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To celebrate Locomotion's 15th birthday, former National Railway Museum Head of Engineering Richard Gibbon reflects on the initial challenges he faced setting up the museum.

Can it really be 15 years since Locomotion opened?

That is a real surprise, and when asked if I would consider writing a blog, I thought yes, I really should do this as the events leading to the creation of Locomotion were such an important part of my life,  when at the National Railway Museum as Head of Engineering from 1989 to 2003.

The big issue for me was that our rail vehicles (or my “little darlings” as my wife sometimes disparagingly referred to the 295-strong National Railway Vehicle Collection), were unsustainable as a group and we did not have the resources to care for them properly. Many were rotting outside in our yard.

We knew early on that vehicles stored outside were not going to survive into whatever future the NRM expected to have, and that covered accommodation was key to the survival of vehicles at risk.

The first stage of the process was to classify and decide the status of all our collection. This involved classifying items into five categories. Starting with those that should never be operated and needed to be kept in special conditions, and ending with those that could be operated, lent out to third parties and kept even outside under controlled conditions.

That led us to realise that we were looking for a “wardrobe” in which we could store items from the National Collection that might not be category one, but which had an exciting story to tell and did not merit being disposed of.

Over time, confidential exploratory feelers were put out to organisations that could possibly become our partners and there were three front runners:  Shildon (Sedgefield Borough Council), Barry in South Wales and Appleby in Cumbria.

It very rapidly became clear that Shildon was our best bet, with tremendous support coming from the Council, as well as its connection to the start of the modern railway story. One of the issues was convincing the local stakeholders at Shildon that we were really considering sending precious parts of the National Collection, rather than dumping unwanted items.

I remember being dispatched several times to local meetings to try and convince the initially sceptical locals that every one of these vehicles had a magical story to tell. Somehow one that sticks in my mind is the story of the GWR Whitewash coach—which truthfully was about as irrelevant as you could get to the locality we were trying to get interested in our project. Yet they loved the idea of the engineers responsible for the track quality being forced to sit around an overflowing bath of whitewash with their boss in a carriage with no floor being towed at high speed over suspect bits of permanent way!

We could never have dreamt in those early days that this project would not just solve the NRM’s vehicle problems but prove to be a major attraction in its own right.

One further story comes to mind. We had to commission an environmental survey of the wildlife of the area that the new building was going to occupy, in order to make sure that we were not destroying established wildlife habitats. It turned out that a colony of the Dingy Skipper butterfly had established itself in the hedgerows near the sidings (no, I had never heard of it either). Measures had to be taken to ensure its protection in the new development. Now there is a good activity for children visiting Locomotion: to find and photograph the very rare Dingy Skipper!

I offer my congratulations to all involved in enabling this project to have been such an outstanding success. I am very proud to have played a small part in its early stages.

Since December 2017 Locomotion has been a full part of the Science Museum Group and has benefited from access to the Group’s national resources, expertise and management. Thanks to a team of staff and volunteers, Locomotion is now a valued and integral part of the local community and Locomotion can offer the best standards of care for the vehicle collection.  

There are ambitious plans to develop the site in future which include restoring historic railway buildings and enhancing the facilities and exhibitions to create a significantly improved experience for visitors. 

One comment on “15 Years of Locomotion: A Challenging Start

  1. Fifteen years? Wow, is it THAT long ago? Richard was a prime ‘mover and shaker’ in getting NRM approval for the APT-E Support and Conservation Group going in 2000, and when he asked if we could get the train in a good enough state to move it to Shildon there was more than one shocked expression among the Group! But moving the train up there, one of the first exhibits to do so, was the saving of the E-Train. Being wholly under cover meant we could get some real work done on the train, with the results that you can see today. Thanks for choosing Shildon Richard, it was a great idea.

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