< PreviousChapter ToC – Next >

Gauge Act of 1846—The Mixed Gauge—Report of Railway Commissioners, 1847

The report of the Gauge Commission, on being presented to Parliament, was referred by the House of Commons to the Board of Trade, who reported on it in June 1846. They did not, however, concur with the Commissioners to the full extent of their recommendations; for, while admitting the break of gauge to be an evil, they could not, having regard to the circumstances under which the broad gauge companies had been established, and the interest they had acquired, recommend either that the broad gauge should be reduced to narrow, or that rails should be laid down for narrow gauge traffic over all their lines. Such measures would involve great expense, and they were unable to suggest any equitable mode of meeting it.

This conclusion necessarily affected the opinion of the Board of Trade in regard to the several lines under construction connected with the Great Western Railway, which the Board recommended should be all made on the broad gauge.

In regard to the broad-gauge lines sanctioned by Parliament from Oxford to Rugby, and from Oxford to Worcester and Wolverhampton, the Board determined to exercise their powers in requiring the narrow gauge to be laid down, in addition to the broad.

The House of Commons adopted the recommendations of the Board of Trade, and passed a series of resolutions in conformity thereto, and ‘An Act for regulating the Gauge of Railways’ received the Royal Assent on August 18, 1846.

It was enacted that it should not be lawful to construct any new passenger railway on any other gauge than 4 feet 8½ inches in England, and 5 feet 3 inches in Ireland.

Exceptions, however, were made in favour of certain lines in the west of England and South Wales.

The provisions relating to the gauge in the Acts for the Oxford and Rugby, and the Oxford, Worcester, and Wolverhampton Railways, were left in force.

The Act also generally excepted ‘any railway constructed or to be constructed under the provisions of any present or future Act containing any special enactment defining the gauge or gauges of such railway or any part thereof.’

This Act, while it professed to establish the narrow gauge as the standard throughout the kingdom, did so only nominally; in reality, by the words ‘present or future,’ in the passage above quoted, it left the question of the gauge of any new railway open for the consideration of the committee on the particular bill; and it only obliged the promoters of the undertaking to adopt the narrow gauge when no case could be proved by them for the adoption of some other. This was equivalent to the former state of things, so that all the agitation of the question had ended in a mere expression of opinion, and the broad-gauge party were not only left with all their former liberty, but were encouraged, and almost compelled, to push their system still farther wherever they could.

About the time of the passing of the Gauge Act, a Board of Commissioners of Railways was established, to whom the powers formerly possessed by the Board of Trade were transferred.

One of the first duties of the Commissioners was to provide for the due compliance with the order of the Board of Trade respecting the introduction of the narrow gauge, in conjunction with the broad, on the Oxford and Rugby Railway.

It was proposed to effect this either by laying a narrow gauge line concentrically between the two rails of the broad gauge, or by laying down only one additional rail between the two broad-gauge rails, making one of the latter serve for both broad and narrow gauges. Mr. Brunel recommended the second of these plans to be adopted on the Oxford and Rugby line.

After a careful consideration of the question, the Commissioners sanctioned the mixed gauge formed by the introduction of a third rail; this was accordingly laid down, and none of the dangers which were at the time prognosticated in reference to it were found to exist. It has been the plan almost exclusively used in the many cases where the combination of the two gauges has been required.

In 1846 the Great Western Railway Company had promoted a bill for a branch to Birmingham from the Oxford and Rugby line at Fenny Compton. The Act was obtained, but they were defeated on the question of the gauge. However, after the passing of the Gauge Act, the Company again attempted to carry the broad gauge to Birmingham. Their application was backed by a strong memorial from the districts interested, and in June 1847 an order was passed by the House of Lords directing the Board of Commissioners of Railways—

To inquire into the accommodation afforded by the several lines of railway now open, or in the course of construction, or projected, between London and Birmingham; and to report to this House, early in the ensuing Session of Parliament in what manner they are of opinion that the interests of the public may be most effectually ecured in regard to such lines; and whether it is expedient that the broad gauge should be extended to Birmingham; and if so, in what manner such an arrangement can be carried into effect with the least interference with existing interests….

This, of course, opened up again the whole question of the comparative merits of the two gauges.

The Railway Commissioners issued a series of queries addressed to the officials of the Great Western and the London and North Western Railway Companies, and others. On the part of the Great Western, answers were given by Mr. Brunel and Mr. Daniel Gooch. Mr. Gooch also furnished the results, with tables and diagrams, of a very comprehensive series of dynamometrical experiments, made by him on a mile of straight and level line on the Bristol and Exeter Railway. These experiments fully demonstrated the advantages of the broad gauge, and are still the chief authority on train resistances. [1]

In their report the Commissioners adopted the opinion of the Gauge Commissioners ‘that a break of gauge was a most serious impediment in the transport of merchandise, and that the broad gauge did not offer any compensating advantage so far as that description of traffic was concerned.’ In regard, however, to passenger traffic, they found a case for further enquiry. They said—

It is notorious that higher speeds, with larger and heavier passenger trains, are regularly maintained on a part of the line of the Great Western Railway than on any other railway in the country. This fact is known and greatly appreciated by a very large portion of the public; and no opinion respecting the extension of the district within which the broad gauge should be adopted is likely to be received with confidence which is not founded on a full consideration of the circumstances to which the above fact is to be attributed, and of the extent to which, under differing circumstances, if attributable to the breadth of gauge, the gauge of the Great Western Railway offers this advantage (p. 11).

They assumed that the greater speed was due to greater engine power, and they admitted that the increase of gauge allowed of an increase in the size and power of the locomotive. They arrived at the result that the broad-gauge engine ‘can draw on a level an ordinary ‘passenger train of 60 tons with as much facility at ‘sixty miles an hour as the narrow-gauge engines can at ‘fifty,’ the advantage, however, diminishing with steep gradients. In their report the following passages are to be found:—

Such appear to the Commissioners to be the advantages which the broad gauge at present offers; and although they cannot consider them sufficient to compensate the evils attendant on two gauges, if it were now possible to obtain uniformity of gauge, yet, as two gauges are established, it appears to them that it might be expedient, and for the public interest, on account of those advantages, to extend the broad gauge to Birmingham … (p. 14.)

By introducing the mixed gauge on the Birmingham and Oxford Junction Railway, the line from Birmingham by Fenny Compton to London would probably offer, as a broad-gauge railway, as rapid a communication as the existing direct line; [2] and great as the advantages which the public have received by the rivalry between the gauges, in the rapid improvement in railway travelling, have been, it might even be expected that these would be further increased when the two systems are brought into direct competition, which as yet they have not been (p. 16).

The report of the Railway Commissioners was presented in May 1848. Their decision was ratified by the passing of an Act in the same session for extending the broad gauge from Oxford to Birmingham; and the line was opened in October 1852.

[1] These experiments will be found in the Appendix to the Report of the Commissioners of Railways, respecting railway communication between London and Birmingham (ordered to be printed May 22, 1848).

[2] This was fully borne out afterwards, the express trains running in the same time, 3 hours, over both routes, though the length of the broad-gauge line was 129 miles, as against 113 of the narrow. Similar favourable results have been since exhibited in the competition between the broad and narrow gauge lines to Exeter.

< PreviousChapter ToC – Next >