It contains a collection of over 100 locomotives and nearly 200 other items of rolling stock, together with many hundreds of thousands of other items of railway historical interest down to a lock of Robert Stephenson's hair, displayed in three large halls of a former motive power depot next to the East Coast Main Line, near York railway station. The permanent display includes "Palaces on Wheels", a collection of Royal Train coaches from Queen Victoria's early trains to those used by Queen Elizabeth II up to the 1970s.
The NRM was established on its present site in 1975, when it took over the former British Railways Collection located in Clapham, and the York Railway Museum located elsewhere in the city, since when the collection has continued to grow. It is now the largest museum of its type in the world, with 750,000 visitors annually.
All items of rolling stock exhibited either ran on the railways of Great Britain or were built there, with the single exception of a Japanese "Series 0" Shinkansen bullet train leading vehicle, which was donated to the NRM by the JR West railway company in 2001 and which now forms part of an award-winning display.