Broad Gauge Trilogy

1. Early difficulties

From the University site at Hillingdon it is little over a mile to West Drayton station where, on 9 January 1838, the first broad gauge locomotive took to the rails; and our new administration building overlooks the capacious cutting through which broad gauge trains once trundled along the branch line to Vine Street station in Uxbridge. The story of the "seven foot" railway may therefore be of special interest to readers of the Brunel Bulletin. It was in 1832 that a meeting of Bristol citizens resolved to sponsor a railway to London and on 7 March 1833 Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed engineer to the line at the age of 26. The only restriction placed on him in laying out a route was that the line should touch Bath and Reading; curiously, there was little concern about the siting of the London terminus.

With his usual energy Brunel began surveying and the route he chose via Swindon and Didcot could not have been bettered. On 19 August 1833 the Bristol and London committees of the company met for the first time and adopted the name "Great Western Railway". A Bill was introduced in March 1834 "to construct a railway from London to Reading, and from Bath to Bristol, as a means of facilitating the ultimate establishment for a railway between London and Bristol". The gauge was mentioned as being 4 feet 8 inches, the size which had already been used by George Stephenson for several lines, but the Bill was thrown out by the Lords.

It was re introduced in 1835 with the line ending in a junction with the London and Birmingham railway at Kensal Green, the intention being that Euston would be a joint terminus. Parliament passed this Bill without noticing that there was no mention of the gauge and Brunel was free to adopt the figure of 7 feet for which he saw several advantages. He forecast greater comfort, reliability and safety than for the standard gauge and speeds up to 100 mph. A disagreement with the London and Birmingham over the leasing of land and the complication of running the broad gauge into Euston led to a supplementary Act in 1836 which placed the London terminus in a field at Paddington.

Brunel aimed to complete the London to Maidenhead section by the end of 1837, although this proved too optimistic. The major obstacles were the Thames at Maidenhead and the broad valley of the Brent at Hanwell. The comparatively easy stretch between West Drayton and Taplow was finished first and was used for experimental trains in the early months of 1838. On 31 May the directors of the company made the first trip from London to Maidenhead and on 4 June a public service was inaugurated.

Unfortunately Brunel's civil engineering achievements were not matched by those of the locomotive manufacturers. He had placed orders with various companies without giving adequate specifications and most of the resulting engines were unequal to the tasks required of them. Two of the more successful were those designed by a young engineer, Daniel Gooch, employed by Robert Stephenson in his Newcastle works. Gooch wrote in his diary:

I made some drawings for locomotive engines for Russia. The Russian railway was a six feet gauge, and I was much delighted in having so much room to arrange the engine. For some financial reasons, all the engines we made were not sent out and two of them were made with seven feet gauge for the Great Western Railway.

On 18 July 1837 Gooch, not yet 21 years old, wrote to Brunel, beginning his letter as follows:

Dear Sir, I have just been informed it is your intention to erect an Engine Manufactory at or near Bristol and that you wish to engage a person as Manager. I take the earliest opportunity of offering my services for the situation ......

Within a month Gooch was appointed by Brunel and "went to live at West Drayton, as being a central place between London and Maidenhead". He had a difficult task during the early months of the new service. The locomotives frequently broke down and (he wrote):

for many weeks my nights were spent in a carriage in the engine house at Paddington, as repairs had to be done to the engines at night to get them to do their work next day.

Not only were the trains slow and unreliable but they proved extremely uncomfortable with much jolting and jerking. None of the advantages claimed by Brunel for the broad gauge were being realised and his opponents were quick to publicise the shortcomings.

Brunel himself suggested that the opinions of other engineers should be sought and he was unlucky enough to be saddled with a Dr Dionysius Lardner who displayed a remarkable talent for drawing incorrect conclusions from observed data. Lardner attributed the poor performance of the company's best engine to the excessive air resistance of the wide locomotives and concluded that the broad gauge was inherently inferior. However, Brunel and Gooch found that it was back pressure due to misalignment of the blast pipe orifice and not air resistance which was the cause. After some hasty modifications to the engine they were able to haul nearly three times the load on but one third of the fuel used in Lardner's tests.

At about the same time Charles Babbage, the mathematician, made some experiments at the request of the Directors who lent him an engine and carriage for the purpose. He records:

I removed the whole of the internal parts of the carriage. Through its bottom firm supports, fixed upon the framework below, passed up into the body of the carriage, and supported a long table entirely independent of its motions. On this table slowly rolled sheets of paper, each a thousand feet long. Several inking pens traced curves on this paper, which expressed the following measures: 1, force of traction. 2, vertical shake of carriage at its middle. 3, lateral ditto. 4, end ditto. 5, 6 and 7, the same shakes at the end of the carriage. 8, the curve described upon the earth by the centre of the frame of the carriage. 9, a chronometer marked half seconds on the paper. The result of my experiments convinced me that the broad gauge was most convenient and safest.

Critical meetings were held at the end of 1838. Shareholders lost confidence and many wanted to convert the existing 23 miles of line to the narrow gauge. Brunel himself was prepared to resign but his calmness and sincerity together with the efforts of Gooch, the support of Babbage and the confidence of a few leading directors enabled the broad gauge cause to survive the crisis. At a meeting on 9 January 1839 the Board expressed its confidence in the broad gauge and in the Company's engineer.

Syd Urry

About Syd Urry
Broad Gauge Trilogy Part Two - Westward Advance
Broad Gauge Trilogy Part Three - A Losing Battle

Page last updated: Friday 01 October 2010