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What does GWR's nomination as a World Heritage Site say about railways' historical context? Mike Chrimes investigates.

THOSE FORTUNATE enough to attend the recent Brunel Bicentenary Conference will have heard English Heritage chairman Sir Neil Cossons launch a major consultation exercise regarding the proposed nomination of the Great Western Railway (GWR) route between London and Bristol as a World Heritage Site.

Although the days of regarding heritage as a collection of ruined castles are long gone, it is only relatively recently that UNESCO has embraced the idea that sites representative of global industrialisation are worthy examples of world heritage.

This view, reinforced by the International Council on Monuments & Sites' recognition that 'railways are among the most important of industrial locations worthy of designation as World Heritage Sites', encouraged English Heritage to nominate the GWR.

While the nomination is to be welcomed ? particularly by civil engineers eager to raise the pro e of their profession ? it is curious that railways already inscribed as World Heritage Sites have been so more for the dramatic scenery they traverse than their historical signicance in the development of railways.

The Semmering Railway, built 1848-54 between Vienna and Trieste to the design of Carl Ghega was a tremendous engineering achievement through difficult mountain terrain. But it was built about 20 years after steam traction had become an accepted feature of railways in Britain. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was built through spectacular and challenging scenery by British engineers, but it is not part of mainstream railway development.

Other sites under consideration are the Rhaetian railways in Switzerland, the KalkaShimla Railway in India and the Cerdagne Railway in France.

Interesting as these works are, the question remains: What about Britain's pioneer lines, notably the Stockton & Darlington and Liverpool & Manchester railways? In the 19th century these works of George Stephenson were recognised as key projects in the development of modern transport.

Regrettably the Stockton & Darlington is now little more than a line on a map and a series of archaeological sites. A much stronger case can be made for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway as a World Heritage Site.

Much of the original infrastructure survives. But parts are linked to the Liverpool Historic Waterfront World Heritage Site and the developing nomination for central Manchester. English Heritage may feel that this provides suf cient recognition.

The relative neglect of Robert Stephenson's London & Birmingham Railway by railway historians is somewhat puzzling.

It was the rst main line out of London and on a similar scale to Brunel's GWR, for which, in terms of project organisation, it served as a model. The engineering difculty posed by the Kilsby Tunnel was as challenging as that faced by Brunel at Box Hill.

English Heritage has preferred to overlook its claims as a World Heritage Site, partly because its original features have been modi ed during electrication and line widening.

This all points to a lively debate on the GWR World Heritage Site. Of course it is a concept ICE is likely to support, but one needs to be aware of the consequences.

The emphasis on Brunel will tend to denigrate the achievements of his late 19th and early 20th century successors who did much to make God's Wonderful Railway a practical reality, with, for example, their cut-offs and gauge conversions. Their work may be eligible for demolition making more dif cult to appreciate their achievements.

If World Heritage status is to have meaning, at least as regards railways, Britain's early heritage must be represented.

Copies of the consultation document are available from Customer Services Department, English Heritage, +44 870 333 1181.

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