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Northern Extensions of the Great Western Railway—Advantages of the Broad Gauge—Partial Abandonment of the Broad Gauge

Beyond Birmingham the Great Western Company purchased existing railways leading through Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury to Chester, and obtained access to Birkenhead and Manchester. It thus secured a communication with the great Lancashire towns and the manufacturing districts.

But all the lines north of Wolverhampton had been constructed on the narrow gauge, and therefore, unless the broad gauge had been laid down on these lines, there was a break of gauge between the northern districts and London.

The break of gauge was found to be a much more serious evil than had been anticipated by the Great Western Company when they were fighting their great battle in 1845. For passengers the inconvenience was unimportant; but for the goods traffic between the manufacturing towns and London it was serious, partly on account of the expense, but more especially in consequence of the loss of time. The delay of some hours by change of waggons, where great competition existed, was fatal.

For these reasons the abolition of the break of gauge became desirable. The number of narrow-gauge lines had by the year 1861 been so increased that there was no longer any hope of advantageously extending the broad gauge in the north. Therefore the mixed gauge was completed to London.

After the establishment of the narrow-gauge communication on the northern lines of the Great Western, and its prolongation to London, there was but little inducement to use the broad gauge north of Didcot.

So far as it extended, the broad gauge had exhibited in a marked degree the advantages Mr. Brunel claimed for it, and which were neither few nor unimportant.

It may be desirable before concluding this chapter to sum up those advantages:—

1. It gave the power of constructing more powerful engines, by which greater speed for passenger trains and greater tractive power for heavy goods trains were obtained. [1]

2. It gave more space for the convenient arrangement and beneficial proportions of the machinery, as well as for convenient access to it. In all these points difficulties had been found on the narrow gauge; and the compulsory restriction of so important a dimension as the width between the rails has been a bar to any improvements of great magnitude or comprehensive nature.

3. It gave, even with the overhanging carriage, the facility for obtaining large wheels, and consequently diminishing the axle friction without sacrifice of stability.

4. The greater width of base for the carriages to rest on gave increased steadiness and smoothness of motion, particularly at high speeds. It was the impulse given by the increase of speed and comfort obtained without difficulty on the broad gauge, which had led to the chief improvements introduced in railway travelling.

5. Greater safety was secured, particularly at high speed, from the greater stability of position due to the wider base, producing increased steadiness and diminishing the chance under exceptional circumstances of the derangement of any part of the train.

6. While the broad gauge was but little more costly than the narrow, the width of the works being determined not by the width of the rails, but by the width of the carriages, and the extra cost of rolling stock being very small, [2] the broad gauge could be worked more economically under parallel circumstances than the narrow.

7. It gave the facility of using broader vehicles with equal steadiness, in cases where the extra breadth would be useful, though the extra breadth was by no means an essential part of the scheme.

The truth of these assertions, as establishing the superiority of the broad gauge, was of course vehemently denied by the advocates of the narrow gauge.

One objection urged by them, the inconveniences of the break of gauge, has undoubtedly been proved by experience to be a very powerful one, so powerful indeed as to compel the abandonment of the broad gauge on the lines where any considerable quantity of goods traffic has to be carried in competition with other companies.

Had Mr. Brunel’s original plan been carried out, and had the broad-gauge companies taken possession of all the western portions of England, and avoided extensions into the north, the points of contact would no doubt have been so unimportant that no great inconvenience would have arisen, or a few miles of double gauge would have removed any difficulty; but, under the actual circumstances of the case, the Great Western Company were forced to yield.

The advantages of the broad gauge were so much appreciated by the districts it served, that its abandonment was viewed with considerable displeasure, particularly in the neighbourhood of Birmingham; but the inconvenience of double traffic arrangements far outweighed the advantages derivable from the use of the broad gauge, to the limited extent it could be applied on those outlying portions of the Great Western system. For these reasons the Company came to the determination to work their northern lines on the narrow gauge only.

The broad gauge is therefore now confined to the district for which it was originally intended. Even in this district there are many points of contact with the narrow gauge; but the inconveniences of break of gauge are by no means so important as they were in the north, and do not, at present at least, menace the continued existence of Mr. Brunel’s design.

[1] Among many important advances in railway travelling made on the Great Western Railway, it may be mentioned that it was on this line that express trains running long distances without stopping were first introduced; and that, in 1845, within about a year of the completion of the line to Exeter, express trains ran from London to Exeter, 194 miles, in 4½ hours. This rate of travelling, which was accomplished without difficulty by the broad gauge in its early days, has scarcely been exceeded since on any railway.

[2] Even in the locomotives when of equal power, Mr. Brunel calculated that the extra weight was not more than about 500 lbs.

The extra cost of the Great Western Railway was only, including land, from 300l. to 500l. per mile, or less than 10 per cent. of the whole; although Mr. Brunel had taken advantage of the broad gauge to get carriage bodies 2 feet wider than was then usual.

The wide carriages and waggons were found less costly than the narrow ones in proportion to the load they carried.

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