How to look for records of... Railways

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide if you are looking for records of railways, including:

  • records of English and Welsh railway companies before they were nationalised in 1947
  • railway accident reports
  • records of the British Transport Commission, British Railways Board and related bodies

The National Archives holds many railway records, but others are in:

  • specialist museums
  • university collections
  • local preservation societies
  • private hands

Locating records of a particular railway may be difficult unless you know which company owned it.

2. What kinds of records does The National Archives hold?

The National Archives holds all surviving records of private railway companies before they were nationalised in 1947.

Before 1923 there were many private railway companies operating across Britain. In 1923 over 120 of these companies merged into four new groups:

  • Great Western Railway
  • London Midland and Scottish Railway
  • London and North Eastern Railway
  • Southern Railway

The National Archives also holds records of the British Transport Commission, British Railways Board and other bodies that managed the railways after 1947.

3. How to use this guide and get a search for records started

You will often need to know which company owned the railway in question before you can make progress with a search. Consult the British Railways Pre Grouping Atlas and Gazetteer or the Railway and Commercial Gazetteers to find out which companies owned, or operated through, a particular station.

A search for documents at The National Archives usually begins in our online catalogue. The next section of this guide provide links to key series that you can search within our catalogue, helping you to target your searches more precisely. By clicking on the series links (for example, RAIL 254) you will arrive on the respective ‘series description’ pages from where you can search the series, using dates/years and/or keywords, such as:

  • the railway company name
  • a name of a publication such as a pamphlet or staff magazine
  • report name
  • committee name
  • location of an accident

Series description pages provide information on the arrangement of the records and sometimes some of the historical context in which they were created, as well as suggesting related series you could explore.

Use the advanced catalogue search to restrict your search results to all the records of a specific government department, including its predecessors (for example, the Ministry of Transport).  Use the department reference, which is always a letter code, to do this (the code for the Ministry of Transport is MT). Department codes useful for railway records are:

  • RAIL
  • AN
  • ZLIB
  • ZPER
  • ZSPC
  • BT
  • MT

Catalogue search results provide short descriptions of our records and a document reference for each one – you will need the document reference to see the record itself. The records covered in this guide are not available to view online so to see them you will have to either visit us in Kew or order copies. Bear in mind that a search in our catalogue will also search for records in other archives around the country – keep your eye on the ‘Held by’ field to establish whether the records are here or elsewhere.

4. Key records at The National Archives

4.1 Board of Trade

The Board of Trade was the first government department to assume responsibility for railways. Its Railway Department was created in 1840 but some records predate this.

Most of the records were transferred to the Ministry of Transport after 1919.

Browse:

  • BT 41 for railways registered under the Joint Stock Companies Act 1856
  • BT 285 for registration papers compiled under the Railway Companies Securities Act 1866
  • BT 22 for the Railway Department’s own administrative papers

4.2 Ministry of Transport

Following its creation in 1919 this ministry assumed much of the work, and records, of the Board of Trade Railway Department.

Browse records in:

  • MT 6 (with index in MT 7, MT 11 with index in MT 12) for correspondence and papers
  • MT 13 for minute books
  • MT 14 (with index in MT 16) and MT 17 (with index in MT 18) for papers relating to light railways
  • MT 58, MT 130 for light railway orders made under various parliamentary acts
  • MT 56, MT 77, MT 131 for material relating to charges and rates
  • MT 45, MT 47, MT 56, MT 64, MT 74, MT 87, MT 88, MT 96 for records of the reorganisation of the railways following the Railways Act 1921 and the nationalisation of railways following the Transport Act 1947
  • MT 1, MT 67 and MT 80 for work of various tribunals and of the Railway Inspectorate
  • MT 29 (with index MT 30, MT 114) for records on the Channel Tunnel and the Serpell Report on Railway Finances (1982-1983)

4.3 Maps and plans

Under the Transport Act 1947 the railways, canals, long-distance road haulage and various other types of transport were acquired by the State and operated by the British Transport Commission. Maps and plans of the commission, formerly held among what were known as British Transport Historical Records are now held under railway records references (RAIL) and are as follows:

  • RAIL 1029 – plans of proposed and constructed canals and maps of the inland navigation network, but also includes some plans of rivers, wharves and docks.
  • RAIL 1030 – principally maps and plans of proposed and constructed railways but includes some Ordnance Survey maps.
  • RAIL 1031 – maps and plans of railways and canals but mainly depicted on general maps covering relatively large areas, not maps of individual railway lines. Many show the whole of Great Britain or the whole of England and Wales.
  • RAIL 1032 – maps and plans of railway lines formerly held by the Railway Clearing House, a revenue transfer organisation.
  • RAIL 1033 – maps, plans and surveys of towns, ports and local areas.
  • RAIL 1034 – maps and plans of London and London transport.
  • RAIL 1035 – ordnance survey maps, atlases and other general maps as well as station maps.
  • RAIL 1036 – maps, plans and surveys from overseas including North American, South American and Japanese railways maps, plus maps of European countries and their railway networks.
  • RAIL 1037 – includes sets of Ordnance Survey maps of Yorkshire, Durham, Westmoreland and Cumberland from c.1860 and of other large tracts of northern England from the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as railway maps from all over the country, but particularly in the north.
  • RAIL 1071 – parliamentary deposited plans relating principally to railways but including a few for canals and tramways.

4.4 Accident reports

You can find railway accident reports in the departments RAIL, MT and elsewhere.

Accidents were not always investigated in depth if it was felt an investigation was unlikely to lead to a report suggesting corrective measures.

Search our catalogue by the date and, if known, the location of the accident for 7328 railway accidents between 1853 and 1975 (RAIL 1053/51-161).

You cannot search these reports by people’s names.

These records include:

  • the names of passengers and crew – whether they survived, were injured or died is usually included
  • illustrations and maps (not always)

Also browse:

  • ZPER, particularly after 1900, for further details of some accidents and obituaries, especially when railway staff involved lost their lives
  • MT 114 and MT 29 (with index in MT 30) for the Railway Inspectorate of the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Transport accident reports
  • MT 6 for correspondence and papers relating to railway accidents
  • MT 143 for the official enquiry into the Clapham Junction rail disaster and in EF 14 for the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster

Consult reports in the House of Commons papers for major, and especially fatal, accidents. House of Commons papers are in any large reference library, including The National Archives Library.

You can also find accident reports in the records of the individual companies.

4.5 Locomotives and rolling stock

Browse the 50 continuing GWR locomotive and rolling stock registers held by The National Archives in RAIL 254.

Also browse:

  • RAIL1204 for records relating to the Pullman Car Company, 1909-1985, including minutes, agreements and share records
  • ZPER and ZLIB for technical papers and in RAIL 1149 records of the I K Brunel Collection

4.6 Other sources

Browse or search:

  • J 13 for filed papers relating to winding up orders and J 45, J 100 and J 107 for related material
  • J 14 for debenture action files
  • BT 226 for railway bankruptcy files
  • Read our research guide to Cabinet and its committees for advice on searching our catalogue for cabinet papers. CAB 117, CAB 123, CAB 127, CAB 134, CAB 143 and T 229 for material
  • WO 33 and WO 252 for handbooks of railway networks of other countries providing topographic and technical details
  • WO 32 for papers relating to the use of railways particularly during mobilisation
  • BT 31 (by company name) for overseas railway companies dissolved after 1856

5. Online sources

Consult Parliamentary papers (£) for local and private acts of parliament relating to the construction of railways which usually required parliamentary sanction.

6. Records held elsewhere

Consult appendix 3 of Railway records: A guide to sources by Cliff Edwards (Public Record Office, 2001), which has a guide to railway company records held by local archives. Also consult the ‘Railway records across the land’ resource on the ‘All change!’ on Britain’s railways page. Search the Find an archive directory to find out contact details of local record offices.

Contact the London Metropolitan Archives for:

  • London Transport and predecessor company board minutes and papers (1933-1962 and c1855-1933)
  • some Metropolitan Railway records
  • records of the London County Council and the Greater London Council, which had responsibilities for transport

Contact Transport for London (TfL) for the main collection of historical business records for the TfL Group and predecessor companies.

Contact the London Transport Museum for printed items such as tickets and posters.

Contact STEAM: Museum of the Great Western Railway for:

  • GWR company papers
  • official publications
  • drawings and photographs
  • a comprehensive library of railway books and periodicals

Contact the Science Museum Library and Archives for information including:

  • drawings and manuscripts of the works of civil and mechanical engineers
  • records of the British Transport Commission and Central Youth Employment Executive

Contact the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland for records of timetables, guidebooks and holiday brochures, photographs and staff magazines held as part of the Thomas Cook Company Archives.

Contact The National Railway Museum for surviving technical records on:

  • locomotives, carriages, wagons and signalling
  • engine history cards for practically every London Midland Scottish standard locomotive built
  • repair reports for most of London & North Eastern Railway
  • many Southern Railway and most British Railway standard steam locomotives
  • the ten Great Western Railway carriage registers
  • the first 100 GWR Wagon registers

Contact the National Records of Scotland for records relating to the railways in Scotland.

7. Further reading

Read Railway Records: A Guide to Sources by C J Edwards (PRO 2001) for further guidance on how to use our records.

Visit ‘All change!’ on Britain’s railways, which looks at the way railways have changed both lives and landscape. It aims to also provide a guide to the wealth of railway records held at The National Archives, the National Railway Museum and across the UK.

For background information read:

  • British Railways Vol 1: 1948-1973 by T R Gourvish (Cambridge University Press, 1986)
  • British Railways Vol 2: 1974-1997  by T R Gourvish (Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • The British Railway history 1877-1947 by C Hamilton Ellis (Allen & Unwin, 1959)
  • A chronology of the construction of Britain’s railways 1778-1855 by Leslie James (Ian Allan Ltd, 1983)
  • A bibliography of British railway history by George Ottley (HMSO, 1983), Supplements (HMSO, 1988 and NRM 1998)
  • The railways of Britain: A journey through history by J Simmonds (Mallard Press, 1990)
  • The Oxford companion to railway history (Oxford University Press, 1997)