Broad Gauge Trilogy

3. A Losing Battle

Broad gauge history is not a simple story of rise and fall. For example, the branch line from St Erth to St Ives was completed in broad gauge as late as 1877, a quarter of a century after the first broad to narrow conversions had taken place. There were instances of broad gauge tracks being laid and never used or surviving only a few years before the narrow gauge intruded.

The first attempt to resolve the gauge question came in 1845 when Richard Cobden moved in the House of Commons that a Gauge Commission should be appointed. This was carried unopposed and the commissioners appointed were Sir Frederic Smith, George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, and Professor Peter Barlow. Gooch, then 29 years old, was given the responsibility of presenting the Great Western case. He wrote in his diary:

When it is considered that the fight was to be between one railway company on the broad gauge and the host of narrow gauge companies, it would have been well to put some more practical men on the Commission. For one witness we could call, the narrow gauge interests could call a dozen.

Mr Brunel and Mr Saunders, Secretary and General Manager of the GWR, went abroad, and the question before the commissioners was left to me alone, a responsibility I did not much like; but it was to be, so I undertook the task. Mr R Stephenson was the first witness called; he was followed by Mr Locke and a host of others. The general principles laid down by them against the broad gauge were: first, that the engines were too large and heavy, and the large wheels used were not necessary, as the small wheels and engines of the narrow gauge companies were able to run at as high speeds as it was safe for the public to work the trains; second, that the broad gauge carriages were too large - the public did not like to sit four abreast; third, that the cost of working was greater. I may also say the question of the disadvantage of break of gauge was dwelt upon.

Gooch's evidence was admirably clear and supported by technical data which included steam pressure indicator diagrams he himself had taken while sitting on the buffer beam of a locomotive travelling at 6o miles an hour! He was able to show that the Great Western had engines capable of tractive efforts greater than twice that of any other companies. He also provided operational figures which confirmed that in speed and weight of trains the Great Western was ahead of all its rivals.

The commissioners ordered experiments on both gauges with trains of various weights. They also visited Gloucester, a notorious break of gauge point, but years later it was revealed that some of the chaos they saw there had been especially contrived for their visit. In their report they referred to the experiments 'as confirmatory of the statement and results given by Mr Gooch in his evidence proving as they do that the broad gauge engines possess greater capabilities for speed with equal loads and, generally speaking of propelling greater loads with equal speed'. Nevertheless they recommended that the broad gauge be eliminated forthwith.

The report was so watered down by Parliament that the existing broad gauge lines were left and many new ones built in the next decade. In 1854 the Great Western obtained a route to Chester by an arrangement with two existing narrow gauge companies but one condition of the agreement was that no broad gauge lines would be laid north of Wolverhampton. So for the first time the company had a break of gauge within its own system. To serve the new line (which was extended to Birkenhead in 1860 by a further amalgamation) narrow gauge locomotive and carriage works were developed at Wolverhampton. Through passengers and goods had to change there and to obviate this break a third rail was laid southwards so that trains of both gauges could run on the same routes. By 1856 this mixed gauge reached Reading and in 1861 it invaded Paddington itself.

The broad gauge branch from West Drayton to Uxbridge through the site of the University was opened on 8 September 1856 and the Southall to Brentford line was completed shortly before Brunel's death in 1859. Thereafter Great Western fortunes declined and confidence in the company waned still further when Gooch left in 1864 to lay the first Atlantic cable in Brunel's ship the Great Eastern. He completed this project in 1866, was knighted and elected Member of Parliament for Cricklade. This revived his interest in Swindon and he was persuaded to rejoin the Great Western as chairman of the company.

Despite his affection for the broad gauge he saw clearly that for commercial reasons its eventual removal was inevitable. In a report to shareholders in 1866 he said:

There is no doubt it has become necessary for us to look the matter of the narrow gauge fairly in the face. We have had within the past few days a memorial signed by nearly every firm of any standing in South Wales wishing that the narrow gauge might be carried out in their district, It is also pressing upon us in many other districts.

Financial difficulties prevented any large scale conversion for several years but after 1868 when the broad gauge had reached its greatest extent a number of short stretches were dealt with, including the Uxbridge branch in 1871. The first major conversion took place in South Wales in 1872 when 424 track miles were converted in 28 days. By adopting single line working it was possible to maintain a service throughout the period and on Saturday 11 May the last broad gauge train passed over the line headed by an engine named, appropriately, Brunel.

In 1874 a further 247 track miles were converted in 17 days, consisting mainly of branch lines in Berks, Wilts, Somerset and Dorset. Broad gauge was then confined almost entirely to Devon and Cornwall but mixed gauge was retained between Paddington and Exeter so that through trains could be run from London to Penzance. These were frequently drawn by Gooch's magnificent express locomotives with their eight foot driving wheels and their performance is described in the following account written in 1884.

The fastest trains on the Great Western are naturally the broad gauge ones to the West Country; and those leaving Paddington at 11.45 am and 3.00 pm with the two corresponding up trains are the quickest in the world, allowance being made for time stopped at stations on the road. At some of the stations they pass these trains are literally timed to the second in the running time books.

As late as 1890 a new broad gauge express, the 'Cornishman' was introduced with a total time between Paddington and Penzance (via Bristol) of 8 hours 42 minutes for the 325 miles. Today's best trains take 6 hours but the present route avoiding Bristol is some 20 miles shorter.

Sir Daniel Gooch remained as Chairman until his death in October 1889. It was more than 52 years since he had first been associated with the broad gauge and he was spared the sad task of issuing the orders for its complete elimination. The final conversion was undertaken in 1892 and consisted of the main line between Exeter and Truro together with several branches, a total of 171 miles. It presented special problems for much of it was single track and the rails were laid not on cross sleepers as today, but on longitudinal timber baulks with cross transoms maintaining the gauge, a system which Brunel considered superior. A further difficulty was the lack of any alternative route beyond Plymouth and it was decided to make the changeover in a single week end. The following contemporary account describes the operation:

Notice appeared that the conversion would be effected on Saturday 21 May and Sunday 22 May. The usual service of trains would run (broad gauge) on Friday and the same (narrow gauge) on Monday. That it should be possible to effect so great a change in such a limited space of time was alone due to the perfectness of the organization and the pains bestowed upon every detail beforehand. Every bolt and screw throughout the system was taken off beforehand, oiled, and temporarily replaced; the transoms were measured and the place marked where they were to be sawn through; the ballast was dug out, and in special places a third rail put in at crossings, points, tunnels and gradients.

On Thursday, 19 May, several thousand men began to arrive from different parts of the system and brought with them tents, straw, food and tools. Their white tents were pitched at intervals by the railside and stood out conspicuously, sometimes against the blue sea and red cliffs near Dawlish, sometimes against the fresh May green of the Devonshire woodlands.

Some of them had never seen the sea before; one man, indeed, was overheard to express some indistinct ideas about the time of the tides being controlled from the general manager's office at Paddington, and was told instead that the times were fixed by the Admiralty!

Friday was the final day of the full size gauge and crowds of people assembled at various points along the line to witness the passing of the last broad gauge train. The countenances of the drivers were serious and at stopping stations farewell salutations were regretfully exchanged.

Orders were issued from Swindon that not a vehicle was to be left behind and in consequence a continual stream of trains poured through all night on their eastward journey. Fish trucks at St Ives or cattle trucks from the moorland branches were sandwiched between long series of ghostly empty trains of passenger vehicles. Occasionally through the summer night a train of sick engines from the depots at Newton Abbot or Plymouth, some of which had not been exposed to daylight for many years, ran through. Ancient patterns of vehicles were brought to light in which the history of many past transitions were as legibly written as the information perhaps conveyed to a geologist by the discovery of a particular type of fossil.

The last of the leviathans reached Exeter early on Saturday morning and as it stopped at each place on its journey a printed notice was left with the station master. "This is the last broad gauge train to travel over the line between Penzance and Exeter." The station master in turn then filled in a printed certificate handing over his portion of the line to the Engineering Department. Thus by night were the deathwarrants of Brunel's masterpiece signed.

Throughout Saturday and Sunday the work proceeded swiftly and by Monday morning the task was complete. The first narrow gauge 'Cornishman' left Penzance at its usual time and arrived four minutes early at Paddington!

The broad gauge had set the highest standards of speed, comfort and safety in nineteenth century travel. The great stability of its trains was demonstrated in several accidents, including one in 1847 when an engine lost a wheel tyre at high speed near Southall yet crossed Wharncliffe viaduct and continued to Paddington safely!

The broad gauge had been born a few years too late for its advantages to prove decisive and its fate was decided by commercial rather than technical considerations. Throughout its history it was condemned and criticised by the narrow gauge protagonists, chief among them George Stephenson. It is therefore revealing to end this story with his private opinion as given at a dinner party to Professor Babbage who recorded it thus:

The second glass of champagne now interrupted a conversation which was, I hope, equally agreeable to both, and was certainly very instructive for me. I felt that the fairest opportunity I could desire of ascertaining my friend's real opinion of the gauge had now arrived. Availing myself of the momentary pause after George Stephenson's glass was empty, I said

"Now, Mr Stephenson, will you allow me to ask you to suppose for an instance that no railways whatever existed, and yet that you were in full possession of all that large amount of knowledge which you have derived from your experience. Under such circumstances, if you were consulted respecting the gauge of a system of railways about to be inaugrated, would you advise 4 feet 8.5 inches?"

"Not exactly that gauge", replied the creator of railroads; "I would take a few inches more, but a very few". I was quite satisfied with this admission, though I confess it reminded me of the frail fair one who, when reproached by her immaculate friend with having had a child - an eccelesiastical licence not being first obtained - urged, as an extenuating cinrcumstance, that it was a very small one.'

Syd Urry

About Syd Urry
Broad Gauge Trilogy Part One - Early Difficulties
Broad Gauge Trilogy part Two - Westward Advance

Page last updated: Friday 01 October 2010