On track with rail buff

Railway heritage is being brought to life at the National Railway Museum in York. David Fowler meets the man with a mission to preserve traditional mechanical skills

Visitors to York’s National Railway Museum this summer have had a range of new exhibits to see. A newly opened extension called The Works contains three new galleries housing a vast display of railway artefacts previously held in storage, and a display of signalling and other railway safety technology with a live link to York’s main-line signal box.

But the part most engineers will head for first is The Workshop. Here, from a public balcony, visitors can watch restoration work as it happens on the workshop floor. This is enhanced by a video link, allowing dialogue between museum `explainers’ on the shopfloor and the restoration staff to be relayed to the balcony.

Meanwhile, a miniature camera allows engineers to be watched while they work in inaccessible places.

It is part of the museum’s objective of increasing understanding about railways, says head of engineering collections Richard Gibbon. `That is what we’re here to do – if restorations take longer, so be it.’

Gibbon has a five-strong team of apprenticeship-served mechanical engineers, whose work has changed dramatically in recent times.

`Engineering at the museum used to consist of getting a contractor to strip something down, take it away for restoration and put it back together at the end,’ he says. `Our engineering staff, who used to work on wind-up displays, are now involved in full-size engineering. They do everything from main-line running with the Green Arrow to keeping the model railway working to mending the ticket machines. I want to keep the traditional skills alive.’

The only mechanical work not done on site is boilermaking. `It’s a very peculiar skill. It’s hot and noisy, so can’t be done in a quiet environment.’

This does not mean Gibbon is against using modern techniques. `It’s absolutely appropriate to use modern technology,’ he says. An example is to use medical boroscopes, instead of the traditional mirror and flare, to inspect inside steam engine boilers.

When restoring the exhibits, though, an overriding aim is to keep them as original as possible. Safety regulations designed for modern stock can cause difficulty – it is often necessary to replace parts with modern items before a locomotive can be taken on Railtrack’s lines. `Often we have to remove a part and keep it. We insist that all changes must be reversible,’ says Gibbon.

This calls for ingenuity from the museum staff. `They can all work from first principles,’ he says, demonstrating this with a mechanism for aligning a cylinder and crankshaft which one of the engineers devised and made himself.

There was some initial concern from the restoration staff about working in public. But Gibbon says it has worked `brilliantly’. Though key moments from the previous day’s work are replayed on video, he says: `I will regard myself as having failed if there isn’t something going on within the span of the average visit’ – about two and a half hours.

Gibbon admits to concern about replacing the staff as they approach retirement. `It’s a challenge to make sure skills live on.’ He believes passionately that the museum should cover all aspects of railway heritage. `It’s not just about objects. It’s also about the knowledge and folklore that goes with them.’

He sums up: `I believe every child in Britain should have the opportunity to stand beside a main line and see, hear, sense and smell a steam locomotive coming past.’

Richard Gibbon at a glance

Age: 57

Education and first job: BSc Eng in mechanical engineering at Salford University. Five-year sandwich course: academic studies alternated with work as apprentice mechanical engineer at Metropolitan Vickers, later AEI, at Trafford Park, Manchester, on turbo-alternators.

Current job: Head of engineering collections, National Railway Museum, York

Interests: model engineering, communicating about engineering to the public