One of York’s most anonymous buildings houses the railway’s engineering memory – an archive of around nine million records dating back to the 17th century, but still expanding to take in documents from the 13,000 or so live projects currently being pushed forward by Network Rail.
All the great engineers are represented – Stephenson (both George and Robert), Locke, Barlow, Brunel – and a number of structures that helped to sharpen the cutting edge, such as the tubular girder bridges on the North Wales coast line. Also here are the title deeds for all the land and properly ever owned by the railway.
But it would be wrong to regard Network Rail’s National Records Centre simply as a historical repository. Understanding how a structure was built and its subsequent evolution can help to explain the development of a defect and inform the design work to effectively remediate it, so the drawings can play a part in the railway’s day-to-day asset management regime.
Ongoing is the challenge of managing vast quantities of digital data that streams into the centre on a daily basis. Whilst not so visual striking as the historical documents – or as irreplaceable – it is equally important in meeting future engineering needs. You can’t put a price on 200 years of deep, accumulated knowledge.