Railway Carriage Significance

A methodical approach to assessing the significance of ‘preserved’ railway carriages and other artefacts with a view to advising potential funding bodies

By Richard Gibbon BSc Eng. C Eng. F I Mech E.

Former Head of Engineering Collections at the National Railway Museum, York

Ten years ago the President of the Heritage Railway Association, Dame Margaret Weston, at a watershed HRA conference called “Operating or Wrecking?” challenged the HRA membership to get out into the field and come up with the answer to the question: “What of significance still survives in railway vehicle preservation?”

In an endeavour to answer this question at the least for ‘preserved’ railway carriages, the NRM, HRA and the Transport Trust formed a group called the Railway Carriage Register Group, secured funding from the Carnegie Trust and set up a nation-wide survey with a team of approximately 15 volunteer assessors who sought out every vehicle and assessed its condition and significance against agreed descriptors. This work was co-ordinated by a number of Members of the Vintage Carriages Trust (VCT), who also provided the technical expertise later found necessary.

To date some 3,500 vehicles (90% of the known total) have been visited and surveyed. Very nearly as many have been photographed. The data has been placed on a Microsoft Access database and the images have been recorded electronically. The data gathering exercise has been hugely successful and is immensely valuable as a learning resource.

It is easy to think that the database is an end in itself. This however is not the case, and we sometimes have to remind ourselves that the creation of this huge body of work has not saved a single valuable vehicle from the ravages of time and weather. What really matters is what we do with this gathered information!

It fell to me to draw together the conclusions from this work. We needed to seek to inform the grant-giving bodies, especially the Heritage Lottery Fund, as to which of the extant vehicles are the most deserving of priority funding.

Therein lies the rub! No one had actually tried to measure “deservingness”; we had been more interested in identification, originality, condition and other relatively easily measurable factors. Early attempts to get agreement between the community of volunteer assessors and experts in trying to produce a list of the “Top Twenty Most Deserving Cases” resulted in a minor revolt and considerable disquiet! A radically different approach was called for!

A report prepared for the April 2003 annual gathering of the Carriage Register Group effectively ducked the issue of which actual carriages we should be recommending as priority for assistance. Instead, it looked at the possibility of numerical scoring systems as used by the (National) Railway Heritage Committee and by the NRM. It suggested that similar techniques could be applied to the work of the Carriage Group. Once again this proved to be problematic, but after a lively discussion I do believe we can now put forward an assessment system with reasonable confidence, even though I appreciate that certain carriage enthusiasts might feel badly done to and may feel that there is an unfair bias within the assessment system.

As used by the RHC, the assessment system works by artefacts being brought to the attention of that Committee as a whole by individual members, by railway workers or by members of the public. They are investigated and discussed. When it is felt that an item is worth saving then the main Committee can “designate” the artefact. Once this has been done then the item is given a special status which theoretically protects it from destruction. The owners are notified of its special significance and are prevented from disposing of the item without the blessing of the Committee. At this stage the Committee can “direct” the item to a suitable home in preservation where the Committee feel the item has the best chance of surviving and being accessible. The new owners may have to recompense the old owners for the loss of the scrap value of the item, but usually this is not an issue.

This system might appear to be a perfect solution to the problem of using the power of the RHC to save artefacts from the living railway by this process of “designation”. However the RHC found themselves struggling with widely variable assessments of the significance of the various items it was called upon to deal with. There was an alarming tendency to recommend “designation if in doubt”. This was clearly unsatisfactory for everyone, as it brought some items into the net which should not have been there.

Members of the RHC devised and implemented a numerical system of scoring the items against agreed criteria. This process had of course been going on sub-consciously previously, but the new system enabled the Committee (once Members were experienced in its use) to set a “cut-off” score which meant that if an item did not achieve at least that figure it would not be considered further.

The criteria that Committee agreed as descriptors are as follows:

a.     That the items are unique, as made or built/the last remaining one of a group or class/extremely rare:

b.     That they are representative of a group that merits preservation:

c.     That they are illustrative of a type of activity that merits preservation:

d.     That they represent an important technical or operational aspect of the railway:

e.     That they represent an important aspect of the social impact of the railway:

f.      That they form part of an established series or part of an assemblage that is being collected by a recognised institution:

g.     That they represent an important stage in development:

h.     That they have been involved in some significant event, or have associations with an important person or organisation:

i.      That they are of local, regional or national importance.

Early trials of the system used a simple numeric scoring system. Although outstanding and important items were clearly defined, there was a large body of material in the middle ground with little or no numeric separation. The scheme fitted the classic “normal distribution” curve.

A refinement was thus introduced which limited the individual scores to a crude “logarithmic” scale. This allowed for possible scores under each heading being 0, 1, 2, 6 or a maximum of 10. It was agreed that for further consideration each item must score at least one 10, must have a total score of 25 or more, and must have some score in category “i”. This revised scheme gave much better separation of the final totals, and fitted the purposes of the Committee very well.

The RHC found that scoring is best done as a group activity. There are usually extreme values put forward through possible inadvertent personal bias that are effectively diluted by the weight of the majority verdicts.

We can apply similar techniques to the work of the Carriage Group. For the more specific requirements of carriages rather than for the wide range of objects the RHC needs to consider, I am suggesting using the following criteria – broadly similar to the RHC criteria, but more appropriate for our consideration of railway carriages:

A.    That the carriage is unique, as made or built/the last remaining one of a group or class/extremely rare:

B.    That they are representative or illustrative of an activity that merits preservation:

C.    That they form part of an established series that is being collected and cared for:

D.    That they have been involved in some significant event, or have associations with an important person or organisation:

E.    That they represent an important technical or operational aspect or stage of carriage development:

F.    That they illustrate an important aspect of the social impact of the railway:

G.    That they are of local, regional or national importance.

Again, individual possible scores are limited to 0, 1, 2, 6 or 10. Again, each vehicle must score at least one 10, must have a total score of 25 or more, and must have some score in category “G”.

We have applied this scoring method to a number of typical but well-known carriages – please now consider the Table! You will see that at the end of this we have added a few other carriages (and a Class 108 DMBS) as examples of vehicles which aren’t especially deserving – please make your own comparisons between all these.

The objective of drawing up this table of examples is to get this scoring system out into the public domain now we have argued it out amongst ourselves. You might wonder what good that will do. So let me try and reassure you by saying that I believe that this system was the key item in the Heritage Lottery Fund granting the huge amount of money towards saving and restoring the Gresley Quad-Art set. It was the fact that the assessors were able to say that the vehicle was unequivocally at the top of the list that our Group was drawing up. So there is proof in my mind that this exercise is worthwhile!

I believe there should be no hard and fast rule about what must be in and what must be out of the list. The status of a vehicle can radically change as our knowledge unfolds.

To illustrate that I would like to use the example of the Vintage Carriages Trust’s GNR Coach 2856, which I suggest to you would not have made a hypothetical “top-twenty deserving cases” listing if it were still in store outside at the NYMR. However as the work got under way, it became like an archaeological dig that gradually revealed more and more wonders and excitement as the job progressed. This meant that the status of the vehicle in terms of its significance was climbing throughout the process of restoration, and few would deny now that it is going to be a truly important vehicle when completed. The physical condition of the coach with its broken and distorted frame, as received, also played a part in marking its status down, however much we would like to believe this were not so.

To me, this means that whatever scoring system or listing we put in place there must be a simple process whereby a vehicle not on the list, which has been discovered or has not been recognised for its true worth, can come galloping up on the outside rail and still be able to gain full recognition. Our list can therefore only be a guide, but what in effect it would mean is that if any proposal came forward from our list we could definitely “champion” it to HLF or other grant giving body, according to its rating. However, we would point out to HLF and other potential grant giving bodies that there will be other applications from outside our list which could be equally deserving, depending on the circumstances prevailing. Under those conditions it will be necessary for the proposer to present a compelling case, based I suggest on the criteria that we have judged the original draft list against, and explaining why the vehicle’s significance was not initially recognised. That way, the various cases can be individually assessed on their merit and those that have intimate knowledge of their particular favourite vehicle can use the above criteria to make their own case for others to score later.

Two other issues have troubled us in compiling our draft list from the individual recommendations of our assessors. The first is the question of a vehicle being recognised as being “at risk”. Should we say that funding applications should be confined to only those historic vehicles that are “at risk”? Clearly that would be a nonsense! It would be a great incentive for those who were carefully cherishing significant historic vehicles under cover but who have no resources to restore them, to decide to put them outside in all weathers so they qualified as “at risk”! No, we must look wider than at just the “at risk” category in our database. However, clearly time is not on our side if vehicles are “at risk” and there has to be a greater urgency applied to such vehicles.

Secondly, there is the question of duplicate or near duplicate vehicles. For example we have on the list two Coronation “Beavertail” coaches, two Hull & Barnsley Brake Third coaches, two American Pullman Car bodies at Butterley, two ‘Barnum’ cars at Ruddington. How are we to treat these in our list? Surely we should not expect our funders to fork out for both vehicles in each case. My own feeling is that it should be just one of the two and we should encourage the proposer to make the choice.

This is the stage we have now reached. We believe this can provide the grant giving bodies with a good sound steer from practitioners on the ground: and it will at last answer that question about “what of significance is out there in the world of railway preservation”. There is of course no reason why this scheme should be confined to railway carriages. It can apply equally well to railway wagons or to railway infrastructure items. So: why not consider your own personal preservation project against this outline structure – could it be of help to you, when making your funding application?


Richard Gibbon: on behalf of the Railway Heritage Register Carriage Group

19th June 2003

Blank Score Sheet