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Tips on Researching Your Railway & Railroad

Updated on March 18, 2011
 David Lloyd-Jones 2010
David Lloyd-Jones 2010
 David Lloyd-Jones 2010
David Lloyd-Jones 2010

Mastering the Ancient Art of Research

Let's Get it Right – The Art of Railway Research. There comes a time in a railway enthusiast’s life when curiosity gets the better of you and you want to know more about a certain locomotive, railway company or route. This quest for more and more information on a particular subject requires an enthusiast to indulge in ancient art of research.

The very mention of the word ‘research’ sends most people in to a deep state of shock, reminding them of their school and university days sweating for hours and hours over a pile of dusty old books in a dingy library.

Research, But Where Do You Start?

Doing research for your own pleasure instead of a necessity is a lot different and can be very rewarding by simply satisfying your own curiosity. The answer to many of our questions is available through the traditional media such as magazines, books, video and more recently on the world wide web. But where do you start?

Research can be Frustrating Dead Ends or Entertaining :

Some information is easy to find, while other bits research requires a bit more of a chase. Research itself can entertain us, even those frustrating dead ends and situations when one answer to a question quickly leads us on to even more questions. And finally, when we do succeed in tracking something down, such as the exact shade of reddish-brown used on the Lynton & Barnstaple carriages, we really feel as if we have accomplished something.

Where to Look for Answers :

If you’re willing to give it a try, research can be lots fun. Nobody can possibly know everything about even one railway (although you will meet a few that probably think they do!), so what is really important is knowing where to look for answers to all your questions.

 David Lloyd-Jones 2010
David Lloyd-Jones 2010

BOOKS : In last 25 years, there has been a real explosion in railway publishing. A wealth of information and previously unseen photographs has now appeared in print than ever before. Quality modern scanning and printing methods has allowed early colour pictures of the railways to be reproduced to match the exact colours.

There are very few railway subjects that have not yet appeared between hard covers, and you will often find several titles on the same subject. As you read through a couple of reference books on the same railway or locomotive, you might come across a conflict between dates, names or other details. It has also been known for a mistake to be reproduced by an author of later book, who has used the original book as a reference source. In these cases, a researcher has to resort to other means, such as searching through old newspapers of the day in a local museum for the correct facts.

MAGAZINES : As you have probably noticed when you picked your favourite railway magazine off the rack, that there are lots of other railway titles. Steam, modern, narrow gauge, industrial, trams, historical etc. Some pretty unusual and useful articles and drawings can be found in magazines. Many features go into great detail on subjects that otherwise would not find their way into books due to limited information or interest.

VIDEOS : While colour pictures in magazines and books are a wonderful source of information, moving colour action is even better. Running almost parallel to the book publishing boom has been flood of the railway material on video and on DVD. And perhaps, one of the most enjoyable ways to do research is sitting in your favourite comfy armchair with VCR or DVD remote in one hand and a pencil and pad in the other ready to note down something that can help your quest. Of course, if you miss it, simply pause and re-wind.

RAILWAY COMPANIES MATERIAL : Another away to glean information is to go to right to the source. Material published by railways, whether for their employees or customers can be of immense value. Old company timetables, rule books, tickets, drawings and even accounts and meeting minutes records can provide a mass of facts and figures. Many hours can be spent working out the paths of various trains, how the railway controlled the services and locomotive and rolling stock allocation.

HISTORICAL SOCIETIES : One of the main reasons for the mass of information available to researchers these days is due to the growth of railway historical societies, who have preserved and published a mass of material. They publish on a regular basis: newsletters, magazines and books to assist enthusiast. Many also now have websites full of online information.

RAILWAY MUSEUMS : An absolute must for research. There are numerous railway and industrial museums located all over the UK. Here you will find actual persevered locomotives and rolling stock along with a collection of old photographs and other railway memorabilia. But of course, the key place to visit, regardless of your particular interest is the National Railway Museum in York.

ONLINE RESEARCH : The newest form of research is going online and searching the massive invisible archive of the Internet. Sites range from extremely professional produced railway pages to enthusiast’s own personal home pages, but all can be as equally as interesting. However, while the web seems to have the answer to just about everything, a careful researcher needs to be wary of using information off these pages because many sites aren’t edited or checked for accuracy.

Perhaps once you have completed your research on one subject, you might consider sharing all the information you have gathered with other enthusiasts by creating your own website and getting your own little piece of cyberspace.


The obvious might be right under you nose :

Check out your local public and university libraries that often have a surprisingly large amount of transport books and magazines on its shelves. Don’t forget that your local public library may be able to get the title you are after through the inter-library loan scheme. Libraries often contain a good source of useful old documents and photographs in their local history collections.

Meet others with a similar interest :

Seek out others with a similar interest that may have already found the answer to your questions is a great shortcut to achieving your personal quest. They can be found though historical societies and writing letters to appropriate magazines asking for help. Most people are friendly and more than will to help. Many long-term friendships have been struck up through the search for more information.

Invest a little time and money :

Be prepared to spend money on building up a personal collection of transport books, photographs and videos on your chosen subject. In addition, travelling to a railway line, traction or museum that houses an important piece of equipment you are interested in can put a large dint in your bank balance.

Be patient :

Some information can be easily found, while answers to other questions can take a whole lifetime to seek out and find. Learning about the prototype is process not a project – the more you learn, the more you’ll probably want to know.

Conclusion :

I’ve only briefly scraped the surface of research and hopefully this feature will encourage you to start chasing and finding answers to those questions. Research can be very addictive and once started, it can be very difficult to give up too – you have been warned!


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