Could it be Swindon? Public competition to find new home for Britain’s railways

STEAM Swindon

Could Swindon, the home of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great railway works, become the new home of Great British Railways (GBR)?

A competion has officially opened today to find a new home, with towns and cities across England, Wales and Scotland invited to apply.

As part of the government’s commitment to level-up the UK, and following the publication of the Levelling Up white paper, the new GBR HQ will be based outside of London and bring a number of high-skilled jobs to the winning location.

The creation of GBR was announced as a major pillar of the once-in-a-generation reforms launched by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail. GBR will be a single guiding mind that ends the fragmentation of the rail industry and drives benefits and improvements across the network for passengers and freight customers.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “Our railways have kept this country moving for almost 200 years, but it’s time to kickstart a new age that will shape our network for the next 200.

“I’m calling on people across the country to make the case for why the true home of the railways is on your doorstep.

“Locations across the country with strong historical links to the railway are encouraged to make the case for why they should be the new home of GBR.”

The GBR transition team will shortlist the best applications in May, after which a public vote will help determine the winning location.

This central headquarters will be the heart of the rail network and provide strategic direction for the running of GBR.

Leader of the Great British Railways transition team, Andrew Haines, said: “This is the chance for cities and towns across the UK to pitch to be a key part of an exciting chapter in the history of Britain’s railway.”

The new HQ could sit next to the town’s STEAM museum, which first opened in 2000.

Swindon Railway Works opened in January 1843 as a repair and maintenance facility for the new Great Western Railway. By 1900 the works had expanded dramatically and employed over 12,000 people. At its peak in the 1930s, the works covered over 300 acres and was capable of producing three locomotives a week.

The railway dominated the fortunes of Swindon until after the Second World War, when new industries moved to the area. The completion of the last steam locomotive for British Railways – Evening Star – at Swindon in 1960, marked a watershed in the history of the works, and in 1963 a large part of the old carriage and wagon works on the eastern side of the Gloucester branch line was closed and sold for redevelopment.

Despite a brief renaissance in the 1970s, the works finally closed in 1986.

The purchase of the works site in 1986 by Tarmac Properties offered the opportunity to redevelop a large part of Swindon that was largely unknown to its population.

The Grade II listed structure now occupied by STEAM is a complex piece of industrial archaeology. It consists of a number of buildings built over a long period. The earliest structure is the 1846 machine and fitting shop – part of Brunel’s original works complex. Known as the ‘scraggery’ this area is now occupied by the entrance hall and public facilities for the museum (when nuts and bolts were renovated for re-use, the process was known as ‘scragging’). The building still retains its queen-post roof and some original windows. To the south is the much modified blacksmith’s shop, which also dates from 1846, although its conversion to a substation early in the twentieth century dramatically altered its character.