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Heritage of Transport and Communication

Our research into the heritage of England's railways, canals and roads

Railways

Rail transport is an area where change is taking place rapidly: Crossrail, the extension of railway electrification and the proposed High Speed 2 are all part of the largest investment in railway infrastructure since Victorian times.

This level of change has an impact on the historic infrastructure of railways. Overhead electrification means changes to bridges, trains carrying larger containers mean clearances have to be increased, and the sheer volume of passengers now using trains means alterations to stations to enable them to cope with the demand for rail services.

Change is inevitable and our job is to make sure that change is managed so as to minimise the impact on the stations, bridges and other structures, many of which date back over 150 years, that are of special historical or architectural interest.

Iron and glass station canopies seen by night.
Grange-over-Sands railway station, Cumbria. Built by the Furness Railway and completed in 1872, one of the many fine Victorian stations that give pleasure to those travelling by train © Historic England DP066501

To enable us to do this, we commissioned a report from RPS Group on historic railway buildings and structures which summarised the consultant's view of the likely impact of increased railway investment on the historic railway infrastructure, and gives the their view on the significance of a great range of different types of railway buildings and structure and considered how well these were protected.  

One aspect of railways that we are focusing on is goods sheds and warehouses. These were once vital to the country’s economy, fulfilling the same function as the big shed warehouses that are located by motorway hubs today. Most of them went out of railway use about 50 years ago and today are used for a variety of purposes, from dentist’s surgeries to supermarkets, from garages to museums or homes.

Despite their importance, they are not well understood and we do not even know how many still exist. John Minnis, who wrote the research report on Signal Boxes in 2012, is working on a project to identify the survivors (over 500 have so far come to light). He is also writing a book, to be published by Historic England in 2016, about their history which will include a gazetteer.

View of side of early brick built railway warehouse
Railway warehouse at Manchester Liverpool Road, built in 1829 for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway and believed to be the earliest surviving railway warehouse in the world, listed grade 1. © Historic England AA026856

Roads

The motor car probably changed the face of England more than any other factor in the 20th century, yet that story remained largely unwritten. Our recent research and resulting publications about the heritage of 20th century road transport have had an immediate impact on the study of twentieth century England. We hope that they will now inspire and enable others to build on this with their own research.

Circular canopies at filling station, Leicester
Eliot Noyes-designed former Mobil Pegasus filling station at Leicester. © Historic England DP070109

Canals

Change is less evident on the canals and river navigations but there has been a major shift in the way they are managed with the change in ownership from British Waterways to a charity, the Canal and Rivers Trust.

This offered an opportunity for an overview of the current state of the network and we commissioned a report from industrial heritage expert Keith Falconer, which surveys the historic structures of the canals and reviews the research that has been published on canals over the past 60 years. You can download the report on the national overview of canals. A gazetteer forming Part 2 of the report, covering canals and navigations operating in the 19th century identifying significant surviving structures and historic buildings, is in preparation and we will add this to the website in due course.

Canal boats at Stourport-on-Severn with York House in the background
Stourport-on-Severn, a town that owes its existence to the canal with York House, built by a canal carrier in the background. © Historic England DP022114
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