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AOC’s expanded Locomotion is an engine shed with a difference

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John Jervis

The journey to Locomotion’s expansion has been complex, but dedication and AOC have delivered the goods for the National Railway Museum’s outpost at Shildon

When angling for tourists and investment – both much-needed – Shildon markets itself as the world’s first railway town. To be fair, it has a decent claim. In 1825, the first passenger train – George Stephenson’s Locomotion No.1 – began its inaugural trip from this diminutive village on the eastern edge of the south-west Durham coalfield. Rapid expansion of both population and railway works followed over the next two decades, in part thanks to the illustrious reputation of the works’ engineer, Timothy Hackworth. When locomotive construction shifted to Darlington in 1867, Shildon specialised in wagons, eventually becoming the leading wagon works in Europe, with sidings that were, for a while, the largest in the world.

Little remains today. The sidings were ripped up immediately after Shildon’s controversial closure in 1984, and, 40 years later, the site is municipal rather than industrial. There is still a scattering of handsome structures from the early days of the railways, each claiming precedence in some form or another: a stone warehouse, arched coal drops, a goods shed and Hackworth’s home, in which a modest museum was established in 1975. Its far flashier and bigger successor Locomotion – an outpost of York’s National Railway Museum – was opened by Tony Blair in 2004 in a shed-like structure by Austin-Smith:Lord.

The museum’s entire site.
The museum’s entire site.

With its long, low-arched roof it is serviceable outside, but inside is surprisingly evocative of a 19th-century station, housing 50 or so vehicles. These range from greatest hits – Kenneth Grange’s InterCity 125, the short-lived Advanced Passenger Train, a dazzling blue Deltic – to an engaging selection of passenger carriages.

Upon opening, visitor numbers rapidly surpassed expectations, peaking at around 200,000 a year before the pandemic. Locomotion has long eyed expansion, initially for storage (chunks of the National Railway Museum’s collection had been kept outdoors), then expanding its ambitions to incorporate display. Finally, after a competitive tender in 2020, London-based practice AOC Architecture, known for its cultural tact, was appointed to the £4.5 million New Hall project.

The brief was to double the museum’s covered display space to create the largest undercover collection of railway vehicles in Europe, and the chosen site was a burnt-out ‘banana factory’ – a former distribution centre for Geest – on ground a little above the main building. The pressure of the Covid years shrank aspirations and size a little, with gathering spaces squeezed out, but the impetus to complete before the 200th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 2025 remained strong, with Durham County Council providing half an expanded budget of £8 million, assisted by the Levelling Up Fund.

Rectilinear parapets above entrances at either end give the building presence

New Hall is fully accessible to both wagons and wheelchairs. Credit: David Grandorge
New Hall’s parapets act as eye-catchers. Credit: David Grandorge

Inevitably, the brownfield site threw a few curveballs. The coal shafts beneath proved more numerous than expected, while careful handling of drainage was required due to the area’s propensity to flood, with extensive swales and a detention basin placed amid existing hardstanding. Wet-meadow species in the surrounding wildflower gardens by landscape architect J & L Gibbons will evoke railway sidings and verges, though these are yet to make an appearance due to steady rain. The site also hosts Gaunless Bridge by Stephenson – the first railway bridge to use an iron truss – now out of storage, restored, and prominently placed between old building and new. This left AOC with an issue faced by Austin-Smith:Lord 20 years earlier: how to differentiate this 2,050m² shed from the thousands of similar structures scattered across the country’s business parks, on a budget that left little room for exuberance. 

Its solution is manifold. The structure, a steel portal frame that took just three weeks to erect, is angled across the site to avoid the mines, accentuating its 80m length. The monopitch roof – future-proofed for potential photovoltaic-panel installation – is strongly angled and attractive, with two rectilinear parapets rising above entrances at either end, giving the building presence in the landscape, both as eye-catchers from a distance, and as towers that nod to traditional rail-side structures on approach from below. Strong zigzags protruding at the roof’s southern edge ensure any water overflows are ejected well away from the wall, and north-facing windows by the main entrance give views over the historic setting while minimising direct sunlight inside. Six pairs of rails emerge on the concrete forecourt – getting the 47 vehicles in place took nine days – from three pairs of tall folding doors that bestow a fire-station demeanour on the facade.

  • Almost 1,000 vehicle moves were needed to fill New Hall.
    Almost 1,000 vehicle moves were needed to fill New Hall. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Gaunless Bridge in the foreground.
    Gaunless Bridge in the foreground. Credit: David Grandorge

The cladding offers visual diversion with three different finishes of Kingspan insulated panels. Textured panels in cream highlight the entrances and parapets, matching original paint samples uncovered during recent work on the historic buildings. For the rest, a mixture of micro-rib and wave aluminium panels has been chosen to shimmer in the sun, animating New Hall throughout the day, an effect sadly negated by the late spring drizzle. All panels are tightly sealed to ensure an air-tight envelope and, aided by air-source heat pumps, a heat-recovery system and smart controls, generate the usual panoply of percentages about potential improvements in energy efficiency.

Inside, polished concrete platforms run along six lanes of track, each dedicated to a specific theme and stretching the length of the building, bar some washrooms and plant at the far end. The tightly-packed vehicles rest on ballast and battle-scarred track donated by Network Rail, and tower over the spectator standing at wheel level. As a result, the platforms feel a little narrow, but the upside is an intimate, even visceral, experience of (mainly) metal hulks rarely encountered in such proximity, or so beautifully illuminated. Continuous linear strip lighting runs above, contributing to the decidedly white-cube aesthetic of the interior. 

  • Three tall paired doors provide access for vehicles.
    Three tall paired doors provide access for vehicles. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Windows give views over the historic railway landscape.
    Windows give views over the historic railway landscape. Credit: David Grandorge

The result may bring circuit boards to mind rather than forges, but it acts as an effective backdrop to some very gritty exhibits. Around half are freight wagons, with one platform dedicated to Shildon’s own considerable output, alongside locomotives that shunted or ferried them around the North-East, with a couple of striking snow ploughs and cranes to provide variety. There is an elegiac aspect to this accumulation of relics, many from a one-industry town’s one industry, and even when attractive blue lettering on the final platform promises ‘Freight Futures’, that optimism feels strained. Its final exhibit is New Hall’s most recent, a heavily graffitied coal hopper from 2001 that, given Shildon’s intertwining with the coal industry, speaks of ends rather than beginnings. Yet the display is excellent and absorbing.

Every exhibit, including every wagon, gets its individual story told on smart panels designed by AOC with Graphic Thought Facility, with one additional thematic display per platform offering grainy clips from past documentaries and audio from former workers, all tying into wider national histories. 

  • Continuous controllable lighting runs the length of each platform.
    Continuous controllable lighting runs the length of each platform. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Wagons are the stars of the show.
    Wagons are the stars of the show. Credit: David Grandorge

New Hall is just one part of a £95 million National Railway Museum masterplan, but is the first to complete – a source of satisfaction to the architect, and hopefully to Shildon, which remains one of the most deprived areas of the country. Leaving the VIP opening and heading back to the rain, concrete and a rusting Pacer – the unloved ‘railbus’ foisted on the North in the 1980s – the brass band strikes up Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and it’s hard to avoid the Pete Postlethwaite vibes. Then the freshly restored replica of Stephenson’s Rocket fires up for a trip down repaired track running alongside the historic buildings, some just refurbished for education and community use. Another batch of school children arrives, and a film crew sets up outside the attractive if still unshimmering New Hall, and it does feel as if the determined optimism on display across Locomotion is well-founded.


Total contract cost £7m
GIFA cost £2241/m²
GIFA 2050m²
Track (including apron) 984m


Client National Railway Museum & Science Museum Group
Architect & exhibition design AOC Architecture
Landscape architect J & L Gibbons
Landscape masterplan Kinnear Landscape Architects
Structural & services engineer Buro Happold
QS Arcadis
Project manager Faithful + Gould
Main contractor Nationwide Engineering
Exhibition contractor isGroup
Lighting Max Fordham
Wayfinding MIMA
Exhibition graphic design Graphic Thought Facility
Fire engineer OFR
Access consultant MIMA


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