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Railroads England - The Battle Of The Gauges

( Originally Published 1927 )

THE gauge of the first English railways had been the width of the tramroads in use in the colliery districts. George Stephenson had adopted this gauge not on any scientific theory but simply because it was the gauge in common use on the coal roads; once adopted, he believed that that width should be adhered to in all the railways built in order to obtain such uniformity as would allow perfect communication between the various lines of the country. Therefore the roads constructed by Stephenson and his assistants were built on what was called the Liverpool and Manchester or narrow gauge, which was 4 feet 8½ inches.

Some business men of Bristol, the flourishing seaport on the west coast of England, decided in 1833 to connect their city with London by railroad. The engineer they engaged was Mr. Brunel, a very ingenious inventor who liked to do things on a large scale. Unlike George Stephenson he did not think there was any need of having all the railways of the country use a standard gauge, since he assumed that the country would be divided into railway districts, which would have little intercourse with each other. On the road he planned—the Great Western—lie in-tended to employ larger locomotives than those yet built and attain greater speed, and therefore he constructed his railway on a 7 foot or broad gauge.

The directors of the Great Western backed their engineer and Brunel built his broad gauge line from London to Bristol. This was opened to traffic in 1841, the Bristol and Exeter Railway was shortly there-after constructed, the South Devon to Plymouth was inaugurated in 1846, and the Cornwall Railway to Truro in 1859. These lines were presently amalgamated with the Great Western Railway, which thus came into control of a through broad gauge track from Paddington, its terminus in London, to Penzance at the southwest corner of England.

On the section from London to Bristol there were constructed the Maidenhead Bridge and the Box Tunnel, two notable feats of engineering. The bridge is one of the finest pieces of brickwork in England. Many critics thought the spring of the main spans insufficient to make the arches secure, but the bridge, when used, proved a triumph for its builders. The Box Tunnel, nearly two miles in length, was another triumph for Brunel and his assistants, and showed that they were as capable in boring through the earth as in stringing bridges over it.

So long as the Great Western Railway was concerned solely in carrying traffic on its own tracks no difficulty arose over the question of gauges, but when presently narrow gauge lines met the Great Western at various points and passengers and goods had to be transferred from one set of carriages to another so much inconvenience resulted that the public began to demand some remedy for the situation. The Birmingham manufacturers, experiencing great de-lay and loss in traffic from the break of gauge at Gloucester, held a public meeting in 1844 and pro-tested against what they termed "a commercial evil of the first magnitude." Thus began what was popularly known as the "Battle of the Gauges."

A commission was appointed to study the subject of the two gauges. After taking much evidence, the commissioners voiced these conclusions : As to the safety, accommodation, and convenience of passengers, no decided preference was due to either gauge, but it appeared that on the broad gauge the motion was generally more easy at high rates of speed. In respect to speed, it was considered that the advantages were with the broad gauge, but it was thought that the travelling public would be endangered in employing the greater capabilities of the broad gauge much beyond their present use, except on roads more substantially and perfectly built than those then existing. As regards the transport of goods, it was held that the narrow gauge possessed the greater convenience and was better suited to the general traffic of the country. The broad gauge involved the greater outlay and there appeared, neither in the maintenance of way nor in cost of locomotive power, nor in other expenses, no adequate reduction to compensate for the additional first cost. The commissioners therefore recommended that, if it were deemed advisable to have uniformity, the broad should be altered to the narrow gauge, especially since the ex-tent of the former type of road was only 274 miles and of the latter not less than 1901 miles.

The commission's report was regarded as a victory for the narrow gauge, but the Great Western did not give up the battle and in 1846 received per-mission to build a broad gauge line through South Wales and another from a station on the Oxford line to Birmingham. Then Parliament passed the Gauges Act, which made it illegal thenceforth "to construct any railway for the conveyance of passengers on any other gauge than 4 feet 81/2 inches in Great Britain," although exceptions were made in the case of a future connection between the South Wales Railway and Bristol, the Oxford, Rugby and Wolverhampton Railway, and any connection the Great Western should construct south of its main line.

Parliament favored the narrow gauge party again when in 1848 it ordered the introduction of mixed broad and narrow gauges on the Oxford-Birmingham line. The Great Western obeyed by laying a third rail for narrow carriages and using the out-side, or platform, rail for both gauges. Other mixed lines followed, and in 1861 narrow gauge trains commenced running from the Great Western station in London to Birmingham.

The Great Western was a road of many remarkable achievements, among which was the building of powerful broad gauge locomotives by the engineer Gooch. The first of this series; called the "Great Western," was constructed in thirteen weeks ; it made a trip from Paddington Station in London to Swindon and back with a train of fourteen carriages at an average speed of fifty-seven miles an hour, and another from Paddington to Exeter, a distance of almost 200 miles, at the rate of fifty-three miles an hour. Later an express ran regularly from Padding-ton to Slough, eighteen miles, in fifteen and one-half minutes, or over seventy miles an hour. The Great Western broad gauge engines were splendid locomotives.

Another most interesting achievement was the construction of the South Devon Railway from Exeter to Plymouth. From Exeter the line ran south along the river Exe for some ten miles, then followed the coast another ten miles to Teignmouth, thence along the estuary of the Teign five miles to Newton Abbot, and from there reached west the thirty miles or so to Plymouth. As far as Teignmouth the line was practically level, although it required the building of numerous sea-walls and embankments and considerable tunnelling. What made the road notable was the fact that Brunel adopted the atmospheric system to propel the trains.

The line to Newton Abbot was opened in 1847. A fixed iron pipe with a longitudinal slit at the top closed by a leather valve ran along the track, and one of the railway carriages was furnished with an arm that projected downwards and passed through the slit into the tube, where it terminated in a piston. At the ends of the line were placed pumping engines to exhaust the air from the tube on that side of the pis-ton that faced the direction in which the train was to move. The vacuum that was thus made caused the air on the opposite side of the piston to exert a pressure of almost fourteen pounds to the square inch, and the impetus transmitted by the arm to the rail-way carriage was sufficient to move a light train at a speed of seventy miles an hour. A vacuum was maintained in the tube by the flexible strip of leather that permitted the movement of the arm but only admitted a minimum of air.

This novel system was successfully demonstrated on the new piece of road from Teignmouth to New-ton Abbot in January, 1848, and at a general meeting of the company in February the chairman stated : "The atmospheric had proved so successful that the locomotive had been entirely withdrawn from the line between Newton and Exeter. Out of 884 trains which had then been run, 790 had either gained time or performed the journey in the same time."

Yet this clever device of Brunel's was shortly afterwards discarded in favor of the locomotive, because it was found that the longitudinal valve upon which the maintenance of a vacuum depended had so deteriorated in a year's use that it required repairing, which would involve a cost of £1600 per mile of track. Such a change to locomotives would have been required in any event when the South Devon Railway amalgamated with the Great Western and through trains, without any break in propulsive system, were run from Paddington to Plymouth.

Brunel was also the designer of the Saltash sus-pension bridge which crosses the Tamar estuary on the Cornwall Railway from Falmouth to Plymouth, opened in 1859. The two main spans of this bridge were each 455 feet in length, almost as long as the spans of the tubular bridge built by Robert Stephenson across the Menai Straits. These were supported by three masonry piers, two of which stood in shallow water; the third was built in the middle of the stream, which necessitated piercing down through deep mud to hard rock by means of a circular caisson. The trusses for the main spans were a combination of arch and suspension chains, which were put on iron pontoons, warped into position over the pier foundations, and lowered into place.

The South Wales Railway, which joins the Great Western at Bristol, was directly connected with London when the first train passed through the Severn Tunnel in 1885. This is the longest tunnel in Great Britain and extends under the Severn for a distance of four and a half miles. Great were the difficulties of building it, due to the rush of fresh water from subterranean springs and the flooding by salt water after a high tide. The laying of the bricks for the tunnel lining took fourteen years. The tremendous advantage to traffic justified the labor and expense.

Brunel's work for the Great Western Railway al-most equalled in ability and industry that of George Stephenson on the roads of central England, but he had been wrong in supposing that his lines could successfully employ the broad gauge while the rest of the country preferred the narrow. Gradually the Great Western changed its branch lines from broad to narrow gauge and on May 20, 1892 the last broad gauge train left Paddington for Penzance. Stephenson's gauge, that of the colliery tramroads, had won the battle, and the gauge he adopted for his first railway train, 4 feet 8 1/2 inches, is the standard gauge of most of the railroads of the world.

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