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Great Western Railway, broad gauge era: 1835-1892
Southern England and South Wales, UK
associated engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
date  August 1835 - May 1892
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  ST596720
ICE reference number  HEW 29 et al
Brunel’s Great Western Railway began as a rail link between Bristol and London, later advancing through south Wales and southern England. By the end of the 19th century, it covered more than 4,000km and was carrying almost 81,000 passengers a year. Much of its infrastructure is listed by Historic England and is still in use in the modern rail network.
The success of the early railways in the north of England, which increased commerce and travel, led to a desire for a line linking Bristol with London. Bristol was the main port for American trade but that dominance was threatened by the development of the Port of Liverpool and its rail connections, as well as the Port of Bristol's own challenges: the ever-larger cargo ships that ran aground in the River Avon approaches (coastal Avonmouth Dock didn't open until 1877).
From 1832, work was underway to examine possible routes for the line, assess the infrastructure required and secure the finance. A committee of businessmen, bankers and solicitors was formed, holding its first meeting on 21st January 1833. On 7th March, the committee appointed Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) as engineer for a double track line between the two cities.
The name Great Western Railway (GWR) was adopted for the scheme on 19th August 1833. The proposed railway company, managed by a board of directors drawn from Bristol and London, was to be incorporated with capital of £2.5m in shares of £100 each. The Great Western Railway Bill was submitted to parliament, and on 25th July 1834, it was rejected by the House of Lords. However, on 31st August 1835, the enabling Act received royal assent.
Brunel was a champion of broad gauge rail tracks, where the rails were set 7ft 0.25in (2.14m) apart. Broad gauge made it possible to run faster trains, with increased passenger comfort, compared with the narrower gauge (4ft 8.5in or 1.435m) used by other railways. On 29th October 1835, the GWR board agreed to adopt Brunel’s proposed use of broad gauge.
His chosen route was 190km in length and as level as he could find, gaining the line the nickname "Brunel’s billiard table". It runs from Bristol through Bath, to the north of the Marlborough Downs and on through Reading. The route provided opportunities for future lines extending to Oxford, Gloucester and south Wales. To the west of Reading, it follows the River Thames and runs through the Chiltern Valley.
The track consisted of 30.8kg/m bridge rails on 356 x 178mm longitudinal timbers, with cross transoms at 3.35m centres — Brunel chose to use timber sleepers rather than stone chairs. The width of a two-track broad gauge line was 9.1m, which determined the minimum span for the necessary overbridges.
The western-most 66km of the line could not be as level as the rest and includes numerous bridges, earthworks and tunnels. From the summit at Swindon, the descent to Bristol included two short gradients of 1 in 100, one of them through Box Tunnel. The eastern section of the line required few major engineering works except river crossings. The track fell gradually from the summit at Swindon, 124km east to London, the gradient never exceeding 1 in 660.
Brunel worked meticulously, taking account of all aspects of the project from surveying the route to detailing its buildings and structures, resulting in consistent and coherent design throughout. He strove to keep construction of the infrastructure cost-effective by using local materials, such as stock brick in London, red brick in Buckinghamshire, and Bath stone and Pennant stone around Bath. This intentional variety also gave the railway a sense of place.
In 1835, he appointed engineers George Edward Frere (1807-87), George Thomas Clark (1809-1898) and T.E. March to supervise construction on the western half of the route, with William Glennie (c.1798-1856), John Wallis Hammond (c.1800-47), Thomas Hardy Bertram (1813-89) and Robert Pearson Brereton (1818-94) supervising the eastern half.
In 1836, construction commenced at two locations — between Bristol and Bath, and between Reading and London — and progressed towards each other. Terminus stations were built at Bristol Temple Meads and Paddington Station in London, with a carriage and locomotive depot at Swindon.
On 3rd July 1837, an enabling Act was passed allowing Paddington to be used as the railway’s London terminus. On 18th August the same year, Daniel Gooch (1816-89) was appointed Superintendent of Locomotive Engines.
From 1838, contractor David McIntosh (1799-1856), with his father Hugh McIntosh (1768–1840), took over the contracts from William Ranger, who had gone bankrupt. Eventually, McIntosh was obliged to sue Brunel for payment (not finalised until 1866).
In May 1838, the first stretch of line, 39km from Paddington to Maidenhead at the eastern end, was completed and opened on 4th June 1838. The first terminus at Paddington was a temporary timber structure, sited to the north west of the present station. The first passenger train to depart was pulled by North Star, a 2-2-2 wheel steam locomotive built by Robert Stephenson & Company and designed with Gooch.
Grade I listed Wharncliffe Viaduct in Hanwell, London, constructed 1836-7, was the first major work completed on the line. Constructed in brick, it is 270m long and 25m high to the parapet, with eight 21.3m span arches. The piers, originally of two tapering pylons each, are hollow. This is the first rail viaduct to use hollow piers. In 1847, the structure was widened from 10.1m to 16.8m at deck level by adding an extra row of pylons and arches on the north side.
Also Grade I listed is Maidenhead Railway Bridge, constructed 1838. Its two main arches are the flattest brick arches ever built. Each is semi-elliptical and spans 39m with a rise of only 7.4m. The bridge was widened in 1890-3.
On 1st July 1839, the line from Maidenhead to Twyford opened. Three more sections at the eastern end of the railway opened in 1840 — Twyford to Reading on 30th March, 32km from Reading to Steventon on 1st June, and 12km from Steventon to Faringdon Road (now Challow) on 20th July.
Between Twyford and Reading, the line was supposed to skirt Sonning Hill but local objections necessitated making a cutting through the hill to bypass Sonning village. The Sonning Cutting (SU772747 to SU747739), constructed 1839-40, is some 3km long and up to 18.3m deep.
In 1840, the GWR established an engineering works at Swindon, in regular use from 1843. A 150m by 21.9m running shed with four through tracks accommodated up to 48 locomotives in service. Maintenance facilities for 54 locomotives were provided in the 88.4m by 12.2m engine house, two-storey repair shop, erection bay and other buildings. The 1876 locomotive tender or tank shop is Grade II* listed.
Construction commenced at the western end of the railway in March 1836. The 19km Bristol to Bath section opened to traffic on 31st August 1840. Its terminus at Bristol Temple Meads is Grade I listed. Brunel’s station complex consists of an engine shed, offices and a 67m long train shed, all supported on brick arched vaults. The train shed’s cantilevered timber roof spans 22.6m over the tracks and is supported on cast iron columns along the platform.
Progressing eastwards from the station, the line is carried on masonry arches (ST609726) — two of 17.1m span and two smaller side arches — across the Floating Harbour (Bristol City Docks).
The railway then passes through three of the twelve tunnels between Bristol and Chippenham. St Anne’s Tunnel (ST625719 to ST623720) is 141m long and Grade II* listed. Fox’s Wood Tunnel (ST633710 to ST627717) is 984m long and also Grade II* listed. Saltford Tunnel (ST683672 to ST682674) is 160m long and Grade II listed. They were constructed in 1836-40.
North of Newton St Loe, a skew bridge (ST711655) carries the main road, now the A4, over the railway. The line then passes through a series of cuttings and embankments and two more tunnels, 141m and 298m long respectively, which were later opened out.
On the way to Bath, the line is carried through the 241m long Twerton Tunnel (ST719651 to ST717652), constructed in 1840 and Grade II* listed. The tracks then pass over the 28 arches of Twerton Viaduct and the 73 arches of Grade II* listed St James’ Viaduct.
Immediately west of Bath Station, the railway crosses the River Avon on a Grade II listed skew bridge (ST751643) consisting of two 27.1m spans. Brunel intended the bridge to be of cast iron but contractual difficulties led him to use a timber superstructure with wrought iron ties. This is the only laminated construction among his many timber bridges. Each arch consisted of six ribs at 1.5m centres, composed of five layers each 152mm thick. In 1878-9, the bridge was substantially rebuilt in iron, though its central stone pier and abutments were retained. It was strengthened with a steel superstructure in the 1960s.
Two more stretches of line at the eastern end of the railway were next to be opened. Faringdon Road to Hay Lane (Wroughton, between Swindon and Wootton Basset) on 17th December 1840 and from Hay Lane to Chippenham on 31st May 1841.
West of Hay Lane (SU092820) the first important gradient — 1 in 100 over 2km — led into a series of cuttings and embankments. Four of the cuttings are 12.2m to 15.2m deep. Three of the embankments are 9.1m to 12.2m high, and though Brunel tried to control slippage with rows of piles chained together, the problem persisted for many years.
The final piece of the original line was Chippenham to Bath, which opened on 30th June 1841. The 21km section was the most difficult of the entire project, with the track usually less than 3m from the original ground level. The principal works, in a westward sequence, are as follows. Most were completed in 1840.
West of Chippenham station the line is carried on Grade II* listed Chippenham Viaduct (ST919736 to ST904711) and onto 3.2km of high embankment. At Corsham the line is in a deep rock cutting through, 4.8km long. A stone arch overbridge (ST873697), much repaired in brick, carries the B3353 across the cutting.
Box Tunnel (ST857694 to ST829689), built 1836-41, is the largest engineering structure on line and the last to be completed. At the time, it was the longest railway tunnel in existence at almost 2.9km long. Its west portal is Grade II* listed and its east portal Grade II listed.
After Box Tunnel the line runs through Grade II* listed Middlehill Tunnel (ST819687 to ST821687) and Ashley Cutting (ST818686 to ST807682). At Bathford it crosses the Avon on a single span masonry arch (ST785670). South of Sydney Gardens, Bath, the railway passes through two short tunnels, of 70.4m (ST757650) and 90.5m (ST757649) in length.
The eastern approach to Grade II* listed Bath Spa Station (ST752643) is carried on the 37 span Dolemeads Viaduct, leading to Grade II listed St James’ Bridge (ST754644). The single span bridge is a 26.8m semi-elliptical masonry skew arch over the river, repaired extensively in 1926-7.
Brunel’s line cost £6.5m, rather more than its initial estimate of £2.8m, or the original company share issue of £2.5m. The journey time between London and Bristol was just four hours. On 13th June 1842, Queen Victoria became the first British monarch to take a railway journey, travelling from Slough to Paddington.
The Great Western Railway soon began leasing or operating other companies' lines, both broad and standard gauge. During 1843-6, it amalgamated with or purchased four railway companies — Cheltenham & Great Western Union, Oxford & Rugby, Berkshire & Hampshire and Monmouth & Hereford. On 12th June 1844, a branch line opened between Didcot Junction and Oxford. The railway’s broad gauge network reached Exeter and Gloucester in 1844, Hungerford in 1847, Basingstoke in 1848 and Plymouth in 1849.
However, the meeting of broad and standard gauge lines caused problems. Passengers, luggage and freight had to be unloaded from broad gauge rolling stock and reloaded into standard gauge rolling stock, and vice versa. A compromise was developed: three rails instead of two were laid, enabling trains of different gauges to use the same route.
In 1845, a royal commission was set up to investigate and advise a course of action concerning the gauges. At the time, broad gauge tracks covered some 440km while standard gauge tracks totalled more than 3,050km. The debate over their relative merits became known as the ‘battle of the gauges’.
Gooch wrote in his diary, “Were the whole question now open to be decided, the broad gauge is safer, cheaper, more comfortable, and attains a much higher speed than the narrow, and would be best for the national gauge. But as the proportion of broad to narrow is small, there is no doubt the country must submit to a gradual displacement of the broad, and the day will come when it will cease.”
He also noted that the competition between gauges had introduced “high speeds and great improvements to engines, and was of great practical use to all those who were actively mixed in the contest, as they were forced to think and experiment.”
On 16th December 1845, Gooch instigated locomotive trials, running trains of equal weight on journeys of equal distance over each gauge. The results confirmed broad gauge’s superiority in speed and passenger safety, but highlighted the disadvantage of changing to trains of a different gauge mid-journey. However, the existence of much more standard than broad gauge tracks swayed the argument, and the former became the nation's standard. On 18th August 1846, the Gauge Regulation Act was passed.
In 1848, Parliamentary approval was granted for construction of the Slough to Windsor branch of the GWR, opened on 8th October 1849. It had been omitted from the 1835 enabling Act as a result of objections from Eton College and others. Brunel designed a wrought iron bowstring arch bridge (SU961773) to take the line over the River Thames at Windsor. The bridge had a skew span of 61.6m carried by three bays of bowstring trusses supported on 1.8m diameter cast iron piles filled with concrete. In 1861-5, brick arches replaced the original timber approach viaducts. In 1908, the bridge’s iron piles were replaced by brick abutments, reducing the span to 56.2m, and the transverse girders and rail bearers were rebuilt in steel.
In 1850-4, the railway acquired the lines of the Wiltshire, Somerset & Weymouth, Shrewsbury & Birmingham and Shrewsbury & Chester companies. In 1852, mixed gauge lines were extended to stations at Birmingham Snow Hill and Wolverhampton Low Level (the most northerly broad gauge station). In 1854, standard gauge tracks reached Birkenhead. The railway opened to Hereford in 1855, Salisbury and Yeovil in 1856, Weymouth in 1857 and Malvern in 1859.
Frome Station (ST783476), completed 1850, is notable for its 36.6m long hipped roof, spanning 14.6m. The 12 composite trusses, set on square columns, are of timber as are the purlins carrying the corrugated iron roof with clerestory window along the ridge.
In 1854, the original Paddington Station was replaced with the present Grade I listed train shed. Both structures were designed by Brunel. The new station, a magnificent building of cast and wrought iron and glass, is thought to have been influenced by the design of Crystal Palace.
Completed in 1859, Brunel’s Grade I listed Royal Albert Bridge over the River Tamar at Saltash was built for Cornwall Railway during its lease by the GWR. Its two main spans, each 138.7m, are carried by bowstring trusses of wrought iron plate. The top members of the trusses are tubular parabolic arches. The bridge’s 17 approach spans vary from 21m to 28.3m wide.
During the 1860s, the GWR amalgamated with or purchased seven more railways — Birkenhead, South Wales, West Midland, Vale of Neath, Wycombe, Bristol & South Wales Union and Tenbury & Bewdley. By August 1861, mixed gauge tracks were laid to Paddington. In 1862, branch lines opened to the Severn Valley, Devizes and Kington. The railway reached Pembroke in 1863-4 and Penzance in 1866-7.
In 1864, Gooch resigned as Superintendent of Locomotive Engines and his deputy Joseph Armstrong (1816-77) was appointed in his place. In 1865, Gooch was made Chairman of the GWR. By this time, its portfolio included approximately 955km of broad gauge, 653km of standard gauge and 309km of mixed gauge track, covering the south west, Wales and Midlands.
But broad gauge was in decline. In 1869, the railway converted its lines from Grange Court to Hereford and Oxford to Wolverhampton to standard gauge. Between 1868 and 1875, about 885km of broad gauge and 370km of mixed gauge were converted to standard gauge. The last broad gauge train ran in South Wales on 11th May 1872.
Between 1870 and 1887, the GWR merged with another 12 companies —— Stourbridge, Great Western & Brentford, Wallingford & Watlington, Wrexham & Minera, Llanelly, Llynvi & Ogmore, Gloucester & Dean Forest, East Somerset, Bristol & Exeter, South Devon, West Cornwall and Wellington & Drayton. In 1876, mixed gauge tracks were laid to Exeter and standard gauge to Plymouth.
In 1877, William Dean (1840-1905) became superintendent after Armstrong’s death, retiring in 1902. When he was appointed, the network’s move towards standard gauge was well underway and its configuration had changed to approximately 2,470km of standard gauge and 440km each of broad and mixed gauge.
Great Western Railway locomotives depended on coal for their motive power and were reliant on coal merchants and suppliers, who demanded a premium for their goods. In May 1878, the company commenced mining operations in Blaenavon, Wales, to source its own coal at a reasonable price.
In the 1880s, the company amalgamated with or purchased 13 more railways — Monmouthshire, Culm Valley Light, Malmesbury, Carmarthen & Cardigan, Berkshire & Hampshire Extension, Torbay & Brixham, Festiniog & Blaenau, Watlington & Princes Risborough, Stratford-upon-Avon, Whitland & Cardigan, Worcester, Bromyard & Leominster and Cornwall. In 1884, the Weston-super-Mare loop opened.
By August 1885, and the first 50 years of the GWR, the company owned more than 3,700km of track, 1,600 locomotives and 48,000 vehicles of rolling stock. Its share capital had increased from £2.5m to £90m.
In 1886, the Severn Tunnel was finally completed after 13 years. It carries the railway from England to Wales and reduced travelling times between Cardiff and London by one hour. The 7km long Grade II* listed tunnel runs under the Severn Estuary where it is 3.6km wide and the tidal range 15.2m. Its construction was beset with water ingress problems and pumping is still required to keep it dry. Until 2007, it was Britain’s longest mainline rail tunnel.
On 27th May 1887, the Bodmin branch line opened. In 1887-8, three Cornish viaducts were constructed to carry the railway, all now Grade II listed. The seven-span Kenwyn to Penwethers viaduct (SW800440) near Truro replaced an earlier viaduct. The other structures are at Redruth Railway (SW698418) and Hayle to Angarrack (SW584380).
Between 1876 and 1890, 185km of the Great Western Railway were converted to standard gauge. In 1891 and 1892, the remaining 700km of broad gauge were changed to standard gauge. On 18th May 1892, broad gauge goods traffic ceased west of Exeter. At 10.15am on 20th May, the last broad gauge train left Paddington. On 21st and 22nd May, the final 274km of broad gauge track were altered to standard gauge.
By 21st May, all broad gauge locomotives, carriages and wagons had been moved to the east of Exeter bound for the engineering works at Swindon, where many of them were rebuilt to standard gauge. The total cost of re-laying the tracks and converting or scrapping the rolling stock was nearly £1m.
Many more acquisitions and mergers filled the following years, until the GWR was nationalised on 1st January 1948. From 2015, its name lives on in the modern Great Western Railway, an amalgamation of companies serving southern England and Wales that began with Great Western Trains in 1996, after the privatisation of British Rail.
Resident engineers: Thomas Hardy Bertram, Robert Pearson Brereton, George Thomas Clark, George Edward Frere, William Glennie, John Wallis Hammond, T.E. March, John G. Thomson (Bath Box?)
Contractors: Grissell & Peto, David McIntosh, William Ranger, William Chadwick, E. Oldham & Son
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Great Western Railway: A History" by Andrew Roden, Aurum Press, 2011
www.bristolport.co.uk
www.brunel200.com
www.gracesguide.co.uk
www.greatwestern.org.uk
www.gwr.com
www.historicengland.org.uk
www.ice.org
www.ikbrunel.org.uk
www.networkrail.co.uk
reference sources   CEH LondCEH SouthCEH W&WBDCE1BDCE2DNB
Location

Great Western Railway, broad gauge era: 1835-1892