National Railway Museum

I hardly remember visiting here when I was young, and on the eve of my return to York I put down the dull book I just finished reading, Dan Brown, Deception Point, and placed the bookmark on the bedside table. The bookmark was from the National Railway Museum (NRM), from my first visit there, and featured the Mallard steam train. I honestly can’t remember when I got it or anything about the visit, but going back through sparked a feeling that I had been there before.

You can travel to the NRM by foot, car, bus or by the best mode of transport ever invented, the train bus. It’s a little vehicle that is made to look like a steam train and carries behind it six or seven carriages with two comfy benches in each facing each other. It seats about six in each carriage and is an excellent way to travel. It’s only £2 and everyone looks at you like you’re mad, staring in slight disbelief as the carriages pass by on the normal road.

Once you get there, get ready for the surprise. Despite the imagined cost of upkeep of all those trains and the vast area the site occupies, entry is free when it used to be around £7! You can tell how they continue to make money though. You enter through the shop which is located between the newer Great Hall and the older main section so you’ll walk through it a few times during your visit. There are also numerous extras throughout the halls such as the London to Brighton in four minutes motion simulator, or the get your photo taken on the Mallard foot plate scheme. A word of warning here, do not go for the photo’s, the flash is overdone and makes it look as though you are superimposed and the shot is such a small area of the Mallard you could as well have stuck your head out of a cardboard cutout.

The visit is worthwhile though, mainly because if you want to see everything you’ll be there for the entire day. We were in the Great Hall and the Workshop but missed the Warehouse. I’ll just point out that the latter two areas are part of the Great Hall, so we didn’t even set foot in the main building, and we were there for two and a half hours. Saying that, we didn’t even stop for any of the interactive presentations on the trains or read much of the resource information associated with each. There’s a lot of learning to be had!

What we did see was spectacular. The Mallard, which is the train that still holds the fastest steam train record. The Japanese Bullet train, the Stevenson Rocket working replica, and lot’s of other trains representing key moments in transport history.

The Workshop was impressive, despite it being the weekend and no work actually being carried out, we saw the Flying Scotsman in for its Boiler replacement. It’s a controversial piece of work as the Boiler is not from the traditional period when the Scotsman was made and many train enthusiasts are unhappy with this. There is plenty of information on display to explain their reasoning, saying that if the action hadn’t been taken then the train would have been left to rot, a sore point with enthusiasts who believe that there was another way.

Regardless of the detail what is amazing is that the museum is actually involved in getting steam trains back onto the tracks of Britain and get them in some form of active service, carrying passengers once again. This is where they truly belong, performing what they were built for and being looked after for it. I would definitely pay to travel by steam.

The rest of the Great Hall is filled with trains laid out in a star shape, emanating from the central feature which is the hand turned turntable which is demonstrated twice a day. I was impressed at the layout and the interactivity of the Great Hall. In the final area, past the Workshop, you can watch the monitors showing the actual signalling system which the operators use to control the trains.

Not only do you see the trains coming in and out of York station, but you can see the signals and their status as they hold the trains for seemingly no good reason. Except you can see the reasons ahead, a train sitting at the platform for example. Once you get the hang of it you can see which trains are passing the window, and even which are coming towards you via a monitor showing the junction up the line. There’s an interactive training system to show you what all the lights and indicators mean, as well as explaining how the system can tell where a train is on a track. It’s excellent and very engaging.

I’d recommend the NRM to anyone, young or old. It’s not overly educational, yet very fascinating and you’ll end up learning loads. Standing next to some of the most prominent steam trains of our time you just can’t help feeling the beauty and majesty of these beasts and getting caught up in the nostalgia associated with steam.

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