Britain’s National Railway Museum: Part 2

The British Transport Museums


In Part 1, I described the origin of the LNER’s railway museum in York. Until well after World War 2 this was the only railway museum in the UK, although there were several other museums that included railway exhibits and a great deal of smaller material in private hands.

This article describes how railway collections were expanded and managed following railway nationalization in 1948 and takes us to the point where circumstances changed and British Railways lobbied strongly to divest itself of the responsibility.

Please note that some additions have been made to Part 1 since it was originally posted.

Preservation Policy

In 1948, inland transport was nationalized and the railways, canals, London Transport and numerous interests in bus and freight companies passed to the British Transport Commission (BTC). The best that might be said of the BTC is that it was well-intentioned. Even before it took office in 1948 it acknowledged it had inherited a great number of old documents and physical artefacts and that there should be some mechanism for looking after them. Of course, the existing material would inevitably be supplemented by retiring locomotives, rolling stock and equipment that would also deserved a place in history. This would add to the bulk of the material and early action was suggested to establish some kind of framework to identify and retain whatever was appropriate.

The matter was gone into by the former secretary of the LMSR, Mr G.R. Smith, in 1949. Already the BTC was speaking about a possible museum, for which Smith was initially tipped as curator, anticipating the need for such an establishment before any of the background work had been done. Curiously, Smith was never actually transferred to the staff of the BTC and remained associated with the LMSR which, for technical reasons, could not quickly be wound up. This was not entirely without good fortunate as there was rapid retraction from the idea of appointing a museum curator in the absence of any kind of plan and he was simply asked to review the matter of preserving existing and additional transport relics and records and to report. It was agreed he would do this in his personal capacity given his knowledge of the industry and to pay him 1000 guineas (which was quite a lot of money in those days). Unfortunately when the report appeared, several of those asking for it felt that it was not of a very high quality. In fact one senior member of the BTC described Smith as ‘an unimaginative bureaucrat, quite out of his depth once away from the detail in which his life had presumably been immersed.’ For the BTC to accuse someone as ‘bureaucratic’ was damnation itself! It was in fact slightly unfair as some good points had been raised, nevertheless it was convenient to avoid further detaining his departure from the scene. Instead, a committee of senior officers and staff was established to produce some kind of policy, and this appeared in 1951.

The BTC committee was headed by Sidney Taylor (Deputy Secretary BTC), assisted by Christian Barman (BTC Publicity Officer, an ex GWR man with an interest in architecture and railway history). From the executives were J.R. Hind (Railways), H.F. Hutchison (London Transport), S.C. Howard (Docks and Inland Waterways), and T.H. Baker (Hotels). Smith gets a brief mention and is congratulated for his index of all the relics he had been able to find, suggesting the BTC’s thousand guineas had not been entirely wasted, though his activities were not referred to again.

BTC-DocBroadly the report confirmed that the existing railway museum in York would be retained by the BTC, together with another collection in Edinburgh. Additionally, the emerging collection of small exhibits identified by the BTC would be brought together in the shareholders’ room at Euston (and perhaps elsewhere) where they could be viewed. The whole mass of material needed to be catalogued, the larger exhibits preferably brought together for safe keeping and a curator for them needed to be appointed.

In the longer term it was felt that a British Transport Museum in the London area should be provided, preferably in former railway premises, and the idea of using Nine Elms goods depot was floated. This had been built by Sir William Tite (of Royal Exchange fame) as the terminus of the London & Southampton Railway. The station went out of passenger use in 1848 but the frontage was intact and the old platform area and train shed remained largely unscathed as goods shed ‘B’. Immediate progress was impossible in the economic climate. I should add that when the matter was later reviewed, the Southern Region refused to release the site, which was still in use, and when it eventually became redundant the main block was demolished almost immediately in 1963 and the shed behind shortly afterwards. Those days were not good for the preservation of important buildings.


The inside of the shed at Nine Elms that was suggested for use as a museum

The report also referred to the great inventory of historic buildings. Many had survived in a meaningful form, but largely as a result of a combination of accident, fine construction and a continuation of their original purpose. Any building unhappily failing even one of these tests, if not already lost or mutilated beyond recovery, was an endangered species that could be lost without reference to anyone as soon as circumstances invited removal, or simply decay through neglect. It was felt that a preservation policy ought to apply equally to buildings. In fact this was not pursued as part of the quest to sort out non-property relics and building preservation was only recognized as important some decades later (by which time, of course, further buildings had been lost).

Implementing a Policy

At the time of the 1951 report there was mounting pressure from specialist transport societies for the BTC (a public corporation) to preserve important items for the nation. The idea of a British Transport Museum, ‘near London’, was therefore welcomed for presenting a coherent history of ‘British Transport’ using objects not better suited for display ‘in their respective localities’ (in other words the regional railway museums such as York). In 1951 the commission retained the services of professional specialists to take responsibility for records and for relics and Mr John Scholes was appointed curator of relics. Scholes had first become involved with museums in Southport and became curator of Southport’s Churchtown Botanic Gardens museum before WW2, and for a short while afterwards. He was then appointed curator of York’s Castle Museum, whose improvement and expansion he was responsible for. His task at the BTC was more demanding as there was no museum but there were vast numbers of relics. With few staff, no real idea of what had already been put on one side (or where) and no clear vision of what was expected, the task was somewhat daunting.

It will be seen from what had already been said that the BTC had inherited a great deal of historical material already. Scholes, its new curator, was assisted by ‘a small staff’, but progress was difficult against the BTC’s mounting financial losses and the absence of any specific legislation requiring the organization to maintain, and make available to the public, historic records and relics. Effort went into identifying and cataloguing the existing material. By the end of 1952 some 10,000 objects had been catalogued and donations of new material accepted from private individuals. The BTC knew it had a problem with display space but supported a policy whereby high-quality models of locomotives and other items might be made by apprentice engineers as part of their training, as these could be displayed a great deal more easily than a full-scale machine. The Commission already had quite a few exquisite models and the continued desire to accept representative models is one reason why the national collection now has so many of them (though the Science Museum, for similar reasons, also acquired many models for display).


One of the (seemingly) hundreds of railway models now held in the national collection. They are almost all superb models: surely they must be harder to make than the real thing because the work is so fiddly. They are an under-used resource now but when made were a practical alternative to full-sized objects for which there was no space.

In the meantime Scholes established an office initially at Euston and then at Fielden House in Westminster, a building used by the wartime railway executive and close to 55 Broadway, then the BTC’s headquarters. It was a couple of miles distant from the beating heart of practical activity at 222 Marylebone Road, where several BTC executives were based, including the Railway Executive (or ‘British Railways’, as it called itself). An early move was to begin assembling the smaller relics together in London and made arrangements to display them in a series of exhibitions in the shareholders room. The first was ‘London on Wheels’, in May 1953, in which year a mobile exhibition was arranged called ‘Royal Journey’, which comprised a number of royal vehicles that were displayed first in London and then visited a number of other towns and cities, attracting 154,143 visitors during the 80 exhibition days.

Two further London exhibitions were held at Euston; ‘Popular Carriage’ in 1954 and ‘Steam Locomotive: A Valedictory Exhibition’ in 1955. In each case a small charge was made for entry and the exhibition documentation was used as the basis for booklets of the same name that were available for several years. ‘London on Wheels’, was written by C Hamilton Ellis with a forward by Lord Hurcomb and a short section about the shareholder’s room itself which is unattributed but probably written by Scholes, who was responsible for its restoration. ‘Royal Trains’ and the ‘Popular Carriage’ were by C Hamilton Ellis and O.S. Nock wrote the ‘Steam Locomotive’ (this was subtitled ‘A Retrospective of the Work of Eight Great Locomotive Engineers’). The books were at least in part anchored to the material being accumulated in the BTC collection and even today are a readable contribution to the general knowledge about transport and were a useful addition to transport knowledge at that time.


The special exhibition train used for the Royal Journey mobile exhibition

In November 1956 a more general exhibition was opened at Euston, called ‘Transport Treasures’. This was a long term exhibition and it was regularly refreshed by changing some of the objects as only a small proportion could be displayed at any one time. It was arguably London’s first transport museum, though was confined to relatively small exhibits, including models. After great obstacles had been overcome, a mobile (train-borne) version was created and first opened its doors at Belgrave Road station in Leicester in June 1957 in conjunction with Leicester’s railway centenary exhibition. It was possible sometimes to include restored vehicles and locomotives, not previously having been on display, and at Leicester two locomotives and a dining car were included. The train visited many parts of England before heavy maintenance costs made continuance impossible.


Part of the London on Wheels exhibition in the shareholders room at Euston station in 1953. The showcases and other display apparatus were purchased with eventual use in a permanent museum in mind.

Against this increasingly challenging background the objective of establishing a Museum of British Transport somewhere in London (and regional museums elsewhere) had not altered. Arguably the regional museum at York already existed, even if it needed overhaul. A GWR Museum was sought at Swindon and a Welsh museum was mooted for Cardiff. A certain amount of Scottish material was already stored in Edinburgh, some of it on display. There was little manpower, little money and an awkward relationship with government as railway losses mounted and the modernization programme was not going well. Meanwhile the exhibits were piling up and desperately needed safe and secure storage facilities reducing risk of theft, accident and atmospheric deterioration. Scholes and his staff were collecting, restoring, conserving and displaying items and found themselves also providing advice to a huge range of bodies from Universities to local authorities, personal researchers, television and film companies and the BTC itself.

BTC books V2

Examples of the exhibition booklets originally produced in 1953-6  for Scholes’s temporary exhibitions and remaining in print (with updated covers) until the late 1960s.  They are published (top L-R) 1953, 1953 and 1954 (below L-R) 1955 and 1956.

BTC books-1955-6

The Clapham Museum

Towards the end of 1958 a disused bus garage at Clapham (formerly a tram depot) became available and Scholes felt that it could probably be made suitable at modest cost for conversion into the London museum. The decision weighed up cost of adapting the building, the imperative for finding homes for vehicles and other material already acquired, which had become urgent, and the probability of another site appearing that would be both better and remain affordable. He appreciated from the start that lack of rail connection was a hindrance but we should not overlook the fact that the BTC at that time owned heavy haulage contractors such as Pickfords and the railway depot at Nine Elms was not far away. The display space was 55,000 sq ft which, in the light of prevailing knowledge, was thought sufficient and there was also space for a reserve collection and 25,000 sq ft for offices, workshops and display galleries. Most importantly it had a vast roof with no supporting columns. It was mooted at the time that a large exhibit really needed 1000 sq ft of space to be able to view it properly, if that gives a feel for where things were heading. We might reasonably surmise the total floor area at Clapham (some on more than one level) did not exceed 125,000 sq ft but Scholes knew that if one included car parks, cafes, workshops and stored materials, lecture theatres and so on for the whole of the existing British collection, as well as sufficient room for expansion, then perhaps 60 acres might be needed, say 2.5 million sq ft. One has to include the regional museums in all this and even if there were six of them the same size as Clapham then there was going to be less than half the space available compared with that ideally needed. Fortunately the Clapham site hardly needed a car park (it had a very small one) but it was awkward for (say) coach parties. But it was a start, and for the reasons given the decision was made and matters unfolded accordingly.

Clapham Setup

The main hall at Clapham Museum early in 1961 whilst still being arranged. It is clear from the photo how useful it was to have no roof columns, which would have greatly constrained the layout.

The small exhibits were made available to the public from 29 March 1961 and this was fairly straightforward as it was an enlargement of the existing Transport Treasures displays. The larger exhibits in the main part of the building were at first available by appointment only and were only opened to the public from 28 May 1963. During that year 100,000 people visited Clapham (not fully open for six months), about 200,000 visited York and 250,000 visited the Swindon museum, which opened in June 1962. One might observe that all three museums now levied an entrance charge and I draw attention to the irony (noted at the time) of the facilities having been free under private ownership and charged for under public control!!


The flyer designed to encourage people to visit the new museum when only the small exhibits section was open and access was from the rear of the building.


The small exhibits section at Clapham, opened in 1961. The showcases appear to be those previously employed in the Shareholders room at Euston.

The museum at Clapham was well received and the large hall contained a number of main line locomotives, carriages and other equipment and buses, trams, railway rolling stock and other material that London Transport had been storing for some years. There were a few exhibits from the BTC’s wider activities too. There were extensive displays of small exhibits, posters and publicity as well as the large material. I visited frequently as a schoolboy and found the place captivating. Scholes explained when the museum opened that he had managed to include over a hundred (mainly) rail and road vehicles covering 125 years of history. Mostly vehicles were in ‘original’ livery (I’m not going to debate that) but the purpose was to show off the wealth of craftsmanship and the story of an industry which was famous throughout the world. It should not be thought there were only vehicles and the small exhibits for there was also a good deal of other railway paraphernalia to be seen. Most people who saw the museum at the time were very complimentary about it. Ian Nairn, who was not the most easily pleased of critics of social architecture, covered it in his 1966 book, Nairn’s London, a sought-after work recently reprinted. He was positively enthusiastic about it, or more particularly its contents. The historian Jack Simmons had studied transport museums and he too had much good to say about Clapham. Something had gone right!


The main entrance to the Museum of British Transport in Clapham High Street in 1963-4, the culmination of nearly 70 years of agitation for a national transport museum. I do not think the Rocket display outside was there on opening day, though it appeared shortly afterwards. It is a replica (one of nine!) and the original is in the Science Museum.  The replica appears to have been one made by the London & North Western Railway in 1881 (or 1886) as a static display. After Clapham closed the woodwork was found rotten but the frames and some other parts were recovered and used to make a steaming replica (built 1975-79), now kept at York. The building extended all the way back to Triangle Place (which was the staff entrance and postal address, and used to access the small exhibits before the main hall opened).    © National Railway Museum and SSPL

Clapham at first included a number of waterways exhibits, some of which were problematical when not displayed in the context of water. When at about the time of Clapham’s full opening the British Waterways Board developed its own museum at Stoke Bruern, Scholes was pleased to pass across the waterways exhibits. It was better they be all in one place (which was also on a canalside) than try to do the job badly in Clapham, and it released a small amount of additional space.

The opening of the new museum was a big event in London, and British Pathé covered it in one of their newsreels, which you can see HERE.


John Scholes entertaining some visitors


A representative view of part of the main hall at Clapham shortly after opening. To have all the exhibits finally on display like this was a triumph. The displays were hardly contextually arranged, though, and in many ways are comparable to those at the NRM York today. in that one has to fight for the story.


Another view of part of the Clapham display. On the right is another replica of the Rocket whilst in the foreground is an 1846 Furness Railway locomotive for many years displayed at Barrow and bearing the scars of a WW2 air raid.

Although the curatorial staff were BTC (and, later, British Railways) staff under Scholes’s control the security and ancillary staff were from London Transport, mainly staff medically retired from (typically) driving a train or a bus but otherwise fit. Once the main exhibits had been opened to the public the entry charge was increased to 2 shillings and 6 pence (weekdays only, though Sunday openings occasionally took place later and were popular).

The Swindon Museum

The Swindon museum had always been developed with the support and involvement of Swindon Corporation, which supplied the building. This had been designed and constructed by Brunel in the early 1850s for the GWR as a set of model lodgings for railway staff but not found popular. Subsequent conversion to self-contained flats proved equally problematic and around 1869 the company disposed of the building which became a Wesleyan chapel. The last service was held in September 1959. By happy coincidence the BTC was by then looking for a site for its GWR museum and the building was judged very suitable. With such use in mind, it was conveyed to Swindon Corporation in 1960. Use as a museum benefited both the corporation and the BTC, which was responsible for providing and arranging the exhibits and operating the facility, which, as already noted, opened on 28 June 1962. The ceremony was performed by R.F. Hanks, chairman of the BTC’s Western Region board in the presence of the Mayor of Swindon and the General Manger of the Western Region, Mr S.E. Raymond, who was soon to become BR chairman. In Hanks’s speech he mentioned he was an incurable railway sentimentalist. I don’t think we could say the same of Raymond, as we will see in due course, or of Beeching, who was Hank’s boss when he disclosed his inclinations!

The arrangements for management of the museum were perhaps over-complicated. During the setting up process the practical impetus was left in the hands of British Railways’ Western Region which at first carried the cost of restoring and preparing for exhibition many of the large exhibits at the nearby Swindon works; it also conducted the negotiations with Swindon Corporation. The actual selection of exhibits was made probably before the work on the museum began (and I think in London by Scholes, after the consultation process). The fitting out was undertaken by a team in Swindon led by R.H.N. Bryant, the staff assistant to the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Western Region and included staff familiar with moving large railway objects, including Pickfords. The actual movement of exhibits began on 18 March 1962. This position reflected the practical position that the railway regions had been given formal responsibility for preserving items of interest in 1958 and had the commercial and legal expertise in house. To an intriguing extent the railway regions carried on the practices and attitudes of the pre-1948 main line railways, the Western Region, in particular, regarded itself as a slightly updated GWR. In any event, the museum at Swindon was going to be a GWR museum of which the Western Region would be proud.


City of Truro being manoeuvred into the new museum at Swindon. This was not a simple job.

Regrettably the cost of leasing the building exceeded the estimates and the cost of preparing the exhibits exceeded estimates by three times the £7000 expected, the Western Region managing to pass these to BTC headquarters via Scholes’s office. After that, Western Region interest began worrying about more urgent matters and the museum management found itself in the hands of a ‘Great Western Railway Museum Swindon Joint Management Committee’. Upon this vital body sat two Swindon borough council members (with other staff in attendance), and four BTC (later British Rail) staff, including Scholes. Day to day management was in the hands of the borough librarian and curator, Mr Harold Jolliffe, and amongst the museum staff was one Neil Cossons who took up his duties on 3 December 1962 and who many years later found himself director of the Science Museum, to which we will turn in due course.


The entrance to the Swindon Museum, shortly after opening


This nice little booklet was produced to commemorate the opening event and the contents clearly show the complexity of installing a railway museum in the building.

As the prototype for the BTC’s regional museums, Swindon was probably as good as it gets. The theme was almost exclusively devoted to the Great Western Railway whose activities not only dominated the town but most of western England and Wales. A combination of impressive locomotives and a wide range of supporting exhibits (such as track) and what we would call small exhibits, was put together in a thoughtful way in an interesting building. It was a good way of getting stuff on display that would be harder to justify in a national collection and was relevant to the area, The famous railway author and preservation activist Tom Rolt was prevailed upon to write a rather nice introductory book about the GWR and the museum, published in 1963, and it explains the importance of the material contained therein. I treasure my copy! The historian Jack Simmons liked Swindon and, like me, was struck on entering an interesting building by the atmosphere which reeked ‘Great Western’ more than any book or photograph could do, or ten minutes on the draughty and run down station. There were only five main line locos at first but they were splendidly arranged. One of the locos was City of Truro which Hanks had first seen, looking a little out of place, in the York museum and which had now been repatriated ‘as she rested among her own kith and kin’. He hoped the museum would not only present something of the past glories of the GWR but also demonstrate the huge task today’s managers had in modernizing the system.


The Churchward Gallery at the Swindon Museum. Left image is the chapel as it had been. Right image is the same space after installation of track and locomotive exhibits.

It was not a large museum but was unable to cover its costs. Unusually this museum opened on Sunday afternoons as well as weekdays. The adult admission charge was one shilling and at some point (perhaps later) included admission to the nearby Railwayman’s Cottages. Swindon may be a good place for a company museum and for expressing the might of local industry but in those days it was hardly on the tourist trail. Despite valiant efforts from the Swindon staff it was impossible to improve visitor numbers. This will become important shortly.

The York Museum

Upon the formation of British Railways, when transport was nationalized in 1948, the museum at York was operated by the Chief Regional Officer of the North Eastern Region and a museum committee. Day-to-day management was still in the hands of curator, E.M. Bywell, who had been in post since 1922 (notwithstanding his other duties) but who had actually now retired and who still did the curating job voluntarily and without pay. I note that in the 1933 catalogue, LNER Chairman (William Whitelaw) thanks him for ten year’s work. Heaven knows how old he was when the BTC inherited him. At this time, admission was still free and the only source of income was from sale of the catalogues, at sixpence each (eightpence from 1951), some of the proceeds of which were used to acquire new material. The catalogue had been kept up to date and new editions appeared in 1947, 1950 and 1956, each reprinted as required. It appears that sometime after the appointment of Scholes the old regime was quietly eased out and evidence of a more modern approach began to appear. This coincided with the introduction of a small entry charge from April 1957 to help defray costs, which does not seem to have been anticipated when the 1956 catalogue was produced as a special slip had to be printed for insertion.

York Railway Museum notice of charges April 1957

During 1958 the small exhibits section was temporarily closed for reorganization, reopening on 19 May. To commemorate this two royal vehicles were displayed next to the main section of the museum as an added attraction. These were normal stored at Wolverton, to where they returned when the exhibition closed on 27 May. Shortly afterwards some more persuasive publicity began to appear in order to increase the number of visitors, and a nice little brochure, entitled ‘The background story of the exhibits’ was written by historian and preservation champion Tom Rolt, which appeared in 1958.


On the left is the cover of Tom Rolt’s 1958 booklet about the York Museum. It is very much a narrative rather than a guide book. On the right is a contemporary leaflet (possibly slightly later). This is a rather nice promotional piece opening out into eight pictorial pages, then foldable vertically to make it pocket size.

During 1959 the York Railway Museum obtained the services of Bob Hunter as its own curator, though subordinate to Scholes in London. Hunter’s origins such as equipped him to take local responsibility at York are not known to the author but he was a leading light in the Festiniog railway society in his spare time and clearly had a deep interest in preserving past glories. We shall hear more of him in Part 3.

Although the general atmosphere at York remained substantially unchanged throughout the period of the BTC, there were changes to the displays. To the surprise of some, Great Northern loco Henry Oakley was borrowed from York in September 1953 to double-head with another loco stored at Doncaster two special trains from Kings Cross to Doncaster and Kings Cross to Leeds for commemorative trips organized by Alan Peglar (later to buy Flying Scotsman). Since Henry Oakley hadn’t steamed since 1937 and was very difficult to extricate from the museum because of the constricted layout, this was a major event. The loco was returned unscathed, with the upheaval repeated to get it back. In 1957 the even more difficult job was undertaken of extracting City of Truro. The immediate need was for it to haul a trainload of Festiniog Railway members on a special from Wolverhampton to Ruabon, requiring a great deal of preparation as this loco last steamed in 1931. This was not to return to York as it was foreign to those parts and was earmarked in due course for Swindon (as noted earlier). The space was quickly occupied by two more appropriate locos. I mention these lest the impression be given that the York museum was left untouched during the BTC period, for it was not. The emphasis was perhaps more closely focused on the north east, though curiously the City & South London coach remained at York even after Clapham opened, though the latter would have been far more appropriate as the coach once rumbled through the tunnels right in front of the museum.


Two 1950s leaflets for the York museum. On the left, while museum is under North Eastern Region control, it is branded British Railways. On the right, the 1956 version is branded British Transport Commission, perhaps reflecting the more intimate supervision from John Scholes’s department.

The museum maintained close links with the North Eastern Region although Scholes was firmly in charge of the exhibits and arrangements for display. At no time did the local council become involved in any way with the museum, unlike Swindon.


The entrance to the large exhibits section at York, probably about 1960.

I should add here that in parallel with the worries about relics, others were worrying about records. A BTC archives office had quickly been established near Paddington to which all redundant pre-1948 records were sent for indexing and safe-keeping but the monumental task was eased a few years later by setting up a branch office at York, in the basement of the former North Eastern Railway headquarters; this also included a small search room for researchers. At some point, I have not established a date, some of the York Museum paperwork that appeared more appropriately classed as an archive was transferred to the BTC archives at York. When, some years later, the BTC archives were transferred to the Public Record Office the York Archives were closed and the records were broken down, with duplicate material disposed of and unique material transferred to London. Certainly part of the Briggs collection followed this path and split what had been a coherent collection. Though this may not have mattered too much in this case I doubt if it was what the donor had expected. These Briggs documents can now be viewed in the national archives at Kew and it is very likely that other York Museum material came the same way.

EPSON scanner image

The Railway Museum at York in 1958. On the whole it may fairly be said that little space in this 250ft long building was wasted.

The Glasgow Museum

I have mentioned the Edinburgh collection of material, which was also assembled by the LNER in respect of Scottish railways and which after 1948 fell into the Scottish Region, which also inherited the Scottish lines of the LMSR. The Edinburgh collection had been assembled gradually since 1938 by Lieut Col Murray (of the LNER), who was supportive in the 1951 discussions of there being a national museum in London but did not want to lose items of particular Scottish local interest. When inventory preparation was required it was found some items had gone missing (almost certainly a problem elsewhere, too). Nevertheless there was a desire for a Scottish regional museum.

With support from Scholes the Scottish Region cast about for a permanent home for its Scottish transport material. It so happened that in 1958 the City of Glasgow announced it was to close its extensive tramway system and wanted to preserve and display a selection of representative vehicles and equipment. Glasgow’s existing Art Gallery and Museum at Kelvingrove already held transport material (including some large railway material) and it appeared sensible to establish a single transport museum. Fittingly the site selected for this was the redundant Coplawhill tram depot (in Glagow’s Pollockshields district). This appeared to be just the location the BTC was looking for as a home for the Scottish railway and associated relics and discussions led to an agreement to display between the two parties. Glasgow was felt particularly appropriate since the Scottish locomotives to be displayed were made there.


Glasgow was a general transport museum inspired by loss of the City’s tram system of which a number were preserved for display. Supported by the BTC as part of its regional railway museum policy, railway material relevant to Scotland was displayed and this shows part of he railway section.

The Glasgow Transport Museum was opened in part by the Queen Mother on 14 April 1964 when the tramway exhibits predominated. It was much-extended on 8 March 1967 when the railway locomotives went on display. It was a substantial transport collection, heavily reflecting local industry, and included six locomotives of local interest, one of them privately owned (and later withdrawn so that it could be put into working order). It is true that pride of place was given to the tramway vehicles, but at least the railway material was now displayed and was reasonably secure. The arrangement was much more heavily focused around the local authority than was Swindon or York and in 1966 the five BR locomotives (and I suppose all the other rail material) was transferred to Glasgow City ownership and was never part of what later became the national collection.

Glasgow3 copy

The Glasgow Museum of Transport in Pollockshields not long after it was established and before many public buildings were cleaned. It was actually quite near the City centre.   Scottish Daily Record.

The museum moved to the exhibition building at Kelvin Hall in 1987 (this should not be confused with the nearby Kelvingrove museum—Kelvin Hall was a large exhibition space that had functioned rather like London’s Olympia or Earls Court but was looking for a more stable use). The problem with the old transport museum was that it was wholly unsuited for use as a long term museum, particularly on conservation grounds. Kelvin Hall provided a more stable atmosphere and had good facilities for moving large objects in and out. The vast collection of models of ships associated with Glasgow had already been amalgamated with the transport exhibits at Coplawhill in 1976 having previously been in the west wing of Kelvingrove and the unsuitability of its new surroundings quickly became evident.

Although Kelvin Hall was a much better location for a transport museum, the enthusiasm created by Glasgow’s selection as European City of Culture in 1994, coupled with the massive redevelopment of the Clyde waterfront, created a desire within Glasgow City Council for a purpose-built museum focused on Clyde industries and transport in particular. And so was born the Riverside Museum. The transport museum at Kelvin Hall was closed in April 2010, the collection being subsumed by the new museum which opened in 2011. The Riverside Museum has not been entirely without controversy but shows off a very wide range of exhibits in a more stable environment and with better facilities for visitors. However, it now drops away from our story, though it does one day deserve a review as there are presentational difficulties. The only point I want to make here is that one notes that in Scotland there was a feeling that ‘transport’ was a single entity worthy of a museum whilst in England matters were to go in a different direction with public displays divided by mode. Can both be right?

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Two of the railway exhibits at Riverside, just to give a flavour. Much of the museum has a very high roof whilst floor area is still limited. The effect is mitigated by stacking objects above each other, even quite large objects. This is an interesting solution but can make viewing very difficult. In this image all is not as it seems as the upper loco is actually part of a display on the first floor!

The Other Regions

The North East Region, Western and Scottish regions were all on track for their own museums but there was less enthusiasm from the vast London Midland Region which eventually hinted that a roundhouse at Derby might be able to take the retained LMSR locomotives. The Eastern grasped the principle and was prepared to share a museum with another region but did not want to proceed on its own. This did not quite answer the directive which the BTC chairman (Sir Brian Robertson) had given for establishing regional museums but was accepted as a temporary position. (It wasn’t suggested they went in with the North Eastern but that would have been logical if extra space were found in York; the two regions were later merged anyway). The Southern seems to have had fewer relics and suggested their large exhibits would not form a museum by themselves (though it was pointedly observed by headquarters that there was already difficulty storing its existing retained locomotives). Without great enthusiasm from south of the River the matter seems to have been put to one side and was subsequently overtaken by events.

A Confusion of Activity

Even in the early days of the BTC its labyrinthine organization defeated the simplest of requests that items of historical importance should be retained. The contents of the royal waiting room at Windsor were auctioned off by the Western Region in September 1950 but the BTC itself only discovered this in July 1953; the chairman, Lord Hurcomb, was furious and wanted to know why the BTC had not been consulted. In 1952 a coach was destroyed at York after becoming infested with woodworm. By then Scholes was in place but had not been consulted; he felt that it could have been saved if he had been notified of the problem as soon as it was discovered. There was much the BTC had to learn. I must stress that the BTC in some form or another employed nearly 900,000 staff in 1951 and that getting even simple things done or changed was challenging.

As that decade progressed, John Scholes became increasingly involved in the day to day problems presented by the collections he had immediate control over, his temporary exhibitions and the massive job of finding a new museum site and then getting it up and running. By the late 1950s the total number of objects on inventory was approaching a million whilst the large exhibits were strewn around the country, sometimes in unsuitable conditions, with some being repaired or restored. This was quite a big job not made any easier by the BTC’s structure. The small BTC headquarters staff (now at Marylebone Road, and of which Scholes, still in Westminster, was a part) had policy control over the functional committees that controlled the various activities, by far the largest of which was British Railways. This truly vast organization was broken down into the six railway regions, with headquarters spread around the country. These were also vast and were broken down into smaller districts, and so on, which is was where all the knowledge was. The actual preserved exhibits were spread about in odd sheds where there was space, together with other redundant equipment and a very long way down the chain of command from those controlling preservation policy. The historical relics section was outside the railway organization altogether and had great difficulty exerting its will, let alone a policy, across the diverse and varyingly cooperative regions.

You will not be surprised that mistakes were made. In 1957 three exhibits stored at Stratford works were scrapped in error. They were a Wisbech & Upwell tramcar, a GER tram locomotive and an LTSR bogie third carriage, all irreplaceable. The tram engine was of the type that inspired the Rev W. Awdry’s tram ‘Toby’ whilst the tramcar (really a carriage) had been put on one side and survived long enough to appear in the film ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’. The uproar this caused reached the desk of the BTC chairman, Sir Brian Robertson, and in consequence the processes were, at least in part, improved for identifying, scheduling and storing equipment and relics safely. As much part of the problem had been establishing whose job it was to identify what needed to be preserved in the first place, about which there were many differing points of view.

Another consequence of the scrapping was that the BTC’s chairman received a deputation from several specialist transport societies who were in some respects better acquainted than the BTC itself about the historical significance of material already stored or about to be retired. I say ‘in some respects’ because of course if one has a society devoted to one type of thing then it is unlikely to propose items for preservation that fall outside its remit. Certainly neither Sir Brian Robertson (nor probably Scholes) was desperately keen to arbitrate over some of the finer issues and it was suggested the societies themselves form a committee to go into all this and come up with a single set of recommendations about items for preservation that could be discussed with the BTC, and in particular with Scholes. So far as I can tell Scholes was always very supportive of this since it actually gave him better arguing power when dealing with the regions. And so was born the Consultative Panel for the Preservation of British Transport Relics.

The panel reviewed the whole of the existing collection, what was likely to become available shortly and where there appeared to be gaps. Scholes was always invited to Panel meetings and various approaches were discussed prior to the final recommendations being made. The Panel’s views did not necessarily accord with the transport press, who made various criticisms, nor were all the recommendations accepted by Scholes and the railway regions, but on the whole the consultative approach worked reasonably well and the final list of scheduled locomotives could be justified on various grounds. The story with carriages is I think rather less of a success story as effort was put (perhaps necessarily) into quite old material without much thought being given to the commonplace items inter-war, post war, or even current (given the modernization plan being rolled out and vast numbers of vehicles likely to be disposed of). Goods vehicles were rarely mentioned. Only after the locomotive saga had been put to bed did effort really turn to signalling, permanent way and other items. This was a bit patchy and really reflected the interests of the representative societies. There was a need for advice though, as by the mid-1960s vast amounts of equipment were coming out. The Panel continued to do useful work for a little longer but we shall see in the next part that with the museums fighting for their very survival, and uncertainty about what might replace them, discussions about some unusual signal rodding at (say) Loampit-on-the-Marsh was of interest to no-one!

What we do see during this period are the first ominous signs of troubles to come. The reasons are not new—to some, they were already very familiar—but they were new to the BTC. I offer below some of the ‘matters that weighed on the minds of those intimately involved, just to give flavour.

  • Not everything can be kept.
  • What subset of ‘everything’ should be kept, and why?
  • —Who decides?
  • What happens if more is kept than can be displayed?
  • What subset of  all that is kept should be displayed, and why?
  • Who are expected to view the displays and why do we think this?
  • Where is material to be displayed?
  • Should it be operative or static?
  • What weight is given to ‘what people want to see’, irrespective of an object’s historical significance?
  • —Who decides?
  • Who pays (and why)?
  • Since there is little possibility that any group of rational people involved in these processes would all agree on all the points, how does one get a working long-term consensus?
  • What counts as ‘success’?
  • What measures are necessary to ensure all of this is done satisfactorily (or at all)?

I shall leave all these questions hanging because it is a theme I shall return to later. Suffice to say that the BTC had to work much of this out for itself whilst at the same time having inherited an existing museum and a great number of objects (with more on the way) and so was not entirely free to make decisions from first principles anyway! I have already noted that there were weaknesses in the ‘who decides’ and ‘how do you know it is being done’ areas. I shall merely hint here that of the rudimentary list of points above, I think the last point (possibly the last two) are the most important providing it is done in a supportive and professional way and does not degenerate into a tick-box culture operated by people entirely ignorant of the issues involved. I rather think that much of this had to be done by Scholes himself, without a great deal of support from an organization about to self-implode.


This section has examined the way the three (arguably four) British transport museums emerged from the hiatus of transport nationalization in 1948. For fifteen years there was a consistency of policy for a national ‘transport’ museum and regional museums where practicalities meant they would inevitably tend to focus on railways. Swindon was most blatantly a railway museum but Glasgow embraced with enthusiasm various other modes, though mainly from that locality. The policy was carried out not entirely from scratch, but those involved had a huge amount to learn along the way. By all accounts the resulting museums, from the view of those visiting them, were a very creditable achievement, the more so given the financial and other constraints that had to be contended with.

This did not last.

In the next part, I will explain what factors conspired to frustrate this direction of travel and how, after the battle of York, we ended up with a national railway museum. In the final (fourth) part I will make some observations (I hope objectively) about how that museum is doing nearly half a century later.

Posted in British Transport, Heritage Transport, London Underground, Main Line Rail, Road Transport | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Britain’s National Railway Museum: Part 1

The LNER Museum At York


A very warm day in London recently caused me to seek the cooler atmosphere of York, home of the National Railway Museum (NRM). I have maintained an interest in that museum having been present at the opening ceremony on 27th September 1975.

My visit gave me much cause for reflection. I have no criticism of the hard-working and dedicated staff, or of the curatorial standards upheld (with some reservations about the exhibits maintained in working order, which I will come to in due course). I did find I had some very serious questions about what the museum was seeking to achieve, how well it was doing that, and the direction in which it might go. These views are entirely those of an ‘interested visitor’ who happens to think our railway industry has a terrific story to tell and who also attempts from time to time to help tell some of that story and knows what a challenge it can be.

It then occurred to me that many people might not know why the NRM at York is there in the first place. Perhaps there was a bit of a story to tell about the museum’s background, to which I might append some appropriate, and hopefully constructive, suggestions. I started work but about 25 pages later, after much research, thinking, checking, editing and the like, it was obvious even to me that broadcasting this as a blog item would be a little on the long side and lack clarity. However there was a story to be told. What I have done is to rework it as (probably) four separate blogs each dealing with a different topic. This also buys a bit of time for further reflection about the museum as it is today.

The parts I propose are:

  1. The LNER Museum at York
  2. The British Transport Museums
  3. The Battle of York
  4. Some reflections upon a National Railway Museum


Although I will cover this properly in due course it is probably helpful to explain here that the NRM at York is run by the Science Museum, to which the core of the collection (and the main building) was transferred in 1975 from British Rail (BR). BR previously ran several railway museums, including one in York on a different site. The purpose of this particular blog is to describe the history of that first museum at York, which was the country’s first museum dedicated entirely to the collection and display to the public of railway exhibits.

York Railway Museum of the London & North Eastern Railway

The Stockton & Darlington Celebrations

The idea of a railway museum in York originated with the North Eastern Railway in 1922 as a means of displaying numerous important railway items it had been squirrelling away for decades. Little could be achieved in the prevailing and all-consuming climate of the 1923 railway grouping and the consequent upheaval and distraction of the enormous reorganization. A few examples of historic material were shown with modern equipment at the Wembley Exhibition in 1924, and that might easily have been the end of the initiative had not an important anniversary been looming.

At that time it was accepted that the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825 signified the beginning of the modern railway era. This line was engineered by George Stephenson, assisted by his son Robert, and was the first of the Stephenson railways. Today I fancy we prefer to acknowledge the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, which opened five years later, as the first ‘modern’ railway and was also a Stephenson line. How it came that our preference apparently changed is really beyond the scope of this brief history. Suffice to say that they were both public railways authorized by Act of Parliament. The distinction, and it is a subtle one, is that the Stockton line was built as a public highway where its railway track was available on payment of a toll whilst the Liverpool line (though envisaged as something similar) was in practice a railway where the operator always ran the trains. Moreover the Liverpool line always used one form of traction (the steam locomotive) whilst the Stockton line used horses and stationary engines as well as steam (its most famous locomotive, Locomotion, was driven by George Stephenson himself at the opening ceremony, his brothers acting as firemen).

The Stockton line’s first steam locomotive was delivered in September 1825: designed by George, it was built by Robert Stephenson & Co and took the number ‘1’, though it was soon named Locomotion.  It was the first steam locomotive to operate on a public railway and although it did not distinguish itself in July 1828 when its boiler exploded (killing the driver) this was put down to improper interference with the safety valve. The locomotive gained a reputation for poor steaming but subsequent rebuilding improved the situation after which, from a technical point of view, the machine operated successfully. It was retired in 1841, mainly because much more advanced designs had come along, and was used for a while as a stationary engine before being sold in 1850. Historically it was soon regarded as a very important part of railway history and in 1857 the company placed it on a plinth at Darlington North Road station. This was probably the first historic locomotive to be ‘preserved’ and placed on public view, though a single locomotive hardly constitutes a museum. There had been a companion locomotive, the Hope (No 2), but this had been destroyed. Locomotion was occasionally uprooted for display elsewhere and found a new permanent home at Bank Top station in 1892 alongside the Derwent.


The Locomotion on its plinth at Darlington as The Engineer portrayed it in 1875

The Stockton line became part of the North Eastern Railway (NER) in 1863, though for a decade retained virtual independence. We have noted already that the NER had an inclination to accumulate historic railway artefacts and initiated the process for setting up a railway museum, but an appreciation of the significance of railway history came about quite early. The NER quite understood the importance of the Stockton line and became an enthusiast for celebrating the jubilee of the line in 1875, making £5000 available for the purpose. Darlington Corporation contributed a further £1000, for that town also understood the importance of its railways. These were enormous sums of money at that time. Wide-ranging celebrations took place over two days, 27 and 28 September 1875. The Locomotion was perhaps the star of the show but No 10 Auckland (by Timothy Hackworth in 1838) was present, on loan from Weardale Water Co to which it had been sold. There were several other former Stockton locos present, some recovered from the scrapheap, together with some more modern NER machines and modern locomotives from a number of other British railway companies wanting to show off their equipment, for the theme (toasted at the banquet) was ‘the Jubilee of Railways’.

Amongst the displays was the venerable Canterbury & Whitstable locomotive Invicta  (built by Stephenson in 1829) and a surviving dandy-cart from the Stockton line, which was used as part of a display of horse-power (which was regarded as a highlight of the show). The dandy-cart was a vehicle designed to carry a horse that could be used to haul a train over some sections of line and onto which it could be loaded, to keep it with the train, when not needed for haulage. These went out of use in 1841 so the one in the display must have been kept back or converted to some other use and then restored. There is a Stockton dandy-cart in the national collection today but it is described as ‘constructed as replica, or restored at the Shildon Works of the NER,’ probably about 1920. I venture to suggest the present exhibit is based on and may well use parts of the vehicle in the 1875 display. Invicta was an unpromising design that was unable to haul the required loads reliably and was effectively retired in 1836, but retained under cover and was made available for the 1875 celebrations (it is today on display in Canterbury).

The actual exhibition of locomotives took place in the North Road engine works and although all the early Stockton locomotives (except Locomotion) had been destroyed others on display were recovered, or were still serviceable. These were the Shildon (1846), the Dart (1840), the Meteor (1843), the Woodlands (1848), the Southend (1849), the Priam (1847), the Duke (1854), the Hawthorn (1854) and the Albert (1854). I list these to show the effort made to display the Stockton’s developing locomotive history, but all of them were later destroyed. Including the later NER locos, and those from other lines, Reports state that 27 locos were assembled in all. In addition were displays of drawings and photographs of early locomotives, examples of early pointwork and signal lamps. Some current material was exhibited including apparatus connected with the operation of the block system, and Harper’s patent block telegraph system. There were also a number of models. One could almost describe all this as a prototype railway museum were it not for the fact is was only open for two days.


Print from Illustrated London News representing the railway display in Darlington in 1875

The NER became part of the London & North Eastern Railway in 1923, shortly before the Stockton’s centenary. Once more it was felt the event should be commemorated and it was a chance to promote the whole industry, not just the LNER. Since the 1875 celebrations the NER had been actively collecting historical relics and records and probably had by some way the largest collection of railway material of all the main line railways. To celebrate the Stockton line in a big way was very appropriate for the LNER, which was also supportive of the idea of some kind of permanent display.


H.N. Gresley (of the LNER) and H.R.H. Duke of York discussing the display arranged at Darlington in connection with the 1925 centenary celebrations. Some correspondence might be noted between the display here and that later on show at York. Although this was a public display of historic railway material it was of course only intended as temporary so does not really constitute a museum.

Although the Stockton & Darlington Railway had actually opened on 27 September 1825 the main celebrations were held 1-3 July 1925. There was a substantial exhibition of railway material located in the new Faverdale works, just west of Darlington, and this was opened by the Duke and Duchess of York on the first day. A large display of railway relics and models was available and were put together so their significance could be appreciated (this exhibition remained open until 18 July). On the second day was a massive procession of vehicles that proceeded from Stockton to a grandstand erected between Eaglescliffe and Darlington from which the good and the great (as well as the public) could view the items. There were 53 separate displays, some single vehicles and some whole trains. These included some of the oldest locomotives and rolling stock in the country and some of the latest, including the most prestigious new vehicles from each of the main lines. The first ‘train’ comprised the Hetton colliery locomotive of 1822 whilst the final train comprised the Stockton & Darlington’s Locomotion, for which a number of replica vehicles had been constructed. The loco was substantially unmodernized and it was not felt wise to run it in steam, so a small petrol engine was installed discretely in the tender whilst the fireman burnt oily rags in the firebox to make smoke (a ruse that apparently fooled most people).


Another view of the 1925 display. In the foreground is a replica of Rocket.


This is a copy of the catalogue available to visitor to the 1925 celebrations. The temporary exhibition was of substantial proportions. About 635 exhibits are listed in the inventory ranging from paperwork, tickets, models, track, pieces of equipment and full sized locomotives and vehicles. This is quite apart from the vehicles forming part of the procession.

I should add that this was not the first cavalcade in which the North Eastern Railway had been involved for there had been a previous one in Newcastle on 9 June 1881 as part of the celebrations to mark the centenary of George Stephenson’s birth. This was a big event (Geordies are very proud of their industrial history) and the house in Wylam in which George Stephenson was born still existed as did the old waggonway outside his later house (though the later house had by then gone). The crowds arrived early as the first event was a procession of modern engines from Central station to Street House (his birthplace) at 8am. Sixteen locomotives were provided, all coupled together, six by the North Eastern. The procession continued on to Wylam. A special train followed an hour later conveying the Mayor of Newcastle and many dignitaries from surrounding areas and many other guests. It was thought the largest event thus far held in Newcastle and ended with a firework display that followed a grand banquet. Locomotive No 1 (Locomotion) was not in that display but was borrowed from its home in Darlington and parked adjacent to Central station where it could be admired.


This is a representation from The Graphic of the procession of locomotives, and the best that might be said of it is that it gives a vague impression of an unusual train passing a building. It is more than possible the engraver had seen none of the event and was working from the vaguest of  descriptions. The details ‘LNW’ visible on collar is interesting and might have been taken from another image engraver had handy. I should add that the single-track tramway of Stephenson’s youth had been replaced by a double-track main line railway (1872-76) which used the old formation along the Tyne bank where the cottage was located. It closed in 1968.

Although there was no particular celebration for the jubilee of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Liverpool did host an International Exhibition in 1886 and the London & North Western Railway had a significant presence. A full-sized model of the locomotive Rocket was constructed at Crewe Works by F.W. Webb, its locomotive engineer, in 1885-6, presumably for this exhibition. He went to some trouble to get the details correct but in fact some important points were not quite right, though only discovered many years later. Also on display was a recently-recovered Trevithick locomotive of c.1804 which Webb found in scrap condition and did his best to restore some of the missing features. Some Wylam wagonway cogged wheels and rack rail were supplied by Spencer’s of Newburn, together with patterns used for making cast iron rails. The Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway supplied early models and drawing from the Manchester & Leeds Railway and a model of a stage coach body mounted on a frame on railway wheels. This display brought together once more a mass of historic railway material but I have not sought to trace what happened after dispersal. It hints once more that there was important material around that ought to have found its way into a museum. At this exhibition there was also much modern material such as the LNWR’s new steel-sleepered track, a water trough, a new compound locomotive, but this is not relevant to this historical summary.

Background to York

The idea of collecting historical material and displaying it permanently in one place was given effect in 1922. The NER had been keeping important stuff back for many years and when railway amalgamation loomed some of the senior officers were concerned the material might get lost and should be displayed while the NER could exercise control. There was also the looming railway centenary in 1925 where, it was felt, there would be a need to have access to historical material for display and the process of bringing it together needed to begin in good time.

The assistant general manager, Robert Bell, convened a meeting on 29 March 1922 where the prospect of a formal collection was considered. Prominent among those present was H.J. Rudgard, the assistant engineer, and J.B. Harper, assistant superintendent. Rudgard had made it his business to retain a collection of civil engineering and track components which had been gathered together in a shed. Harper had been collecting as long previously as 1880 and had assembled a collection of small material in his office in the hope that one day it might become part of a museum. It was agreed to find basement accommodation in the head office building at York for the small material while more suitable space would be sought for the larger items. A number of historic locomotives had been saved from destruction as far back as 1907 where they were noted as being looked after locally in workshops at York, Darlington and Newcastle; for the moment they would be left where they were.

A committee was formed under the direction of Harper, charged with bringing into effect the proposal for a museum. The committee of six included a Mr E.M. Bywell from the general manager’s office. Bywell was editor of the company’s staff magazine and was appointed Secretary to the committee and curator. Using the staff magazine he was quickly able to canvass for identification of further historical material that would be suitable for the museum, with positive results. Another early task was to create an inventory of all the items collected so far, as it appeared none existed.

Basement room B at headquarters was appropriated for the display of the small exhibits and this was fitted out with display cases and facilities for hanging material conveniently. Material was moved in here during early 1923. Meanwhile space was sought for the larger exhibits. One location examined was the plumbers shop adjacent to York station, but this was found unsuitable. A better proposition was one of the former repair shops that had been used for munitions work during the Great War . This former workshop building was still rail connected in 1922 and was a historic building in its own right. With access from Queen Street, the shops had been opened in 1839 by the York & North Midland Railway and expanded somewhat. With further amalgamations, which brought forth the North Eastern Railway, they became less important as maintenance premises and for many years this area of the sheds was used for servicing foreign locomotives bringing trains to and from York from other railways.  It was located along what is now the south-west edge of the station car park, just east of Lowther Terrace, and adjoined other railway buildings, still standing. Sadly the building has now been lost. Although it had not been intended to move the locos to Queen Street, additional locos were actively sought and obtained and the building provided convenient storage.

The LNER was created in 1923 and was by no means antagonistic to the idea of a permanent museum and, as we have seen in a previous section, enthusiastically supported the 1925 railway centenary celebrations. Once these were out of the way thoughts returned to the idea of opening a public railway museum. At first (to the horror of the committee) Darlington was the favoured location. Here it was hoped everything could be displayed in one place and (probably more importantly) Darlington borough council was very keen to host a museum, offering to make a substantial financial contribution and even to operate it. This aspiration failed to mature so Queen Street was settled upon for the locomotives, rolling stock and all the large exhibits and all the material was brought here and gradually arranged for display. By this time the policy had slightly altered as the centenary celebrations had illuminated some historical material held by other railways (and parts of the LNER which had not formed part of the old North Eastern Railway) and suitable additional display items were now thought desirable. The committee later actively sought such material.


The large exhibit section of the York museum may be seen towards bottom left corner. York station is off the map at the top.

The small exhibits section was in a less happy position as the donation of a significant amount of new material, including complete private collections, meant that the selected basement room was no longer suitable. Larger space for the small material was identified a few yards from the head office, opposite the North Eastern Railway War Memorial. This comprised four large rooms each holding a range of displays. The building in which these were housed had once been the first class refreshment room on the arrival side of the terminal station at York, when it was located within the City walls. The whole of this old station area remained in railway hands until a few years ago (though trackless since the 1980s) but appears now to have been flogged off, I believe to the local council. Part of the old station is listed and still intact though. The move had certainly taken place by 1928, and probably by early 1927, but I have not seen a date.


This is the main room of the small exhibits section of the former British Transport Museum at York

To identify a public opening date for the York Railway Museum poses a problem. There is evidence that the collection of large exhibits was largely in position as early as 1926 but the first entry in the visitor’s book is 28 April 1927; we know there were several formal visits to the large exhibit collection that year. What is less clear is when the public first obtained free access to the collection, which was only possible after staff were available. The museum was certainly open to the public during 3-9 June 1928 (York Civic Week) between 10am and 5pm, and it was also open at the end of the month as part of other celebrations; the latter (certainly) and the former (probably) included the small exhibits section in another building. On both occasions there were large queues. The first ‘attendant’ was employed in August 1928 and from then on the museum opened on a seasonal basis. At first it was on weekdays during spring-autumn and Wednesdays and Saturdays in winter. At some time in 1930 former LNER police Sergeant Horn was appointed on a permanent basis allowing daily opening, creating a substantial increase in numbers. So far as I can see this museum never ordinarily opened on Sundays. Admission was free and a guide was available from 1931.

Almost from the first, the museum accepted donations of material that had been collected privately for want of any national collection felt suitable. An early donor called Isaac Briggs, for example, had a high regard for what the LNER was trying to achieve and on his death bequeathed a large collections of railway engineering drawings, books and engravings relating to railway construction in the 1820-50 period. Briggs was the son of an engineering contractor and had formed the view that far too much attention was given to locomotives when dealing with railway history and his donation was intended to try and redress the balance. Briggs’s view about locomotives is one with which I do have some sympathy.


The building in the centre of photo was part of the railway museum York housing the small exhibits. The former York terminal station was behind this range of buildings, so we are actually looking at the rear. The public entrance to what in the 1840s were refreshment rooms would have been from the platforms.  The war memorial is on the right

Donations quickly arrived from a number of other quarters, including some material from other railways. Perhaps the most obvious ‘foreign’ locomotive was the Great Western’s City of Truro, which in 1904 reached a record-breaking 102mph. The LBSCR locomotive Gladstone, was unusual in being saved for preservation privately, by the Stephenson Locomotive Society, which bought it from the Southern Railway in 1927 and made arrangements for it to be displayed at York.


Although the locomotive displays were important the museum acquired, preserved and displayed much other material and here we see its impressive collection of track parts, viewed (I think) in 1934-5. Some of this early track was historically important. I shall return to track in a later part. I believe this part of the building was called the annexe and looks to be at least 100ft long; the post-war drawing suggests this area was later reduced to make way for other exhibits.

During 1934, the 89-year old London & North Western Railway locomotive Columbine was moved to York for display after languishing since 1902 at Crewe Works (it had been the first locomotive made there complete). Its value was known since it was displayed to the public at Wembley in 1924, the Railway Centenary celebrations in 1925 and the Liverpool & Manchester centenary in 1930, but the LMSR had nowhere to display it. It arrived at York on 1st June, at the same time as Aerolite, a much rebuilt tank locomotive of NER origin, which retired the previous year. Then there was the City & South London’s restored padded cell car, which was accepted in January 1938. London Transport presented it after concluding it was unable to set up a museum of its own, notwithstanding having stored some important railway vehicles for some years (some were then broken up). At the same time Great Northern Railway 4-4-2 locomotive Henry Oakley, built at Doncaster in 1898, was accepted. I should also mention the ancient locomotive Agenoria, built for the Shutt End colliery in 1829, which had long been in the collection of the Science Museum and which was sent to York on loan late in 1936 (to make space for something else). I don’t think this ever went back to London. You will grasp immediately that if the museum had opened in 1928 and had received all these large objects since (and I think other new material besides), then by the end of 1938 it was quite full.


The Agenoria after being loaned to York Railway Museum in 1936. It was moved inside at some point, which must have involved removing the immense chimney.

In fact all the main line companies had retained some historic material, to varying degrees, though only the LNER actually maintained a public museum. The LMS keenly retained small items but also kept back two locomotives in the early 1930s. One of its vice presidents, Sir Harold Hartley, acknowledged that there needed to be a British railway museum at some time but it was impossible to justify the expense in the recession of the early 1930s and the best that could be done was to put material on one side. The LNER museum at York was already quite full and could not easily take any further large material.


The old LNER Museum at Queens Road York in 1927. The 1822 Hetton Colliery locomotive sits alongside the LBSCR ‘Gladstone’ locomotive. This gives a feel for the constraints of layout in the old building.

The York museum closed during the war when the exhibits were dispersed to less bomb-prone locations. After some renovations the small exhibits returned in early 1946 and the locos and coaches in June 1947. There were a few changes but the old layout was largely maintained. Sir Ronald Matthews, the LNER chairman, reopened the premises on 18 July 1947. It was still free.


This is the layout of the York Railway Museum at the point it was handed over from the LNER to the British Transport Commission (Railway Magazine)

How the material was labelled and looked after I have no idea, but as early as 1933 there was a catalogue listing all of the large and easily separable items but grouping some of the more expansive material together. I can’t say whether internally every item was recorded separately but the main catalogue was available to be public, price threepence, and was arranged in the order that visitors might see them. Significantly, the 1951 catalogue particularly notes the museum was founded in 1922.


The first publicly available museum catalogue, issued 1933

We shall deal with the nationalization of transport in 1948, and how this affected railway preservation, in the next episode.

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Railways, and the ‘N’ word…

I found myself becoming irritated about the often ill-informed comments being made in run up to election about possible railway ‘re-nationalization’. It is hard to puzzle out, from the muddled promises and assertions, either what exactly is going to be more ‘nationalized’ than our existing government-run system or what, precisely, the benefits will be. This prompted me to make a few jottings, together with a few facts, which might be helpful.

The Nationalization of Transport in 1948

When transport was nationalized in 1948, no deep thought had been given about how to do it, so it was done in a rush and planned by people who knew little about transport (in a real sense this bears similarity with 1994 ‘privatization’). At the point of nationalization it was both ‘free’ from any burden upon the taxpayer and was intended ultimately to be paid for by transport users. There was never any suggestion that the taxpayer would ever fork out a penny (bear with me, I shall explain what actually happened).

The plan was this. About £1.2 billion of shares and debentures held by the shareholders and stockholders of the railway companies was exchanged for new British Transport Stock. The amount of stock swapped was based approximately on the market value of the stock given up and the new stock uniformly paid a 3% guaranteed return on the face value of the certificates. The British Transport stock was issued free of charge and was a form of IOU whose liability was held by the British Transport Commission, not the government. The interest had, of course, to come from the fares revenue. In the fantasy world created by the civil servants and government of the day it was imagined that nationalization would save the previously impoverished railways from financial ruin and the railways would thenceforth pay their way and become successful and generate a surplus (I must not use the word profitable as profits would be kept in the business). This isn’t my opinion, it is what the 1947 Act required.

A sinking fund was created into which hefty payments were made each year by the Commission from fares revenue. The fund was invested and generated investment income which, with the addition of the annual payments, was expected to be sufficient to repay the British Transport stock holders, in full, during or after the 1970s. It will be seen from this description that the cunning plan was for nationalization to avoid any taxpayer involvement, with the costs of reimbursing the former railway owners falling wholly on fare-payers using this magnificent, modern and fully integrated transport network.

Modernization was going to cost money and there was, in 1948, no inclination for any government to make the slightest contribution. Money would therefore be borrowed by issuing new Transport Stock which would pay for whatever investment was required; this stock, too, would require a sinking fund to enable eventual repayment, the extra money generated by betterment being plentiful, so it was thought, on the basis of ordinary investment economics. Significantly, it was expected all debt would be repaid 25 years or so after it was borrowed, so total debts would be limited (unlike the Network Rail model, until recent nationalization). All would be wonderful and the whole British transport system would be completely self-supporting and capable of attracting all the investment needed.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, we know what went wrong. The post war railway was absolutely worn out, materials were in scarce supply, investment was difficult anyway but the government exerted influence to keep railway investment unrealistically low, and the interest on the Transport stock was too burdensome. In addition costs rose faster than income and in no year after 1953 did the railways cover their legitimate costs. From 1956 they never again even covered their day-to-day expenses, ever.

The financial model was, in short, disastrous. Attempts to fix it on no occasion did more than reduce the rate at which losses were rising. From 1960 the government is found giving large grants to match the book losses. From 1963 a major restructuring (forming the British Railways Board) saw the Transport Stock exchanged for an equivalent amount of government debt: over half was freed of interest, but the 3% stock was swapped for 6% interest so it made little difference. From 1968 much debt was written off and grants began to be paid in an attempt to target socially required but loss-making services. In addition some very unprofitable work was hived off to the National Freight Corporation. This hugely, but only briefly, reduced losses but as market share reduced the losses came back and by 1975 (at today’s prices) hit £3 billion annually. After a huge fight, day-to-day losses towards the end in the early ’90s  were down to only £1 billion!

It was not all bad news as losses now included repayment of debt, an expensive charge postponed for many years, and by the early ’90s was only about £1.25 billion. This appears quite good compared with results a decade earlier but the apparent good news masks the fact that in the run up to privatization there were huge ‘fire-sales’ of subsidiaries and physical assets, which instead of being regarded as capital reserves were simply thrown into the day-to-day income, somewhat distorting the picture. Some of these subsidiary businesses were disposed of rather cheaply, it has been suggested (and see my blog on BT Hotels). Even so the loss-making trend was arguably downwards as the BR sectorization programme began to deliver results, though it is doubtful if breaking even after capital was paid off would have been achievable. Nevertheless, revenue grants in the early ’90s were in the £600-£700m order and that would probably have been regarded as broadly OK on an ongoing basis. Capital grants and loans were also provided by government, further distorting the illusion that the railways could ever provide for itself, though. The point I am trying to make is that at no time thus far could the railways actually make money. Traffic was tending to disappear and huge effort was required to keep it or get more. Whether privatization was the answer I’m not getting into, but I’m not convinced the way it was done shows the government at its most intelligent.

I have put a couple of graphs here to support the points I have just made.

The first shows at today’s prices the magnitude of the day-to-day operational losses. This purely represents the difference between fares income and legitimate day-to-day costs and entirely omits financing costs, grants and other like matters. It is broadly accurate (I hope) given the constant fiddling with the accounting methods and the complexity of the Transport Commission organization. Important to note is that the profound change in 1969 is not a result of improved methods so much as the transfer of loss-making parts to other parties.


The second chart, again at today’s prices, represents the total annual loss, as well as government revenue subsidy, compared with BR net revenue including reasonable repayment towards capital costs. It basically represents the organization’s shortfall to pay its own way. The shortfall is not trivial and the trend towards the end is again helped by the ‘fire sales’. Because this series includes interest on capital it is worth pointing out that some of the high costs in the early 1980s were because of the punitive interest rates being paid for capital borrowed in the inflationary explosion in the 1970s. Stupidly, through modern eyes, BR was at one point required to repay capital on which 5-6% interest was being paid only to borrow the same money to fill the hole at up to 12% from the minister. I have used Bank of England annual inflation rates to correct to today’s prices.


So, in a nutshell, BR had many merits and produced some wonderful rounded managers as well as running a railway on a shoestring. Financially, though, it was a basket case and was never free to borrow and invest on the scale required. It was to have been nationalized for free but the whole structure was created by well-meaning fantasists that simply did not understand the state of the railways in 1947 and produced a kind of money-eating monster that only good railwaymen somehow managed to keep alive! I don’t quite see why we’d want to do that again.

Now, there is that great imponderable. For decades until the 1990s railway modal share consistently fell and this had many adverse effects, not least morale. It was financially problematic as the asset base was hard to reduce, or, at least, hard to reduce at the same rate, so overheads went up. Suddenly from the mid ’90s, traffic began to rise and has continued to do so at unprecedented rates. The political weasels would have us believe this was because of privatization but this seems very unlikely, especially as the model was designed for decline, at least at first. A large number of external factors seem to have more basis in fact, both economic improvement and because road space was not expanding much, constraining road traffic growth. There are other subtle reasons and maybe the small and better TOCs were slightly nimbler than BR in exploiting the potential when it was noticed. We should remember these early franchises were less prescriptive and the capacity was available. However we will never know what BR would have done in this situation. It would be quite interesting to hear from BR managers at that time what they think would have happened.  My suspicion is that the DfT would not have believed the upward trend was sustainable and would have failed to allow BR to respond effectively. By complete accident of timing it may be that BR had had its day.

The Nationalization of Transport 70 years on

The situation now is rather different from 1994 as passenger traffic has doubled with only modest improvements to the infrastructure. Moreover it could scarcely be more different from 1948. The challenge today is mainly about capacity but I would add that increasing population suggests improving railway’s connectivity and reach should feature somewhere. By this I mean a wider range of destinations (through services were much culled half a century ago) and putting some places back on the railway map that with the benefit of hindsight should not have come off it. Operating costs could perhaps be reduced through organizational simplification but I doubt if there is much to be had from the operating side once the issue of guards has been resolved one way or the other.

Whatever the plan, just bringing back BR has very little to commend it; though that is not apparently ‘the plan’ being broached now I think any tendency to lurch in that direction should be resisted. Vested interests might support such a thing.

Whilst agreeing that today’s structure is rather eccentric, and, again, is somehow made to work by good railway people despite the obstacles, I would be cautious about changing it without having a very clear idea about what the objectives might be, preferably evidence-based.

My observations are:

  1. Many of the so called ‘difficulties’ experienced by passengers are a direct result of existing government control, rarely admitted to. The fares structure and fares levels is one of these and another is the government even getting to design the trains, rather than railway people who have to live with the consequences. I would be very, very wary about asking for more of this.
  2. We must recall that many of the problems BR had were not of its making. Inherited obsolescence and debt were one intractable problem. Another was the government’s arcane accounting requirements and annualized funding, which made planning difficult and investment expensive. Another was politically variable and unpredictable funding levels which made investment problems worse because it wasted both money and opportunity. The only certainty was that investment wasn’t matching asset decay. Who wants that again?
  3. The generally accepted contribution to shareholders from each passenger pound is about 3p though this excludes the rolling stock leasing companies which I estimate might raise this to about 4p. It will be appreciated by most people that dividend payments are a return on investment made by shareholders. Organizations need money to function, even government-funded ones. If shareholders are not providing the capital at their own personal risk then it has to be borrowed. This isn’t free and I note that our government is currently paying 4% on its debt so I think it reasonable to observe that if shareholder funding were replaced by government funding then actually the existing arrangement could be seen as reasonably fair. So long as there are shareholders they will need paying or they will seek to withdraw their money anyway. Paying them off would require public cash unless some device as that used in 1948 were used. Even if non-shareholder finance were a tad cheaper I doubt if this would justify the upheaval required. By the way, government debt pays guaranteed interest to the same sorts of people who comprise railway shareholders…. I am uninterested in ideological claptrap I just don’t see the 4p in the pound issue as the main problem facing the railways.
  4. Reorganizations in the railway industry are enormously disruptive and usually hit service performance and put up a load of hidden costs. Moreover experience of previous nationalizations (eg London Transport and the railways) clearly show that staff on previously varying rates of pay usually end up with the new organization having to level up to the highest and the unions will push hard for this. Irrespective of whether this is good or not on ideological grounds it won’t make things cheaper and never has.
  5. There are also some benefits in keeping organizations fairly small and close to customers. Some franchises have been very successful and are popular so it may be worth examining what makes the better ones work before throwing out a load of experience. I’d be wary of even thinking about the entirely illusory economy of scale of any large organization if we want to improve customer service standards and not destroy them.
  6. If the plan is to allow franchises to expire and replace them with some kind of directly operated railway oversight (as was the case with East Coast until recently) then I do not see where the savings come from. There are few savings to be had from existing operations, I suggest.
  7. One might expect savings to be achievable from dismantling the contractual frameworks in place now as (arguably) one could get rid of contract managers, delay attribution staff and legal teams. Whether this could actually be done in the term of a Parliament, whether savings would be material, or whether whatever replaces it is cheaper, I doubt if anyone knows. I am fairly sure those promoting nationalization don’t know.
  8. There are other areas of long term saving that might be achievable if there were a single controlling mind. For example a knowledgeable team looking at rolling stock cascades (something BR did well) could plan stock usage over whole life reducing the hefty payments made now to the leasing companies to cover risk of stock having to be stored as it gets older. You don’t imagine these companies aim to lose money when plans don’t work out!

These are only random thoughts to suggest that renationalization concept is based on dogma with little factual information to justify it and some cogent reasons for not rushing into it.

The 2017 Labour manifesto idea for the railways

Specific proposals are:

  • Bring private franchises into public ownership as they expire and also use break clauses to accelerate this process when this is in the interests of passengers and taxpayers.

Observation – superficially attractive and cost-free and would save some franchising costs. Not stated what benefits are and cannot actually see where profound benefits arise in short term. Would appear to cut off the private sector funding obtained when franchises renew. Brings whole of operating and reputational risk back to public sector which could be problematic. Would take a long time to achieve with benefits unclear and cut off the TOCs from wider private sector experience and support. At best, marginal.

  • Create a new dynamic public operator where profits currently being made by private operators would be reinvested into cutting fares and infrastructure under Labour.

Observation – This appears to be the tool by which previous point achieved and is not a separate item. For reasons already pointed out, suspect savings illusory and fares are already a government function.

  • Keep Network Rail in public hands.

Observation – This means ‘do nothing’. Network rail is the largest unit of spend though.

  • Labour will cap regulated fair rises at the Consumer Price Index (CPI), using the money saved through bringing rail franchises back into public ownership. As more services come into public ownership, greater amounts of savings become available, and Labour will aim to introduce further fare caps or reductions.
  • A separate note states: passengers will on average save £1,014 on their rail season tickets over the next parliament, compared to the potential cost under a Tory Government.

Observation – Note on fares already made. Do not believe ‘nationalizing’ will actually save much or at all. If the desire is to cut fares but not costs it amounts to a revenue subsidy. This is a political choice but look what happened under BR. Subsidies can rapidly become extremely burdensome and where would it come from?

In reference to the note. If an average season were (say) £2500-£3000 then at today’s prices avoiding a 1% rise above CPI over five years saves of the order of £150 and for the life of me I can’t see how you can claim a £1000 saving. With no sight of the workings I think this is fantasy-land.

  • We will continue with investment in HS2 and build a Crossrail for the North, Crossrail 2, extend HS2 to Scotland and expand our rail network by re-opening disused lines where there is a social and economic case to do so.

Observation. Fair enough.

  • We will invest to upgrade major and local train stations. We will also work to improve the accessibility and access for disabled passengers in around our stations.

Observation. This is virtually existing policy but the statement is so woolly as to be meaningless by itself. To be credible we need to know how much, when and to what standard.

  • We will halt the expansion of Driver Only Operation and stop cuts to staff which jeopardise safety on our railway network and remove the independence of disabled passengers.

Observation. There is absolutely no stated justification for this. Presumably it is here to keep RMT happy but the costs come out of the same pot as everything else.

  • We will ensure passenger groups and staff are included in the governance structure of a publicly owned railway, ensuring the passengers voice is heard and ensuring good industrial relations.

Observation. Whether or not this in any way adds anything meaningful depends on detail that is simply not given. AS the railway is presently run by the minister, I’m not sure I believe introducing anything that will interfere with absolute supremacy will have any teeth (it has been promised before and teeth were always extracted very quickly).

I can’t honestly say this is all bad but it smacks of dogma rather than any plan informed by the facts or the needs and will be very disruptive without delivering any benefit and, quite possibly, make matters more challenging rather than less.

Final Observations

I think a lot could be done to improve the existing system (especially the franchising process) and why not have one or two TOCs run by a UK plc, as it were, in order to have a good means of benchmarking everything else. This was done by London Transport in order better to understand the bids coming in from bus route bidding, for example. However larger scale change without a searching enquiry into a better way of doing things will produce poor value. Please read ‘the Blunders of Our Government’ before you rush off to implement a half-baked policy with experts you do not have if you want evidence of such folly.

More important is strong and stable [sorry about that] leadership in the industry, or somebody in charge. For my money I’d bring back something like the Strategic Rail Authority and get as much out of the Transport Secretary’s hands as I could. We need detailed planning being done by the industry not by government generalists. The SRA was politically troublesome because it fought government dogma with facts and perhaps some TOCs thought it had too much power, but actually stuff like that can be fixed in the light of experience.

Returning to where I started, it can be seen perfectly well that one could sort of nationalize the already mostly-nationalized railways ‘free’. It has been done before but of course that was before it was realized that railways as a whole don’t generate much, if any, profit. It didn’t work out well then and I just can’t see what the need is now. It is politically very risky as it is all too easy to make what vaguely works now a great deal worse. I can see no possibility of it reducing fares, at least not of its own accord. Why would it? If the government wishes to subsidize season tickets (they already are, by the way) then be honest and just do it. It can do that now without throwing everything else up in the air. I don’t recommend it, but if that is the aim it can do so. The pragmatist in me asks whether, if peak trains are already heaving at the seams and the railway is full, why rational people feel the need to reduce fares and make the crowding problem worse. Is it not right that it is commuters (who insist all on travelling at the same time) who are putting impossible demands on the system?

Perhaps we need a bit more imagination and experience in deciding how best to steer the railway network, if change we must have. Returning to the 1970s, let alone the 1940s, would not be helpful.


Posted in British Transport, Main Line Rail, Our Government | Tagged | Leave a comment

57-Year Old Train Retiring amidst Unprecedented Crowds

I’ve been busy writing a book but nevertheless found time to drift up to Aylesbury in good time (so I thought) to enjoy the rattling and fuming experience of a trip to Princes Risborough and back. The last time I did this (in July last) the train was virtually empty and I had hoped that by going along the week prior to the ancient diesel being withdrawn it would be equally quiet. Not so.


Princes Risborough July 2016, the so-called bubble car having a nice rest


And this was apparently an average kind of load, and what I expected last week


Arriving at Aylesbury in July last year. A few regular waiting to board and a similar number ready to alight.

Anyway, on Friday 13th May I arrived at Princes Risborough on a modern Aylesbury-London train to find the platform heaving with people who had all come along to see the train while it was ‘quiet’.

These self-propelled single car trains were introduced from 1960, though only 16 were built, all intended for use on the Western Regions lightly-used branches. They had a maximum speed of 70 mph, are fitted with vacuum brakes and eventually became the 121 class when the present classification system was introduced. Chiltern purchased vehicle 020 in 2003 and introduced it on the Princes Risborough service as a ‘heritage’ train, though it released a standard class 165 train for more useful deployment. A second car, 034, joined it in 2011, spreading the work. The cars have the old slam doors, though central locking is fitted. Owing to the mounting maintenance challenge they are being withdrawn on 19th May and replaced by a class 165. This is painful for those who enjoy riding on a traditional diesel train and possibly painful for Chiltern which does not have much spare rolling stock these days.


The empty stock thundering towards Princes Risborough on 13 May, noxious end leading

The train has a rated seating capacity of 65 and having arrived the large gaggle of photographers and other well-wishers boarded rapidly, and I suspect from those standing the load was about 80.


Empty train pulling into Princes Risborough about 17:55

The ‘well-loaded’ train eventually departed and it was fun enjoying the long gear change which is a characteristic of this all-mechanical drive system. More fun was the mile or so of jointed track on the way to Monks Risborough, which we clattered over to the delight of occupants (the wheels going over the joints are barely noticeable on the 165s but these old cars rather enter into the spirit of things). There was then the delicious ‘sucking’ noise as the vacuum brakes applied at Monks Risborough and elsewhere. Not sure of our top speed but I’d guess at 50 mph. Incredibly, at Little Kimble, a station where I’ve never even seen a sign of a passenger, a well-dressed couple fought their way in and in due course asked if the train was usually this crowded; this generated a very complete answer.

At Aylesbury more photographers waited. At this point I noticed that between my two visits the car had been turned round. I’d be interested to know how and why this was achieved.


A reasonably busy platform at Aylesbury, given many had boarded already to get a seat.

Eventually, after a great deal of shutter clicking, the train was ready to go. It is perhaps revealing that one of three late-running passengers tearing over the bridge and only just catching the train was heard to exclaim ‘Oh no not that thing’!


The elegant end departing Aylesbury about 18:35. It would have been nice if had carried its 4-digit headcode but the boxes are blanked off.

As the train made ready to pull away it occurred to me that this usually lightly-loaded service would be a jolly good place to test the Vivarail ‘D’ train. It is inconceivable the good Mr Shooter (who is rather familiar with this branch) hasn’t already thought of it, so there must be a good reason why a demonstrator within easy reach of London is not felt a good idea. I’d certainly want to travel on it!

After the 121 departed (again quite full) the station became very quiet. Most of the action takes place on Platform 3, the old Up Main platform, but in the evening that is only really busy as commuters come home. Having time to spare I had a quick clump around Aylesbury town centre taking in the surviving architecture before returning to an efficient but uninteresting 165 for the 1-hour journey to London.

A civilized run back in a Met Pullman would have been nice.


Posted in Heritage Transport, London Rail, Main Line Rail, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

All Change For Oxford Street


On 25th April last, I published a blog about the proposal to pedestrianize Oxford Street in which I cast doubt about the practicability of such a scheme, whether or not it was actually desirable. By ‘practicability’, of course, I did not suggest that it was impossible for some zealot to install the necessary tonnage of pink block paving, but had in mind the problems it would create for traffic using cross routes, delivery people and the large number of through passengers using buses, which I did not think was trivial. TfL has recently intimated that it proposes to reduce or remove many bus services along Oxford Street and it is understood this is a first wave of changes designed to discourage travel along this route and once these have ‘settled down’ more will follow. There is a political target date of 2020 to pedestrianize: no later than the next mayoral election.

It seems strange that a body called Transport for London should be actively seeking to reduce and remove altogether public transport along a main London corridor. Of course the reason is that TfL is required to implement what the mayor promises, presumably digging its heels in only if it is wildly impractical or conflicts with other legal requirements. We don’t yet know whether pedestrianization is impractical, but it won’t be cheap and I notice that residents in surrounding areas are already expressing alarm.

From my own observations of the Oxford Street buses I think there are changes that should be made anyway. I have myself witnessed peak hour buses picking nobody up between Bond Street and Trafalgar Square as buses meander to some turning point at Aldwych because it has been convenient for operators. Nevertheless you will see that there may be a little more to these changes than meets the eye.

I thought I would look into the proposals for this first wave of changes.

Bus Service Reductions

I shall start of by summarizing the covering policy paper and then look at the individual proposal. Comments, and links to the consultation, will follow.

The TfL thesis is based largely on three separate propositions.

  1. That bus travel in Inner London has fallen. A drop of 7-8% appears typical but in the City of London and parts of the West End a fall of nearly 17% is alleged. In Outer London, changes are much less profound: in some boroughs it is negligible but in the majority bus travel has risen and a 2% increase appears typical. These numbers relate to only one year (the longer term trend is not given) and need to be considered in the light of expectations in February 2016 when an upwards trend was expected (see chart below). TfL asserts that because there are fewer passengers then there need be fewer buses. It therefore follows that this includes fewer buses along Oxford Street.
    London Bus Network Statistics

    London’s bus service usage as at February 2016 (TfL)

  2. The opening of the Elizabeth Line will impact on bus travel (I will continue here to call the new line Crossrail as it better describes the concept). Quite reasonably TfL explains that the opening of a major new Underground route has widespread impacts and a route from Liverpool Street to Paddington will reduce central London bus travel to an extent, particularly along the east-west axis. A helpful map is presented and the implication is that this, too, suggests fewer buses will be needed along Oxford Street. See diagram below. The thick lines represent expected overcapacity of 20-25 buses per hour, the thinner lines (eg Regent Street) 6 buses an hour and very thin green lines just two or so. In most areas except those just referred to the effect is very marginal in the context of existing bus volumes.


    ‘Railplan’ output showing forecast change in bus demand in the morning peak due to full introduction of the Elizabeth line (net increases in demand in red and net decreases in demand in green

  3. The third plank, so to speak, is nothing whatever to do with passenger demand but the need to observe mayoral wishes and the desires of Westminster City Council. TfL has apparently signed up to ‘improving the pedestrian environment on Oxford Street’. It is asserted that crowding might get worse when Crossrail opens as it will generate extra activity, particularly around Bond Street. A 40% reduction in the number of buses along Oxford Street has apparently been agreed between TfL and Westminster Council, in advance of the public consultation, and the proposed changes are geared to delivering this.

The report this is distilled from is called:  ‘West End Bus Services Review’, dated November 2016, and it is available HERE. It’s worth a good look.

Let me now summarize the changes TfL is proposing. There are several changes proposed outside the West End area and these have been omitted as not germane to the Oxford Street question, but bus service changes that are proposed to routes serving either end, or along Regent Street, are included.

Specific Changes

Route 3. Presently serves Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. To be re-routed via Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road and in a loop via Russell Square. Frequency unchanged at 8 minutes. Change will affect about 850 people daily who will have to change buses. Note that until early 2015, Route 3 also served Oxford Circus but was cut back owing to improve reliability owing to ‘regeneration and road works’.

Route 6. From Edgware Road presently serves Marble Arch, Oxford Street, Oxford Circus, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Aldwych. To be rerouted between Marble Arch and Piccadilly Circus via Park Lane, Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly. Frequency unchanged at 7-8 minutes (which was reduced from 6 minutes in January 2015 owing to construction work in Regent Street but found to match demand). TfL observes this will introduce a new service ‘for first time’, running between Park Lane and Piccadilly direct. TfL state this will affect 1700 weekday customers who will have to change buses (at Marble Arch or near Piccadilly Circus).

Route 8. This presently runs from Bow to Tottenham Court Road via High Holborn and New Oxford/Bloomsbury Way Street and via a loop at Tottenham Court Road taking it virtually to Goodge Street station, Chenies Street and return via Gower Street/Bloomsbury Street. TfL intends to reroute westbound buses via St Giles High Street and Earnshaw Street, returning via New Oxford Street and Bloomsbury Way. No ‘numbers inconvenienced’ given. It must be noted that TfL claims weekday usage has dropped 14% over five years. This route continued beyond Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus and whilst TfL gives no date the reason given is ‘ongoing works on Oxford Street’. The cut-back appears to have been 2013.

Route 13. This presently approaches London along the Finchley Road/Baker Street axis and terminates at Aldwych via Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. TfL proposes to divert the route where it meets Oxford Street to run to Victoria via Marble Arch and Park Lane (replacing the 82). No passenger impact is given though the 113 which shares much of the route would serve Oxford Circus.

Route 15. This runs from East London to Aldywch and Trafalgar Square and before May 2013 continued to Piccadilly Circus and Regent Street. The service was cut back ‘temporarily’ owing to roadworks and traffic congestion, TfL states. It is proposed to make this change permanent.

Route 22. This presently runs Putney to Piccadilly Circus via Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly. The proposal is to divert the route to Oxford Circus via Green Park, Berkeley Square, Conduit Street and Regent Street (replacing part of the C2). This is felt likely to affect 860 passengers daily who presently use the 22. Frequency unchanged.

Route 23. No immediate changes are proposed for this service in the West End, but it is planned to withdraw it between Liverpool Street and Aldwych ‘to restore the reliability of the service’. Frequencies would be unchanged. In the longer term TfL proposes to withdraw the route east of Paddington when Crossrail opens. The present changes will affect about 2300 people daily who would require to change buses.

Route 73. Presently runs from Stoke Newington to Victoria via Tottenham Court Road/Gower Street, Oxford Street, Marble Arch and Park Lane and TfL propose to curtail the route at Oxford Circus. This will affect about 1050 people daily. No passenger-specific reason is given for this particular change is given.

Route 113. This presently runs along the Finchley Road/Baker Street axis but presently stops at Marble Arch. TfL propose to divert it at Oxford Street to terminate at Oxford Circus (where it historically terminated).

Route 137. Presently serves Park Lane, Marble Arch, Bond Street and turns at Oxford Circus. To be turned at Marble Arch and withdrawn along Oxford Street. Will affect about 2300 people daily who will have to change buses or use the Underground.

Route 189. Presently runs from Brent Cross to Oxford Circus via Baker Street. TfL proposes to divert the route at Oxford Street to terminate at Marble Arch and no longer serve Oxford Circus.

Route 242. Presently runs from Homerton to Tottenham Court Road via Bank, Holborn, St Giles High Street and returns via New Oxford Street and Bloomsbury Way. TfL proposes to cut route back to St Pauls with no change in frequencies. The implied reason is to free up the bus stand at Tottenham Court Road so it can be used by Route 8, though it is observed that usage over 5 years is down 17% (though we are not told between which points); Tfl says ‘Some of this decline is down to the service not running as reliably as it should. Our proposals seek to address this. By shortening the route and avoiding certain pinch points we can manage the service more efficiently and restore reliability and confidence in the service. Around 1,800 weekday customers would need to change.

Route 390. This route presently runs Archway to Notting Hill Gate via Tottenham Court Road/Gower Street, Oxford Street and Marble Arch. TfL propose to divert the route at Marble Arch to run to Victoria via Park Lane (this largely to replace the 73, it appears). This will affect about 1350 people daily.

Route C2. Presently runs from Parliament Hill to Victoria via Great Portland Street, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Berkeley Square, Green Park, Hyde Park Corner. To be curtailed at Regent Street (Conduit Street) and Victoria section cut out. TfL states reason is to improve reliability.

The Money

The first observation is that whatever the merits of the proposals, the published schemes as a whole are designed to save TfL £8.4 million annual costs with a loss of revenue estimated at £1.4 million, a net saving of about £7 million cash each year. We are, I think, all aware that TfL has a bit of a funding shortfall, so such savings are likely to be sought all over the system, but the Oxford Street and Regent Street corridors are prime targets given the political desire to reduce (and perhaps eliminate) buses, at least along Oxford Street. Annual bus mileage will fall by 1.1 million miles and save 39 vehicles. The cost to passengers is generally reckoned as time. About 17,000 transport links will be broken which will require an extra walk or a change of buses along the passenger’s route. TfL and most government bodies convert this to a notional cash cost, based on experience and research, and this represents how an average passenger responds to paying more or less for savings in, or additions to, journey time – it is a proxy designed to help identify the better of otherwise similar projects but it is not entirely fanciful – and the passenger ‘cost’ of these changes is about £5.3 million. The total ‘cost’ is established by adding the passenger disbenefits and the loss of revenue which gives you a cost/disbenefit of £6.75 million against cash savings of savings of £8.4 million, equating to a cost-benefit ratio of 0.8 (where savings are made, the rules are that this ratio must be less than 2.0, making this scheme ‘very worthwhile’). The savings would be attractive to any bus operator and the unasked question is ’why now’.

Proposals Overview


This represents the routes presently (end 2016) using Oxford Street


This represents how the Oxford Street bus routes might look after 2017 if all changes implemented

The above diagram extracts are included to do no more than give a flavour of the scale of the changes that are proposed. The complete change maps cover the whole of the affected routes and can be downloaded as follows and do deserve study:

Map showing all the affected routes as they are now – Click HERE
Map showing all the affected routes if all the alterations are implemented – Click HERE
Map showing the services as they are now with the alterations marked on as well – Click HERE


It would be tedious to repeat here what anyone can read in the report where TfL has explained its reasoning to each of the changes, usually in some detail. In most cases changes have been grouped so that sets of routes are treated as a logical whole for passengers travelling between central London and particular outside areas. The work is set out in Section 7 which should be a ‘must read’.

Having said that I think that there are a few points that are unsaid and may be susceptible to more intimate probing.

Permanent changes because of short terms road works

A number of changes are predicated on roadworks and other construction work (including Crossrail works) that are of a temporary nature. This is in a few cases acknowledged, but the heavy reduction in some central London usage against a generally rising trend in bus usage that, with population growth seems set to increase, seems a risky starting point for claiming buses can be permanently withdrawn.

Improved parallel Underground Services

The reduction in usage along some bus corridors owing to improvements in Underground services is acknowledged, especially parallel to Jubilee and Victoria Lines. However this space will fill up and that having been done it is unfeasible to add further capacity to those existing lines. Increases on other lines (particularly the east-west tube lines), is some way off.


Crossrail is clearly going to have some effect. We must remind ourselves the route is Liverpool Street – Farringdon– Tottenham Court Road – Bond Street – Paddington. The major reduction in local traffic is likely to be along the Marylebone Road corridor, Liverpool Street to Tottenham Court Road / Bond Street and Bond Street to Paddington. This will relief the Metropolitan / Circle and (particularly) the Central Line which in turn will make more space for local journeys along these corridors and relief some pressure on buses. Having said that the Underground is too often a poor choice for making comparatively short trips across central London owing to the need to get to a station, get down to a platform, often not get a seat (even in so-called off peak), get back to the surface and then walk from the station to where you want to go. For many, getting a bus is much to be preferred and is often pleasanter. I am not persuaded Crossrail will be much relief to the buses along Oxford Street except for the Bond Street-Paddington routes and the ‘Railplan’ table above rather supports the effect as being marginal along Oxford Street East. I would be cautious about the ‘Crossrail will fix it’ implications promoted only cautiously by TfL and more exuberantly by one or two others who might not have seen the TfL analysis or who just want to ignore it.

Bus Stands not Passengers Define Bus Routes?

A number of changes are clearly steered by the availability of bus stands. As a transport person I do realize that such things are important; a random distribution of bus arrival times needs correcting before buses depart the other way if the service stands any chance of running regularly, so buses need to have stand time. However the sheer number of references to bus stands doesn’t make me feel as though passengers are coming first in the thinking. So far as ‘strategy’ is concerned (and there’s a word I hate using) we seem to have returned to those dark days of the 1970s when LT had all but given up on running buses regularly, with the combination of enforced one person operation (and thus long boarding times) and ‘traffic congestion’ making schedules a work of fiction. The answer then was to cut route length so buses ran in overlapping sections, requiring many people to change buses. This, of course, involved introducing many more bus stands to accompany the larger number of shorter routes (this approach was not particularly successful, for several reasons).

The present report could almost have been written in those awful days. We are now informed that many of the routes are unacceptably unreliable because of traffic or construction work or some other reason and shortening routes would improve reliability. Hmm. This sounds like the thin end of the (very old) wedge with the passenger very much not in the driving seat! I will go no further than to suggest that if there is a wider bus service reliability problem in London (and I think there might be) then let us have a paper on bus reliability by all means. Indeed, it would make very interesting reading to see what measures are being taken to protect the interests of bus passengers against the assault on our streets from the various competing interests. However, darkly referring to the unreliability problems here in order to support a bus cull in Oxford Street in a consultation where passengers can’t really challenge it is not very helpful and I think could reasonably invite further probing.

Those for whom the Underground is not an option

We should not overlook the interests of those who for one reason or another cannot use the Underground, of whom I suspect are more than you might think (especially when it is busy). I saw no mention of such people in the report.

The Undesirability of Changing Buses

It is accepted that quite large numbers of people will now need to change buses and the report suggests that in many cases this can be done at many bus stops where the arriving and the required buses shares stops along common sections of road (though these are not individually set out in the data). Frequent mention is made of the new Hoppa Ticket entitling someone to a free journey on a second bus where one has clocked in on the first one within the hour. A few of the route alterations are along quite lengthy routes passing along notoriously congested roads where it is quite possible an hour might not be sufficient. This would seem a legitimate cause for complaint.

More generally, the need to change buses along ones journey is a serious turn-off. You wait for a bus, endure the undisciplined fight to get on and may then need to stand for a while before getting a seat. It is bad enough once but to have to repeat it, amplifying the overall journey uncertainty, is very unwelcome. It is more unwelcome in wet weather, of course, as sheltering provision is minimal at a busy stop. These are legitimate concerns ineffectually addressed in the report and I think that some of this is not thought through. Particular objection might be levelled at what is intended at Tottenham Court Road (where the road layout is not finished) and Marble Arch which despite recent improvements is still a horrid place with circumlocutory pedestrian movements and bus stops chaotically arranged. Many stops are presently split, which is exceedingly irksome for short-distance passengers (nothing is said about reducing the number of split stops in the culling, though it would be a good opportunity).

For example the routes along Edgware Road to Oxford Street reduce from four to two. The logical change is stop H in Edgware Road but in view of reductions it is better to walk 250 metres to stop K or L in Oxford Street. This is really a split stop where the component stops are a long way apart in a very, very crowded bit of street. Not a pleasant change at all. Similar considerations apply to 137 users (where a large number of bus changes is expected). If buses are to turn at Marble Arch they will have to drop off in Park Lane. One can wait at windswept stop W for one of the two surviving routes but it is a much better option from stops K or L but a really long and unpleasant treck if you do brave it. Not something you would be looking forward to every day. It is my experience that stops on outbound services at Marble Arch tend to be very, very busy already. You won’t be expecting a seat, I think.

Air Pollution

Finally, one of the drivers behind the reduction of bus services is the amount of air pollution. We all know that TfL is increasing the use of hybrid buses and looking closely at new technology vehicles that are virtually pollution-free at point of service delivery. The report doesn’t really go into any of this but I would have thought that, in fairness, anyone believing that reducing buses will reduce air pollution should be benchmarking against the new zero or low pollution buses rather than some of the grottier vehicles that are being phased out anyway. I agree that reducing the pollution from vehicles other than buses is harder and there is considerable opposition to the redistribution of pollution-generating vehicles to neighbouring areas as that is hardly a cure. We all want fresher air, I think, but wishing the buses away isn’t really going to deliver it.


I have been through the consultation material and I suppose it is as workmanlike as one could expect, but there is quite a lot of it and this might be felt a bit daunting. I actually agree with some of the changes from my own observations. However I think the overall quantity of the reductions in one go might be found to be a step too far and begin to impinge on our ability to get about.

Posted in London Buses, London general interest, London Mayor, Road Transport | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Battersea and the Slow Death of a Giant


The above is inscribed on a commemorative stone laid at Battersea Power Station on 23 April 1931 during its construction by the London Power Company, which was rightly extremely proud of what it was building (the full wording is given at the end).

The company recognized that it was taking a bold step forward along the long road of electrical progress and development that great names such as Faraday had taken a hundred years before, and many others in the meantime. But it was all about the technology of supplying this electricity. The power station building was indeed a cathedral of power (a term finding favour with the arts and crafts brigade) but it was designed to look after and show off the technology and represent the tremendous impact that electricity was facilitating.

This association with the technology all seems to have been lost. The do-gooders that wanted to keep a building whose arrival other do-gooders heartily resisted at the time knew they were on to something and imagined it was all about the building. No, say I! It was about the technology. So what have our perhaps well-meaning lords and masters facilitated? A wreck of a building with most of the technology thrown away. Well done. That’s quite an achievement. With a slight sense of exasperation I set out the story below (posted exactly 225 years after Michael Faraday was born).

Battersea Power Station

Battersea Power Station last generated electric current in 1983 some 33 years ago. Since then the building has sat there, its heart torn out (by which I mean its generating equipment and roof are missing) and various groups of people have agonized over what to do with it. The building was listed (Grade II) by English Heritage in 1980, anticipating closure, so demolition was not going to be possible (or, at least, not easy). Listing status was raised to Grade II* in 2007. Electricity supply was nationalized in 1948 and the Central Electricity Generating Board latterly operated the station and had hoped to redevelop the site to generate funding for investment in plant elsewhere, but this avenue was firmly closed after listing. Since then the derelict station has sat there deteriorating gracefully in front of our eyes and the overall condition was described as ‘very bad’ by English Heritage as long back as 2009, but still it sat there, more a monument to the planning process than a monument to the electricity industry.


Battersea exterior in 2009, some years after closure and looking deceptively good. The interior, though is rotting fast. (Mattbuck via creative commons licence)

The power station is not what it superficially seems to be. ‘It’ is two technically quite separate power stations, the first, Battersea ‘A’, operational between 1933 and 1975 with the station not completed until 1935, and the ‘B’ station between 1944 and 1983 with completion only in 1955. The ‘A’ station is the western part of the structure and the design made provision for a correspondingly similar building to be built next to it, giving the impression of one uniform structure (which was at that point the largest brick-built building in Europe). The higher part of the building was the boiler house which was built with a temporary metal screen wall along its eastern side until the adjacent station was built (work on the adjacent boiler house starting in 1941 though some other work on the ‘B’ station began in 1937).


Battersea ‘A’ power station in 1933


Battersea, May 1946. Part of the ‘B’ station and one chimney already constructed and apparently under load. The ‘B’ station and the fourth chimney were not completed till 1955.

Plans were first put together in 1927 and the resulting structure is built around a very large steel frame the construction of which began in 1929, when it may be assumed that the technical arrangements were pretty much settled. The technical design and functional requirements were put together by London Power Company engineers and the architect James Theodore Halliday (of Manchester’s Halliday and Agate partnership), and the structural design was in the hands of C.S. Allott & Son. The power company’s chief engineer was Leonard Pearce, who had joined in 1926 after wide experience in electrical engineering elsewhere (he had been working for British Thomson-Houston before accepting the post of Superintending Engineer for the Central London Railway during its construction). It was he who led the designing of Battersea. It says something of his character that he shunned retirement and died whilst still in post in 1947, aged 74 (he was knighted in 1935).

Concerns about what the building would look like resulted in eminent architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott being brought in (in 1930) and he was given responsibility for improving the external appearance of the building and its brick cladding and chimneys. He is often referred to in popular sources as ‘the architect’ but his late involvement in a building already being erected makes this assertion very implausible and at the time he was described as the ‘external’ architect. Arguably getting a pleasing result from a building that might otherwise have looked dreadful to the hostile opinion-formers is probably a more challenging role than designing from new. The external style was replicated in the ‘B’ station though whether he was still involved then I have not ascertained. The famed internal finishes of the ‘A’ station were by Halliday and displayed faience and marble not unusual at that time (the later ‘B’ station had entirely different internal finishes representing the austerity of that time).

Scott is noted for his design of the chimneys on their decorated square brick bases. These are actually functional as they housed Pearce’s gas-washing equipment used to take the worst pollutants out of the flue gasses, a system throughout the world used only here and later at Bankside. According to The Times, it was decommissioned during WW2 as the government  wanted all the smoke it could get to help screen London from aerial attack. It was recommissioned after the war.

London Power Company

The station was built by the London Power Company (LPC), of which probably few people have heard in any context except Battersea. In the early days of London’s electricity supply electricity was generated, distributed and sold in small districts of London in accordance with electric lighting orders issued by the Board of Trade. The districts were at first parishes or groups of parishes but later the metropolitan boroughs into which the civil functions of parishes had evolved. The actual supplier might even be the local authority (as it was in Hampstead or Fulham, for example) but more usually was a private company. This multiplicity of systems and small stations meant supplies were very inefficient and therefore expensive. To reduce costs nine of these ‘all purpose’ companies got together and formed what in 1925 became the London Power Company to whom all their generating plant was transferred and from whom each could draw its own supply. The LPC was told to modernize, consolidate and if necessary replace the existing power stations to reduce electricity costs. Within a year the idea of building a very large station began to emerge and, after first looking at a site in Brentford, Battersea became a favoured location because land was available alongside the Thames (for coal supply and cooling water) and it was near the centre of where the power was needed.

At about the same time the government created a non profit-making public body called the Central Electricity Board, which was given the job of designing and building a national high-voltage electricity distribution grid. The idea was that the grid would buy the whole of the electricity output from the country’s prevailing most efficient power stations and sell it in bulk to any distribution authority wanting it. Over time it would cause large, efficient stations to be built and cause the closure of small and inefficient stations as buying in bulk from the grid would be cheaper, which is more or less what happened except that some distributors were already buying in bulk from neighbours because it was cheaper. The idea of a very large station such as Battersea fell neatly into this scheme.

After Closure

The power station remained coal fired throughout its life, though the ‘A’ station was adapted to use oil as an option, and the ‘B’ station used pulverized coal. By the 1970s the equipment was becoming life-expired and closure was the best option once the new 400kV London ring main had been completed (allowing power from the midlands to be distributed reliably across London). The CEGB had a problem now, since listing meant it could not be demolished. Accordingly it began casting around for proposals. An early one, in 1982, was to convert Battersea ‘A’ into a refuse-burning power station, installing ramps at the end of the ‘A’ turbine hall to allow lorries direct access. The disused boilers would have been replaced by three new refuse boilers using just one of the chimneys and new generating plant was needed as the old turbines were already being broken up in 1977. For some reason this did not find favour.

By the time the ‘B’ station closed, Wandsworth Council had already realized that what happened on this vast site would have wide planning implications and the council drew up a development brief. With assistance of Taylor Woodrow the CEGB sought workable proposals and launched a competition judged by Hugh Casson (which had to comply with the council’s brief). Seven short-listed entries were put on display during 1984, mostly regarded as not very interesting. On whittling down to two, one was the refuse-burning power station which scheme had reappeared and had the merit of being useful and a suitable use for the building. This, unfortunately did not comply with the council’s aspirations. The other was a proposal for an indoor industrial theme park put forward by a consortium led by Sir David Roche and including the operators of the Alton Towers theme park; the consortium claimed it was going to create ‘London’s Tivoli Gardens’ to the disbelief of those who had looked at the plans. The good and the great complained that this was about the least appropriate use to which this fine building could be put and raised the usual storm, which had no practical effect. The building was made available, apparently, without any restrictive covenants.

The Roche scheme received planning permission from Wandsworth but Sir David Roche actually withdrew and the site was sold to John Broome (of Alton Towers) in 1987 for £1.5 million, work starting the same year on the approved scheme, with modifications. The theme was to shift from ‘industrial’ towards a Las Vegas-style ‘palace of entertainment’. According to The Independent, at one stage, the plans included roller-coasters, waterfall, ice rink and an oceanarium big enough to be explored by mini-submarines.

The conversion work involved removing the boilers in the central section, and the concrete roof, which was to have been replaced. The life-expired power station building was quickly discovered to be fragile and riddled with asbestos. Far more work was required than the funfair supremo expected and costs increased from £34 million to a projected £240 million, the money running out in 1989 leaving the building (including exposed structural steelwork) open to to the elements. As the theme park had become unaffordable, new planning permission was granted for a mixture of a hotel, shops and offices despite furious opposition, including opposition by English Heritage. Nevertheless no more work was done at Battersea and Broome sold Alton Towers shortly afterwards (it is said to recoup capital after so much had been spent at Battersea). More detail about what Battersea might have become may be found HERE

In 1992 Parkview International bought the site for £10 million and planning permission was granted in 1996 for a large mixed development with restoration of the power station building fabric, but this process dragged on for ten years and created some bitter enemies. Part of the problem was that for the staff and visitors expected there was no public transport, a factor made more problematical by other nearby developments (from which was born the Northern Line extension, but that is another story). Anyway this got very difficult and in 2006 Parkview sold the site and accompanying external land for £400m million to Messrs Richard Barratt and Johnny Ronan who scrapped existing plans. The external land amounted to 32 acres formerly South Lambeth railway goods depot and a nearby pumping station.

These two individuals hail from Ireland and did well developing property in Dublin before expanding rapidly through their company Treasury Holdings, the controlling interest behind Real Estate Opportunities which was fronting the Battersea activity. The pair had already acquired a reputation for which so many adjectives would fit, perhaps the most frequently used being flamboyant, litigious, controversial and difficult to work with. At any rate after four years, during which debts had risen to £500 million, this could not go on, especially as Treasury Holdings was adversely affected by the Irish property crash in 2009, cash was a problem and the Irish government had become involved in Treasury Holdings’ debts as part of its quest to prop up the Irish economy.

Despite a fully-developed scheme having been developed the company eventually collapsed in 2011 with massive debts. The scheme had been quite imaginative and proposed utilizing part of the site as a biomass power station but much of the space would have been shopping and the roofless part would be used as a park. The site would also have included an energy museum. Restoration of the now much-weathered building would alone have cost £150 million. This scheme went into administration at the end of 2011 when banks foreclosed.


This image shows that while externally the power station looks presentable, inside it is in a terrible state. This photo 2007 and it has got worse since. (The Guardian)

The administrators now put the whole site up for sale with lots of restrictions and it was purchased by a Malaysian consortium with a requirement that restoration of the power station building was a priority, work starting in 2013. Much of the previous masterplan was retained, allowing relatively quick progress. Unfortunately the building was, after 30 derelict years, now in a shocking state. This was not helped by fears that the chimney reinforcing had deteriorated so much that they would (or might) become unsafe and commitments had already been given to Wandsworth Council that the chimneys would be demolished and replaced by replicas (although later inspections suggested this was unnecessary, the commitments made were enforced).

Where we are now is that work is at last in full flow and the exterior of the building will be retained as a public monument, but monument to what? For me the interesting feature is the technology, and I have previously expressed an opinion about how this country, for some very odd reason, ignores the history of several of our great industries of which the electricity supply industry surely comes top of the list as the most crucial. So here we have seen a vast building, very famous and good looking, and owned by the power supply industry when it was decommissioned, desperately looking for a use. We later discover the country’s only dedicated electricity museum at Christchurch is closing and the material must in due course be dispersed. It is mere frustration that I observe the Christchurch exhibition material and its reserve stock could have produced a tiny and worthwhile technical museum in a tiny corner of Battersea!

Anyway, enough of that! The point I am making is that all the industrial history at Battersea was got rid of at the earliest opportunity whilst the actual building was listed in 1980 for retention, partly as a reaction to the unseemly demolition of the Firestone factory in west London whose owners anticipated listing and wanted to circumvent its costs. The listing of Battersea is therefore nothing much to do with the technological wonder the station was felt to be when it was built; the listing was to do with the architectural merit of the structure (actually mainly the cladding) and the association with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

This is all very well, but despite the rarity of attractive brick buildings this size there is, a few miles downstream, another one of Gilbert Scott’s brick power stations, of similar mass: this is Bankside power station, opened in 1952 and contemporary with Battersea ‘B’. The Bankside station ceased generation in 1981 but was not listed because it was at first felt ‘too new’ and subsequently because ‘it might constrain development’. The contrast with Battersea is interesting. Bankside, again, is a power station where Gilbert Scott appeared late in the process to improve the appearance of a building whose form had already been designed and against angry opposition. This time there was the added complication of nearby St Paul’s and the risk of obscuring some well-known views. Scott’s main contribution was to create a central tower and get rid of the standard chimneys (arguably making it more cathedral-like and looking less like a traditional power station). I think this is quite successful and perhaps represents the pinnacle of power station design in the middle of cities, for there were (I think) no more.

Criticism has been levelled about whether Michael Heseltine ought to have listed Battersea power station in the first place, since listing such a vast structure was always going to impose an extreme challenge to any developer, and probably a fatal challenge judging by events. The government might list, but it has absolutely no responsibility for funding the ongoing consequences. It is instructive that Bankside has been redeveloped successfully whilst the listing of Battersea clearly was an issue. However there are far too many differences between the sites to make it possible to draw firm conclusions. In the circumstances one can understand why listing took place (and some rather nice features remain) but it invites the obvious question about what is being listed and who will have pockets deep enough to preserve a building and make money. This is an issue that affects many listed building, not just power stations. The Historic England listing entry refers entirely to the architectural features of the building ‘envelope’ and is uninterested in the technical contribution. Apparently the building is still Europe’s largest brick building. Does this mean it should be kept? I have also seen it described as merely a very large shed (to keep the equipment dry). Harsh, but I do get the point. Actually, on seeing how many aircraft hangars are listed perhaps size is important.

Bankside was not only never listed but was (uniquely?) given a certificate of immunity from listing in 1993. The building remained with the CEGB until electricity privatization when it was allocated to Nuclear Electric (now part of EdF), probably because that company was remaining in government ownership for a while longer. Decommissioning work was soon undertaken involving removal of the machinery and a lot of asbestos. In 1994 it was announced the building would be sold, complete, to form Tate Modern, apart from a small part of the site still used as a substation. On the whole, this was a very simple journey and Tate Modern, by all accounts works rather well.

Whilst the unfortunate consequences of listing Battersea still arouse suspicion, the perhaps hasty actions of Wandsworth Council also invite scrutiny. The nature of the planning brief that constrained the ideas that came forward, and the inclination to promote unsuitable and highly controversial development, seem unwittingly to have pushed the council into a corner where it was more or less forced to accept vast and exceedingly risky proposals that were in conflict with its responsibilities with regard to safeguarding listed buildings, the more so because of the extraordinary size of a power station. There could be no solution to ‘saving’ the rapidly deteriorating building without something else to fund it. A very uncomfortable position to have walked into and a possibility that ought to have been foreseen and avoided. More convenient to blame the planning process perhaps (and the preservation and conservation aspects of our planning processes do need attention). Whilst I expect Wandsworth meant well, those looking at the plans for a theme park were not saying that at the time.


Battersea early September 2016. Massive new buildings (on right) now hide the station from the railway lines and now dwarf the station. Note three chimneys dismantled prior replicas being built. The lack of roof and some walls is evident.


Another great glass block will also be built on the east side. The scale of the enveloping development is absolutely colossal. I think the glass block might be sixteen storeys.

What Now

We are now in the midst of a development scheme that (to get the money to work) destroys the famous vista of the power station and its chimneys from most directions within a mile or so because of overpowering adjacent developments. The station has been mauled around by the loss of the concrete roof and stripping of equipment, notwithstanding the listing, and the roof and chimneys are in fact to be replicas. This does not seem to me to be a very satisfactory outcome. Nobody has done anything wrong (as far as I know), but somehow the agencies that are supposed to be on our side could, I think, have done better.

Brick-faced Bankside was built in two phases between 1948 and 1963 and admittedly is smaller than Battersea. It has retained a good vista from the Thames and lacks the clutter now appearing at Battersea. It is far too late to do anything now, but the question about whether we need both of these building perhaps ought to have been asked. The power of the Battersea design was its domination of the landscape but the new development (keeping the power station because it has to) rather dwarfs it. It may, in the minds of some, quite destroy it.

The old turbine hall is to become a 2000 person venue, we are told. The redevelopment envisages the generating halls being converted into multi-floored office spaces, however there will be a new power station on the site as the electricity demand is so high it is worth building a small combined heat and power plant in a large underground chamber underneath the new riverside gardens (power stations have to be hidden these days including, ironically, power stations built to provide power to a conserved power station). This chamber used to be one of the coal stores.

After much digging I find a slightly begrudging note that the ‘A’ station control room (robbed of some equipment, vandalised and rusty) is to be ‘restored’ and presumably made available to the public somehow. This is a small victory but of course the control room was a very small part of this vast electrical machine and on its own lacks the context of a cavernous humming building with hundreds of people on site and heavy equipment ready to respond instantly (and noisily) to the operation of a switch. Impressive I am sure it will be, but an eye-catching collection of dials and switches of a type no-one growing up in this century will relate to will mean what, exactly? It won’t be on display because it is important, it will be on display because it happens to have survived. It isn’t as though there is no space for anything more meaningful too.

According to The Times in 1947, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott himself deprecated being called the designer and often said he was only responsible for the appearance of the exterior. In the same piece (Pearce’s obituary) Scott is also reputed to have said in drawing attention to the skill of Dr. Pearce (as he then was) and his associates ‘that in his opinion “ the interior and its wonderful engineering, with its terrifying machinery, hardly gets the notice it deserves” ’. If that is what Scott himself felt, it is a pity the architectural zealots do not respect his views.

I wish Battersea well now it has got through this pitiful and chaotic period, however well-intended the ineffectual actions of our masters have been so far. I just wish the bureaucrats who would have us believe they work for us could had shown more enthusiasm for incorporating at Battersea some kind of wider electrical engineering display as the setting would have been so appropriate. Does London really need more shops of the type that Londoner’s can’t afford? Does the country need a more fitting monument to the electrical technology that allows it to function at all. The Faraday stone perhaps got the tone right. I wonder if the developers are going to make a feature of it? I wonder if they know it is there?


For more information about the Chimney rebuild, see HERE
For some quite interesting pictures of the place, see HERE
A brief article about surviving control rooms, see HERE
The website of the developer and plans for the station HERE
Some interesting images here before rot set in, including interior of turbine hall HERE

The complete wording on the remembrance stone is:


Post Script

On 28 September 2016 Apple announced it would be moving into much of the office space in the former Boiler House and is leasing 500,000 square feet. This is good in as much as the present developer is more likely to make the site as a whole a success and to save the fabric of the generating station. I don’t think it changes anything above though. Was it worth saving and what about the technology?

Posted in Our Government, Power Supply System | Tagged , | 1 Comment

A Line to Nowhere

There is something a bit eerie about a railway line that was only partly built. Such is the case at the distinctly eerie Chessington South station which I have had cause to visit several times quite recently.

There hadn’t been much in the Chessington hinterland to attract railways in their first century of existence as fully integrated passenger-carrying systems. The good old Southern Railway (like the London underground railways) was very sensitive to the possibilities of house construction where there were decent transport facilities, the commuters created thereby committing themselves to paying for the railway through their season tickets to town, to which they and their families became absolutely committed. I must not call them commuters since the term had not been coined in this Country before the Second World War.


This had been a good-looking building but the explosion of gawdy signs, camera and aerials, and that machine thing, have succeeded in ruining the appearance of the place and making it all look a bit seedy.

The Southern determined that Tolworth, Chessington and the empty farmland to its south along the Leatherhead Road was prime Southern house-building land that could one day create a useful income. A plan was hatched for a new through line from Motspur Park to Leatherhead, to an extent paralleling the existing route via Epsom but serving areas too far away from the existing catchments, Parliamentary authority being obtained in 1930. When this ‘nice to have’ was expected to have been built I am not sure, the circumstances of what actually happened changed things.


1:2500 map. The single track south of the bridge over the unclassified road was not there long and seems to have been built to aid construction of embankment.

In the difficult times of the early-mid 1930s the government was still amenable to assisting useful public works that helped reduce unemployment and stimulated British business, but in all cases stopping short of providing liquid cash and with a disinclination to stimulate schemes that would happen anyway since this was regarded as mere subsidy (and a poor use of public money). London Transport and the main line railways established a workable mechanism to raise ‘cheap’ government-backed money and a number of schemes were examined, including London-Portsmouth electrification, which was quite expensive. However the programme as finally evolved confined these new works to the London Passenger Transport Area and the government indicated that it would consider a similar scheme for new railway works outside London. This set the scene for several quite well known improvements. In addition to London-Portsmouth there was to be included the Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrification and the reconstruction of Euston station, for example. Making a start with the Motspur Park – Chessington – Leatherhead line would also receive assistance. The mechanism was to establish a public corporation (the Railway Finance Corporation) which could issue bonds that were backed by a government guarantee and against the proceeds of which the railways could draw down cash for approved schemes as required (paying the same rate of interest as the bonds required to be paid).

The Southern did not regard the new line as the highest priority and expected to construct it in stages, each stage stimulating ever further development south. Stations were planned at: Malden Manor (the name Old Malden was toyed with), Tolworth, Chessington Court, Chessington Grange, Malden Rushett and a final station serving the  area between West Ashstead and North Leatherhead and the whole of the line was to be 7¼ miles. We cannot be certain about the planned name for the southernmost station but Leatherhead Common would not have been inappropriate. Whilst the names Moor Lane (Chessington) and Garrison Lane (Chessington) were used to describe the two stations in Chessington in 1935 it is unlikely these were firm proposals. Indeed the first of these two was built at a site slightly further south and did not serve Moor Lane.

The line opened as far as Tolworth on 29 May 1938 and to Chessington South on 28 May 1939, the whole section being 3¾ miles long. The alteration in station names from Chessington Court to Chessington North, and Chessington Grange to Chessington South, happened quite shortly before opening; the new names are rather less romantic and less estate agent friendly perhaps, but were probably considered more helpful for those not familiar with the area. Planned cost for this section was just £440,000 but I do not have to hand actual costs, though they would not have been so very different. Some work was done further south and much of the land purchased and pegged out but the war put paid to major work being done and afterwards the settling of the green belt meant that housing development was impossible and there was no point in extending the line. Track continued as far as Chalky Lane, having transferred from cutting to embankment, and work was done on an embankment to the south as far as Chessington Wood, apparently by the Royal Engineers as an exercise. The provisional edition 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey maps shows this complete, with track and a bridge over Chalky Lane, but personal inspection suggests no bridge was finished and the existence of track south of Chalky Lane unlikely.


Chessington South (looking north) with terminal platform on right and never used platform on left. The overhead blue panel this side of canopy is a knock-out panel that would give access to the footbridge, when built. 



View of the derelict platform, in reasonably good condition given when it was built and the improbability of much maintenance.

The civil engineering works were greatly complicated by the nature of the undulating land and the unforgiving nature of the acidic and treacherous clay which required considerable under-track support and extensive drainage and special treatment of the higher embankments which required topping with dry material.


Looking south from Chessington South. This track is fully signalled for shunting moves and seems to be fully electrified


Looking south from the road bridge the tracks (still in commission) disappear into the undergrowth and onto embankment


Extensive use was made of concrete, a favoured material of the Southern. It was suggested in 1935 that the stations would have island platforms and it is likely that the overall style was expected to follow that of the recently-completed Wimbledon & Sutton Line. In fact the completed stations were of a distinctive modern type with side platforms that, unusually, employed cantilevered concrete canopies of the Chisarc design which were heavily reinforced but actually quite thin and light for the job required. These had porthole-like glazed openings in the soffits to allow a proportion of daylight through and the stations were amongst the earliest to employ fluorescent lights.


View from Chalky Lane looking at what is clearly an embankment leading from its south side. Careful examination fails to reveal any evidence that a permanent bridge was completed here. A corresponding embankment on the north side is near where the track from Chessington South used to end.


This aerial view from 1948 (looking east) shows Chalky Lane on the left and railway near top running left-right (reading away from Chessington South). Just visible is a light, temporary bridge with wooden trestle props over Chalky Lane and though not obvious at this size track can be made out over the bridge and running all the way along this embankment. This corresponds with the map shown above. (Britain from above EAW013206)

Chessington South was never designed as a terminal station and was constructed with two complete platforms in the same manner as the others, though modified for access from a station building at a higher level (all the other stations have the station building lower). It is clear that to get the station open as quickly as possible some unnecessary work was deferred, such as the footbridge to the ‘up’ platform which was not required until the line went further south. The line continued south to give access to a goods yard (there was another at Tolworth). By the way, all four stations were rather similar in appearance and presented to view a great deal of then-fashionable concrete; whilst the two northern stations had all-concrete ticket halls, for some reason the two Chessington stations were finished off with brick-built ticket halls.


Tolworth station has survived well and the concrete doesn’t seem to have spalled or degraded (unlike some Underground stations). The porthole lights have unfortunately long been painted over, which seems regrettable. Some mastermind at South West Trains has decided that each of these three near-identical stations will also be painted identically so unless one’s train window pulls up opposite one of the few signs you have no idea where you are! I think I would have painted them each slightly differently (or put more signs up).


It is a pity about the awful signage clutter (surely SWT doesn’t encourage this?) but the station has survived reasonably well. The  once-fine ticket hall interior is a bit grim now, but no more than other stations where staff and facilities have been pared down.


This is Malden Manor station as opened, a very similar station to Tolworth. It may be seen that these two stations originally had a parapet around the top of the flat roof, making space for the Southern Railway signage which presumably disappeared with the parapets. These stations were designed by Architect James Robb Scott and make a pleasing contrast with Charles Holden’s vast station boxes.

Unusually the goods yard at Tolworth is still in use having been adapted to fill trains with (I think) gravel, locally obtained and fed to the yard by a conveyor system. Each time I have been past I’ve seen a train lurking so business is presumably good. The sidings at Chessington South appear quite unusable but the signalling suggest they are still avilable in theory.

The track in the unused ‘up’ platform at Chessington South is still bullhead rail on wooden sleepers, the rails are still connected with 2-hole fishplates (why would anyone not want to use the more robust 4-hole versions?) that are known to have been used in 1938-9 and it looks  as though this is all the original track, now over 75-year old.

It is of note that almost the whole of the branch parallels a main road which carries a TfL Chessington-Leatherhead bus mostly at half hour frequencies, and the ones I have seen are certainly not heavily occupied (at least, not beyond the zoo). It is probably as well the southern section wasn’t built. The line, particularly north of Chessington North, seems reasonably well used though.


This view from June 1949 looks north-east. At (1) is Chessington North station, (2) Chessington South station, (3) Chessington South goods yard, and (4) buffer stops and the limit at which track is visible, the track to the south apparently having just been lifted. The block of temporary buildings between railway and main road are Ordnance Survey offices. Chalky Lane is a little to the right, out of shot. (Britain from Above EAW023696)  


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