Maximum mileage

David Self

David Self test drives the latest model in transport history parks.

Many preserved railways and transport museums are run lovingly by enthusiasts, (the unkindly named Anoraks) and consequently there is virtually no attempt to interpret the exhibits. At Transperience, the West Yorkshire Transport Discovery Park which opened near Bradford this summer, interpretation is everything. Indeed, there is so much explanation that it can become indigestible. But it is difficult not to be drawn into the many interactive displays which, taken individually, are all extraordinarily well designed.

Transperience has been developed on a former derelict 15-acre site in what remains one of Bradford's less attractive suburbs. It is near Exit 2 on the M606 and - when I visited - was desperately in need of better signposting.

There is no sense of being transported into the past: the design of the four main buildings is starkly modern, even futuristic. They are spread along the site and linked by a special road and tramway. You can walk between these buildings, or ride as often as you like on the constantly running classic trams, buses and trolleybuses.

You first enter the Visitor Centre, which has a cafe, toilets, shop and an orientation area which gives an idea of what is on offer. This leads into the main square which will doubtless become more attractive as it is landscaped: at the moment, it is not much more than a bus terminus. From here it is only a short walk to the huge Concourse Building which straddles the roadway and tramtrack. The larger part of this hangar-like construction contains a display gallery where static vehicles are on show and there is another souvenir shop, and a conference room which schools can book. Beyond this is a brilliantly-conceived "Shock of the New" exhibition hall.

Its theme is that today's history was once innovation and it explores both the technology and social impact of the steam engine, electric tram and trolleybus, family car and modern light railway systems. A central console allows you to select an area of specific interest and arrows then light up on the floor to direct you around the display.

It is distinctly multi-media with everything from life-size tableaux figures to touch screen CD-ROMs, from interactive multiple choice games - signals and traffic lights flash suitable colours as you answer to highly convincing sound effects and steam gushing from a mocked-up railway engine - plus many information panels. There is also a mini cinema where a seven-minute film illustrates the effect the car has had on family life.

In the other half of the Concourse Building, across the road and tramway, is a large display on the theme of Moving On. It is dominated by a water-driven kinetic sculpture which depicts the environmental cycle and succeeds in being madly pretentious while looking as if it was designed by Rowland Emett.

More successful is the Energy Gallery, which explains everything from horsepower to fossil fuels; the workings of petrol, diesel, electric and jet engines; wind turbines and the ambition of Icarus.

You can also see a challenging 15-minute multi-media presentation on a "fragile earth" theme. Its storyline follows a daughter's campaign against the motor car - especially her father's gas-guzzler - but ends with her pleading for him to pick her up in town.

In another gallery, a shorter film takes a zany, fast-moving look at the history and future of travel. It repays viewing two or three times and will engage the most cynical teenager.

Further along the site is the Auditorium. Here the 15-minute programme looks at how travel and transport have been depicted on film and television, the film clips being supplemented by special sound and other effects, and also by some startling animatronics. Apparently three-dimensional characters emerge out of the total darkness in a way that is oddly unsettling.

At the far end of the site is the Exploratory, where you can learn to decode timetables; drive a bus, tram, train or trolleybus - in simulation only; and work a signal box. Nearby is a picnic area and a well-equipped playground for smaller children.

There is too much to digest in one visit. Any potential party leader must take up the offer of a free preview visit - and allow at least two or three hours for it.

An education pack is also available which will help in planning how a visit can be related to the curriculum in history, geography, design and technology, science and mathematics at key stages 2, 3 or 4.

* Transperience. Contact the Education Officer, Transperience Way, Bradford BD12 7HQ. Tel: 01274 690909.

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