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BROAD-GAUGE: I.K. Brunel and the Great Western Railway

Jeffrey Syken

With the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, in 1825, a technological marvel that heralded a new era, the, merchants of Bristol (England’s “Second Port”) wondered at the possibilities of a railway linking their city with London (England’s “First Port”), with which it had poor communication. In 1833, a committee was formed to push forward the scheme and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, son of famed engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (creator of the Thames Tunnel), was appointed Chief Engineer of the ambitious project. Brunel would choose the route and survey it himself. The railway itself would be of unprecedented standards of excellence in order to outperform other lines then being constructed to the northwest. Failing once, in 1835 a Bill was approved by Parliament and Royal Assent given for the construction of the railway. Thus, the stage was set for the Great Western Railway (GWR) to be made manifest.

The route Brunel chose passed north of the Marlborough Downs - an area with no significant towns - and then followed the Thames Valley into London. I.K. Brunel’s plan for the “Great Western Main Line” would maintain either level ground or gentle gradients of no greater than 1-in-1000 along most of its route. Between Swindon and Bath, at the highest point of the line, a straight, 1.83-mile-long tunnel was proposed through “Box Hill,” with a gradient of 1-in-100 (from its eastern end). To span the many rivers and valleys along the route, Brunel would construct bridges, viaducts and tunnels that were the wonders of the age. However, Brunel’s main ambition for the railway was speed and comfort. To that end, he chose a “Broad-Gauge” track width of 7’-0-1/4” (rather than the Standard-Gauge of 4’-8-1/2”).Although Broad-Gauge had its advocates and naysayers, then and now, it would not last and by 1892 the entire GWR system was using Standard-Gauge track.

The story of the GWR coincides with the “Age of Steam,” in the development and use of steam-powered locomotives on the pioneer railways in Great Britain and around the world. Intertwined with the story of both the GWR and steam technology is the story of the life and work of I.K. Brunel, one of the greatest engineers of the 19th Century, and of all time. Bridges such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Royal Albert Bridge bear witness to his accomplishments as a Civil Engineer. However, Brunel was a “Man for All Seasons,” making his mark in many areas (i.e. prefabricated structures) and on Naval Architecture, in particular, with a series of ships that culminated with the SS Great Eastern – the largest ship of its age. No wonder then that the modern-day GWR celebrates its founder, I.K. Brunel, after all these years.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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