The London Transport Museum Depot opened it’s doors to the public on the 14th October 1999, home to the majority of the collection not on display at it’s main Museum in Covent Garden. Open for a limited season during the year, it provides a rare opportunity for the public to see a vast assortment of items from its historic collection in a working environment, with curators and guides on hand to provide context and history to the trains and buses on show. For those with a fascination and enthusiasm towards the transport network in the City, it is an exciting opportunity to be able to go inside this large collection of vehicles and historical transport that is only accessible over the Summer months. The Museum provides a limited run opportunity to visit its more secure and less accessible sites through its Hidden London events series, both through virtual tours and in person events including tours of disused passage ways and spaces at active stations and terminals in London and abandoned and closed stations beneath the streets of the Capital. These limited access events are always popular and in demand given the confined nature and space available to see the secrets they offer up. The design and space of the Depot affords a greater level of public access with themed events around specific ideas, in August, exploring the environmental impact of the transport network and the direction for the future.
Located away from the centre of London at the Acton Depot, it is a fascinating destination in itself, situated beside an active siding and connected to the transport network. For rail enthusiasts and historians, it is exciting to see this collection of trains from the cities historical past sitting beside active stock operating in the present day. They compliment each other and make for an informative and enjoyable experience in close proximity to each other. It is first and foremost an operational area and lacks some of the refinement and elegance of purpose built museums and attractions, whilst the Depot Museum itself was designed to facilitate public access when it opened, it certainly has an appearance and aesthetic of an urban work site though curated in a way to make you feel welcomed and invited into this particular domain. On arrival, a working model railway providing one way to deliver you to the entrance a short walk away. It’s an enjoyable alternative but equally a pleasant walk affording you the opportunity to take in the atmosphere of the location. It lacks perhaps the ambience of a heritage railway site, having been fortunate to visit a number of these in recent years you do miss the smell of smoke in the engine yards but this is a modern day electrified railway, showcasing the history of the network and how it came to move away from steam locomotives to its present day service.
The impact of the Pandemic had an impact on the events held by the Museum, and more broadly the revenue generated by London Transport with use of the transport network impacted severally over the last year, with a restriction and cancellation of many of the tours on offer given the confined nature and space of many of the locations. These Summer weekends afforded an opportunity to bring audiences and the public back to the Museum bringing in a valuable stream of income in a safe and manageable way. With a singular route in effect, guests have the opportunity to move around the museum with the usual restrictions you’ve come to accept over the last year that affords a sense of normalcy. It may not feel as open as before, with access to go inside a number of the attractions restricted or closed off but where possible every attempt has been made to keep it open to allow you to experience as broad as possible a normal selection of what is available. From some of the earliest examples of rolling stock on the Underground to a collection of the earliest trams and buses operating on the streets of London. It does feel given the confined nature of the Depot it has benefited from opening at this period of time as we transition back to a sense of normalcy with a reduced risk presented by the virus in circulation, and so it was with a sense of gratitude and wonder that welcomed us to this attraction in London.
Mind The Gap
The Depot, as noted, is situated at an operational siding on the transport network, it lacks the aesthetic cleanliness and historical narrative of the Museum at Covent Garden but equally affords an opportunity to delve immediately into its expansive archive with no prelude or hesitation. Immediately on arrival you are welcomed into the main building and presented with one of the earlier examples of the rolling stock from the Underground presented in its original livery. At the moment, you are directed around a single route with the option to go back inside when you exit the Depot removing any anxiety on missing out on a particular item from the collection. Your tour begins with the buses and trams that once populated London’s streets and you do feel a measure of sadness and regret that these beautiful vehicles no longer operate today. Having witnessed and experienced in recent years the popularity of travelling on the historic trams in Lisbon, in particular the 28 Tram that is enjoyable to ride up the steep slopes into the historic quarter, you do immediately realise how perfectly these amazingly preserved Trams would look and feel on the streets of the Capital. There are examples of this rolling stock on display in Covent Garden, these particular units though are still impressive to see in person and have a certain air of authenticity in this particular location that feel more real. There are no modern day examples on show, the most recent exhibit a route master whose design was withdrawn from service in 2005. This is more a showcase of the history of the buses and trolleys in service in London, the transition away from an electrified fixed track approach on the streets to the freedom of a traditional bus design.
From here you move through the Museum’s main store, ordinarily a passing opportunity to pick up a souvenir item of your visit but it is also home to one of the depot’s most unique features and attractions, a rare opportunity to purchase a piece of operational history, items and fixtures removed from retired and deconstructed vehicles and available to buy. Ranging from original authentic door buttons from retired rolling stock to cuttings and seat covers from the unique patterned material of the Underground, the famous railways maps used on carriages, even luggage racks, for rail enthusiasts there is a vast collection of items to purchase that would otherwise have been discarded and disposed of. It present’s an opportunity to own a small piece of the history of the transport network, a great way to provide additional income to a service that has been impacted by the Pandemic over the last year. Beyond this the usual assortment of items you would come to expect from a Museum of this type. The Depot itself is a working archive, curators and volunteers working to catalogue and archive objects and its heritage for future generations, there is a substantial amount beyond what is immediately accessible to see however equally, a number of items that are more readily available and provide visiting guests a chance to pick up redundant items that will go to a good home. If you can avoid the temptation of picking up an item or two on your visit, my patterned socks suggests I lacked that moral strength, you move into the museums archive of objects, signs maps and furniture. There is a brief diversion that affords you an opportunity to go aboard one of the earlier examples of carriages from the Central Line on the Underground Network before surrounding you with ticket machines and platform signs.
It’s impossible not to feel a sense of familiarity and recognition walking around the archives of the station furniture, retired push button ticket machines and barriers that were a precursor to the current contactless units in operation today. Even bus signs and ways to pay that you take for granted have transformed with the societal shift away from cash in recent decades. It lacks perhaps an explanation or narrative behind their use on inspection though the exuberance and knowledge of the volunteers is a particular highlight and you are treated to detailed explanations of many of the items in the collection. One of the organizations most recognisable images is its blue and red chevron, a design that is iconic beyond its purpose and celebrated here with a vast collection of signs from the entirety of the network. Few companies and brands have the global recognition of the Underground sign and design, or celebrate that heritage in a befitting manner. Climbing up to a viewing gallery that provides a great view of the depot below, you walk through the archives of the signs and station maps with many familiar and popular station names featured prominently over the years. As a resident of this city, you do feel a sense of pride and attachment when you spot a local station you call home. It was enjoyable to see the evolution of the design and how it was utilised on furniture that became second nature as you dashed for a train or bus. It brought to mind how other brands globally have showcased their particular design and logo, the Carlsberg brewery tour in Copenhagen uses a very similar approach and style to the depot of highlighting how its particular iconography has evolved over the years. In addition to the signage there is also a showcase of the evolution of the Underground Map, with variations of the design including a version constructed of Lego bricks that was fun to see and a variety of station model that served as an enjoyable prelude to the final aspect of your visit.
Given their size, the inclusion of a variety of carriages and rolling stock from their collection is a welcome addition but they do take up a majority of the Depot’s interior though of course, a personal highlight for any rail enthusiast to be around. You are treated to a selection of carriages that operated on the Underground as it transformed to a more sustainable and uniformed service with early examples and prototypes of what would become common place. Equally, after their removal from service they would go on to find a new purpose in other cities and locations with rolling stock operating on the Isle of Wight after their withdrawal from the Underground. Certain models and designs were recognisable and familiar from my childhood however it was the older trains from the 1920’s that were remarkable to step inside, the standard stock for example with their warm hues and lighting, comfortable seats and wooden flooring that exude a sense of class and elegance. It certainly made for a more welcoming environment in contrast to the cold, neutral, minimalist aesthetic and design of current carriages in operation today. Before venturing down the elevated platform, a brief homage to the old platform signs at Baker Street that I do recall using passing through this station during my studies. The final carriages and rolling stock on display as you moved towards the temporary exit in use at the moment were the examples from the Metropolitan Railway, a line close to home I’ve used frequently over the years. It was interesting to see how this service has transformed and changed over its lifetime, from the wooden carriages used with the steam locomotives on display at the Museum in Covent Garden to the current electrified units in operation today. There isn’t an example of the current design in use across the network but equally, when you step outside you are next to a siding where you can see these trains ready to go out into service. An enjoyable, personal highlight and end to this particular visit.
This Museum is home to an abundance of riches, somewhat niche in its appeal perhaps to a wider audience but certainly it holds a fascination and draw to both the more ardent railway enthusiast and those who appreciate the history of the city in equal measure. One of it’s key strengths is the knowledge and enthusiasm shown by its volunteers who will gladly provide history and context to many of the items in the collection. We almost had a personal guide for the first part of our visit that made for an informative and enjoyable experience with a clear knowledge of the buses and trams on display. Having used trams extensively across the UK and Europe over the last decade, it did leave you feeling a sense of loss for these beautiful machines and a form of transportation missing in the Capital today. The impact of the Pandemic is evident on your visit, with a route at odds with the design of the depot, an entrance way for example no longer in use necessitating using a service yard entrance instead and the freedom of exploration curtailed somewhat by the necessity of providing a safe environment to move around. Understandable on this occasion and when the Depot opens again for visitors in the Autumn and next year, perhaps a return to how it was before for visitors and guests. That said, you don’t feel in anyway you have missed out due to the restrictions in place and the collection on show is a testament to the history of London Transport and the work of the curators and volunteers to preserve it for prosperity sake.
The Museum’s success comes from the appeal in opening up its vast collection beyond what is available to see in the more curated, narrative focused attraction in the West End. It brings to mind the model used by the Imperial War Museum in having a central location with more expansive annexes facilitated further out and away from the City. In the modern era of transportation, the livery and aesthetic of the transport network in London has taken on a more uniformed design and style with slight variances in the patterns of the seats for example, here, a testament and showcase to the lineage and individuality of the service as it evolved over the course of its history. Besides a brief period of time when the network adopted a stainless steel design in the middle of the last century, there is an incredible variation of colour and style on display, from the elegance of the carriages emerging from the conflict of the Great War to the simplistic and easy to identify colours of recent history. London has transformed and continues to change to the demands of its residents, demanding a modern transport network to suit its temperaments. The use of this space provides a unique opportunity to show how we get around evolved to meet these same demands, a tram system archaic to the freedom of the wheel, the era of steam locomotion transforming to the electrification of the railways. It lacks perhaps a celebration of the future, and how the network is transforming in the present day, but serves as a shining example of its history and what came before.
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