As intimated in my previous blog, Wednesday 10th February looked set to be filled with an NRM visit. The cold was under control with Lemsip. The railways were performing, the frost was hard and the snow was falling. Our car went no further than Prudhoe station car park. Working from a Northumberland hillside an awful lot of cultural and historical life passes us by. I had some excitement therefore at the prospect of hearing Terry Gourvish on the practice of rail privatisation and clutching an invite for the evening opening of Once Upon a Tide , a new temporary exhibition focused on the Harwich Hoek Van Holland rail owned ferries which has been worked up in association with NedRail (the part owners of our Northern franchise) and the Utrecht Railway Museum over the last three years. Not only was this the first exhibition launch that we have ever been invited to at the NRM but it also transpired that it would be the first official event at which the new NRM Director Steve Davies officiated.
Arriving for a bite of lunch I used my Friends of the NRM card to get a worthwhile discount. The new director was on the floor of the Great Hall glad handing staff and some visitors, he said Hello to me. An engaged start on day 3. At the site of the exhibition the museum staff were still assembling it, it was ever thus.
So to the afternoon's business: A Century Of Scottish And British Railway Politics first off John McGregor (Open University) '"Trouble in the Glen"? the politics of the Invergarry & Fort Augustus Railway, 1897-1903. This West Highlander delivered an engaging presentation on a bit of geography that throughout the Railway Age attracted railway promoters like insects to a web. Shennaggins is my word for it. All of John, Terry and the IRS staff were gratified for sure at what was a record turnout of some 42 folk for these lectures. Terry's title The Modern Politics of Railway Regulation: the ORR and the SRA, 1997-2005 held a grab your seats presentation underneath dry initials. I found myself making frantic notes including a memorable quote that a Railtrack executive made before the 2001 debacle that Railtrack was "an engineering free company"!!! One member of the audience excitedly shouted out "I was there!". My own summary of what Terry said was "the supreme challenge of finding able managers to take on dubious jobs". "Wise men steered clear". What does this say about the exercise of government? Terry evidenced an argument that personalities do matter and the inability of key players to interact positively in difficult and novel structures ended up counting for much.
Thus the afternoon did not drag and time slipped past to the evening event. I have a clear vested interest having written a book in 2006 largely about the subject called From Tilbury to Tyneside and having just over a year ago worked closely with the NRM to transfer The Forsythe Collection to York's care. It is crammed full of material relating to the exhibition subject. Will there be surprise therefore if I say that my verdict on the exhibition is "curate's egg"? It showed that the NRM evidently has a strong design team. The idea of turning the turntable into a car ferry was inspired (what happens to the shunts?). The idea of showcasing the museum's strong poster collection was inevitable and worthy. A wealth of imagery has come out and is on display. Some of the museum's relevant objects had been moved into the display and rather nice paintings had come on loan from Utrecht. Over in the works the splendid model of SS Arnhem appeared to have been overlooked and perhaps hoping that the NRM's ferry wagon could be used was an optimistic thought. But what I would dearly love someone to explain to me is why go to the effort of securing a collection which could articulate new depths to the presentation and not use a single piece? Just four items would have thrust the sudden take up of St Edmund for war service in 1982, the passenger welcome materials for the Arnhem and her sisters, the stunning sequences of artist signed timetables through these ports, or the introduction of seminal vessels like St Nicholas into the limelight and said to the viewer, the museum holds so much more about this subject. I was also longing to hear a piece of Gilbert and Sullivan! In the 1880s neither train nor steamer were the acme of comfort leading to this quip in Iolanthe of 1882 “tossing about in a steamer from Harwich which is something between a bathing machine and a second class carriage”. It was quoted in From Tilbury to Tyneside. My conclusion was that the exhibition had become led by the designers and that there was some disconnect with the research and curator elements of the museum. I wonder how fair that is?
Aside from the exhibition, these events are often intriguing for reviewing who is present or not as the case may be. Andrew Scott was. So was a good turnout of senior Northern management. Admittedly they did not have far to come but (remembering how cautious I can be about praise) both Fiona and myself were greeted with warmth by these lads and lassies including the soon to move onto Northumbrian Water Heidi Mottram. Accepting that running a franchised railway is not an easy task and that Northern's two predecessors both mucked up, I think I will pay tribute to Northern under Heidi's management. Maybe not everything goes right, but these people have practiced approachability and even hospitality. The Northern Stakeholder event trains have become memorable. I have not worked CLOSELY with these people but both myself and the wife (the Prudhoe station adopter) have worked with them and have played a role in helping the company to generate real station improvements on the Tyne Valley Line and make all trains stop at Prudhoe. That willingness to work away at local detail has been noticeable and has I know been repeated elsewhere across their franchise. Good on you.