National Railway Museum threatened with 'world of pain' over plans to move first passenger locomotive from town

The National Railway Museum in York. Credit: Tony Johnson
The National Railway Museum in York. Credit: Tony Johnson
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The mayor of Darlington has vowed to leave the National Railway Museum “in a world of pain” as anger boiled over about a decision to move the first passenger locomotive from the town it has been homed at for the past 160 years.

A meeting of Darlington Borough Council saw members of the authority unanimously vote to express “outrage” at the York-based attraction’s plan to relocate the historic Locomotion No 1 from Darlington’s Head of Steam museum to the Locomotion museum in Shildon ahead of the Stockton to Darlington Railway’s 200th anniversary in 2025.

Councillors also approved a move to use “all and every means available to it to oppose the decision made by the National Railway Museum”, saying it would completely undermine the town’s multi-million pound plans for the celebrations and to regenerate the North Road area.

Before the votes, Mayor of Darlington Coun Nick Wallis delivered a speech reminiscent of Winston Churchill, calling on residents to stand firm against what he suggested was an attack by the York-based attraction on “our culture and our identity”.

He said: “It appears on the town coat of arms, the borough council’s badge and on the mayor’s chains. Locomotion No 1 has a totemic status in Darlington.

“It is unbelievable that having tried to work with the National Railway Museum in preparations for 2025, with a great deal of harmony with Durham and Stockton, that this could be pulled out of the hat now really feels like a kick in the teeth, not only for this town, but all the partners who have been working so hard to have a harmonious 2025 celebration.”

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Coun Wallis called on residents to get their “creative campaigning hats on”. He said: “What the National Railway Museum need to know is that they are going to be in a world of pain if they continue to pursue this ill-judged plan. Certainly wherever I go as mayor and talk about the railways I will be raising this.

“The National Railway Museum need to know this isn’t something that’s going to happen in a year or so and go away, we will fight tooth and nail to keep our history in our town. God forbid it does move we will continue fighting and campaigning until it is returned.”

After the council’s vote, the National Railway Museum said it understood Darlington’s emotional connection to Locomotion No 1 as it has been based in the town for many years.

However, museum bosses said the engine is not owned by Darlington and historically had “an unbroken history of railway company ownership, before passing to the National Railway Museum”.

Sarah Price, head of locomotion said the council signed a legally binding loan agreement in 1975 to borrow Locomotion No 1 from the National Railway Museum collection, an agreement which was set to expire in March next year.

She said: “Discussions with Darlington Borough Council concerning the future of Locomotion No 1, once the current agreement ends, have been ongoing since February 2019.

“The council was informed of the decision to move the engine to Shildon at a meeting on September 11. Throughout these discussions we have offered to work with the council to provide ongoing assistance to help tell Darlington’s Railway story.

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“There is also an important issue which has so far been overlooked. Arts Council England’s guidance for Accredited museums, states that loans should be reviewed regularly.

“The guidance advises that ‘permanent loans’ should be avoided as they have no legal status. It is extremely unusual for a borrowing museum to publicly challenge an owning museum’s decision not to renew a loan. The council’s action may make other organisations less willing to consider loans to Head of Steam in the future.”

Ms Price said there is a strong historical case for the locomotive being based at Shildon and other towns associated with the Stockton & Darlington Railway, but Shildon was “the point where history was made and Locomotion No.1 set off on its famous journey”.

However, the council meeting had heard Councillor Heather Scott dispute this claim, stating Locomotion No 1 had started its first journey at Heighington Station, five miles outside Darlington.

Nevertheless, Ms Price said the story of the bicentenary of the Stockton to Darlington Railway was not just Darlington’s story but one that belongs to the whole region”.

She said: “The locomotive will remain in the region, at a free museum that receives around 200,000 visitors each year. This will enable far more people to see the locomotive and to celebrate the history of this world-changing railway line.”