How to look for records of... Railways
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
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
This guide does not cover the following – click on the links to read our research guides:
- Railway workers
- Railway newspapers
- Railway maps
- Photographs of railways
- First World War and Second World War diaries of the Railway Corps
2. Essential information
The National Archives holds many railway records, but others are in:
- specialist museums
- university collections
- local preservation societies
- private hands
This guide will tell you where to look for different kinds of records.
Locating records of a particular railway may be difficult unless you know which company owned it.
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.
3. 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.
4. How to search for The National Archives’ railway records
The best way to start is to search Discovery, our catalogue using 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
Many railway records have the department codes:
Refine your search by these collections or by date, or use other relevant keywords. You may also wish to browse our catalogue if your search is unsuccessful.
5. Key records at The National Archives
5.1 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.
- 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
5.2 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)
5.3 Accident reports
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)
- 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 can also be found in the records of the individual companies.
5.4 Locomotives and rolling stock
Browse the 50 continuing GWR locomotive and rolling stock registers held by The National Archives in RAIL 254.
- 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 IK Brunel Collection
5.5 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
- Cabinet papers online with relevant keywords and 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
6. Online sources
Consult Parliamentary papers (£) for local and private acts of parliament relating to the construction of railways which usually required parliamentary sanction.
7. 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 Thomas Cook Company Archives for records of timetables, guidebooks and holiday brochures, photographs and staff magazines.
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.
8. Further reading
Read Railway Records: A Guide to Sources by CJ 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 TR Gourvish (Cambridge University Press, 1986)
- British Railways Vol 2: 1974-1997 by TR 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)