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By Alison Kay on

Remember these? How would you track the modern railway industry?

"It’s been like trying to untangle a ball of string with lots of different stands": our volunteers have been hard at work creating railway company biographies to aid researchers.

Hundreds of railway companies have existed over the last 200 years, with even very recent companies fading into distant memory.

The British railway industry has always been complicated, hundreds of companies were created during the 1800’s, merging into four companies in the 1920’s and then one giant state owned operator in the 1940’s .

Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) logo, 2006
Intercity Logo from the NRM collection photo


The industry has now almost gone full circle, privatisation in the 1990’s resulting in many more companies emerging then disappearing. You can see a wonderful diagram with more dates and details on the National Archives Website.

The National Railway Museum archive contains leaflets, brochures and sometimes organisational records of modern railway companies like the ones pictured above. We want researchers in 200 years time to be able to look at these archives and understand their history.

Our archive volunteers have been working hard for the last year to create railway company biographies for the modern railway industry (or in archival speak ‘authority files‘), these biographies will be attached to catalogue entries and will provide researchers with useful information about our collections. This method of cataloging follows the ‘More Product Less Process’ model, you can read much more about this on Explore York’s Archives blog.

The process can be very challenging , very little is written about some companies meaning this is one of the first times this information has been brought together. We hope our data will be invaluable to anyone looking into the past 30 years of the railway industry.

Archive volunteer Jack says…

“It’s been like trying to untangle a ball of string with lots of different stands, which are all tied together in different ways and keep moving about the closer to untying them you get”

We are currently about a quarter of the way through describing more than 100 different companies. This is one of our many charts used to track our cataloguing, you might notice some of the company names.

Do you recognise some of these?
Do you recognise some of these?

We want to know what you think …

Is there anything that we are missing?

Would you do this differently?

Is this a resource you would be interested in using?

Do you have any information that you think will help us?

Notice the planning that goes into our work
Notice the planning that goes into our work
See the complicated diagrams on the white board
See the complicated diagrams on the white board


This is a guest post by Associate Archivist Alison Kay and the National Railway Museum volunteer team.

11 comments on “Remember these? How would you track the modern railway industry?

    1. Thanks Richard – We have been looking into linked data as part of our long term plans. We work hard to ensure that we create consistent names and subjects in line with naming rules. you can email me if you would like to discuss further – Alison

  1. In 2009, while completing my PhD at the University of British Columbia, I did some research on the Great Eastern Railway at the University of York and NRM. Railway company biographies are a great asset which I would find very useful.

  2. This is an excellent idea. The likes of First North Western, First Great Eastern, Northern Spirit, One and Valley Lines to name a few of the old companies are now long forgotten. Oddly, during my last visit to Cardiff in the summer of 2013, the bridge over the main road near Queen St station still promoted Valley Lines.

  3. This will be really valuable. As well as the private companies are you also including the BR business sector organisation and the train operating units (TOUs) which preceded full privatisation? How will the data be made available when complete? The reason for that question is that I am one of the NRM ‘remote volunteers’ working on the digitisation of the Alan Jackson Index and, in trying to understand some of the entries, I have sometimes needed to work through some of the sequences of operators and their owners / parent companies so I appreciate the challenge you have – e.g. last week I was trying to make sure I understood the sequence on the London, Tilbury and Southend line from Enterprise Rail through LTS Rail and Prism to National Express and C2C / NXET Trains.

  4. Hi Chris – I’m glad that you find our work valuable. Yes we are looking at business sectors and train operating units as part of our work. We work chronologically tracking how companies changed and developed from 1990 to the present day – quite a task!

    Data will be available through our online archive catalogue to help researchers understand our more modern collections. Eventually we will look at the work on the Alan Jackson index and the the work we are doing to ensure we are using the same language.

  5. This would be a hugely beneficial resource!
    A couple of years ago I completed my doctorate at Cambridge focusing on nineteenth-century railway bridges, but specifically on the many thousands of timber railway bridges built across Great Britain and Ireland. As part of my research I compiled a complete database of all of these structures referenced back to the original railway company that built them, nearly 300 hundred or so different companies. What would have been really helpful (so I didn’t have to do it myself) would be:
    1) A timeline chart of each company showing when they were incorporated, when construction started when they were bought out. One of the many problems with trying to find records relating to specific structures built in say 1840, is identifying where the records for them in say 1860 can be found. Unless you know the companies’ history, it’s very confusing and difficult to track things.
    2) Details of the companies engineers, architects and contractors over the course of its history.

  6. Hi Alison – The work you are doing sounds fascinating. Here at the Network Rail Archive we are hoping to start work on authority files soon – partly in conjunction with starting to use Adlib cataloguing software.

    If you don’t mind I think we’ll have to get in touch and pick your brains about this process – we already know it will be a massive piece of work, as your whiteboards clearly show!

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