The museum dedicated to Darlington's railway heritage is as much about inspiring future generations as celebrating the past, writes passionate supporter, Colin Foster, president of the North Eastern Railway Association

MUSEUMS have moved on a long way since the time when many of them were simply dusty depositories of the past. Nowadays you are most likely to enter a bright and friendly environment, where the displays will stimulate your curiosity and take you on a trail of discovery.

Visit the Railway Museum in Darlington when school groups are there and the place resounds to the excited chatter of children. Many of them have never travelled by train and to be in a real railway station and so close up to the big engines is a thrill.

There is much for them to explore as they get the chance to handle the paraphernalia of the railway; waving flags and lamps, punching tickets and following trails of objects to learn about their use. They enthusiastically record their discoveries through drawing and creative writing.

Reality is far more instructive than a computer screen.

“Our children learn more in a day here, than a whole term in the classroom”, said one teacher.

More than 3,500 schoolchildren visited the museum last year. Other groups find it fun, too. There’s cubs and brownies, and people with learning difficulties – not a few adults seeking a bit of nostalgia.

The museum is not just about railway relics; it’s about Darlington and the significant part it played in railway development and industry.

It was the town’s Quaker community that set up and bank-rolled the world’s first successful steam hauled public railway. It was the town’s enterprising industrialists that started the foundries and factories that served the new railway age.

There is a large wall map showing the various engineering firms that gave employment in the town. They boosted the local economy and established a pool of technical skills that put bread and more on the table for many households.

This is what Darlington is about and it’s what we as a nation did so well.

If we don’t celebrate our industrial past, what is there to inspire the younger generation to become the engineers and entrepreneurs of the future?

The other great attraction at Darlington Railway Museum is the archive collection in the study centre. This is a unique record of railway history in North-east England, by way of maps, plans, documents and photographs, mainly collected by the late Ken Hoole, a leading historian and author who intended that they be made available in Darlington for public use.

Of course, this is a treasure trove to railway enthusiasts digging into the past. It is also of value to people researching their family history. If your relatives worked on the railway, chances are that their details will be found in the copious pension records that are held here.

The archive has also become a point of reference for researchers working in film, television and publishing who want accurate railway detail for their productions.

There are other interests on site. The North Eastern Railway Association has its archive of historic documents and plans. Nearby, the old railway carriage works is home to the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust and the North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group. Both organisations run and maintain steam locomotives built in Darlington.

The museum staff work hard at extending the appeal of the precious resource that is in their care and do the best to inform, educate and even entertain, with special events.

The museum is a handsome building that is still, in part, a working railway station that lies on the original route of the Stockton & Darlington Railway and that is historic in itself.

Darlington may not be rich in tourist attractions, but it does have a great claim to fame with something that changed the world and it should make the most of it.

There is so much investment and useful resource now established here that it would be a short-sighted expedience of the Borough Council to remove funding and threaten closure. Budgets are under stress, but there must be a co-ordinated effort to plan a viable future for the whole site and protect the town’s impressive heritage.

Be positive: it is not simply a place that commemorates Darlington’s past – it should be part of the future as well.

A young visitor from St. Cuthbert’s School in Stockton, when asked if he enjoyed the museum, simply said “It’s epic!”.

I wonder if that boy will be inspired to become an engineer when he’s older and perhaps find a career with Hitachi when they start making trains near Darlington – the place “where trains were born”.