Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s broad gauge railway dream came to an end 125 years ago last weekend as four thousand workmen ripped up 170 miles of track in a single weekend.
They replaced the last of the Victorian engineer’s Great Western Railways seven foot and one quarter of an inch wide track with what was then “narrow gauge” and is now the standard gauge track we use today – all of four foot eight and a half inches in width.
Fifty years of Brunel’s high-speed railway dream, and the locomotives built for it, disappeared almost overnight as his track bed – including the route through Totnes – was rebuilt to literally measure up to the rest of the nation’s rail lines.
Today there is just one locomotive left in existence that used to run on Brunel’s broad gauge lines – and that is part of the South Devon Railway’s museum exhibits on display at its Buckfastleigh Station.
Called Tiny, the small, vertical-boilered locomotive has been looked after at Buckfastleigh since 1980, after spending 50 years on public display at Newton Abbot railway station.
The loco exhibit sits on a plinth at the station museum on a set of broad gauge tracks which were ultimately responsible for its downfall.
Tiny was built in 1868 and used for shunting purposes in the Newton Abbot rail yard.
By 1876 it was used as a spare stationary engine for working the pumps in the boiler house at Newton Abbot’s locomotive shops.
The only surviving loco built to Brunel’s broad gauge got a major facelift and went on display in 1927 following the rebuilding of the Newton Abbot station, where it remained until it was shifted to Buckfastleigh in 1980.
Just like today’s electrification project, Brunel wanted to achieve speed and capacity when he first conceived the Great Western Railway in the 1830s.
His way of doing this was to build track with rails seven feet and a quarter of an inch apart. Much broader than George Stephenson’s four foot eight and a half inch gauge used elsewhere in Britain.
Brunel correctly predicted that the resulting wider, low-slung carriages would mean more seats, less air resistance and higher speeds.
There were downsides. A bigger gap between the rails meant he needed to buy more land, which together with the need to construct wider tunnels and bridges put up the construction cost.
Over the next 50 years only Brunel stuck to the broad gauge, while others preferred the standard gauge. This meant that passengers had to change trains in towns like Gloucester where the two systems met. Even Brunel could see this was a major drawback.
At the same time the GWR was taking over other companies, many of which used standard gauge. This meant that even the GWR soon had a mixed-gauge system.
To facilitate working between the two systems, an extra rail was added in many places to allow both broad and standard gauge trains to use the same routes.
In 1846 the Government ruled that the four foot eight and a half inches should be the British standard.
The last broad gauge line to be built was the St Ives branch line in Cornwall, completed in 1877, and the end of the broad gauge came in May 1892.
The final 170 miles of track were converted to standard gauge in one weekend.
The two last up and down broad gauge trains actually passed each other at Dawlish station on Friday night, May 20, 1892.
It’s reported that when the trains stopped next to each other in the station, the passengers pulled down their windows and shook hands with each other and sang the chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”. The lines between Exeter and Truro and all the GWR branch lines in Devon and Cornwall were then closed and the work began.
The lines had to be open again in 48 hours to allow the night mail from Paddington to run right through to Penzance on Monday morning.
By four o’clock on the morning of Monday, May 23, 1892 the job was done and the first standard gauge train ran through to Penzance.
Today you can see a small section of dual gauge track on Exeter Quay where a small turntable has been excavated showing how trucks were moved around the dockside.