On Friday 20th May 1892 over 3,500 workers took up positions alongside the main railway line running from Exeter to Falmouth. They were due to spend the weekend moving one of the rails 2 feet 3 ½ inches closer to the other rail. This changed the track from ‘Broad Gauge’ to ‘Standard Gauge’.
The final broad gauge express train, known as the ‘Cornishman’ left Paddington Station at 10.15 on Friday morning. Once it had set off on its return journey the line was closed and the conversion work began. On Monday the first standard gauge ‘Cornishman’ traveled to Penzance. 171 miles of track – main line, branch lines and sidings – had been converted in a weekend. Network Rail please take note!
What was the Broad Gauge?
From 1838 to 1892 there was a part of Britain’s railways that ran on different sized tracks to the rest of the system. The Great Western Railway (GWR) was built with a gauge (distance between the rails) of 7 feet (213cm) when all of the other main rail lines had a gauge of 4 feet 8 ½ inches (143cm), called ‘standard gauge’. The Broad Gauge was the idea of the Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the most innovative engineer of Victorian era. Brunel believed that the Broad Gauge would enable trains to be larger, faster and more stable – giving a smoother and more comfortable ride for the passengers.
Brunel was basically right, but he had a problem. By the time the GWR had built a few hundred miles of broad gauge track running from London to the south west of England, there were thousands of miles of standard gauge track stretching across the rest of the country. Where the two types of track met both passengers and goods had to change trains, causing extra expense and inconvenience.
A parliamentary enquiry was held and in 1846 an Act of Parliament was passed restricting the broad gauge to GWR tracks in “the south west of England and Wales”. This was effectively a death sentence for the broad gauge, although it took 46 years to pass away.
The broad gauge had the same problem that has caused the failure of the many attempts to replace the ‘Qwerty’ keyboard. The new designs may be better in many ways, allowing faster and easier typing, but the billions of existing users have an overwhelming resistance to change. The video wars of the 1980s are another similar example; Betamax, generally acknowledged to be superior, lost out to VHS through weight of numbers. In addition the cost of converting lines from standard gauge to broad gauge would have been huge. Tunnels, bridges, stations, cuttings and embankments would all have had to be enlarged. In contrast, standard gauge trains would always fit on lines built for the broad gauge.
The GWR gradually changed their track over the years with many of their lines having a third rail so trains of both sizes could run. By 1892 only the final section of the line to Penzance, running through Devon and Cornwall was broad gauge only.
13 miles of sidings were built at Swindon and all the remaining broad gauge rolling stock moved here – a total of 195 locomotives, 748 passenger carriages and 3,400 goods wagons. Here they awaited their fate, either conversion to standard gauge or scrapping. Before the changeover as much advance work as possible was done followed by the incredible feat of organization and logistics that meant that line was only closed for two days.