Great Western Railway


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Bristol Temple Meads railway station, the original terminus at Bristol.

The Great Western Railway (GWR) was a British railway company, linking South West England, the West Country and South Wales with London. It was founded in 1833, kept its identity through the 1923 grouping, and became part of British Railways at nationalisation in 1948. Known to some as God's Wonderful Railway or the Great Way Round, it gained great fame as the "Holiday Railway", taking huge numbers of people to resorts in the South-West. The company's most well-known livery was Brunswick green locomotives (red then black frames) with chocolate and cream carriages.


Early history

The Railway originated from the desire of Bristol merchants to maintain the position of their port as the second port in the country and the chief one for American trade. The increase in the size of ships and the gradual silting of the River Avon made Liverpool an increasingly attractive port, and with its rail connection with London developing in the 1830s it threatened Bristol's status. The answer for Bristol was, with the co-operation of London interests, to build a line of their own, a railway built to unprecedented standards of excellence to outperform the other lines being constructed to the north-west.

The Company was founded at a public meeting in Bristol in 1833, and was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1835. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed as engineer at the age of 27, and made two controversial decisions: to use a broad gauge of seven feet (actually 7 ft 0.25 in or 2140 mm) for the track, which he believed would offer superior running at high speeds; and to take a route which passed north of the Marlborough Downs, an area with no significant towns, though it did offer potential connections to Oxford and Gloucester and then to follow the Thames Valley into London. He surveyed the entire length of the route between London and Bristol himself.

The initial group of locomotives ordered by Brunel to his own specifications proved unsatisfactory, apart from the North Star locomotive, and 20-year-old Daniel Gooch (later Sir) was appointed as Superintendent of Locomotives. Brunel and Gooch chose to locate their locomotive works at the village of Swindon, at the point where the gradual ascent from London turned into the steeper descent to the Avon valley at Bath.


The first stretch of line, from London Paddington to Taplow near Maidenhead opened in 1838. The full line to Bristol Temple Meads opened on completion of the Box Tunnel in 1841.

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The London terminus is here at Paddington

From then onwards, by amalgamations and new construction, the Railway took shape, as can be seen from the following list (dates are when opened/absorbed):

  • Cheltenham & Great Western Union Railway: 1836-41/1843 (linking with the GWR at Swindon)
  • Oxford Railway 1843/1844
  • Berkshire and Hampshire Railway 1845/1846
  • Cornwall Railway 1846-49 finally absorbed 1889
  • Oxford & Rugby Railway 1845/1846
  • Birmingham & Oxford Junction Railway 1846/1848
  • Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Dudley Railway 1846/1848
  • Wiltshire, Somerset & Weymouth Railway 1845-48/1850
  • West Cornwall Railway 1852
  • Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railway 1846-49/1854
  • Shrewsbury & Chester Railway 1846/1854
  • Wolverhampton Junction Railway 1852/1854

See also List of early British Railway companies

The Bristol and Exeter Railway reached Exeter by 1844, and the Bristol and Gloucester Railway brought the broad gauge to Gloucester in 1844. Gloucester was already(?) served by the standard gauge Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, resulting in a "break of gauge", and the need for all passengers and goods travelling through Gloucester to change trains.

The “gauge war”

This was the beginning of the "gauge war", and resulted in the appointment by Parliament of a Gauge Commission, which duly recommended in favour of the standard gauge.

The undaunted GWR pressed ahead into the West Midlands, in hard-fought competition with the London and North Western Railway. Birmingham was reached in 1852, at Snow Hill (although the GWR had initially considered building to Rugby instead of Birmingham), Wolverhampton Low Level (the furthest north broad gauge station) and Birkenhead (on standard gauge track) in 1854. The Bristol and Gloucester had been bought by the Midland Railway in 1846 and converted to standard gauge in 1854, bringing mixed gauge track (with three rails so that both broad and standard gauge trains could run on it) to Bristol. By the 1860s the gauge war was lost; with the merger of the standard-gauge West Midlands Railway into the GWR in 1861 mixed gauge came to Paddington, and by 1869 there was no broad-gauge track north of Oxford.

Meanwhile, further developments were made in the GWR's heartland: the South Devon Railway (which for a time experimented with the “atmospheric” system of propulsion) was opened in 1849, extending the broad gauge to Plymouth, and the Cornwall Railway took it over the Royal Albert Bridge and into Cornwall, reaching Penzance by 1867. The South Wales Railway, terminating at Neyland, opened in 1850 and was connected to the GWR via Brunel's ungainly Wye bridge in 1852. The route from Wales to London via Gloucester was roundabout, so work on the Severn Tunnel began in 1873, but unexpected underwater springs slowed the work down and prevented its opening until 1886.

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South of Exeter the railway clings to the coastline

Through this period the conversion to standard gauge continued, with mixed-gauge track reaching Exeter in 1876. By this time most conversions were bypassing mixed gauge and going directly from broad to standard. The final stretch of broad gauge was converted to standard in a single weekend in May 1892.

The 1890s also saw improvements in service of the generally conservative GWR - restaurant cars, much improved conditions for third class passengers, and steam heating of trains. The company also built new track to shorten its previously circuitous routes.

New locomotives

After 1902 G. J. Churchward developed nine standard locomotive types, with flat-topped Belpaire fireboxes, tapered boilers, long smokeboxes, boiler top feeds, long lap, long travel valve gear and many standard parts between locomotive types. Most of these were developed from five experimental locomotives, No's 40, 97, 98, 99 and 115. From these were developed the famous Star class locomotives and the Saint class locomotives. Such was the success of these locomotives that they influenced locomotive design in the United Kingdom untill the demise of steam traction. Two notable locomotives were 111 The Great Bear, the first 4-6-2 locomotive in the United Kingdom and 3440 City of Truro the first locomotive to be recorded at a speed of 100 mph (160 km/h) in 1904 (although this speed has never been formally confirmed).

He also remodelled Swindon works building the one and a half acre (6,000 m²) boiler erecting shops and the first static locomotive testing plant in the United Kingdom.

1923 Grouping

At the outbreak of World War I the GWR, along with the other major railways, was taken into government control. After the war the government considered permanent nationalisation, but preferred a compulsory amalgamation of the railways into four large groups. The GWR alone preserved its identity through the grouping, which took effect on January 1, 1923.

Constituent companies

The new Great Western Railway comprised the following constituent companies:

  • Great Western Railway route mileage 3005 miles (4808 km)
  • Barry Railway 68 miles (109 km)
  • Cambrian Railways 295.25 miles (472 km)
  • Cardiff Railway 11.75 miles (19 km)
  • Rhymney Railway 51 miles (82 km)
  • Taff Vale Railway 124.5 miles (199 km)
  • Alexandra (Newport and South Wales) Docks and Railway 10.5 miles (17 km)

Total route mileage of the GWR was 3800 miles (6080 km)

The details of all railways within the new Great Western Railway are given in the List of constituents of the Great Western Railway .

Other statistics

  • Locomotives: tender 1550, tank 2500; coaching vehicles 10,100; freight vehicles 90,000; electric vehicles 60; rail motor cars 70
  • 213 miles (341 km) of canals
  • 16 turbine and twin-screw steamers, plus several smaller vessels
  • docks, harbours etc at Barry, Cardiff, Fishguard, Newport, Penarth, Plymouth, Port Talbot and other places
  • ten hotels

Much of the infrastructure had come into being for handling the South Wales coal traffic. Though this appeared to be a great coup for the GWR, the coal traffic declined significantly as the use of coal as a naval fuel declined, and within a decade the GWR was itself the largest single user of Welsh coal.

New locomotives (1920s)

The 1920s also saw the introduction of the GWR's most famous locomotives - the Castle and King classes developed by Churchward's successor, C. B. Collett . The 1930s brought hard times, and the records set by the Castles and Kings were surpassed by other companies, but the company remained in relatively good financial health despite the Depression.

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One of the many engineering firsts on the line was Maidenhead Railway Bridge, at the time the largest span for a brick arch bridge


World War II brought a further period of direct government control, and by its end a Labour government was in power and planning to nationalise the railways. The GWR became part of British Railways on January 1, 1948. On privatisation the "Great Western" name was revived for the train operating company providing passenger services to the West.

The Great Western Society still keeps the traditions of the GWR alive at the Didcot Railway Centre at Didcot in Oxfordshire.

External link

Description of the work required for the conversion from broad to narrow gauge (

See also

The "big four" pre-nationalisation British railway companies:

Great Western | London Midland & Scottish | London & North Eastern | Southern

de:Great Western Railway


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