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When exporting coal to the continent the ships would arrive empty into the English ports with a temporary ballast of small stones to make the ship more stable in rough weather.  These stones were unloaded and were taken by the rail companies to form the bed of the track used to bring the coal to the ports, providing stability and drainage and a mutually efficient use of resources.  The name ballast has stuck although the materials now come from dedicated suppliers.  


Across the track bed were laid sleepers to which the rails were attached by the use of metal shoes.  Wedges were driven into these, originally wooden but nowadays metal.  To maintain the gauge these wedges were initially driven into the gap on the inside of the track using the outside face of the chair to determine the gap and prevent the wheels from naturally forcing the track out.  Around 1900 the favoured position became the outside to take account of the variances in the cold rolling process.  Even with such standardisation, most railway companies still developed their own design for the metal chairs and we have a selection of these at Barrow Hill.

Track and fittings


The history of the different methods of constructing rails has been well documented and can be researched elsewhere online.  A useful resource can be found on

It was in the 1820’s that an ironmaster called John Birkinshaw patented a rail system which formed the basic    

shape that we can still see today.  






Whilst researching I came across this interesting website page which I would encourage you to explore.





In 1949 British Railways changed to using flat-bottomed Vignoles section rails. The rails were originally spiked to wooden sleepers or bolted down onto concrete sleepers but in 1957 an engineer from Norway invented the Pandrol clip. This system uses a simple flat plate bolted to the wooden or concrete sleepers  with cast-in loops. The flat bottomed Vignoles section rail is laid in the chair and a clip of metal is hammered into the loops to hold the rail firmly in place.

Rail Chair for securing rails MR 1908


Rail Chair for securing rails BR(M) 1949

Rail Chair for securing rails LMSR 1136

Mile Posts


All railways in Britain are equipped with distance markers fixed at regular intervals along their length. They primarily act as reference points that can be used to specify a position on the infrastructure, for example when reporting an incident or in connection with engineering work.


The Railways Clauses Consolidation Act 1845 required that the railway companies provide markers at quarter mile intervals along the trackside. Section 94 of the Act read:


"The company shall cause the length of the railway to be measured, and milestones, posts, or other conspicuous objects to be set up and maintained along the whole line thereof, at the distance of one quarter of a mile from each other, with numbers or marks inscribed thereon denoting such distances."

The stated distance is measured from a defined point of origin, usually an important station or junction. This 'zero' point may be marked by a 'zero' post.


All the railway companies developed their own distinctive patterns of mileposts, producing a whole range of different ideas. A milepost may be positioned facing the track (with a single face) or angled from the track (with two faces) so as to be readable from an approaching train, as are the Midland Railway examples displayed here.  These posts may be viewed in our Lobby area which will give a better idea of scale and permanence.


Track and lineside

When we stand and marvel at the locomotives we sometimes forget the intricate infrastructure that keeps everything running on the railways.  Here is a selection of items we sometimes overlook.


Vignoles section     Bullhead section

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