The National Railway Museum is set for its biggest upgrade since it opened in 1975.

Plans to completely overhaul the Leeman Road site have been unveiled.

The museum has drawn up a £50 million, seven-year masterplan, designed to increase visitor numbers from 750,000 today to 1.2 million.

It will see the two halves of the museum – now divided by Leeman Road – unified by a brand new building. This will be built where Leeman Road is now, after the road is diverted away from the site.

And the original Stephenson’s Rocket – now housed at sister attraction the Science Museum in London – would be brought to York when the upgrade is complete.

“Our ambitious redevelopment plans will radically reimagine the visitor experience to demonstrate how railways changed our world and how modern science and engineering are transforming our railways,” said Tom Devine of the National Railway Museum.

Cultural heart

This is how the Central Gallery could look, showcasing the future of railways. Image: Wilkinson Eyre

The NRM’s regeneration will be made possible by the development of the York Central site.

That has given bosses the opportunity “to completely rethink the museum” Mr Devine said. That will make it the “cultural heart” of York Central.

Its mission will be to inspire the nation through railway innovations of the past, present and future.

A view from when you come out of Marble Arch, without Leeman Road but with some public spaces. Image: Wilkinson Eyre
An aerial view of how the rebuilt NRM would look as part of the York Central regeneration. Image: National Railway Museum

The Great Hall will focus on the past, telling the story of how railways changed the world.

This would include the fact that they enabled national newspapers for the first time. “They enabled the Football League – and they even enabled things like dog breeding,” Mr Devine said.

A Wonder Lab will give a hands-on experience for younger visitors.

And a new Central Gallery will give insights into the future of rail, showing what could be possible with engineering technology.

Epic story

This is what will replace the Unipart depot, looking towards the new Central Gallery. Image: Wilkinson Eyre

Speaking at the Built Environment Networking conference in Merchant Taylor’s Hall on Monday (January 8), Mr Devine said the first phase would be the Great Hall.

It dates from the 1880s, and has been expanded and adapted over the decades. It was repaired in 1942 after the major air raid in York.

“We want to tell the epic story of the railways in a series of exhibitions,” he said. “We’re looking at bringing in some double height spaces so people can get different perspectives on the collection.”

Stephenson’s Rocket, steaming our way. Photograph: Science Museum Group
And this is how it would look with pride of place at the new NRM. Image: Real Studios

Stephenson’s Rocket, built in Newcastle in 1829, is now in the Science Museum.

“This is our new star item,” he said. “The group has pledged that, when we deliver the masterplan, that will be relocated from London and come to the National Railway Museum in York as the star item in the collection.”

There is only a replica of the rocket in the NRM at the moment.

The Wonderlab

Key: 1 – the Great Hall ; 2 – the Wonderlab; 3 – the new Central Gallery; 4 – South Yard; 5 – the new public realm potential. Image: National Railway Museum

A new area called the Wonderlab will be created next to the Great Hall in what is now the workshop and warehouse.

The idea is it will inspire a new generation to learn more about engineering.

There will be more than 40 interactive displays and a ‘tinkering space’.

The tinkering zone in the Wonderlab. Image: Muf Architecture/Art LLP
A revamped South Yard will have more access for visitors. Image: Wilkinson Eyre

The South Yard is now “quite a tired, sorry space” Mr Devine said. “So that’s an area we really want to improve”.

It would link to York Central’s great green park.

And an area which now has “bits and bats of car parking” could become a designed public space. It is “a great historic area that we can really do something with”.

Facts, figures and timetable

The work could finish in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the museum. Photograph: National Railway Museum

Here’s the breakdown of the £50 million needed to make this vision a reality.

  • NRM’s surplus land sales – up to £10 million
  • Heritage Lottery Fund grant – up to £10 million
  • Government – up to £22 million
  • Campaign funding (industry, trusts, donations etc) – £5-£15 million

The first phase of the redevelopment – the Great Hall – will start in 2019. The hall will be closed while the work is done, with more exhibits moved to the South Yard.

It will mean moving 70 rail vehicles into a new collection store.

The new Great Hall and Wonder Lab would open in 2021.

The Central Gallery work would start in 2023 – targeting an opening in 2025, the 50th anniversary of the museum and the 200th anniversary of passenger railways.

Boost for York

Tom Devine of the National Railway Museum speaking at the Built Environment Networking conference. Photograph: YorkMix

Visitors currently spend an average of 2 hours 22 minutes at the museum.

Read more about the plans here

Bosses want to increase that to around four hours – which could have a major boost to the wider city economy.

“It will help to push more visitors to decide to stay overnight in York, and with that the amount of spend in York will increase drastically.”

The plan will also see Unipart Rail moving out of its Leeman Road building and relocating to a new York office.