York’s National Railway Museum is home to an exceptional array of iconic locomotives and steam engines. They tell the fascinating story of railed travel in the UK while showcasing the engineering brilliance that went into their creation.
There are more than 6000 exhibits on display including the Mallard, the Duchess of Hamilton and the LMS Coronation Class 6229. It is one of the most visited museums in the country attracting almost 800,000 visitors in 2018.
Origins of the National Railway Museum
York’s first railway museum was opened in 1927 following the success of the Railway Centenary Exhibition held two years previously. Housed in an old repair shop on Queen Street, the original museum was only accessible to invited guests. However, its doors were finally opened to the general public in 1927.
The original museum exhibited a treasure-trove of items sourced from the London and North Eastern Railway over the course of forty years. They included an assortment of locomotives and rolling stock. The collection was further expanded in the mid-1960s with the addition of smaller exhibits from the NLR headquarters.
By the 1930s, a number of museums had been set up around the UK featuring ad-hoc collections from railway companies. Among the most notable were the Swindon Great Western Railway Museum, the Glasgow Transport Museum and the Museum of British Transport in Clapham. At one time, the latter boasted a fully-restored Mallard locomotive.
However, the 1968 Transport Act dictated that a centralised museum be set up in York as part of the National Museum of Science and Industry. Despite the opposition of certain politicians who wanted the museum to be based in London, plans nevertheless went ahead.
National Railway Museum Opens
On 27 September 1975, the National Railway Museum (NRM) was officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh. It proved a huge hit among the general public attracting more than 1 million visitors in its first year.
The original building was converted from an old locomotive roundhouse complete with four turntables. The largest of these turntables is still in operation.Today, the National Railway Museum remains extremely popular and displays more than 280 rail-related exhibits. They form part of the National Collection and can be found at two main sites: The Great Hall and the Station Hall.
The Great Hall
The Great Hall was formerly an engine shed in which locomotives were housed and prepared for mainline operation. After its closure in 1967, it became a storage space for retired steam locos that had been phased out following the introduction of diesel engines. Fittingly, the Great Hall was converted into a museum space after the NRM opened in 1975.
The Station Hall
The Station Hall opened in the 1870s and was York’s primary goods station until the 1960s. The hall is now home to historical locomotives such as the No 215 Gladstone of the London Brighton and South Coast Railway. The Royal Carriages collections is also based there. Read on as we now profile some of the museum’s main exhibits.
Shutt End Colliery Railway – Agenoria
The Agenoria is one of the oldest steam locomotives in the world having been built in 1829 – the same year as the Rocket. Made by Foster, Raistrick and Company and one of only four variants, the Agenoria became a workhorse at Staffordshire’s Shutt End colliery, pulling coal wagons for some 35 years.
After a long and distinguished service, it fell into disrepair before being recovered and restored by engineer E B Marten. The locomotive was put on display at an 1884 exhibition and later the 1951 Festival of Britain. It can now be seen at the NRM and is located in the Great Hall.
Robert Stephenson’s Rocket is an early steam engine that was built in 1829 and operated on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. It was one of the most advanced steam engines of the early 19th century, serving as a template for locomotive design for more than 100 years.
Accordingly, the Rocket is considered one of the most important innovations in modern engineering. The preserved original was moved to the National Railway Museum in 2019. The NRM is also home to two replicas of this ground-breaking machine.
Furness Railway – No.3 ‘Old Coppernob’
Old Coppernob was built in 1846 and provides another fine example of 19th century engineering. Named after its dome-shaped firebox, it is based on the bar-frame design pioneered by locomotive manufacturer Edward Bury and is the only survivor of this type in the UK. It operated on the Furness Railway before being transferred for shunting work near the docks of Barrow-in Furness.
There it remained for almost 50 years. During WWII, the locomotive was displayed at Barrow-in-Furness Station where it sustained shrapnel damage from German bombs. After a stint at the Dresden Transport Museum, No.3 was acquired by the National Railway Museum.
London and North Eastern Railway – Class A4 4468 ‘Mallard’
The Mallard is one of the most famous steam locomotives of all time and was built in 1938. Featuring a distinctive streamline design, it still holds the world speed record for a steam locomotive at 126 miles an hour. The variant on display at the NRM, bedecked in original LNER garter blue livery, was briefly restored to full working order in 1986 but is now a static exhibit. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the museum’s main attractions.
London Midland and Scotland – Princess Coronation Class 6229 ‘Duchess of Hamilton’
The 6229 is another famed streamliner locomotive that was unveiled in 1938. Following retirement in 1964, the Duchess was saved from the breaker’s yard by Sir Billy Butlin who added her to his popular holiday camp.
In 1976, the locomotive was loaned to the National Railway Museum where she was restored and operated as the museum’s flagship loco until 1985. The 6229 was eventually purchased by the NRM in 1987. After further renovations, the Duchess ran until 1996 after which time she served as a permanent exhibit. In 2005, the original red-and-gold streamlining was reinstated.
Midland Railway – Class 115 No. 673
The No. 673 is a Class 115 4-2-2 steam locomotive designed by Samuel W Johnson. Fifteen of these variants were built between 1896 and 1899 and operated as express services. Due to the wheel slip caused by their large drive wheels, they were known as ‘spinners’.
However, they could reach speeds of up to 90mph. The MR No. 673 was unveiled in 1897 and operated until 1928. Following withdrawal from service, it was fully restored and appeared at the Rocket 150 celebration in the spring of 1980. It’s now displayed at the NRM’s Station Hall.
Great Northern Railway – Class J13 No. 1247
The Class J13s were steam engines with a 0-6-0 configuration. They were based on a design by Patrick Stirling in which the water tank sits atop the boiler like a horse saddle. The J13 locomotives were mostly used for shunting work but were phased out after the introduction of diesel-powered engines.
Although some 85 were built between 1897 and 1909, No. 1247 is the only remaining unit of the class. Rolled out in 1899, the loco enjoyed a distinguished service until being withdrawn from duties in 1959. In 1980 the No. 1247 was donated to the National Railway Museum after a private restoration.
South Eastern & Chatham Railway – SECR D Class 4-4-0 Steam Locomotive No. 737
Designed by railway engineer Harry Wainright, the SECR D Class is a 4-4-0 tender locomotive that ran on the South Eastern and Chatham Railway in the early 20th century. Fifty engines were built and nicknamed ‘coppertops’ due to their copper-capped chimneys.
Exemplifying late Victorian engineering, the D Class was one of the first to be designed with aesthetics firmly in mind. The symmetrical exterior incorporates elegant sweeping brass-edge splashing and curved wheel arches. The No 737 exhibited at the NRM is painted in original SECR livery and served from 1901 to 1956.
British Rail – Class 76 Bo-Bo No. 26020
The Class 76 electric locomotives were unveiled in 1951 and intended for the now defunct Woodhead Line in North England. They were designed by famous engineer Sir Herbert Gresley with the original prototype built in 1941.
However, the outbreak of World War II delayed construction of further units as did the electrification of the Woodhead route. After the Second World War, the prototype was loaned to the Dutch Railways.
57 production units were then manufactured at Gorton Works in the early 1950s and used both for freight work and passenger services. The Class 76 at the National Railway Museum has also featured at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and became part of the National Collection in 1977.
British Rail – Co-Co ‘Deltic’ Class 55 – Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Diesel Locomotive
The Class 55 Deltic is a diesel locomotive introduced in the early 1960s by British Rail. Used primarily for high speed passenger services on the East Coast Main Line, they became a mainstay on the route for more than a decade.
However, the introduction of the Inter City 125 HST in 1975 saw the Deltics phased out. The unit exhibited at the NRM was built at the Vulcan Foundry, Newton-le-Willows in 1961 and operated for over twenty years.
Based out of Gateshead Depot, the KOYLI received its name in an official ceremony at York Station in 1963. For the locomotive’s final year of service, it was painted in original two-tone green livery. This was made possible by funding from the friends of the National Railway Museum.
West Japan Railways – Shinkansen 22-141 ‘Bullet Train’
The 22-141 is a 0 Series power car that operated on Japan’s high speed railway lines from 1976. Reaching speeds of up to 140mph these ‘bullet trains,’ as they’re known in the UK were among the fastest passenger trains in the world. They were also extremely punctual – it is said that on average one would arrive within at least twenty five seconds of its allotted time.
The power car on display at the National Railway Museum is a standard gauge unit that ran between Hiroshima and Hakata until 2000. After retirement the 22-141 was painstakingly renovated by workers at the West Japan Railway Company and then donated to the NRM. It is the only bullet train located outside Japan.
The Royal Carriages
Complementing the legendary locomotives at the National Railway Museum is an impressive collection of royal carriages. Located in the Station Hall, they include Queen Victoria’s sumptuously decorated ‘palace on wheels’, King Edward VII’s luxurious smoking saloon and Queen Adelaide’s carriage – the oldest royal coach in the world.
Also on display are the carriages built for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during the Second World War. Guided tours of the royal rolling stock are available daily.
Other Things to See and Do
The National Railway Museum has expanded considerably since opening back in 1975. So as well as the wonderful museum exhibits, visitors will find a range of additional attractions and activities. Read on for some of the highlights.
Miniature Railway – South Yard
The miniature railway is one of the museum’s most popular attractions, especially among young people. Located in the South Yard, it’s operated by a team of volunteers and allows visitors to take a ride on a variety of undersized locomotives, both diesel and steam. Rides last for ten minutes and are available on a daily basis, weather permitting.
Borough Market Junction Signal Box – South Yard
A fully-restored signal box can also be found in South Yard that dates from 1895. The box was salvaged from Borough Market Junction in 1976 which overlooks the London Bridge, Cannon Street and Charing Cross lines. At one time it was the busiest junction in the world – perched atop a brick tower its signallers oversaw around 100 trains each hour.
Numerous exhibitions are run at the museum throughout the year. Currently the Brass, Steel and Fire exhibition is being held which showcases the miniature locomotive models created by local people. At its centrepiece is the revolutionary Rocket steam engine which will remain at the NRM for the next ten years.
There’s also a well-stocked gift shop selling an expansive collection of souvenirs including clothing, fashion accessories, books, toys, posters and collectors’ items. The shops also sells exquisitely detailed scale models of many of the locomotives found at the museum from the likes of Hornby and Bachmann.
An elaborate 00 gauge model railway can be found in the Great Hall that’s operated by a dedicated team of volunteers. It features wonderfully detailed landscapes, upon which run a variety of locomotives and rolling stock including wagons and passenger coaches. Each train runs for more than a mile each day – their workload is such that their wheels have to be polished and cleaned on a regular basis.
As well as the locomotives on show at the NRM are thousands of exhibits, including railway posters, retro station signs and signal assemblies. There’s also an extensive range of unusual items including an actual railway bridge, china tea services and a lost parcel from Charles Dickens.
Admission to the National Railway Museum is Free. For more information visit the official website.
Address: National Railway Museum, Leeman Rd, York YO26 4XJ
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