller and more congested and do not see that what has been put in place instead has made interpretation of the collection easier. The loss of the ‘Story of The Railway’ gallery altogether seems regrettable and makes the visitor now have to work quite hard to glean a coherent story of the railway from the haphazard arrangement that is now found. Indeed I wonder if a meaningful ‘story’ can actually be determined from the displays provided (I will return in part 6 to what that story might be). I can’t help thinking that the museum might have lost its way.

To one side of the great hall is the museum store which is open to the public and in which many thousands of exhibits lurk on shelves and pallets to surprise and amaze visitors. The exhibits are largely batched together in discrete areas but are generally not labelled or interpreted in any way, which adds to the fun. There were the tied-on object identification labels that could usually be read if you were really interested.


A view of the store from an overhead gallery. This can do no more than give a general feel for the vast quantity of stuff in the museum’s holding and making it available this way seems to me an act of enlightenment to be heartily applauded.

To me the accessible store is by far and away the most interesting part of the museum and would have justified going to York for the day without seeing any of the large exhibits at all! Basically it is where all the stuff is. One can meander about till one’s heart is content amongst the thousands upon thousands of exhibits here and for the first time discover that British railway history is about so much more than the steam engine. Railways were vast businesses, involved in so many things, and frankly this is not obvious to younger people today who see only the very narrow railway businesses we have now and who would hardly guess how vast these concerns had been from the exhibits in the main halls.

One of the things that struck me in the warehouse involved training on a vast scale, and the wonderful signal training school layout is well worth spending time examining. There was then the multitude of ticket issuing equipment, automatic machines and so forth, much of the nature of which is quite unknown to anyone under the age of 30 and little known to those under 50!


This model railway ship, not easy to photograph through perspex, is sublime.

The involvement in hotels is probably little known to many (BR ran the largest hotel business in the world), but there are items here (but only in here) that hint at this substantial business. Shipping is well represented, particularly by some of the largest and best models I have ever seen, perhaps even better than those at Glasgow (see later). I managed to take a photo of one and you would not know it wasn’t a real ship.

All the clutter one sees on stations can be found here aplenty. Every conceivable type of sign can be found, some only by carefully peering through the racks. Signalling equipment is here in quantity, some of which really ought to be on display. Trackforms – it is all here, and it is important (it is after all a railway museum as I have said several times). I can’t begin to tell you how many clocks there were, railway timekeeping was crucial. There was perhaps the largest collection of chairs (of the sit-upon type) outside the V&A museum, and benches and stools, and desks and other railway furniture. Uniforms, badges and buttons so distinctive of the pre-grouping railways. In the main hall, staff are virtually forgotten.


One of the larger items in the warehouse is the model railway and other relics from the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. In this view you can also see some other material stored and displayed in this small corner.

This could have been overwhelming but as an avid people-watcher I noticed a continuous stream of people trickling through. Most were not rushing, but stopping to inspect things that caught their fancy and I heard more than once ‘here, have a look at this’. OK, the items are not specially laid out for viewing, the lighting was adequate (just) but avoided the harsh contrasts in the main hall and photography was possible. The exhibits were generally not obviously labelled unless they had been on display but if you really wanted to know then the card label attached to it could be handy. Perhaps the place played to my own prejudices but I really felt that this was what a museum should be like. It provoked the imagination.


There are more signs stored here than you can shake a stick at.


And here are some more, with a couple of fine lamp posts.


And one of these. However it survived long enough to be decimalized I cannot imagine

The collections store (till recently called ‘The Warehouse’) is not only a real eye-opener but allows the NRM to fulfil its statutory role of placing its material on display. I think, from visits to other relatively new museums, the opening up of the inevitable museum  store is becoming the fashion and I believe it cannot happen fast enough.

I have already hinted elsewhere, only after I left this area did I begin thinking about why it was that some of this material was actually being stored at all rather than being on display. There seemed to me plenty of room in Station Hall for more of the station material, and enough to have a proper booking office of the kind one could once see in the Science Museum’s land transport gallery. There is also plenty of stuff to populate other small themed area in a number of other underfilled spaces.



One of the Rocket replicas undergoing some fairly comprehensive maintenance in the museum’s fully-equipped workshop. No explanation appeared to be available about this or most of the other items receiving attention, though there was a notice about the Gresley pacific restoration a few yards away.

Finally there is the museum workshop where repairs small and large are carried out. This is viewable from an overhead gallery, though I felt more effort could be given to explaining what was going on by means of some updatable display.  There was a board explaining what was going on with Sir Nigel Gresley but that is all I could see. I would have been interested in knowing more about the capabilities of the workshop and what some of the other visible activity was.

Before moving on I must just say a few words about the rolling stock (or carriages, in the language of railway users).

At first sight there are quite a lot of carriages, but closer scrutiny reveals all is not at it seems. The catalogue throws up a respectable 25 items when plausible search terms for carriage are entered. However five are royal vehicles, two are post office vehicles, four are dining / sleeping / Pullman vehicles, nine are very early or specialist or novel vehicles or replicas or not passenger carrying vehicles whilst only five are bona fide carriages of the kind you or I would actually have travelled in, and, of these, three of them are late Victorian and the remaining two are 1937 and 1971. This hardly seems representative, and the 1971 carriage is confusingly liveried externally in 1959-60 Pullman colours (colours reserved for the Blue Pullmans and never carried by Mk II carriages). This hardly seems a satisfactory way to demonstrate how passengers travelled over the last century or more and is in striking contrast to the number of locomotives.


These are the only two ordinary loco-hauled coaches on display that were built after 1905 and neither is painted as passengers would have seen them when in service. The LMS one on the left never appeared in this premium livery and most of the inside cannot be seen (I believe this particular red livery was never seen in the UK). The one on the right, a 1971 Mk IID coach, is in pre-British Rail Nanking Blue (Blue Pullman) livery which loco-hauled Pullmans never carried and nor did this coach. The inside is a good example of ordinary 1970s travel and visitors have full access to one end, which is useful. It is not helpful that visitors might confuse it with Pullman travel or think these were the usual British Rail colours (Rail Blue was quite different). The coach came from a private charter operator who painted it like this but I could not see this explained anywhere. Hopefully it will be correctly repainted in due course. The LMS coach is right under the central skylight and is very difficult to photograph because of excessive reflections (this also affects other vehicles on sunny days).

Most of the carriages are in the Station Hall which is suited to being able to see into them. The LMS 1937 carriage is in the Grand Hall coupled to the LMS streamlined loco and liveried to suit (although in this period, the go-faster livery was blue and this type of carriage never appeared in these colours). I can well understand the compelling temptation to show Duchess of Hamilton with a liveried carriage, but shunning the platform level that would have been available in Station Hall means you cannot see into much of it (you can, of course, see into the loco footplate). As it is, visitors cannot appreciate the inside of an ordinary carriage between 1905 and 1971. At least, not at York.

Meanwhile, rusting away outside in the yard, is an entirely representative type of suburban carriage of late 1950s origin which the museum is attempting to get rid of.


This poor carriage (awaiting disposal by NRM) is typical of the type of suburban stock used in the London area for 25 years and was in service when the museum opened. There is nothing remotely like it on display inside. I found myself expostulating that this ought to be one of the museum’s more important exhibits (more important than some it is stuck with) but instead it is outside rusting away until it can find a loving home. I find this very odd.

In my comments about York I have sought to confine my remarks to what I have actually seen, and my immediate reaction, in order to keep the narrative broadly comparable to those for the other two museums. I appreciate it is somewhat longer, but that is largely because the NRM on its York site alone is 50 per cent larger than the other two museums put together.

I have not particularly commented on the actual selection of exhibits that are displayed and how (and to what extent) the result fulfils the museum’s aspirations or the public need. I have some observations to make about this, together with some suggestions, but that will have to wait until the final part of this series of essays about the NRM where I try and pull the various strands of this story together and place the conclusions in some kind of national context.

Riverside Museum – Glasgow

The Glasgow Riverside Museum (described as its transport and travel museum) resides in a large and very modern architectural statement about which opinions differ. Irrespective of the architectural merit, one might expect a brand new building to have superb visitor facilities and to show off the exhibits at their best and in a controlled atmosphere of which the conservators will approve. I felt this aspiration was only partly met and that it was almost as though the building and the displays had been worked up by different teams who had met only rarely, or perhaps not at all. Internally the objects were well illuminated (a definite plus) but the building felt a little congested. I am all for museums having objects in them, and despair when faced with serried ranks of object-light but expensive and dubious interpretation panels that is sometimes presented as a museum. Even so, when there is so much stuff that it is hard to appreciate the objects then there might be a problem.


This floorplan leaflet of the Riverside Museum Glasgow is a bit grim and gives neither an impression of its size (it is quite big) or what is actually in the museum. It is curious in other aspects, for example it appears one locomotive exclusively occupies the whole of the west wing, which is certainly not the case. This curious type of map presents some of the same arbitrary features the NRM map does. This really needs another approach.

I had entered the museum at the river end after visiting the very excellent sailing ship in which I was shocked to discover I had been absorbed for nearly two hours. My treck through the museum itself was delayed by trying to work out whether there was a route plan and how best to tackle it; hints were not provided and the vast South African locomotive dominates the entrance and hides what is behind it. One can really only plod round and keep checking one hadn’t missed anything.


This is a view I had not expected in a brand new museum.  In essence these important objects can be viewed only from one side because of the density of display. I thought the objects themselves were superb examples of a city’s transport system and are very happy they are on display at all rather than in store. But what was the brief? Was the building designed in complete isolation to the job it had to do? The building has won awards. For what? The visitor wants to see the objects and this visitor is asking the question whether this could have been done in a more mundane (but slightly bigger) structure.

There is some good stuff in the Riverside Museum and I thought it a very interesting and informative display. The layout, though, I did find problematic in that material of similar type was often spread about and some areas were very congested.


Three transport modes and an ambulance. Great exhibits but an unexpected combination. Interpretation is greatly aided by context and most of the layouts lack this.


Glasgow certainly knows how to pack stuff in. It does make some of the material (and I do mean ‘some’ for many exhibits are superbly presented) rather hard to view though. I must add that the upper loco can be viewed properly from upper gallery, but not so for some of these high level adventures. I wonder if the floor area could have been slightly bigger rather than having to use the building’s perhaps excessive height.

A feature of the Riverside Museum I thought rather well done was the street scene. I like these because (whilst to a degree artificial) the exhibits are shown off in some kind of context, a context that also allows some of the smaller exhibits to be displayed meaningfully, or at all. The street scene purports to cover the historical period 1895-1930 while the area to the west covers 1930-1980.


A street scene at Riverside which I guess is considered its centre-piece. It is possible to go inside the shop creations. Like anything else it is perfectly possible to pick holes in recreations like this but I think if done well it provides an atmosphere within which it is possible more readily to make sense of things. I thought this well worth the effort.

The general arrangements at Glasgow have just been described but I need to say that the exhibits selected for display are intended to reflect Glasgow’s maritime and manufacturing history as well as its transport system. For this reason the museum includes quite a bit of shipping material including a substantial number of large ship models (at least a hundred). This number might be found overwhelming and there are far too many to have the slightest hope of studying in any detail more than a few samples. The number comes about because of Glasgow’s shipbuilding past where every new ship is modelled first; it seems every last one of them has ended up here and must have given the curators having to display them something of a challenge.

The city’s industrial manufacturing capacity also extended to railway locomotives and the five locomotives on display were all Glasgow-built. Four of them are representative of locomotives operating on the various Scottish railways but the fifth is representative of one of many thousands made in Glasgow for export, and this 180 ton beast was in service in South Africa for 43 years. It suffers from the same obvious disadvantage as the Chinese loco at York, except that space is even more confined. Actually it is so big it is quite hard to appreciate because you cannot get far enough away from it to view it properly (this is the loco I referred to by the entrance). The native railway locomotives were gifted by British Rail in 1966 and it is clear they are there to represent local engineering and not main line rail transport around the Glasgow area about which little is said. Moreover I found no carriages or other railway paraphernalia in the museum. This seems a serious omission given the dense railway network in the region and its importance in supporting the wider engineering industry.

Glasgow’s transport system was known for its trams and there are several in the collection, though not all together. I think it would have been more meaningful to have put the stuff together, perhaps with some ancillary equipment, of which I saw none (though there are decaying switch-boxes still to be found in the street which could usefully be recovered). No overhead wire either, which is a shame as it would once have been familiar. I did not notice any summary of the history of the tram system, though I might have missed it.

The other Glasgow transport feature is the subway and it was nice to see a subway station entrance built into the street scene. On entering, one is in a recreated station not long after the subway opened and in which there is a (then) cable-hauled car in appropriate livery and where one can partly board to see inside. There is a description of the Hallidie system by which these cars were drawn. Strange to say that in the post 1930 section of the museum there is another subway station recreated to show a later period with another of the cars, this time arranged for electric operation. Although this split-by-date arrangement might suit some conceptual ideal I am not sure it aids a rapid understanding of the subway and its contribution to transport.


This shows a subway cable-driven car in one of the museum displays, and the interior of an electrically-driven subway car in a different display area. Both areas are intended to be redolent of the tiled stations, and access to each car is possible. Though not mentioned, the resemblance with the City & South London Railway car at Covent Garden is striking.

I can do no more than recommend the Riverside Museum and advise visitors to leave plenty of time. Although many of the displays are a bit crowded I find myself increasingly of the view that it is a primary duty of museums to acquire representative objects and display them to the public. Whether Riverside’s exhibits are representative given my observation about the railway material is a question for another day, but it is patently obvious that within the limitations of the building heroic efforts have been made to show off the objects albeit some of them are not shown off at their best. I think it just about works and on balance is better than just hoarding material out of sight.


Most of my observations I have made on the way through the descriptive part already, but there is an opportunity here to compare and contrast a number of features.

First we have three very different buildings. Glasgow is new and on a relatively unconstrained site. The NRM is part new but heavily constrained by site conditions and a troubled history. Swindon (I struggle with using the museum’s chosen name) is a very old building that has been heavily modified. I think Glasgow and Swindon play to their respective strengths, the former having a large floor area relatively free of columns and the latter providing a great atmosphere for what the museum purports to cover; indeed the building is really a part of the whole experience. The NRM is a mixed bag and I very much suspect that the shortcomings I can identify in the not-very-interesting buildings are but nothing to those who have to run the place. However, Swindon (and lots of other museums) demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to install essential displays in re-purposed buildings and to be very ingenious in how one uses the space.

I think part of the display problem at York is the very large number of full size exhibits that are put on display in an area with a turntable arrangement, variable length stub roads and access at one end. This might not matter much except that for policy reasons the grand hall is used as a kind of engine shed because of the constant changing over and moving round of engines so they can be steamed or exchanged with one of the outposts. This seems to me a huge self-imposed constraint on having any remotely efficient layout or the provision of dedicated display areas as they would get in the way of the access route. It also makes it difficult to show stuff off in context and make better use of all the other railway paraphernalia that the museum owns but keeps in its store.

The quality of display varied to a degree between the three museums. Clearly I was impressed by Swindon and my criticisms are small. At Glasgow I have no particular comments beyond those about some areas being overcrowded. The actual quality of display and labelling seemed satisfactory but I lament there was so little about the railway network.

For now I shall leave it that from my review of three museums my conclusion is that the GWR Museum at Swindon has made by far the most successful attempt to make best use of its limited space and limited number of exhibits, in a very old building, and it works very well.  I will confess that it opened my eyes to what can be done in a confined space and to an extent provides something of a benchmark by which I found myself considering the other two. I must stress that I thoroughly enjoyed my visits to all three museums and am very aware of all the work that has gone into them. The question is, to what extent do they contribute to our understanding of their chosen subject area.

I will seek to answer this question in the final part, and in doing so will be reviewing other channels through which the history of our railways might be learned about. In coming to a conclusion I hope to indicate three things. First, does the NRM meet its own objectives? Secondly, does it meet visitor needs and aspirations and the country’s desire to educate and inform (it presumably has such a desire as it pays for it)? Thirdly, what could be done better? The latter does not presuppose ‘failure’, merely that I have not found anything, anywhere, that cannot in some way be done better. In this I am attempting to carry on where Jack Simmons left off.

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Britain’s National Railway Museum: Part 4

The Science Museum and The Battle of York

The Science Museum and the national science collection

Before going into the transfer of the British Rail transport collection to the Science Museum, I had better say a few words about the Science Museum’s own involvement with the collection of railway material, which pre-dates the formation of the museum in its current form.


There are of course many collections of scientific interest around the UK but the origins of a national (by which I mean ‘owned by the nation’) science collection came about following the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was held in London’s Hyde Park. Described as the ‘Great Exhibition of The Works of Industry of All Nations’ it was hoped to showcase the manufacturing and technical ability that Britain and its empire had to offer the world and was heavily supported by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort.

The exhibition generated a substantial cash surplus, which the commissioners responsible for the event directed should be used for educational purposes. This was achieved in part by buying a large quantity of land in the vicinity, on the north side of Cromwell Road, some of which was used to create a new museum of the arts and sciences (which is why the several famous national museums are located here today). Part of the money was used to obtain material to be displayed, some coming from the 1851 exhibition and some from elsewhere. Displays were quickly augmented by material subsequently donated and by loans from other museums or other sources. The new museum became known as the South Kensington Museum. It opened on its present site on the east side of Exhibition Road on 22 June 1857, absorbing the collection of its initial incarnation (known as the Museum of Manufactures) that opened at Marlborough House in 1852 but moved shortly afterwards to Somerset House. The museum focused on the applied arts but from 1867, by direction of the Council on Education, a science collection was slowly built up:

with the view of affording in the best possible manner information and instruction on the immense variety of machinery in use in the manufactures of this country, and by the employment of which the commerce of the nation has been rapidly extended for many years past.

From 1876 the science collection began occupying space on the west side of Exhibition Road, using the southern and western galleries of buildings surrounding the Horticultural Gardens, a move required by the more rapidly expanding arts material on the original site. A separate science director was appointed in 1893 for what was at first known as the Science Division of the museum, itself renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1899 when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the completion of the present building on the east side of Exhibition Road. The Science Division became a fully independent museum in 1909, when the name ‘Science Museum’ was adopted, the whole of the collection being housed in the rambling range of buildings on the west side of the road (leaving the V&A where it is now on the east side of Exhibition Road). After separation, plans were drawn up for larger and more modern buildings for the Science Museum, not finished until the 1920s and subsequently added to. This created the frontage of the Science Museum as we see it today.

Organizationally the museum was funded by the Board of Education which employed the staff and appointed the director (all of whom were civil servants). The Board was replaced by the Ministry of Education in 1944 and became part of the Department of Education and Science in 1964. It is with this latter department that the issue of the new railway museum became lodged.

This is not the whole story for we have to say something of the Patent Office Museum which was absorbed by the South Kensington Museum in 1883; the objects of which it comprised eventually made their way into the Science Museum collection. The Patent Office Museum was created in 1857 and is important as it included the locomotives Puffing Billy and Rocket, acquired in 1862, and Sans Pareil, two years later. Puffing Billy was built for the Wylam colliery and dates to 1814, making it very important as the earliest surviving railway locomotive in the national collection. The Rocket won the Rainhill locomotive trials in 1829 and brought together most of the important features of locomotive design which allowed steam power to make railways the success they became for the next 100 years or more. The Sans Pareil was by no means an unsuccessful machine although it was beaten by Rocket at Rainhill, and was only retired in 1863. The Agenoria originated in 1828 and after eventual breakdown spent many years deteriorating quietly in a field, to be discovered and privately restored in 1884. After local display, it was presented to the nation later that year and also arrived at South Kensington.

The Railway Collection

By the start of its independent life the new Science Museum already possessed much railway material. It was not all displayed together (or at all). Nevertheless it was, even before the Great War, probably the largest amount of railway material all in one place. In no way did it attempt to portray the railway as a system, for the material was was diluted by many other engineering artefacts and to an extent distributed around the engineering disciplines.

In 1924 the new building at last opened, which enabled a new gallery devoted to the development of the steam engine to be provided. The largest exhibits were stationary engines but a whole display area was devoted to the development of the steam locomotive. The display included Puffing Billy and the Rocket, with other important early machines represented by models. There were also models of very early railway carriages and other vehicles representative of what the locomotives hauled. This was an excellent contribution, but even so, it was still impossible to display all the railway material in one place. In the early 1930s the museum found it expedient to have built for it a replica of Rocket in its original form as the remains of the original machine were incomplete and were so mucked about by successive rebuilds and poor early restoration that it was difficult to understand its important original features. The replica machine was also partly sectioned to see important internal parts. Though this was hardly a large machine, space was so tight that Agenoria was withdrawn to make room, the latter exhibiting less important developments; it was this exchange that allowed the Agenoria to be lent on long term loan to the York Railway Museum in 1936.


One of the railway galleries at the Science Museum (c 1924-36) showing the early locomotives and a large number of models of locomotives or apparatus.

The Science Museum has always had a challenging job portraying scientific progress. Science is generally at its most productive when scientific knowledge is utilized in instruments and machines that have some useful function in people’s lives, if only indirectly. But machines very rarely employ only a single scientific principle and railway technology uses many scientific principles, virtually all shared with many other technologies too. The only technology that is perhaps fairly specific to railways is that affecting the wheel-rail interface, and perhaps some aspects of railway track. I think everything else from electrical systems, steam and diesel engines, mechanical engineering and construction, lighting, civil engineering and so on will be found widely shared with many other industries. A museum catalogue of 1907 observes:

It is not the object of the Collection to attempt, nor is space available, to indicate the present state of the arts in any one particular branch of engineering, but rather to illustrate broadly the steps by which advances have been made up to the present day; to show students and others at the same time the general principles which underlie all its branches and to offer to the engineer suggestions or ideas from other branches of his profession for improvements in the work on which he may be engaged.

The railway collection became quite wide, but its origin in the early locomotives remained obvious. The locomotives were there not because they were representative of railways but because of their importance in the early use and development of high pressure steam engines at the point where they were powerful (and safe) enough to haul themselves and a useful load. That having been achieved, and with railways now released from the confines of animal power and stationary engines, further development of steam engines was not confined to railway locomotives and could better be shown in displays elsewhere. The collection did hold quite a few models of locomotives and railway equipment which supplemented the display as a whole.

A word might be said about railway track in the collection (picking up from the point I made that track and its interface with the wheel is probably the main area of engineering that relates particularly to railways). It is noteworthy that when the curator of this section of the Museum constructed a series of articles for the Railway Magazine in 1910 he placed track before the locomotive. He gave a good description of the museum’s holding, explain the importance of each of the items described and it is clear that he felt that in a railway system the form and arrangement of track is of crucial importance (a view later echoed by Simmons). I don’t know what effort the museum put into deliberately seeking out important track components to illustrate development, but it was fortunate to know the redoubtable Clement Stretton. Stretton was keenly interested in early railway track and from about 1890 obtained and offered to a grateful museum quite a lot of track material and other early items. He also furnished a large display for the Leicester museum which after some years in store made its way to York in 1949, greatly adding to a lot of track material it had already amassed.

During the 1960s a large extension was built at the west end of the building and in here was installed a new gallery devoted to land transport. Included within were motor vehicles of various types and at the far end was a railway section containing (amongst various other things) a number of locomotives, a complete signal box and some working signals, a fully-stocked booking office and an Underground railway tube-stock motor car. The locomotives included our old friends Rocket and Puffing Billy as well as the spectacular GWR locomotive Caerphilly Castle and the rather modern Deltic diesel locomotive prototype (the Science Museum has long been content to display contemporary technology where useful). So far as I know this was the first time the museum had been able to display its railway material in one place as a railway collection rather than divided into its technological areas. This represented a new way of displaying and interpreting the history of technology and hinted at the wider operation of the railway as a complete system.

I loved this gallery and it made a great impression on me during my schooldays, notwithstanding the existence of the Clapham Museum. Of course, the Science Museum was free! Simmons seems to have liked it and applauded the inclusion of the massive Great Western locomotive Caerphilly Castle as representing the pinnacle of achievement of steam traction (the class had a particularly long and successful life). The loco was lent by British Rail and was felt a good choice by most who had an opinion about the gallery. The 1928 tube car, recently withdrawn by London Transport, was a popular exhibit and was intended to show the way electric multiple unit trains operated. It was a good choice as the equipment (above the floor) could be explained and studied and transparent panels were substituted for some of the steel ones to make viewing easier. It contrasted with the City & South London loco that had been in the collection for some years.

This was not just a railway gallery though: it represented all land transport and space was devoted to bicycles, the development of the motor car and other road vehicles and road engineering. There was even a tram. Simmons wondered why we needed to display yet another Glasgow tram (there were quite a few in preservation) but from the technical point of view Glasgow was as good as anywhere else and they were available—you couldn’t just go out and buy your tram of choice from a shop. As a transport museum (or perhaps a transport sub-museum) it did a pretty fair job. From a transport point of view the exclusion of shipping and air was highly artificial. For historical reasons shipping was well represented nearby in the museum, by an interestingly large quantity of models; from a practical and technical point of view this probably justified keeping it quite separate (even though the railways ran ships). A new aeronautical gallery did what was feasible for aeronautics at (appropriately) the top of the building but realistically a central London museum was going to find displaying the technical development of flight challenging in a confined central London building.

Gallery-small copy

The Land Transport Gallery at the Science Museum at around the time of opening. The recently-withdrawn steam and diesel locos make in interesting contrast with the much older locomotives.


Another view of the gallery, contrasts apparent.

Though the Land Transport Gallery had much to commend it, I’m not sure it succeeded in drawing attention to the similarities and differences between the transport modes, the advantages of one mode over another or how they were (or might have been) coordinated. But then this is not the job of a technical museum. It was, perhaps, more a job for the one at Clapham, about to be closed and to which we must now return.

The Battle of York

The position in July 1967, when the decision to create a single railway museum in York became public, was that British Rail was told it could be relieved of its museum ‘problem’ if they built a new museum at a cost to be covered by selling the old buildings. This rather constrained the possibilities available and meant conversion of an existing building at a location outside London and probably outside the south-east. The DES (through the Science Museum) would run the new museum once complete. The Science Museum was not greatly bothered by where the new building would be though a popular location with rail access would be helpful. The government departments found themselves landed with having to make a decision about a museum from a small number of options, and in a hurry because of the need to get its Transport Act through. British Rail’s suggestion of York seemed so simple an answer.

So far as I can see, the outcry was unexpected. There will always be some group or other that is convinced almost any government decision is wrong, but the depth of the outcry, one might almost say outrage, caused surprise and as hinted in the last part caused some rapid back-tracking. Ministers conceded that the selection of York had been hurried and the process had lacked rigour and there had been no meaningful consultation. As government only rarely concedes imperfections unless they can be discovered some other way, it must have been obvious there was a real problem. An MP involved in a protest group that included the Transport Trust reported the decision to Sir Edmund Compton, the parliamentary commissioner (or ombudsman), who criticized the DES for maladministration in reaching its decision to break up the Clapham collection and move the material to York. In particular there were questions about how the attendance figures had been used and the way a conference to debate the issue had been arranged in 1968, with very little notice. Though critical, Compton stopped short of saying that the DES case to close Clapham and build a new museum elsewhere was not strong enough.

There was no single campaign to change the decision, nor was it obvious what those who opposed it objected to, as different groups had different concerns. One concern, for example, was that York would not big enough and this required dispersal or disposal of exhibits. British Rail’s assurances were not trusted. Several large items were in store and had never been on view and it was not at all apparent what would happen to them; scrapping seemed at least a possibility. British Rail was clearly disposing of large amounts of old material already, the process of disposing of ‘surplus’ relics having begun at Clapham. Collector’s Corner (a British Rail ‘shop’ for old and redundant material) opened at Euston in 1969 and was very popular and some of the material there was very old and in ‘museum-worthy’ condition—in later years some York records office material found its way here. In October 1968 the Scottish Region was found holding a sale of transport relics at St Enoch station which in August raised £1359 from a wide range of material ranging from clocks to handlamps. In April 1969 the London Midland Region announced it was to sell a number of very old plans, causing outrage in the press. The law allowed disposal of ‘surplus’ relics and records. Whether misplaced or not, the concerns were genuine.

Another major concern to some was that quite arbitrarily York was to be a railway museum. Even the irascible Merrill in making his only plea to the Scholes/Follett review was that whatever replaced Clapham should be a transport museum. Buses Illustrated magazine observed that there had been a great deal of transport material in the British Transport collection that was neither railway nor London Transport material and much had already been dispersed for want of space. There was virtually no representation of road freight transport at all. Together this was (or should have been) a matter of importance and it was not apparent why a rail-only museum was considered so vital, apart, of course, from the constraints of space (a proxy for money). Buses actually felt there was so much transport material that there was enough for four or five regional museums (an idea echoing the initial BTC model).

We then have the location issue at York. Those in York and desperate not to lose the new museum opportunity (which would have meant loss of the old museum too) were not slow to accuse London of being selfish and wanting everything to the exclusion of the provinces and some of what was said got heated. Down south the matter was less confrontational and the issue, as it was usually ventilated, was not that York should not have a railway museum, but that London as the capital City deserved something. There was more than sufficient material for both cities, perhaps even retaining Clapham for smaller material, where movement would not be needed. The feeling might not have been so trenchant had not Clapham only recently been opened—to take all this material 200 miles away, so soon after a new London museum had opened in the first place, was to some unbearable. It appeared that the real constraint was the quite artificial Treasury diktat that sale of the old premises must fund the new. The Treasury was very quiet during this furore.

MPs were concerned and an all-party group was established. There was much argument in the press, notably the Guardian. Lambeth Council (in whose area the Clapham museum was located) was horrified by the loss and was moved to try and find another location in Lambeth. At that time, Lambeth had on its plate the problem was what to do with the recently retired (and huge) locomotive depot at Nine Elms together with the adjacent decaying goods yards, no longer needed as railway goods traffic containerized. Would this not make an eminently fine site for a museum—and it was rail connected? It is doubtful if Lambeth knew that in 1950 the BTC had wanted to put their museum there in the first place! Even the GLC was supportive, but not so supportive they could at then put any money on the table. To have built a brand new museum on the derelict site, even as part of a regeneration project, would have been very expensive and the idea withered —it became the new fruit and vegetable market.

Public interest was such that a Pathe newsreel covering ‘possible’ closure of Clapham was produced, issued in January 1970, and may be seen HERE.

The government, with British Rail, was now obliged to examine a wider range of options, several put forward by outside parties with an opinion. These included St Pancras station, which at about that time was under consideration for closure, astonishing though that may seem to anyone who has been there recently. Long distance trains were to be diverted to Kings Cross or Euston whilst medium and local services would go to Moorgate via what today we would call the Thameslink tunnel. What to do with this vast place was a major problem, the more so as it had been Grade 1 listed in 1967. Some thought it would make a splendid museum and was sufficiently large to enable full-sized track, station and equipment layouts to be installed under its enormous roof. Alas, the building was not yet closed and any closure might be years away. Moreover the conversion and running costs would be enormous, and that makes no allowance for the lost opportunity cost compared with some commercial use. Nor could it be assumed that those who had later to run the museum would be content with such a building on conservation grounds (though I don’t think matters got that far). Although its proponents persisted in their cause, the St Pancras possibility was never really going to fly.

An equally implausible location was Greenwich. Although a very fine town for a museum, and very much on the tourist trail, the desired location was the turbine hall at London Transport’s old power station there (which had been built to serve the London County Council tramways). LT had modernized its electricity supply during the 1960s and built a small peak load and emergency power plant in the old boiler house, leaving the disused (and very big) turbine hall virtually empty. It made (and still makes) an eerie site with its vast concrete plinths lurking in this huge empty space. The location was awful as it was situated in side streets near the river and conversion costs would have been immense even if the property were granted free (it was very difficult to find a use for it which is why half a century later it is still empty).  Nor was it really big enough. That idea went nowhere either.

Greenwich PS 2

The old turbine hall at Greenwich power station. It is hard to gauge scale here but probably the best clues are the staircases and railings. Though a vast empty space, I have estimated this area as about 45,000 sq ft (if all useable), very much smaller than Clapham. Photo: John Liffen

The Transport Trust in conjunction with the Clapham Society and others was energetic in trying to find a London location and felt that the near derelict low level station at Crystal Palace might be suitable; it would by its nature be rail-connected. The services of the civil engineers Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons were obtained for the technical development of the scheme (the company was very supportive of the railway preservation movement). The idea was to divert the through train service from the main station to the Beckenham platforms, thus leaving this very substantial and historic building wholly available for a museum. It had lost its roof but as it was largely in cutting replacement was straightforward. A great deal of work went into this scheme.


This detailed model of the proposed Crystal Palace transport museum is viewed looking roughly north and shows the new roof design with original station entrance. The area in question is now the terminus of the London Overground service.

Throughout all this, there was a suspicion that government was just going through the motions and was doing no more than finding evidence to justify a decision already taken. In March 1970, Mr John Brown, director of Tourism in York, said there was ‘not the slightest doubt that the move to York will take place’. He also mentioned he had been involved in discussion about the possibility of running steam trains between York and Scarborough. Eric Merrill had been wholly dismissive of such a thing and said the matter was ‘not even worth discussing’, in consequence of which the Lord Mayor appealed to Henry Johnson (BR chairman) who said he would send some officials to discuss it. There is other evidence that Merrill was firmly of the view only York would proceed and was making his own plans even before the Transport Act received the Royal Assent.

In June 1970 a new government was formed, this time of a conservative flavour, and Lord Eccles became minister for the arts, discovering (according to the Guardian) that he had found “a very hot potato” on his desk. This change provided hope to those who felt an opportunity had arisen to revisit the decision with a fresh mind but after acquainting himself with the position gave the parliamentary action group and its supporters (and by implication anyone else with a suggestion) until 15 March 1971 to come up with new proposals for a rail connected, costed museum in London, along with ways of bridging the gap between the cost of any new museum and the sale value of the Clapham site. As virtually any scheme in London would leave a large funding gap, the challenge proved impossible.

Lord Eccles announced on 11 May 1971 that BT Museum Clapham would close 12 months hence and the railway exhibits would be transferred to York where a National Railway Museum was going to be established. The government would consult the GLC and Science Museum about arrangements for storing the London exhibits. The Crystal Palace idea had several snags, he explained, including diversion of the BR line through the old (Beckenham line) station which could not be done for four years and would have cost £1m against £500,000 for York (descriptions of this scheme suggest the cost of BR even releasing the site might exceed £650,000).

Sceptics became firmly convinced that the government had at no point been serious about altering its view and those who have been into the matter have found no evidence that during this second round of examining sites for a museum any serious attempt was made to find an alternative to York (the London options were virtually self-excluding because of the Treasury obsession with the scheme being self-funding). With more time to examine a shared cost option, perhaps an alternative could have been found.

The decision was not entirely unexpected and this time the opponents more or less went away quietly. There was no more to be done. The Railway Magazine sounded off intemperately about ‘the north’ congratulating itself about the decision as were those resentful of the Clapham museum outshining the new Land Transport Gallery at the Science Museum—a preposterous comment in the sense that they were never in competition and the authorities understood the purposes of the museums were different. The issue about ‘the north’ in some way ‘winning’ is interesting since as far as I can see none of this tortuous process involved consideration of ‘the north’ being a strategic objective. As far as I can see the decision rested almost entirely on Clapham having (it was said) to close, no money being available beyond its sale price, and there being a spare engine shed at York which for entirely practical reasons was considered as an acceptable place to have a museum (and York didn’t want to lose the one it had). It is true that in an earlier speech by Jenny Lee she said that the provinces wanted a share of the arts (in its widest sense) and it was not the exclusive preserve of London, but this was after the decision had been made public the first time around and the uproar started, requiring post hoc justification. It is also true that when museum sites in London were being considered in 1966 there was concern about whether planning permission might be granted owing to decentralization policies, but this was never tested as plans were overtaken by events.

Lord Eccles had much on his plate as the Heath government was determined to drive through the policy of charging for admission to national institutions, causing much annoyance to many of them as they were not consulted. After a great deal of confusion and debate these charges were introduced at the beginning of 1973 but did not last long (the Science Museum under direct departmental control was one of these). Admission charges were later reintroduced, and will be mentioned in due course. For our purposes it is sufficient to note that entry to the NRM would now have to be free as a matter of policy (the case for moving to York was based in part on entry charges being continued).

I should add that the irritation being caused by the needless proposal to co-locate the British Transport Historical Records at York did eventually penetrate the government mind and announced by Eccles at the same time as the York museum decision was that the records would be retained at Porchester Road and eventually transferred to the Public Record Office. This was probably because it would be a tad cheaper, but it was regarded at least as a partial victory. PRO control began quite quickly but it was some years before they were moved to the new building at Kew and in 1984 the whole lot were formally designated as public records, giving them a level of protection they had never had before.

The fate of Swindon

In all this worry about Clapham and York the issue of Swindon was resolved and needs a mention. The Science Museum was consistent in its view that it did not want to get involved with running the museum at Swindon. It was already perfectly obvious that the building was too small, especially with the influx of new material coming forth as British Rail modernized. British Rail would not finance any improvement, given it was trying so hard to disengage from museums, yet Swindon Borough Council felt unable to provide any capital for enlargement.

Following the suggestion in 1967 that the museum be transferred to Swindon Borough Council (and with other possibilities discounted), British Rail began discussions with the council during 1969. The problem was that British Rail had a 30-year lease from the Council, guaranteeing a rental income to the latter, and the council wanted neither to lose this nor be saddled with the cost of making improvements. Clearly this was a position that could be solved only by British Rail buying itself out of the agreement. These tedious discussions dragged on for three years and it was not until 1972 that agreement was reached. By this agreement British Rail was absolved of any responsibility for running the building which reverted to Swindon Borough Council to operate and develop as it pleased.

The Science Museum became involved in these discussions as the question arose about the future of the objects in the museum, which were then owned by British Rail. Follett’s view was that while they had a regional bias they were an important contribution to British railway history and should remain in what, by now, was being referred to as the national collection. He was perfectly happy for them to remain at Swindon permanently on a loan basis but in due course ownership of the British Rail objects should transfer to the DES and their safety and security should by administered from the NRM at York, like all the other items in the national railway collection. This is indeed what happened and arrangements were made for occasional transfers of suitable material between the museums, particularly suitable locomotives. Since the transfer of control, Swindon, not unnaturally, obtained new material on its own account through purchase, donations, bequests and so on and these were owned by the Swindon authorities and are nothing to do with the NRM. I don’t know what practical complication this creates but the arrangement seems to have endured for over forty years and I understand there is a good relationship between the museums. The town of Swindon was absorbed in 1974 by a new local authority with the unloved name of ‘Thamesdown District Council’, to whom the museum devolved. The name appeared everywhere, virtually eliminating the official use of the name Swindon, but nobody outside knew where Thamesdown was. Swindon managed to extract itself from this aberration on 1 April 1997 and became a unitary authority entirely accountable for its own destiny and one of the first measures it took was to restore the name Swindon, from 24 April. Swindon wanted to proclaim its heritage.

More importantly Swindon Railway Works had closed in 1986 and a major development of the historic site was wanted. As part of this, the opportunity arose for an enlarged railway museum within the new development using  some of the Grade II listed disused workshop buildings, the earliest part dating to 1846. The new Museum (called Steam) opened in June 2001, superseding the old museum building which closed in 1999. A great deal larger than the old building it enables some rather more interesting displays to be offered. Notwithstanding the number of new acquisitions made, more than half of the objects in the museum are still part of the national collection. The museum makes an entry charge.

Getting the National Railway Museum Completed

The basic structure to comprise the new museum was the surviving part of the old York North engine maintenance facility, consisting of Nos 3 and 4 sheds (the other two being demolished in 1957/8 and replaced by a straight shed subsequently comprising the diesel depot). The site dates to 1875 when the NER built sheds on the site to hold 60 locomotives, three being erected at that time. A fourth shed (No 4) was added in 1915 after which both Nos 3 and 4 had 60ft electrically driven electric turntables. One of these was subsequently replaced by a 70ft machine. When the first two sheds were demolished in the 1950s the two remaining sheds were remodelled and a new roof was built, more or less converting the space into a single building with two turntables, each with tracks radiating off them.


York North shed shortly before building work began to convert the building into the National Railway Museum.  Image Roger Cornfoot and used subject to Creative Commons Licence (Geograph)

After detailed planning work was completed a contract was let in 1972 for the conversion of the building into a museum. The total area for display at York was 83,625 sq ft though 6675 sq ft comprised turntable space, so perhaps only about 78,000 sq ft of the area was ‘useful’. The contract price was  £984,000 and when one contemplates that this did not include any notional cost for transfer of the land, the move and arrangement of the exhibits and (probably) some final tailoring to the needs of the new staff we can safely estimate the whole cost exceeded £1 million. This was far more than the expected sale value of the Clapham site and demolished at a stroke the credibility of any meaningful business case for moving from Clapham, though, as we shall see, worse was to follow. By the way, Clapham was sold back to London Transport in 1976 as a bus store (and later a bus garage, the use it had before becoming a museum). It would not seem that BR was remunerated by any redevelopment premium. Although the sale to LT brought in £750,000, if one allows for the rampant inflation at that time the equivalent value in 1971, when the business case was being constructed, was only around £350,000, which was vastly below expectations being claimed at the time. It is doubtful that disposal or reuse of the land at Queen Street (York) made much of a contribution. One can see that the transfer of the principal museum from Clapham to York was actually very costly and hardly represents the ‘savings’ alleged to have justify the move.

Work began on the new York site early in 1973. The main activity was the complete renovation of the old shed and adaptation for its new role as the main public display area. In addition it was necessary to construct some new buildings at one side of the depot to provide an entrance hall with street access, refreshment room, offices, shop and a small exhibits gallery. In March it was announced that the British Transport Museum at Clapham would close to the public on 31 December 1973 to allow plenty of time for the material to be prepared for safe transmission to York or to be removed as part of the dispersal programme (creating more space within which the large objects could be moved around). In the meantime Sir David (as he now was) Follett was succeeded on 11 January by Margaret Weston as the director of the Science Museum. During the various interviews that inevitably accompanied such handovers in those days, Follett spoke approvingly of the 1000ft of track, the two turntables and rail access that would allow the large exhibits to be changed around, making it a ‘living’ museum. It was hoped that the building would be handed over for installation of the museum in July the following year. It was also a good sign that visitor numbers to the existing railway museum at York during 1972 had hit 215,000 which would be a good base upon which the new museum could build (the much larger Clapham museum attracted only 130,000). Intriguingly Follett also referred to the ongoing possibility that the museum’s steam locomotives might be used to haul trains along the Scarborough line (and despite Merrill’s earlier opinions, some trains did).


One of the locos being withdrawn from the old museum at York on temporary tracks connected to the main line south of York station.


The easiest way of moving material from the old museum at York to the new one  was by rail through the station. Here we see Aerolite being shifted early in 1975.


A more interesting transfer occurred on 12 April 1975 when this unusual train passed along the Midland main line. Exhibits were being moved from Clapham to York. Those that were capable of moving on their own wheels did so whilst others were on well wagons. [Photo David Eatwell]

In July 1974 the Science Museum sought a keeper to run the new museum at York and in September Dr John A Coiley was formally appointed Keeper of National Railway Museum, though based in London until such time as the new offices in York could be used. He had previously been an assistant keeper at the Science Museum having joined only in January 1973 and was by profession a metallurgist. The main hall was not in fact ready for handing over the SM’s fit-out team until 31 October 1974. At this ceremony Margaret Weston graciously accepted responsibility for the building and its subsequent fitout from the British Rail, who supplied (of all people) Eric Merrill, who must have felt more than satisfied that he was at last getting shot of this unwanted responsibility.


One should not underestimate the challenge facing Coiley and his team for the opening date had already been set by the time he entered his post, and he had just eleven months to turn this shell into a public museum. An opening on 27 September 1975 had been selected as coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, for which the local celebrations were to be coordinated with the museum’s opening celebrations. Coiley had to finish a job where the building (over which he had no say in the design) was handed over late and where the exhibits (which were mainly not his or of his choosing) had to be moved, made fit for and arranged for display substantially to a plan he had also not hitherto had any say in. Even so, the job was done!

The opening ceremony was conducted by HRH Duke of Edinburgh but from BRB’s point of view by far the most important moment was that of the formal handover by its chairman, Richard Marsh, to Mr Hugh Jenkins, the latest Minister for the Arts, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Marsh made an amusing speech in which he explained his delight at handing over ‘this excellent museum’ to the DES, ‘who will now have the pleasure of paying for its upkeep’, rather than the BRB. Dr John Coiley graciously acted as host for the event.

The royal ceremony was attended by a large party from London brought up by special train, the prototype HST set being made available for the occasion. I was part of that party and all went well until an engine fire in the rear power car brought us to a halt in the middle of nowhere in particular. We got going again before some braking problem caused another delay. Fortunately we were able to proceed using only the front power car and limped into York 50-minutes late and only just before the ceremony was due to start; I recall we were ushered into the museum with great vigour. All was well. HRH had come by royal train which had run in front of us, so he was on time. HRH was also a guest at the Stockton & Darlington event, so after lunch with the Lord Mayor of York he went off to Eaglescliffe for a banquet (we assume he has a good appetite). For this trip BR conveyed him by our now-repaired HST set which behaved itself. It later collected home-going guests from York to London again where it managed to lose 40-minutes causing havoc on the East Coast main line. All in a good cause!

Museum Layout and Subsequent Development

The arrangement of the museum when it opened will not be apparent to anyone visiting today (42 years after the event) so a map might be helpful.

Old-Maps - the online repository of historic maps - Map 459500 4

This plan clearly indicates the boundary between the former Nos 3 and 4 sheds (marked Railway Museum, No 4 shed having been the block at the north end) and the reconstructed depot retained by British Rail on the right (on the site of the old Nos 1 and 2 sheds). The original museum entrance off Leeman Road is at north end of museum.

The most important point to note is that the museum did not then include the space occupied by the BR-retained diesel depot and that some new construction had been erected in the area around the entrance, forming (amongst other things) the administration and service block that is seen here as the protrusion of the main hall running parallel with Leeman Road immediately south of the entrance. It also included a workshop.

In his first guide book to the museum Coiley was complimentary of the British Rail architects who he thought had skilfully retained much of the atmosphere of the old steam engine shed … while conveying a light and spacious feeling to the main exhibition hall.


This (not brilliant) image gives good impression of the main hall shortly after it opened and it still really looks like an engine shed. More recently this ‘atmosphere’ has somewhat been lost.

Since that happy day the museum has grown somewhat. Unfortunately the concrete roof of the main display area (the former motive power depot) was found to need replacement in the late 1980s, notwithstanding that it was not all that old. This was a hugely expensive blow to the overall Science Museum budget (notwithstanding some extra government assistance) and had not been foreseen. It meant temporary closure of the NRM exhibition hall as it was impossible to contemplate doing anything with this massive roof while the building was occupied. It raises yet another question about the selection of the building by British Rail in the first place, since the extra money spend on commissioning it, and expensive subsequent works, would (with hindsight) have probably paid for a completely purpose-built facility or even covered the costs of the Crystal Palace proposal.

Fortunately the covered goods depot on the other side of Leeman Road had been vacated and the museum had obtained possession, using it as a store. This is the building marked ‘Transit Shed’ on the map above. It was sufficiently large to use as a reduced temporary museum while the main work was carried out between 1989 and 1991 and was retained afterwards as extra gallery space. It is today know as the Station Hall as the goods loading platforms have been adapted to make it look more like a station. A temporary entrance was necessary for its use as the museum building and this was subsequently retained, becoming the main, or ‘City’ entrance. The old transit shed was not itself large enough to house the displaced objects and to make the best of the crisis the NRM acquired space in the now empty works at Swindon to create ‘The Great Railway Show’, which I suppose in modern language might be called a pop-up museum. It was reasonably successful in making the best of the situation but moving all this material to Swindon, and back, was a huge distraction and expense. The Science Museum contributed Puffing Billy for the duration.

The work on the main building was completed in 1992 and it reopened on 16 April. It was linked to the south building and new entrance by an internal subway under Leeman Road. An important change to the layout happened at the same time involving removal of the 60ft turntable at the west end and the laying in of some straight track instead. This allowed more efficient use of space and resulted in several rail exhibits having now to be arranged on short sections of display track and less easy to move than before.

York diesel depot closed in January 1982. At some point it became a museum store but following the refurbishment required by the new roof it was convenient to reconstruct this block to form extra gallery space upstairs and a modern new heavy duty workshop and conservation facility whilst at the same reconstructing the 27,000 sq ft store so that about 7500 items could be viewed by the public. This all opened in July 1999 vastly increasing access to the collection and increasing the museum’s ability to engage in rolling stock repair and overhaul. In 2012 further improvements were made to the museum including a much-improved museum entrance that replaced the ‘City’ entrance that had not been intended to be permanent. A more detailed description of what is presently on site will be given in the next part.

Government policy towards whether national museums ought to be able to charge an admission fee has been inconsistent. The Science Museum was required to make a charge during 1973/4 but after policy change these were removed; in consequence the National Railway Museum was also free when opened in 1975. Later policy changes resulted in fees again being introduced at national museums, the Science Museum introducing charges in 1988 (including the NRM) and this hugely depressed numbers visiting. Another change of policy saw a promise to remove them being made in 1999 but this had to be done in stages because (of all things) VAT laws had to be amended and charges for ordinary visitors were withdrawn only from 1st December 2001. I have not bothered to track how the charges varied but the NRM entry charge in 1999 was £6.50. Corrected to today’s prices this would be about £10.50. Just to give a flavour, the three shilling charge being made at Clapham around 1970 would be of the order of £2.50. Today, Steam at Swindon charges £8.90. Make of this what you will, but in the four years after fees were withdrawn at York, the footfall doubled.

The initial display

Before signing off from this episode, I just need to say something about the original displays. The design of the building, dominated by its two turntables, meant that there was curiously little latitude about how material could be displayed. Basically anything on rails had to be on one of the 44 stub roads springing from one or other of the turntables. Even this was fraught with complication as these stub roads were of  widely varying length and the larger vehicles would not fit on the shorter roads. This precluded some of the more logical layouts that might have been considered. Most vehicles faced towards the turntables (which I will comment on next time), with locos surrounding one turntable and miscellaneous rolling stock the other. Although an early brochure described exactly how the locomotives were deployed, Dr Coiley explained that it was impossible to display many of the total collection and that those on display would be rotated (in both senses of the word) with those in reserve or lent elsewhere. The museum soon overcame the ongoing presentational challenge by merely listing its holdings without committing itself to where they might be found, or whether they were in the museum at all. With so many objects and so little space, he could do nothing else. The combined useful area of Clapham and the old museum at York was virtually 100,000 sq ft whilst at the NRM the useable floor area I estimate (as noted earlier) at 78,000 sq foot and despite the earlier culling of locomotives more had since been acquired.

Some small material, selected from the vast stock accumulated by the BTC, was displayed along a first floor gallery and from descriptions at the time probably did more to explain railway history than the rolling stock downstairs.


This (above) represents the arrangement of the 44 stub roads for the rolling stock and locomotives but the plan also shows the locations of the various other displays, rather at the back of things. The actual material is given on the chart below.



This part has sought to describe the fall from grace of the BTC Museums, the government’s involvement and the tortuous process by which the decision was made to establish a National Railway Museum at York, partly, at least, because it appeared to be the cheapest way of dealing with what had become ‘a problem’. That it cost vastly more than the sale price of the former museum sites and required subsequent expensive remedial work, all wholly at the public expense, is regrettable given that there was no great urgency apparent! Nevertheless, once the decision was made, great effort was put into making the best of it and when the NRM opened it was very favourably received. Moreover the collections policy (the museum could demand redundant material from British Rail) was very active, perhaps too active in some areas, and important material was recovered for posterity.

In London, meanwhile, the Land Transport Gallery at the Science Museum was closed at 6pm on Sunday 30 June 1996. Many who knew it missed it and transport, a major contribution to Britain’s industrial history, no longer gets the prominence it had enjoyed. Many objects went to York, some were stored and (to the great surprise of at least a few) some material was disposed of to outside organizations. I dare say it could be argued that the technologies are still on show in that museum, just not as applied to railways, buses, trams and so on. Whether anyone remembered the ministerial promise made in 1968—well, who can say.

Of course, there is the London Transport Museum, an unintended consequence of closing Clapham. Quite understandably London Transport did not want its exhibits to leave London. This tale is for another day, but for our purposes this eventually led to the establishment of a London Transport museum at Covent Garden, opened in 1980 and still with us. Presumably it was also a further public sector cost resulting directly from closing Clapham. I am by no means averse to these museums being built and run at public expense (quite the opposite!) but the more I look into the background to the NRM, the more nonsensical the original financial case for dismembering the BTC transport museums appears to be. Perhaps a kinder word is ‘naive’.

In the next part I will review the museum as it is today when I had a good nose around in summer. I hope to be able to make some observations about how the museum has developed over the last forty years and whether (and if so how) it has sought to overcome the early constraints placed upon it. I will also have some objective observations about the extent to which it succeeds in its mission, and subjective thoughts about alternative approaches.








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