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The Great Western

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The Great Western will take you to Fishguard - the nearest railway port in Britain to New York - and so to Ireland by the shortest sea passage, unless you care to go as far northward as Stranraer; it will take you to Plymouth, where other ocean liners come, and to Weymouth and through to the Channel Islands. From Weymouth to Fishguard - with Bridport, Dawlish, Teignmouth, Torquay, Brixham, Kingswear, Kingsbridge, Fowey, Falmouth, the Lizard and Penzance on the Channel coast; St. Ives, Newquay, and Barnstaple on the Atlantic; Minehead, Watchet, Weston, Clevedon, Bristol, Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and Tenby, and the rest, on the Bristol Channel - it has more ports and seaside places on its list than any other line. Northwards, on what is roughly a triangle, with Didcot and Newport as its base and Chester as its apex, its branch lines cross and recross in profusion; and though its longest run from London is some 305 miles, yet so many are its branches and cross-routes that its mileage, to say nothing of its motor-car work, is more than nine times as great, being 900 miles more than that of any other English company, and an eighth of the total mileage of all the railways in this island.

What with its buffet cars, breakfast cars, luncheon cars, dinner cars and sleeper cars, a journey in its trains is almost as independent of distance as a voyage in a steamship. To show what it can do it has run a train from Paddington to Plymouth at an average rate of over 63 miles an hour, the average all the way down to Exeter being over 67, and in ordinary working it runs without a stop to Plymouth in a few minutes over four hours. We hear of ocean mails being handed over at Paddington four and a half hours after the steamer entered Plymouth Sound; of the King's garden-party with 4000 guests in eleven first-class trains to Windsor and back being managed on the same afternoon as the Windsor race traffic; and of the biggest annual excursion, that from Swindon, in which twenty-two trains carry 25,500 passengers, the largest, item in the hundred million passengers it carries in a year.

Its original directors wished it to be a line on the cheap; but the man who made it was in advance of his time, the very last to be influenced by the lowest tender. "Speed" was his motto, and everything else of the best regardless of expense. The road was wide, and the purse was deep, and the calls on the purse were frequent and great. Never was there a line that did more fighting in its infancy or woke up others more. But it woke them up to excel it, until after a long interval it adopted their methods and regained its position of second to none.

Many have sung the praises of the broad gauge and told of its smoothness of movement - which has long since been surpassed by the corridor cars on the same route; its speed, which is equalled over much longer distances with much heavier trains by its present engines, and many other things in its favour; yet there is another side to the story. In the old days the way to the west was the best of travelling for those in the first class, of which we hear so much; but in the third class, narrow cupboards with seven a side and little room for the knees, it was not so pleasant, particularly for the man in the middle, occupying, according to Brunei, the safest seat in the carriage, who would gladly have sacrificed some of the smoothness for more of the view. Good old broad gauge! Let us speak the best of it and say little of its faults, as is generally done; but really what The Great Western did with it they are doing better with the narrow, and they will do better yet, for there is no more progressive company.

Bristol The Great Western began with, and Bristol is its centre still. If any one doubts this let him draw a map of the system, with its many spurs and interlacements, from Manchester to Weymouth, from London to Fishguard and Penzance. He will wonder how such a maze, with its eighty terminal stations, has come about; and he may be surprised to find that it owes its origin to the difficulty of navigating the Upper Thames.

In the old canal days the barges carried the goods on the river between London and Reading, where they entered the string of canals which took them to Bath and on by the Avon to Bristol; and what with the few locks and the many shoals, the droughts and the floods, they were often three weeks, and sometimes six, on their journey. With their goods on the road as long as they are now between London and the Cape, and matters getting worse, it is not to be wondered at that the Bristol people began to think of having a railway at both ends, where the main trouble seemed to be; and in 1824 one was proposed from Bristol to Bath, and next year one from Reading to London, the idea being to trust to the barges over the rest of the route. That year, however, Francis Fortune came out with his General Junction Railroad from London to Bristol, and elsewhere, and there being two plans for the Bristol folks to think over they did nothing.

For seven years more the barges continued their leisurely and adventurous voyages on the Thames, and then a series of wrecks and delays - and the success of the Liverpool & Manchester - revived the railway project. The Bristol citizens resolved to have a line of their own which went all the way, "The Bristol & London Railway," so in 1832 they held a town's meeting and appointed a provisional committee, who early in the following year advertised for an engineer. One of the answers to that advertisement was from Isambard Kingdom Brunei, and he was the selected candidate.

Brunei was not unknown in Bristol. Born in 1806, the son of Sir Marc Brunei who made the Thames Tunnel and did many other notable things, he was well educated, and specially trained in England and France for civil engineering. He began work in his father's office when he was seventeen, and soon became resident engineer at the tunnel. When he was twenty-three he sent in plans in a competition for a suspension bridge over the Avon at Clifton, which were rejected at Telford's recommendation. Two years afterwards, in competition with Telford, he sent in other plans which were submitted to a referee, the then President of the Royal Society, Davies Gilbert, formerly Giddy - the friend of Trevithick - who was to prove as true a friend of Brunei. The design was accepted, and the work begun; but it was thirty years before it was finished.

In 1841 Brunei designed the Hungerford Bridge over the Thames on the same principle, which lasted until 1860, when it was removed to make way for the Charing Cross railway bridge; and then certain leading engineers, who "had an interest in the work as completing a monument to their late friend Brunei," bought the materials and with them, in 1864, completed the bridge that so gracefully spans the gorge of the Avon between Leigh Woods and Clifton Down.

In 1831 Brunei was busy planning and building docks at Monkwearmouth, Milford Haven, Bristol, and elsewhere, in fact he was becoming known as a dock engineer. Next year, however, he took to railway work, the branch of his profession with the most promising future, and was engaged "to make a survey for a cheap line between Birmingham and Gloucester," which he did by going east of Broms-grove Lickey to secure a gradient of not over 1 in 300.

It was while this Birmingham & Gloucester matter was being discussed that Brunei, on the 7th of March 1833, was appointed engineer of the Bristol company. With his usual energy he set out surveying at once. The line to London had to touch at Bath and Reading; otherwise he had a free hand, and the whole country was open before him. Between Bristol and Bath he could not go far wrong; between Reading and London he had the valley of the Thames, and went the obvious way; but between Bath and Reading he had full scope for his judgment, and the route he chose by Swindon and Didcot could not have been better. The 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 of a railway between London and Bristol." The title Bristol & London had been dropped on the 19th of August 1833, though the arms of those cities were retained, and, probably at the suggestion of Gibbs the banker, the line had become The Great Western. With the barges in view as feeders to the railway, Brunei placed his London terminus on the river-bank at Vauxhall; then he shifted it to what is now Grosvenor Road, on the opposite bank; then, owing to the strenuous opposition, he placed it where South Kensington Station now is, but all to no avail; and the Bill was thrown out by the Lords. Next year it was introduced with the line ending in a junction with the London & Birmingham at Kensal Green, Euston to be a joint station, and it passed. In the following year, 1836, another Act placed The Great Western terminus in a certain field at Paddington, where the present station was opened in 1854. In the first Bill the gauge was mentioned as being 4 ft. 8½ in. In the second there was no mention of the gauge, and the omission remained unnoticed while it was passing through Parliament. Thus the company were left to adopt any gauge they pleased. The reason was that Brunei had persuaded himself that the existing gauge was too narrow.

When the first trucks began to run on the Stockton & Darlington, Nicholas Wood saw that quite a new sort of vehicle was required for railway work, and he designed it, the principle being that the body, instead of being hung between large wheels, should be of full width and overhang small wheels. Brunei thought the new vehicles ugly and unsafe, and proposed to take the same width of body as Wood and hang it between the wheels again, thus increasing the length of the axle-trees. This meant that the gauge should be something approaching 7 ft., and he made it 7 ft. Just one carriage was built on this plan, and the waste of space was so evident that the directors ordered the carriage bodies to be made of the full width so as to overhang the wheels, as on other lines, and carry as many passengers as possible. With the building of the second carriage the argument for the broad gauge really collapsed; but Brunei, with wonderful ingenuity, set himself to prove that 7 ft. was the best of all possible gauges, as on the same method he could have proved 6 ft. or even 10 ft. to be.

There was another reason for this difference of gauge. By having a special gauge Brunei hoped to keep the west and south-west of England as the special territory of The Great Western, as it would have done for a time, but, so soon as the directors resolved to extend the line northwards, that argument also collapsed. George Stephenson saw much farther ahead when it was proposed to have a special gauge for the Leicester & Swannington - "I tell you the Stockton & Darlington, the Liverpool & Manchester, the Canterbury & Whitstable, and the Leicester & Swannington must all be 4 ft. 8½ in. Make them of the same width; though they may be a long way apart now, depend upon it they will be joined together some day."

It was left for a Great Western man to point out that the gauge of the stone tramways of Pompeii, as measured by W. H. Mills, was 4 ft. 11 in., or a little less, as shown by the ruts in them; and it is probable that the chariots were of similar gauge that ran on the Roman roads of Britain, the width of which roads would fix the width of the country roads and the gauge of the vehicles when they were introduced. The old tram-lines were made to take the local carts and wagons, and the gauge that suited them was 4 ft. 8 in. or thereabouts between the guards. Hence Jessop laid his edge-rails of 4 ft. 8½ in. gauge to take the place of the guard-rails so that carts could run on them by merely substituting flanged tyres for flat ones. When the Stockton & Darlington was first planned the endeavour to accommodate miscellaneous traffic was kept in view, and hence the gauge was made the same as Jessop's; and, in order that the engines and carriages might be interchangeable and the same patterns used at the engine factories, the Liverpool & Manchester and its connections adopted the same gauge. When the broad gauge met the narrow gauge the trouble began. The Bristol & Gloucester, laid out as a narrow-gauge line, fell into financial difficulties before it was finished, and came under the management of The Great Western in 1844 ; and Brunei promptly made it broad-gauge. Next year The Great Western succeeded in obtaining an Act authorising them to run a broad-gauge line from Oxford through Worcester to Wolverhampton, and the decision of Parliament led to so much discontent that a Royal Commission was instructed to inquire into the gauge question. They reported in 1846 that so far as the safety, accommodation, and convenience of the passengers were concerned, one gauge was as good as another ; that in respect of speed the broad gauge had the advantage ; that so far as goods were concerned the narrow gauge was more convenient, and more suited to the general traffic of the country ; that the broad gauge involved the greater outlay ; and that as they had not been able to discover, either in the maintenance of the way, or in the cost of locomotive power, or in the other annual expenses, any adequate reduction to compensate for the additional first cost, they recommended that 4 ft. 8½ in. be declared by the Legislature to be the gauge used in all public railways constructed in Great Britain. And so the loosely-drawn Gauge Act was passed that year, enacting that no more broad-gauge lines should be made.

In spite of this The Great Western went on with the broad road that led to less dividends, and in 1847 brought in a Bill for a broad-gauge line from Oxford to Birmingham. This was referred to the Railway Commissioners of the Board of Trade, who adopted a compromise suggested by Brunei that broad-gauge lines should be allowed, provided that a narrow-gauge track was laid as well; in other words, that the mixed gauge should be introduced, consisting of three rails instead of two, with one rail doing double duty. Thus the mixed gauge came in with the Oxford & Birmingham; but Brunei went on building broad-gauge branch lines, and only put down the extra rail where the traffic from the northern or south-western lines rendered this a cheaper way of getting over break of gauge than transhipment. And the broad-gauge trains went as far north as Wolverhampton, as far west as Penzance. In London, by way of Kensington, they ran into Victoria, of which The Great Western still holds the joint lease with the Chatham & Dover, whence its name appearing on the front of the new S.E. & C.R. Station; and by way of Bishop's Road they ran into Farringdon Street.

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