Network Rail’s virtual archive (www.networkrail.co.uk/virtualarchive) celebrates the achievements of 19th century engineering and the heritage of today’s railway infrastructure.
It provides just a snapshot of the entire Network Rail archive, however, which holds more than five million records.
Visitors to the site can chart the history of the railway’s most significant structures and stations including the Forth Bridge, the Tay Bridge, Box Tunnel and many main line stations. The archive holds records by the most famous railway engineers including Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Robert Stephenson, Joseph Locke and William Henry Barlow.
Network Rail’s archivist Vicky Stretch said: “The history of the railway is so fascinating with some of the oldest records dating back to the 1680s and Charing Cross station with Sir Christopher Wren’s signature. The drawings and documents we hold are an absorbing window to understanding the incredibly detailed and beautiful architectural work carried out by some of the world’s greatest engineers, and are still important for engineers working today.
“We can’t yet showcase anywhere near the five million records we hold but we’ll publish new images and documents all the time and through the ‘ask the archivist’ and blog sections we can share more. We hope this will be a great resource for enthusiasts, historians, architects and students alike. Now everyone can enjoy these amazing drawings and historical documents and learn more about how the railways made Britain what it is today.”
While the drawings date from the earliest days of the railway they are still useful operational records today, as many show information such as foundations and original construction details. The drawings signed by Brunel of Box Tunnel tell us how it was constructed and this is still important to the running of the railway today, Network Rail said.
The oldest records Network Rail holds are from the deeds collection. This collection charts the history of all the land the railway is built on. A set of deeds from 1684, relating to the land Charing Cross is now built on, bears the signature of Sir Christopher Wren (land he once owned was in the 19th century sold to the railway).
Network Rail is also hoping to make some money from the site by selling historic images as framed prints, jigsaws, greetings cards, mouse mats etc.