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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