Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Do the locomotion with me: the past and future in railway archaeology

Aerial view of St Pancras and King's Cross Station, London, UK
Last week’s discovery of what is thought to be the world’s oldest railway tunnel in Derbyshire, it lies on the route of a horse-operated railway built by 1793, got me thinking about the ever popular subject of railway archaeology and the opportunities new technologies offer us when learning about the history of locomotives.

Industrial Archaeology Review published a special issue in 2010 on railway archaeology. It includes articles on the excavation of the Brunton and Shields Railway at Weetslade, North Tyneside, the conservation of operational steam locomotives and how St Pancras station in London has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to become the symbol of the ‘railway renaissance’. The following is an excerpt from the issue’s Editorial:

“Railways were, if the truth be told, the way in to industrial archaeology for many members of the British-based Association for Industrial Archaeology. Geoff Charles’ wonderfully evocative study of a Manor class locomotive at Oswestry station in the 1950s will stir memories for many readers, not only of the fascination that the steam locomotive itself exerts, but of the paraphernalia of the steam railway — signals, a water-crane, platform lighting — and of the jumble of small-scale industries that always grew up around a station in a market town. The railway station provided a new focus for settlements, away from the traditional centre around the church and the market square. The goods yard and its warehouse was where essential supplies were brought in, and local manufactures exported, its size and form a useful index of commercial and industrial capacity. Passenger stations were architectural statements in their own right, whether a Gothic masterpiece like St Pancras or a small country stopping-point in impoverished Munster. Like the trains that passed through them, they could articulate a strong emotional meaning.

Railways are the most public industrial technology. The steam railway came into being at a time when technologies had come to be shared and imitated world-wide. There was no prospect of keeping it hidden from the prying eyes of industrial spies, as essential industries had been in the 18th century, and every reason for private companies to trumpet their achievements. The glory days were over by the 1930s, when they were starved of cash by a major depression and acing competition from the road network. Further pummelled by another World War, by the 1950s, when industrial archaeology was coming into its own, Britain’s railway system was grubby and outdated — but for all that, it still represented a compelling and more-or-less functioning Victorian technical system. It could not last. The long-heralded demise of steam traction was finally announced in the Modernisation Plan of 1954, and the Beeching report spelt the end for much of the network. The railway was to be revived as a specialist system dealing with the traffic it could handle best, not as a common carrier. With this change in vision came changes in technology and capacity; once-familiar items, like semaphore signalling, with its pre-railway roots in maritime visual telegraphy, were beginning to disappear even from surviving parts of the system.”

>> Download the editorial for free

>> Download the article Oubliez Waterloo: The St Pancras Effect for free

>> Read ‘Archaeologists find 'world's oldestrailway tunnel' in Derbyshire’ on the BBC

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