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Extract from Report of Directors of Great Western Railway Company (December 20, 1838)

After the reports of Mr. Wood and Mr. Hawkshaw, with Mr. Brunel’s replies to them, had been circulated among the shareholders, a special general meeting was called in London, to receive and consider these documents. It was convened for December 20, 1838, but was adjourned till January 9, 1839. This meeting was of great importance, not only to the Company, but to Mr. Brunel personally, as on the resolutions to be passed depended whether or not his plans should be proceeded with.

He had, however, the warm support of the Directors, as will appear from the following extracts from their report.

It may be here concisely stated, that Mr. Wood deduces from experiments upon the performance of engines on the Great Western and other lines, that although a higher rate of speed has been attained on the former, it would appear only to have been accomplished by the increased power of the engines, with a much greater consumption of coke when calculated per ton per mile. He ascribes this result principally to the resistance presented by the atmosphere to the motion of railway trains, especially at high rates of speed. His remarks on that subject are qualified, however, by the expression of a doubt as to the value to be assigned to the single set of experiments on each of two inclined planes, which are quoted as the authority for the degree of atmospheric resistance supposed to have been discovered.

The reduction of friction by the employment of wheels of increased diameter, and the benefit of lowering the carriages between the wheels, are affirmed by Mr. Wood as incontrovertible. The increased stability, and consequent increased steadiness of motion to carriages on the wider base, are also admitted by him….

The various propositions of doubtful advantage from the wide gauge, as well as of alleged objection to it, appear to have been thoroughly considered in the report in question. The experiments on the consumption of coke at high velocities were unfavourable, and, in connection with the theory of atmospheric resistance, appear to have influenced the mind of Mr. Wood to consider that a seven-feet gauge was beyond the width which he would deem the best. At the same time, upon a review of all the circumstances, and considering that there are counteracting advantages, incidental to an increased width of gauge, he does not think that the result of his enquiries would justify a change in the dimensions adopted on this line, and he recommends the present width should be retained.

The advice thus given by Mr. Wood, upon mature reflection, being directly at variance with the conclusion at which Mr. Hawkshaw had previously arrived upon an investigation similarly delegated to him, it became the duty of the Directors to consider most attentively the train of reasoning and argument which led the latter to urge such an opposite course. Naturally expecting from that circumstance to find in his report a clear and definite statement of the positive loss or disadvantages accruing from the increased width of gauge, the Directors could not fail to remark with some surprise that he enforces his recommendation, not upon any ascertained injury or failure in the plan, but almost exclusively upon the presumption that all railways, however disconnected or locally situated, should be constructed of one uniform width. While he appears to think that it might be an improvement to have an addition of a few inches, five or six at the most, he still questions the expediency of any variation from the 4 feet 8½ inches gauge. Mr. Hawkshaw, in his report, also considers any additional expense upon the gauge, as well as upon the improvement of gradients, to be undesirable, and assumes it at a scale of augmentation far beyond the real difference of cost. His estimates on that head are impeached in the engineer’s observations, and no doubt exists in the minds of the Directors, that the subject, reduced to a mere question of figures, in its present position, would undeniably show a pecuniary loss to be borne by the Company by any such change of system as he advocates, even if it were on other grounds deemed advisable. The objection that the wide gauge might prevent a junction with other lines seems both to Mr. Wood and the Directors to have but little weight, as applied to the Great Western Railway. Already has the same width been contemplated and provided for in the extension lines through Gloucestershire to Cheltenham and from Bristol to Exeter. Any local branches hereafter to be made would undoubtedly follow the same course, and the proprietors, therefore, may be satisfied that no apprehension need be entertained by them on that head.

The advantage of following Mr. Wood’s advice, in not making any alteration in the width of way, has been since most forcibly shown by more recent experiments, which have entirely changed the results upon which the chief objections to the gauge were founded. The performance of the engines, shown by Mr. Wood’s experiments in September, gave such a disproportionate result in their power upon the attainment of high velocities, as to render it all but impossible that the effect could be entirely produced by the action of the atmosphere on the trains. All doubts were shortly removed by its being ascertained that a different cause (a mere mechanical defect in the engine itself) had been in operation. If Mr. Wood had witnessed these recent performances of the engines, he must unquestionably have changed his opinions as to the means and practicability of carrying full average loads at a high speed, without the great increased expense of fuel. The Directors have satisfied themselves of this very important fact, by personally attending an experiment (accompanied by several gentlemen, among whom was a very eminent practical mechanic), on which occasion the ‘North Star’ took a train of carriages, calculated for 166 passengers, and loaded to 43 tons, to and from Maidenhead, at a mean average speed of thirty-eight miles per hour, the maximum being forty-five miles per hour, consuming only 0·95, or less than 1 lb. of coke per net ton per mile, instead of 2·76, say 2¾ lbs., as previously shown. This was accomplished by a mere altered proportion in the blast pipe of the engine, in the manner explained by Mr. Brunel, being a simple adaptation of size in one of the parts, which admits a more free escape of steam from the cylinder, after it has exerted its force on the piston, still preserving sufficient draft in the fire. [1]

It must be almost needless to point out to those who have perused the reports, how importantly this change bears upon the subject in almost every relation of the enquiry. It negatives the assumption that the velocity can only be attained by a ruinous loss of power. It establishes beyond doubt that the consumption of fuel as now ascertained, in proportion to the load, is only one-third of that which from the former experiments had been the basis of Mr. Wood’s arguments. An analysis in the report of the performance of the Great Western engines, with heavy loads varying from 80 tons to 166 tons, shows in every respect a peculiarly satisfactory result at a small cost of fuel, and warrants the expectation of very great benefit to the Company from the economical transport of goods on the line. That the expenses of locomotive repairs, especially on that heavy class of repair which arise from lateral strains on the wheels and framing of the engines, have been materially less than on other lines is ascertained by very detailed accounts, accurately made and submitted to the Board by the superintendent of that department. The experience of some months has now enabled the Directors to witness the progressive improvement in the practical working of the railway. A higher rate of speed has been generally maintained than on other lines, and at the same time, with that increased speed, great steadiness of motion has been found in the carriages, with consequent comfort to the passengers. If speed, security, and comfort, were three great desiderata in the original institution of railway travelling, the Directors feel sure that the public will appreciate and profit by any improvements in those qualities, the Company deriving ample remuneration in the shape of increased traffic. A saving of time upon a long journey, with increased comfort, will necessarily attract to one line in preference to another many travellers from beyond the ordinary distance of local connection, and will thus secure a valuable collateral trade which would not otherwise belong to it. It has also a decided tendency to avert competition, which may with much reason be regarded as the chief peril to which railway property is subjected.

The Directors, upon a deliberate reconsideration of all the circumstances affecting the permanent welfare of the undertaking, divesting the question of all personal partialities or obstinate adherence to a system, unanimously acquiesce in the abandonment of the piles, in the substitution of a greater scantling of timber, and of a heavier rail, retaining the width of gauge with the continuous timber bearings, as the most conducive to the general interests of the Company.

The views of the Directors were approved of by the majority of the shareholders (the numbers being 7,792 for, and 6,145 against); and the construction of the line was proceeded with according to Mr. Brunel’s plans.

By June 30, 1841, the whole length of the Great Western Railway was opened from London to Bristol. Some of the Directors’ reports mention the fact that the speed uniformly maintained by the engines much exceeded the ordinary rate of railway travelling, and allude to the ‘general testimony borne to the smoothness and comfort of the line and carriages.

[1] This experiment excited the greatest interest, and it was long afterwards related how Mr. Brunel, by the stroke of a hammer, had knocked to pieces the scientific deductions of Dr. Lardner, who, as was well known, had prompted Mr. Wood’s decision in this matter.

Mr. Brunel was so much impressed with the great influence which the operation of the blast-pipe had on the working of the locomotive that he afterwards investigated the whole subject, and made further experiments to determine whether or not it might be expedient to abandon the steam blast, and to maintain the draught in the chimney with a fan worked by a rotary steam jet.

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