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The End of the Great Western Railway's Broad Gauge

Brunel’s vision for speed and stability comes to an end. . . . . . .

A platelayer’s nightmare! Mixed gauge track (broad and standard gauges) on the GWR at Swindon circa 1880. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

130 years ago in 1892, the Great Western Railway (GWR) finally dispensed with its broad gauge (7ft 0¼ inch) track. For 57 years, the company had been running broad gauge trains, although for 31 years they had been using an increasing amount of mixed broad (7ft 0¼ inch) and standard gauge (4ft 8½ inch) track. The standard gauge was confusingly referred to by some as “narrow gauge”.

When the Great Western Railway Bill received Royal Assent in 1835, the GWR directors had accepted with a large majority Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s recommendation to adopt the broad gauge recommended by Brunel, “to admit of rails being laid to the extreme width proposed by Mr Brunel, viz 7 feet”. Brunel and the GWR had overcome a mass of objections to build their railway between London and Bristol. Objectors and their representatives threw the book at the project. Apart from the vigorous campaign waged by Eton College, landowners were worried about encroachment onto their estates; some complained about cuttings creating dangerous precipices; engines derailing; carriages not being able to run round curves; passengers being made deaf by the noise and/or asphyxiated; farmers’ cattle being driven mad and rendered worthless; and that the River Thames would be drained by the railway’s need for water and that water supplies for Windsor Castle would be threatened!

The locomotive “Bulkeley”, the motive power for the last broad gauge train to leave Paddington in 1892. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

GWR Chairman Frederick Saunders had looked ahead to the May 1892 removal of the broad gauge at the company’s half-yearly meeting three months earlier. He said that the work would not be difficult east of Exeter and “could be done at their leisure”, but the single lines west of Exeter would cause some problems as they were due to be converted to double “narrow” gauge. Three quarters of the passenger rolling stock was already built in a way which would allow it to be rapidly converted to “narrow” gauge but “750 carriages could not be converted in a day”.

The last through broad gauge train to Penzance, “The Cornishman”, left Paddington station at 10.15 a.m. on 20th May 1892. Large crowds to see the train were on stations en route including Swindon, Bristol, Exeter, Newton Abbot and Plymouth. The last broad gauge train to leave Paddington was the 5.00 p.m. train to Plymouth hauled as far as Bristol by 4-2-2 locomotive “Bulkeley” which returned from Bristol to Paddington with the up Mail train. There was a last up special stopping train from Penzance at 10.00 p.m. which reached Exeter at 5 a.m. It was carrying Inspector Scantlebury who was distributing certificates and instructions to those along the route supervising the work of removing the broad gauge rolling stock and track over the weekend. Thus, the final abolition of the broad gauge took place in the West of England on Saturday and Sunday 21st and 22nd May. Observers of the gauge conversion taking place at Teignmouth station reported that when the last broad gauge trains from Paddington to Plymouth and from Plymouth to Paddington drew up alongside each other, passengers realised the significance of the day. They opened their carriage windows, stood up and joined hands with passengers in the opposite train to sing “Auld Lang Syne” lustily.

GWR broad gauge train and track at Dawlish, Devon, shortly before conversion. Photo: Great Western Trust.

At this time mixed gauge track was already available between Paddington and Exeter, in the Plymouth area, between Truro and Penzance and on certain branch lines. There were also a few new branches which had been built as standard gauge. The route mileage which had to be converted over a weekend was 171 of which 42 miles was double track. The 4,200 platelayers, labourers and others who had been drafted in to do the work stayed in waiting rooms, goods sheds and tents over the weekend. They were sustained with a thin porridge mixture of oatmeal, water and sugar which was cooked up at various points along the route. No alcohol was provided or even allowed. After this gruelling weekend, each of the platelayers involved was presented with a two-ounce pouch of tobacco by GWR director William Henry Wills (1st Baron Winterstoke) whose company W D & H O Wills was well known for its “Wild Woodbine” cigarettes (“Woodies”) and “Westward Ho” tobacco (“There’s no herb like it under the canopy of Heaven”, according to the florid advertising!)

At the end of the broad gauge era there were 111 GWR locomotives and 21 South Devon Railway locomotives which were capable of conversion to standard gauge. The GWR had 426 broad gauge coaches which were capable of being converted, and 129 which were not. The cost of the change to standard gauge was in the region of £800,000 (around £108,000,000 at 2021 values).

When in August 1891, Chairman Frederick Saunders had announced that all remains of the broad gauge system would come to an end, “The Times” newspaper commented that, “in the abstract the broad gauge was a magnificent conception worthy of the brilliant genius and uncompromising originality of Brunel; but, practically and commercially it was a failure as has long been acknowledged.”

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961.

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Oct 27, 2023

Do you have any pre-1948 colour pictures of the GWR?

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