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Problems and opportunities!

On 27 September 1975, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh formally opened the National Railway Museum in the modified York Motive Power Depot - the first national museum outside London. It was an immediate success and during the first ten years of operation attracted over eight million visitors.

Unfortunately in the late 1980s, building structural problems emerged and for safety reasons the Great Hall had to be closed. This unexpected problem created huge challenges - what to do with the locomotives and rolling stock and how to retain visitors throughout the extensive rebuilding work.

The solution The Great Railway Show 1990 was ambitious, developed to a very short timescale on a shoestring budget.

The adjacent freight warehouse was bought from National Carriers Ltd and transformed into Station Hall. Using a wide variety of vehicles and artefacts a series of thematic displays illustrated a range of day to day historic railway activities. The concept was to increase hands on experiences, develop more story telling activities and encourage visitor involvement.

The miniature railway was a huge success at the Great Railway Show in 1990 and continues to this day giving rides to thousands of passengers, young and old. Photo: NRM

Externally the eight acre site was opened to visitors for the first time and featured passenger rides behind steam and diesel locomotives every weekend and during school holidays. The Friends volunteers were heavily involved and played an increasing part in the operations throughout the six months. Driving, guarding, preparation and disposal, stewarding, and explaining created new opportunities for volunteers and new experiences for visitors. Trips behind replica Rocket and the wide gauge replica Iron Duke competed with the 71/2 inch gauge Miniature Railway trains.

Representing standard gauge (4ft 81/2 inch) the replica Rocket gave passengers the feeling of rail travel in the 1830s. Photo: NRM

Magicians Road was introduced as an interactive gallery to provide an opportunity for visitors to explore some of the principles which govern railway operations. The original weighbridge was allocated to the Friends and it became the information point for the duration of the Great Railway Show at York.

Presciently, in view of NRM on Tour moving to Swindon, the replica Iron Duke demonstrated the gracefulness and dimensions of Brunel’s broad gauge (7ft 01/4 inch) which was a feature of the Great Western until 1892. Photo: NRM

NRM on Tour was an exhibition sponsored by Tarmac on the site of their major development of the former Swindon Railway Works. It ran from 10 April to 31 October 1990. More than forty locomotives and carriages from the collection in York, headed by Mallard, were moved to Swindon. The Science Museum lent Puffing Billy built at Wylam in 1813, the world's oldest surviving steam locomotive, which sat alongside Evening Star, built at Swindon in 1960, the last steam locomotive to be commissioned for British Rail.

The challenges were met and the new Great Hall opened in 1991.

The opportunities emerging from this unexpected problem created the genesis of the York museum complex that exists today.

Frank Paterson

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