Railway photography

How cameras captured the rail revolution.


Great Western Railway locomotive No 3021 Wigmore Castle, with its driver and fireman on the footplate, c 1894.  The locomotive was built at Swindon Works in 1891, and could be converted to run on either standard or broad gauge track.     
Credit: National Railway Museum

The first known railway photographs were taken in the 1840s, only a few years after photography was invented.

These early daguerreotypes included a view of Linlithgow station by Hill and Adamson, and unknown photographers’ images of Great Western Railway locomotives. Before long more sophisticated negative processes were used to record railway construction projects.

In 1856 the locomotive builder Beyer Peacock Ltd in Manchester engaged James Mudd to photograph its new engines, and soon many of Britain’s major railway companies were employing their own photographers. They started with static views of vehicles or railway construction, but as photographic technology improved they began to create images of railway works, passing trains and scenic locations, which were used to decorate carriages and advertise services.

In the 1850s railway photography also became increasingly popular with enthusiasts. At first they took images of static locomotives, but by the 1880s faster camera shutter speeds and improved photographic emulsions meant they could capture movement. Although photography was expensive, enthusiasts with cameras became a common lineside sight.

Although photography was expensive, enthusiasts with cameras became a common lineside sight.

In 1922 the Railway Photographic Society was formed. Its members circulated their prints for comment and, sparked by each others’ occasionally stinging criticism, the standard of railway photography improved. Official photography also grew in importance as the railway’s publicity machines became increasingly sophisticated, supplying images for the press and even producing their own documentary films.

As steam railways waned after the Second World War enthusiasts travelled across the UK photographing favourite locomotives on powerful express services or remote branch lines. And a new wave of photographers began to picture railways in un glamorous industrial landscapes – a little like Monet and Pisarro had done nearly a hundred years earlier. Most photographers adjusted slowly to railways dominated by diesel and electric engines, but when steam was phased out on British Railways in 1968 some put away their cameras for good.

As the railways declined and were privatised, official photographic units closed too. Railway photography is still popular, and enthusiasts now travel the world, hoping to capture the few remaining steam locomotives still at work.

Background: Class 87