An urgent search is on to find a way to preserve at least part of a 200-year-old wooden railway unearthed on Tyneside.
The discovery by archaeologists of the 1790s waggonway on the site of the former Neptune shipyard in Walker in Newcastle is described as a find of international importance.
The 25-metre stretch is central to the coal mining and railway heritage of the region and has revealed features known previously only through 18th Century engineers’ notebooks. It is also the earliest surviving example of the standard gauge railway, used throughout Britain and much of the world.
But the site is being developed by Shepherd Offshore for Newcastle University as a national centre for sub sea engineering.
Experts think that because the railway has now been exposed to the air, if it is covered up it will begin to rot. This is believed to have been the fate of another wooden railway excavated in the 1990s at Lambton in Sunderland, which was reburied after being recorded.
But experts feel that the new find is of such importance efforts should be made to remove and preserve at least a section of the railway.
“Uncovering such a superbly preserved stretch of waggonway is outstanding,” said Simon Brooks, manager trusts and partnerships of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers.
“These tracks represent the origin of the standard gauge railway and their historic value is of universal importance.
“Every effort needs to be made to ensure this find is preserved intact and available to future generations.
“It is of the utmost importance that this unique find is kept in the region, the birthplace of the railways. The waggonway marks a major point in the evolution of the coal and transport industries worldwide and is a reminder of the North East’s global importance in establishing the modern world we inhabit.”
The railway was uncovered by Alan Williams and Richard Carlton of Newcastle-based The Archaeological Practice.
Alan said: “It would probably be possible to cover the wooden remains with sand, geotextile and soil and hope for the best, but the chances are that the timbers would rot within quite a short time given that the water table has almost certainly been lowered by development works close by and that the particular conditions which also maintained the timbers, a build-up of pretty impermeable coal waste, has now gone.
“A reasonable option is to disassemble the timber remains carefully and get a real insight into the actual techniques of carpentry and joinery used on the waggonways, as opposed to what has been written about these techniques, then donate sections of the remains to regional museums for conservation.
“Some could be stored and some displayed. Material would then be available as both a reference collection and for general appreciation of one of the North East’s greatest contributions to the world.”
A spokesman for Shepherd Offshore said: “We are very pleased that this example of historic technology has been found and we are in favour of some sort of preservation in a museum.”
Jim Rees, assistant director of development at Beamish Museum in County Durham said: “It is fascinating. I was very disappointed that although the Lambton find was recorded, nothing was recovered, which was a missed opportunity.
“It will be a shame if, while this latest find has been recorded, it is bulldozed. A section could be lifted and stabilised and conserved by specialists, and kept in the region and displayed, but that won’t be cheap.”
Mr Rees said that Beamish would be willing to take a sample and store it in environmentally secure conditions for future research.
“There is a lot of information locked in this railway, such as woodworking techniques and where the timber was sourced, and in 50 years time we can’t go back to the site and dig it up again.”
Many think Newcastle Discovery Museum, the Great North Museum or Segedunum Roman fort museum next to the dig site would be prime locations to display a section. All are managed by Tyne Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM).
“The section of waggonway uncovered at the Neptune shipyard site is a fascinating and significant find,” said TWAM curator Ian Whitehead.
“But when buried and wet wood is suddenly exposed to the air what to do next isn’t straightforward. The dig of course will be properly recorded but what should happen with the material remains is more difficult.
“But I am sure that everyone would agree that the waggonway should not be lifted and removed unless there is funding in place to ensure its proper conservation and preservation.”
Every effort needs to be made to ensure this find is available to future generations