Great Western Railway

by tirial

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Great Western Railway was designed to be one of the fastest of its time. it was joked that GWR stood for God's Wonderful Railway.

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Great Western Railway was designed to be one of the fastest of its time.

The railway was built on a wide gauge of 7 feet known as "broad gauge", designed to increase speed and passenger comfort, and it was joked that GWR stood for God's Wonderful Railway. The GWR was behind a range of engineering feats from Paddington station, to the Severn tunnel and the Royal Albert Bridge.

Its eventual end came when it was absorbed by the amalgam that was British Rail, but for a time the Great Western Railway stood for speed, luxury and efficient travel.

1833 - Founding the GWR

The Great Western Act of Parliament.

At the time, railway companies required an Act of Parliment to be founded. The Great Western Railway Act went through Parliment repeatedly, and was defeated in 1834. It finally passed in 1836 which effectively founded the Great Western Railway. However work had already begun years earlier on finding funds and the chief engineer had already been identified - Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Unusually the Act failed to specify the gauge (distance apart) of the rails, probably because most of the country was using Stephenson's narrow gauge which had 4 feet 8 inches between the rails. Brunel however took advantage of the Act's omission.

He had his own ideas that a broader gauge would provide faster, smoother, travel. Wider, lower rolling stock should, he reasoned, reduce air resistance and as he foresaw mass transit, speed was essential. With his reputation (he was already responsible for the Thames Tunnel, and the design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge) he was able to convince the GWR board to go along with it.

The new gauge, with seven feet between the rails, was quickly and logically dubbed Broad Gauge.

1836 - The Early days

The early years of the Great Western Railway

The first part of the line (Paddington to Maidenhead) was completed in 1838. However the company was at the time running an odd assortment of rolling stock.

Broad gauge, and other specifications demanded by Brunel, meant that no existing engines could run on the track, so new trains had to be designed and built. Eventually these designs standardised - two of the most famous became known as the Firefly and Iron Duke classes of locomotives.

One of the characteristics of Broad Gauge engines were the huge driving wheels. This was an early form of gearing designed to allow the trains to achieve higher speeds.

The other standardisation was the livery: the famous green of the engines and brown and cream of the carriages rapidly became known nation-wide.

Great Western Railway Corridor Carriage
Great Western Railway Express Loco No 190 Waverley
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Rolling Stock

The locomotives of the Great Western

Possibly the most famous livery in British railway history, the GWR engines were a standard green with brass fittings, while the carriages were brown and cream.

Ironically, given that Brunel designed the broad gauge, it was not his engine designs that were championed.

"North Star", an early locomotive purchased from a US company proved inadequate for the demands of broad gauge. While Brunel was working to improve the efficiency and performance of the "North Star", Daniel Gooch, the chief locomotive engineer working with him designed what would become the Firefly class.

Gooch's sucessors, Joseph Armstrong in 1864 and then William Dean in 1877, would continue to build on his work, designing some of the most classic locomotives of all time.

Other images from

1836-1862 The triumphs of the Great Western Railway

Going from strength to strength

With a chief engineer like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it was easy to see the railway was destined for great things - even if like Broad gauge some were rather ahead of their time.

The terminus at Paddingon Station is one such example. Designed and built by Brunel, and shown to the left shortly after opening in 1836, much of the station today dates from his existing design in 1854.

The Royal Albert Bridge, opened in 1859 linking Cornwall for the first time with the rest of the UK. It was built with Broad Gauge and apparently Cornish farmers liked the smooth efficient transit of goods this gave, allowing fresh produce to be transported to locations across the country.

Then there were the tunnels. The Box tunnel was the longest underground railway tunnel of its type and opened in 1841. The even longer Severn tunnel, linking the railway to Wales was designed in 1873 and opened in 1876.

Wherever it went during this period, the Great Western was setting engineering firsts. More importantly, in the public eye, it was doing it all with speed, grace and sheer style.

1845-1889 The Gauge Wars

Dual Gauge and Gauge Breaks

The Broad Gauge was a controversial choice, requiring as it did entirely new rolling stock. It also meant that where the railway met another line which was narrow gauge, passengers had to change trains to contine their journey. This was called a gauge break.

However it had advantages. In 1845 a Firefly class Broad gauge locomotive was tested against two new standard gauge engines. Pulling the same load over the same distance, the Firefly was faster and used less fuel despite being significantly older. The demonstration brought the Broad Gauge time.

Despite this success, Parliament passed the Gauge Act in 1846, stating that all new railways had to be narrow gauge. The Great Western effectively ignored them, laying the South Devon Railway (1849) and Cornwall Railway (1859) and more.

With GWR already owning most of the Broad Gauge rail in the country, it was ironically a business consideration by their management that sowed the seeds for Broad gauge's eventual end. Permission for a new line was received which would overlap with another railway's routes. To avoid a gauge break, the new line was laid as Dual Gauge.

Dual gauge was a system of three rails, one on one side, but two on the other, allowing the track to take both narrow and broad gauge trains. While technically the best of both worlds, this made points and junctions complex and expensive to maintain.

At the same time, GWR bought a number of smaller narrow gauge railways. By 1861 they had a mix of all three types of rail and rolling stock. The system needed to be standardised.

Perhaps most importantly for the future of the broad gauge, Brunel had died in 1859. He was no longer around to champion his creation. However it would be decades before his influence would fade enough for the last broad gauge to be removed. Daniel Gould, his successer and former chief locomotive designer was also a defender of broad gauge.

A Fuller History

The years of the gauge wars are too detailed to cover here. For a fuller view, this article covers them in depth:

A History of the Great Western Railway

1892 - The end of Broad Gauge

National Standardisation of Gauge across Britain

In 1891 Sir Daniel Gooch died, leaving neither of the founding engineers of broad gauge to champion their creation.

After some debate the decision was taken to convert the whole of the Great Western Railway to narrow gauge, now called standard gauge. Despite the advantages standardisation would bring, it ran into opposition, not purely from Brunel's supporters within the GWR itself.

The broad gauge Cornwall Railway ran over the Royal Albert Bridge (also built by Brunel) and was the rail link that had brought Cornwall access to the national rail network. As a result, in Cornwall the fast direct routes afforded by Broad Gauge had many supporters among the general public.

Nonetheless the change over was inevitable, and in 1892 the last broad gauge service ran. For some time afterwards the scrappers' yards were filled with the GWR broad gauge engines, which could not be adapted to standard gauge.

1947 - The end of GWR

The history of the Great Western

The Great Western Railway was finally ended in 1947 when the railways were nationalised under Clement Atlee's Labour government and became part of British Rail.

At the time it was lamented as the end of an era.

The story continued afterwards, as the railway was gone, but not forgotten. In 1999 parts of the line were added to Unesco's World Heritage sites list. More importantly, despite the almost total destruction of the rolling stock, there is one place in the world that you can still see Broad gauge steam railway.

Didcot demonstration day

All three gauges in action

The Didcot railway has all three types of track and its stock includes Firefly, an engine designed as a replica of one of Brunel's broad gauge engines.

At its demonstration day all three lines, broad gauge, narrow gauge and branch, were in operation. If you look at the rail at 2:44 you can see what Dual gauge tracks look like. The inner rail is the narrow gauge while the third rail on the outside is for the wide gauge. 3:30 and 4:13 give you a look at the huge wheels that distinguished broad gauge engines. At 7:48, the large old fashioned railway turntable to turn the engines is something else to watch for.

A famous GWR engine in fiction

Duck, the Great Western Engine

Duck, from the Thomas the Tank engine books, is a GWR locomotive painted in the traditional green livery.

Designed as a pannier tank engine, Duck has the distinctive elevated side tanks of that type which give him his blocky appearance. Based on the GWR 5700 class, one of the most common types of steam engine, he was a narrow gauge engine possibly based off the ones Rev. W. Awdry saw as a child.

Thomas and Friends Wooden Railway - Duck The Gwr Pannier Tank Engine Learning Curve

Thomas and Friends railroad cars for use with the Thomas Wooden Railway System!

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Have an opinion on the lens? Anything you want to add, memories of the GWR, links, or just a comment, please leave it here.

When this article was on squidoo, it was Lens of the Day on Squidoo for five days running:

And thank you to everyone very much for all their kind comments while this lens was Lens of the Day! It's also given me a chance to look at some of your fascinating lenses.

Lens of the Day 15th-20th May 2009

Updated: 01/27/2015, tirial
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katiem2 on 02/03/2015

Trains are an amazing part of this countries history and a really cool thing to learn more about and experience. I'm thrilled trains are still around.

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