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The Great Western Railway (GWR) was a British railway company that linked Londonmarker with the south west and west of England and most of Wales. It was founded in 1833, received its enabling Act of Parliament in 1835, and ran its first trains three years later. It was engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel who chose a broad gauge of , but from 1854 a series of amalgamations saw it also operate standard gauge trains; the last broad gauge services were operated in 1892. The GWR was the only company to keep its identity through the Railways Act 1921 which amalgamated it with the remaining independent railways within its territory, and it was finally wound up at the end of 1947 when it was nationalised and became the Western Region of British Railways.

The GWR was known admiringly to some as "God's Wonderful Railway" and jocularly to others as the "Great Way Round", but it gained great fame as the "Holiday Line", taking huge numbers of people to resorts in South West England. In 1999, in recognition of the railway's historical importance, parts of the original Great Western Main Line were added to UNESCOmarker's tentative World Heritage Sites list.

The company's locomotives, many of which were built in the company’s workshops at Swindonmarker, were painted a Brunswick green colour, while for most of its existence it used a two-tone "chocolate and cream" livery for its carriages. Wagons were painted red but this was later changed to mid-grey.

The Great Western's trains included long-distance express services such as the Flying Dutchman, the Cornish Riviera Express and the Cheltenham Spa Express, but it also ran suburban and rural services including many operated by steam railmotors or autotrains. The company championed the use of larger, more economic goods wagons than were usual in the United Kingdom. It also operated a network of road motor routes, was a part of the Railway Air Services, and owned ships, docks and hotels.


Early history

The Great Western Railway originated from the desire of Bristolmarker merchants to maintain the position of their city 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 Liverpoolmarker an increasingly attractive port, and with its rail connection to London under construction 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 out-perform 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. A young Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed as engineer. This was by far his largest contract to date and he made two controversial decisions. Firstly to use a broad track gauge of seven feet – actually – to allow the possibility of large wheels outside the bodies of the rolling stock which would provide smoother running at high speeds. And secondly and to take a route which passed north of the Marlborough Downsmarker, a route with no significant towns but one which did offer potential connections to Oxfordmarker and Gloucestermarker. He surveyed the entire length of the route between London and Bristol himself.

George Thomas Clark played an important role as an engineer on the project, reputedly taking the management of two divisions of the route including bridges over the River Thames at Upper Basildonmarker and Moulsfordmarker, and Paddington Stationmarker. Involvement in major earth-moving works seems to have fed Clark's interest in geology and archaeology and he, anonymously, authored two guidebooks on the railway: one illustrated with lithographs by John Cooke Bourne; the other a critique of Brunel's methods and the broad gauge.

The first stretch of line, from Londonmarker Paddingtonmarker to Maidenhead Bridge stationmarker, had opened on 4 June 1838. Once the Maidenhead Railway Bridgemarker was ready, the line was extended to on 1 July 1839, and then through the deep Sonning Cuttingmarker into Readingmarker on 30 March 1840. The cutting was the scene of a railway disaster just two years later when a goods train ran into a landslip; ten passengers who were travelling in open trucks were killed. This accidentmarker prompted Parliament to pass the 1844 Railway Regulation Act to force railway companies to provide better carriages for passengers. The next section, from Reading to crossed the Thames twice but was ready to open for traffic on 1 June 1840. A further extension moved the end of the line to Faringdon Roadmarker from 20 July 1840. Meanwhile work had also started at the Bristol end of the line, where the section to Bathmarker opened on 31 August 1840.

On 17 December 1840 the terminus of the London end of the line was moved closer to Bristol, to a temporary terminus at west of Swindon and from Paddington. The next section of the line, from Wootton Bassett Road to , was opened on 31 May 1841, along with Swindon Junction stationmarker, the connection with the Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway (C&GWUR) to Cirencester. This was an independent line worked by the GWR, as was the Bristol and Exeter Railway (B&ER), the first section of which from Temple Meads to was opened on 14 June 1841. At this time the GWR main line was still incomplete due to construction of the lengthy Box Tunnelmarker, which was finally ready to receive trains on 30 June 1841, from which time through trains ran the from Paddington to Bridgwater. In 1851 the GWR purchased the Kennet and Avon Canalmarker, which was a competitive route between London, Reading, Bath and Bristol.

The GWR was closely involved with both the C&GWUR and the B&ER, as it was with several other broad gauge railways. The South Devon Railway (which for a time was operated by the 'atmospheric' system of propulsion rather than locomotives) was completed in 1849, extending the broad gauge to Plymouthmarker, from where the Cornwall Railway took it over the Royal Albert Bridge and into Cornwallmarker in 1859, reaching over the West Cornwall Railway by 1867. This last stretch of line had been built originally using the standard gauge, or 'narrow gauge' as it was known at the time. The South Wales Railway had opened between and in 1850. It was connected to the GWR via Brunel's Chepstow Bridgemarker in 1852, and was completed to Neylandmarker in 1856, where a transatlantic port was established.

There was initially no direct line from London to Wales as the tidal River Severn was too wide to cross. Trains instead had to follow a lengthy route via Gloucester, where the river was narrow enough to be crossed by a bridge. Work on the Severn Tunnel had begun in 1873, but unexpected underwater springs slowed the work down and prevented its opening until 1886.

The "gauge war"

In 1844 the broad gauge Bristol and Gloucester Railway had opened, but Gloucester was already served by the standard gauge lines of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. This resulted in a break of gauge, and the need for all passengers and goods to change trains if travelling from Bristol or Swindon through Gloucester towards Birminghammarker and the North. This was the beginning of the 'gauge war' and resulted in the appointment by Parliamentmarker of a Gauge Commission, which duly reported in 1846 in favour of standard gauge. Also in 1846 the Bristol and Gloucester had been bought by the Midland Railway and was converted to standard gauge in 1854, which brought mixed gauge track to Temple Meads station – this had three rails to allow trains to run on either broad or standard gauge.

Undaunted, the GWR was pressing ahead into the West Midlands in competition with the Midland and the London and North Western Railway. Birminghammarker was reached through in 1852, and Wolverhamptonmarker in 1854. This was the furthest north that the broad-gauge reached. In the same year the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway and the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway both amalgamated with the GWR, but these lines were standard gauge, and the GWR's own line north of Oxford had been built with mixed gauge. This mixed gauge was extended southwards from Oxford to at the end of 1856 which allowed through goods traffic from the north to the South Coast without transshipment.
Broad and standard mileage operated by GWR
31 December Broad Mixed Standard
1851      0 miles

The line to Basingstoke had originally been built by the Berks and Hants Railway as a broad gauge route in an attempt to keep the standard gauge of the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) out of Great Western territory, but in 1857 the GWR and LSWR opened a shared line to on the south coast, the GWR route being via Chippenham and a route initially started by the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway. Further west the LSWR took over the broad gauge Exeter and Crediton Railway and the connected North Devon Railway, also the standard gauge Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway, although it was several years before these remote lines were connected with the parent LSWR system and any through traffic to them was handled by the GWR and its associated companies.

By now the gauge war was lost and mixed gauge was brought to Paddingtonmarker in 1861, thus allowing through passenger trains from London to Chester. The broad gauge South Wales Railway amalgamated with the GWR in 1862, as did the West Midland Railway which brought with it the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway, a line that had been conceived as another broad gauge route to the Midlands but which had been built as standard gauge after several battles, both political and physical. On 1 April 1869 the broad gauge was taken out of use between Oxford and Wolverhampton, and from Reading to Basingstoke. In August the line from to was converted from broad to standard, and the whole of the line from Swindon through Gloucester to South Wales was similarly treated in May 1872. In 1874 the mixed gauge was extended along the main line to Chippenham and the line from there to Weymouth was narrowed. The following year saw mixed gauge laid through the Box Tunnel, with the broad gauge now retained only for through services beyond Bristol and on a few branch lines.

The Bristol and Exeter Railway amalgamated with the GWR on 1 January 1876. It had already made a start on mixing the gauge on its line, a task completed through to Exetermarker on 1 March 1876 by the GWR. The station here had been shared with the LSWR since 1862. This rival company had continued to push westwards over its Exeter and Crediton line and arrived in Plymouth later in 1876, which spurred the South Devon Railway to also amalgamate with the Great Western. The Cornwall Railway remained a nominally independent line until 1889, although the GWR held a large number of shares in the company. One final new broad gauge route was opened on 1 June 1877, the St Ives branch in west Cornwallmarker, although there was also a small extension at Sutton Harbour in Plymouth in 1879.

Once the GWR was in control of the whole line from London to Penzance it set about converting the remaining broad gauge tracks. The last broad gauge service left Paddington station on Friday 20 May 1892; the following Monday, trains from Penzance were operated by standard gauge locomotives.

Into the twentieth century

With its shares in demand from the later 1890s it was possible for the company to raise substantial sums of money from new share issues. The additional income funded the building of further new lines and the upgrading of old ones to shorten the company's previously circuitous routes.

The principal lines opened were:

Freed from the burden of operating trains on two gauges in 1892, the years up to the Great War saw other improvements in the services of the generally conservative GWR – restaurant cars, much improved conditions for third class passengers, steam heating of trains, and accelerated express services. This was largely at the initiative of T. I. Allen, the Superintendent of the Line and one of a group of talented senior managers who led the railway into the Edwardian era: Viscount Emlyn (Earl Cawdor, Chairman from 1895 to 1905); Sir Joseph Wilkinson (General Manager from 1896 to 1903), his successor, the former chief engineer Sir James Inglis; and George Jackson Churchward (the Chief Mechanical Engineer). It was during this period that the GWR introduced road motor services as an alternative to building new lines in rural areas, and started using steam rail motors to bring cheaper operation to those already in existence.

One of the 'Big Four'

At the outbreak of World War I the GWR – along with most other major railways in Britain – was taken into government control. Many of its staff joined the armed forces and it was not possible to build and maintain equipment as easily as in peacetime due to the demands of the military campaigns. After the war the government considered permanent nationalisation but instead decided on a compulsory amalgamation of the railways into four large groups. The GWR alone preserved its identity through the 'grouping', which saw many smaller companies amalgamated during 1922 and 1923.

The new Great Western Railway now included many more routes in Wales, including former Cambrian Railways lines and from the Taff Vale Railway. A few independent lines in its English area of operations were also added, notably the Midland and South Western Junction Railway. This line had previously worked closely with the Midland Railway but now brought the GWR a second station at Swindon, along with a line that carried through-traffic from the North via Cheltenhammarker and to Southamptonmarker.

The 1930s brought hard times but the company remained in relatively good financial health despite the Depression. The Development Act 1929 allowed the GWR to obtain money in return for stimulating employment, and this was used to implement improvements at stations such as London Paddingtonmarker, and Cardiff Generalmarker; to improve facilities at depots; and even to lay additional tracks to reduce congestion. The road motor services were transferred to local bus companies in which the GWR took a share, but instead it took to the skies with air services.

The legacy of the broad gauge had meant that trains on some of its routes could be built just a little bit larger than was normal in Britain, and these included the 1929-built 'Super Saloons' used on the boat train services that conveyed transatlantic passengers to London in luxury. The same year also saw the peak of GWR locomotive development with the introduction of the King class locomotives on principal expresses from London to Wolverhampton, Bristol and Plymouth. When the company celebrated its centenary during 1935, new 'Centenary' carriages were built for the Cornish Riviera Express, which again made full use of the wider loading gauge on that route.

World War II and after

With the outbreak of World War II the GWR returned to direct government control, and by the end of the war a Labour government was in power and again planning to nationalise the railways. After a couple of years trying to recover from the ravages of war, the GWR became the Western Region of British Railways on 1 January 1948. The Great Western Railway Company continued to exist as a legal entity for nearly two more years, being formally wound up on 23 December 1949. GWR designs of locomotives and rolling stock continued to be built for a while, and the region maintained its own distinctive character, even painting for a while its stations and express trains in a form of chocolate and cream.

About 40 years after nationalisation the British railways were privatisated and the old name was revived by Great Western Trains, the train operating company providing passenger services on the old GWR routes to South Wales and the South West, which has now become 'First Great Western' as part of the First Group. The operating infrastructure, however, was transferred to Railtrack and has since passed to Network Rail. These companies have continued to preserve appropriate parts of its stations and bridges so historic GWR structures can still be recognised around the network.


The original Great Western Main Line linked London Paddington stationmarker with Temple Meads stationmarker in Bristolmarker by way of , Didcotmarker, , and Bathmarker. This line was extended westwards through Exetermarker and Plymouthmarker to reach , the most westerly railway station in England. Brunel and Gooch chose to locate the GWR's main locomotive workshopsmarker close to the village of Swindon and the locomotives of many trains were changed here in the early years. Up to this point the route had climbed very gradually westwards from London, but from here it changed into one with steeper gradients which, with the primitive locomotives available to Brunel, was better operated by types with smaller wheels better able to climb the hills. These gradients faced both directions, first dropping down through to cross the River Avon, then climbing back up through to the Box Tunnelmarker before descending once more to regain the River Avon's valley which it followed to Bath and Bristol.

Swindon was also the junction for a line that ran north-westwards to then south-westwards on the far side of the River Severn to reach Cardiffmarker, and west Walesmarker. This route was later shortened by the opening of a more direct east-west route through the Severn Tunnel. Another route ran northwards from Didcot to from where two different routes continued to Wolverhamptonmarker, one through Birminghammarker and the other through Worcestermarker. Beyond Wolverhampton the line continued via to , and Birkenheadmarker. Operating agreements with other companies also allowed GWR trains to run to Manchestermarker. South of the London to Bristol main line were routes from Didcot to Southamptonmarker via , and from Chippenham to via .

There was a network of cross-country routes linking these main lines, with many branch lines to places such as Windsormarker, , and . The Railways Act 1921 added a number of smaller companies that had been operating within the region, notably the Cambrian Railways network in mid Wales and several railways in the Cardiff area.

Brunel envisaged the GWR continuing across the Atlantic Oceanmarker and built the SS Great Western to carry the railway's passengers from Bristolmarker to New Yorkmarker. Most traffic for North America soon switched to the larger port of Liverpoolmarker (in LNWR territory) but some transatlantic passengers were landed at Plymouthmarker and conveyed to London by special train. Great Western ships linked the United Kingdommarker with Irelandmarker, the Channel Islands and Francemarker.

Key locations

The railway's headquarters were established at Paddington station. Its locomotives and rolling stock were built and maintained at Swindon railway worksmarker but a number of other workshops were acquired as it amalgamated with other railways, notably Stafford Road worksmarker at Wolverhampton, but also at other locations such as Newton Abbot and Caerphilly. Workshops for signalling equipment were located adjacent to Reading railway stationmarker, and in later years a concrete manufacturing depot was established at where items ranging from track components to bridges were cast.

Engineering features

A number of notable structures can be found along the Great Western Main Line as it was designed to be much more straight and level than was usual for railways constructed at the time. Working westwards from Paddington, the line crosses the valley of the River Brentmarker on Wharncliffe Viaductmarker and the River Thames on Maidenhead Railway Bridgemarker, which at the time was the largest span for a brick arch bridge. The line then runs through Sonning Cuttingmarker before reaching Reading, after which it crosses the Thames twice more, on Gatehamptonmarker and Moulsfordmarker bridges. Between Chippenham and Bath is Box Tunnelmarker, the longest railway tunnel driven by that time. Several years later the railway opened the even longer Severn Tunnel to carry a new line between Englandmarker and Walesmarker beneath the River Severn.

Some other notable structures were added when smaller companies were amalgamated into the GWR. These include the South Devon Railway sea wallmarker, the Cornwall Railway's Royal Albert Bridge, and Barmouth Bridgemarker on the Cambrian Railways.


In the early years the GWR was managed by two committees, one in Bristol and one in London. They soon combined as a single Board of Directors which met in offices at Paddingtonmarker.

The Board was led by a Chairman and supported by a Secretary and other 'officers'. The first Locomotive Superintendent was Daniel Gooch, although from 1915 the title was changed to Chief Mechanical Engineer. The first Goods Manager was appointed in 1850 and from 1857 this position was filled by James Grierson until 1863 when he became the first General Manager. In 1864 the post of Superintendent of the Line was created to oversee the running of the trains.

Passenger services

 Year   Passengers   Train mileage   Receipts 
1850  2,491,712  1,425,573  £630,515 
1875  36,024,592  9,435,876  £2,528,305 
1900  80,944,483  23,279,499  £5,207,513 
1924  140,241,113  37,997,377  £13,917,942 
1934   110,813,041   40,685,597   £10,569,140 
Passenger numbers exclude season ticket journeys.
Early trains offered passengers a choice of first- or second-class carriages. In 1840 this choice was extended: passengers could be conveyed by the slow goods trains in what became third-class. The 1844 Railway Regulation Act made it a legal requirement that the GWR, along with all other British railways, had to serve each station with trains which included third-class accommodation at a fare of not more than one penny per mile and a speed of at least . By 1882, third-class carriages were attached to all trains except for the fastest expresses. Another parliamentary order meant that trains began to include smoking carriages from 1868.

Special 'excursion' cheap-day tickets were first issued in May 1849 and season tickets in 1851. Until 1869 most revenue came from second-class passengers but the volume of third-class passengers grew to the extent that second-class facilities were withdrawn in 1912. The Cheap Trains Act 1883 resulted in the provision of workmen's trains at special low fares at certain times of the day.

The principal express services were often given nicknames by railwaymen but these names later appeared officially in timetables, on headboards carried on the locomotive, and on roofboards above the windows of the carriages. For instance, the late-morning Flying Dutchman express between London and Exeter was named after the winning horse of the Derby and St Ledger races in 1849. Although withdrawn at the end of 1867, the name was revived in 1869 – following a request from the Bristol and Exeter Railway – and the train ran through to Plymouth. An afternoon express was instigated on the same route in June 1879 and became known as The Zulu. A third West Country express was introduced in 1890, running to and from Penzance as The Cornishman. A new service, the Cornish Riviera Express ran non-stop between London and Plymouth from 1 July 1904, although it ran only in the summer during 1904 and 1905 before becoming a permanent feature of the timetable in 1906.

The Cheltenham Spa Express received its name in 1923. It was the first train in the world to be scheduled at over when, in September 1932, it was speeded-up to cover the miles between London and in just 65 minutes. The train was nicknamed the 'Cheltenham Flyer' and featured in one of the GWR's Books for boys of all ages. Other named trains included The Bristolian, running between London and Bristol from 1935, and the Torbay Express, which ran between London and Kingswearmarker.

Many of these fast expresses included special coaches that could be detached as they passed through stations without stopping, a guard riding in the coach to uncouple it from the main train and bring it to a stop at the correct position. The first such 'slip coach' was detached from the Flying Dutchman at Bridgwatermarker in 1869. The company's first sleeping cars were operated between Paddington and Plymouth in 1877. Then on 1 October 1892 its first corridor train ran from Paddington to Birkenhead, and the following year saw the first trains heated by steam that was passed through the train in a pipe from the locomotive. May 1896 saw the introduction of first-class restaurant cars and the service was extended to all classes in 1903. Sleeping cars for third-class passengers were available from 1928.

Self-propelled 'steam railmotors' were first used on 12 October 1903 between and ; within five years 100 had been constructed. These trains had special retractable steps that could be used at stations with lower platforms than was usual in England. The railmotors proved so successful on many routes that they had to be supplemented by trailer cars with driving controls, the first of which entered service at the end of 1904. From the following year a number of small locomotives were fitted so that they could work with these trailers, the combined sets becoming known as 'autotrains' and eventually replacing the steam rail motors. Diesel railcars were introduced in 1934. Some railcars were fully streamlined, some had buffet counters for long-distance services, and others were purely for parcels services.

Freight services

 Year   Tonnage   Train mileage   Receipts 
1850  350,000  330,817  £202,978 
1875  16,388,198  11,206,462  £3,140,093 
1900  37,500,510  23,135,685  £5,736,921 
1924  81,723,133  25,372,106  £17,571,537 
1934   64,619,892   22,707,235   £14,500,385 
Tonnage for 1850 is approximate.
Passenger traffic was the main source of revenue for the GWR when it first opened but goods were also carried in separate trains. It was not until the coal-mining and industrial districts of Wales and the Midlands were reached that goods traffic became significant; in 1856 the Ruabonmarker Coal Company signed an agreement with the GWR to transport coal to London at special rates which nonetheless was worth at least £40,000 each year to the railway. As locomotives increased in size so did the length of goods trains, from 40 to as many as 100 four-wheeled wagons, although the gradient of the line often limited this. While typical goods wagons could carry 8, 10 or (later) 12 tons, the load placed into a wagon could be as little as 1 ton. The many smaller consignments were sent to a local transhipment centre where they were re-sorted into larger loads for the main segment of their journey. There were more than 550 'station truck' workings running on timetabled goods trains carrying small consignments to and from specified stations, and 200 'pick up' trucks that collected small loads from groups of stations.

The GWR provided special wagons, handling equipment and storage facilities for its largest traffic flows. For example the coal mines in Wales sent much of their coal to the docks along the coast, many of which were owned and equipped by the railway, as were some in Cornwall that exported most of the china clay production of that county. The wagons provided for both these traffic flows (both those owned by the GWR and the mining companies) were fitted with end doors that allowed their loads to be tipped straight into the ships' holds using wagon-tipping equipment on the dockside. Indeed, special wagons were produced for many different commodities such as gunpowder, china clay, aeroplanes, milk, fruit and fish.

Heavy traffic was carried from the agricultural and fishing areas in the south west of England, often in fast 'perishables' trains, for instance more than 3,500 cattle were sent from in the 12 months to June 1869, and in 1876 nearly than 17,000 tons of fish was carried from west Cornwall to London. The perishables trains running in the nineteenth century used wagons built to the same standards as passenger coaches, with vacuum brakes and large wheels to allow fast running. Ordinary goods trains on the GWR, as on all other British railways at the time, had wheels close together (around apart), smaller wheels and only hand brakes. In 1905 the GWR ran its first vacuum-braked general goods train between London and Bristol using newly built goods wagons with small wheels but vacuum brakes. This was followed by other services to create a network of fast trains between the major centres of production and population that were scheduled to run at speeds in excess of . Other railway companies also followed the GWR's lead by providing their own vacuum-braked (or 'fitted') services.

Ancillary operations

A number of canals, such as the Kennet and Avon Canalmarker and the Stratford-upon-Avon Canalmarker, became the property of the railway when they were purchased to remove competition or objectors to proposed new lines. Most of these continued to be operated although they were only a small part of the railway company's business: in 1929 the canals took £16,278 of receipts while freight trains earned over £17 million.

Powers were granted by Parliament for the GWR to operate ships in 1871. The following year the company took over the ships operated by Ford and Jackson on the route between Neylandmarker in Walesmarker and Waterfordmarker in Irelandmarker. The Welsh terminal was relocated to when the railway was opened to there in 1906. Services were also operated between and the Channel Islands from 1889 on the former Weymouth and Channel Islands Steam Packet Company routes. Smaller GWR vessels were also used as tenders at Plymouth Great Western Docksmarker and, until the Severn Tunnel opened, on the River Severn crossing of the Bristol and South Wales Union Railway.

The Railways Act 1921 brought most of the large coal-exporting docks in South Wales into the GWR's ownership, such as those at Cardiffmarker, Barrymarker, and Swanseamarker. They were added to a small number of docks along the south coast of England which the company already owned, to make it the largest docks operator in the world.

The first railway-operated bus services were started by the GWR between Helston railway stationmarker and The Lizardmarker on 17 August 1903. Known by the company as 'road motors', these chocolate-and-cream buses operated throughout the company's territory on railway feeder services and excursions until the 1930s when they were transferred to local bus companies (in most of which the GWR held a share).

The GWR inaugurated the first railway air service between Cardiffmarker, Torquaymarker and Plymouthmarker in association with Imperial Airways. This grew to become part of the Railway Air Services.

Traction and rolling stock


The GWR's first locomotives were specified by Isambard Kingdom Brunel but proved unsatisfactory. Daniel Gooch, who was just 20 years old, was soon appointed as the railway's Locomotive Superintendent and set about establishing a reliable fleet. He bought two locomotives from Robert Stephenson and Company which proved more successful than Brunel's, and then designed a series of standardised locomotives which, from 1846, could be built at the company's newly established railway workshops at Swindonmarker. He designed several different broad gauge types for the growing railway, such as the Firefly and later Iron Duke Class 4-2-2s. In 1864 Gooch was succeeded by Joseph Armstrong who brought his standard gauge experience to the railway. To replace some of the earlier locomotives, Armstrong put wheels set at the broad gauge on his otherwise standard gauge locomotive designs. Some of these were built new as broad gauge locomotives, while others were recently built standard gauge locomotives that he modified; those needing tenders were given old ones from withdrawn broad gauge locomotives. Brunel and Gooch both gave their broad gauge locomotives names in order to identify them, but the standard gauge companies that became a part of the GWR used numbers instead. From the time of Armstrong's arrival all new locomotives – both broad and standard – were given numbers, including broad gauge ones that had previously carried names before they were acquired from other railways.

Joseph Armstrong's early death in 1877 meant that the next phase of motive power design was the responsibility of William Dean who developed express 4-4-0 types rather than the single-driver 2-2-2s and 4-2-2s that had hauled express trains up to that time. He also reintroduced a naming policy for passenger tender locomotives from 1895 with each batch being given a distinctive theme; since Armstrong's time only a very few locomotives had been given names. The familiar 4-6-0s of later years were first introduced by the next engineer, George Jackson Churchward, who was also responsible for the introduction of self-propelled steam rail motors for suburban and light branch line passenger trains. It was during Churchward's tenure that the term 'Locomotive Superintendent' was changed to 'Chief Mechanical Engineer' (CME). Charles Collett succeeded Churchward in 1921. He was soon responsible for the much larger fleet that the GWR operated following the Railways Act 1921 mergers. He set about replacing the older and less numerous classes, and rebuilding the remainder using as many standardised GWR components as possible. He also produced many new designs using standard parts, such as the Castle and King classes, and then introduced diesel power in the form of streamline railcars in 1934. The final CME was Frederick Hawksworth who took control in 1941 and produced GWR-design locomotives until after nationalisation in 1948.

The GWR painted its locomotives a middle chrome or "Brunswick" Green for most of the period of its existence. They initially had Indian Red frames but this was later changed to black. Name and numberplates were generally of polished brass with a black background, and chimneys often had copper rims or "caps".


A coach in the familiar "chocolate and cream" livery used from 1922
The passenger coaches were many and varied, ranging from four- and six-wheeled vehicles for the original broad gauge line of 1838, through to bogie coaches up to long which were in service through to 1947 and beyond. Vacuum brakes, bogies and through-corridors all came into use during the nineteenth century, and in 1900 the first electrically-lit coaches were put into service. The 1920s saw some vehicles fitted with automatic couplings and steel bodies.

Early vehicles were built by a number of independent companies, but in 1844 the railway started to build carriages at Swindon railway worksmarker, which eventually provided most of the railway’s rolling stock. Special vehicles included sleeping cars, restaurant cars and slip coaches. Passengers were also carried in railmotors, autotrains, and diesel railcars. Passenger-rated vans carried parcels, horses, and milk at express speeds.

Most coaches were painted in a chocolate brown and cream livery, although this did change over the years, however they were plain brown or red until 1864 and from 1908 to 1922. Parcels vans and similar vehicles were seldom painted in the two-colour livery, being plain brown or red instead, which caused them to be known as brown vehicles.


, see also Freight services
A GWR goods van in the grey livery used from about 1904.
This one has end doors to allow motor cars to be loaded.
In the early years of the GWR its wagons were painted brown, but this changed to red before the end of the broad gauge. The familiar dark grey livery was introduced about 1904.

Most early wagons were four-wheeled open vehicles, although a few six-wheeled vehicles were provided for special loads. Covered vans followed, initially for carrying cattle but later for both general and vulnerable goods too. The first bogie wagons appeared in 1873 for heavy loads, but bogie coal wagons were built in 1904 following on from the large four-wheel coal wagons that had first appeared in 1898. Rated at 20 tons (20.3 tonnes) these were twice the size of typical wagons of the period, but it was not until 1923 that the company invested heavily in coal wagons of this size and the infrastructure necessary for their unloading at their docks; these were known as 'Felix Pole' wagons after the GWR's General Manager who promoted their use. Container wagons appeared in 1931 and special vans for motor cars in 1933.

When the GWR was opened no trains in the United Kingdom were fitted with vacuum brakes, instead handbrakes were fitted to individual wagons and trains also conveyed brake vans where a guard had control of a screw-operated brake. The first goods wagons to be fitted with vacuum brakes were those that ran in passenger trains carrying perishable goods such as fish. Some ballast hoppers were given vacuum brakes in December 1903, and general goods wagons were constructed with them from 1904 onwards, although unfitted wagons (those without vacuum brakes) still formed the majority of the fleet in 1948 when the railway was nationalised to become a part of British Railways.

All wagons for public traffic had a code name that was used in telegraphic messages. As this was usually painted onto the wagon it is common to see them referred to by these names, such as 'Mink' (a van), 'Mica' (refrigerated van), 'Crocodile' (boiler truck), and 'Toad' (brake van).


Baulk road track
For the permanent way Brunel decided to use a light bridge rail continuously supported on thick timber baulks, known as 'baulk road'. Thinner timber transoms were used to keep the baulks the correct distance apart. This produced a smoother track and the whole assembly proved cheaper than using conventional sleepers for broad gauge track, although this advantage was lost with standard or mixed gauge lines because of the higher ratio of timber to length of line. More conventional track forms were later used, although baulk road could still be seen in sidings in the first half of the twentieth century.


Disc and crossbar signal
Brunel developed a system of 'disc and crossbar' signals to control train movements, but the people operating them could only assume that each train reached the next signal without stopping unexpectedly. The world's first commercial telegraph line was installed along the from Paddington to West Draytonmarker and came into operation on 9 April 1839. This later spread throughout the system and allowed stations to use telegraphic messages to tell the people operating the signals when each train arrived safely. A long list of code words were developed to help make messages both quick to send and clear in meaning.

More conventional semaphore signals replaced the discs and crossbars over time. The GWR persisted with the lower quadrant form, where a 'proceed' aspect is indicated by lowering the signal arm, despite other British railways changing to an upper quadrant form. Electric light signals of the 'searchlight' pattern were later introduced at busy stations; these could show the same red/green or yellow/green aspects that semaphore signals showed at night. An 'automatic train control' system was introduced from 1906 which was a safety system that applied a train's brakes if it passed a danger signal.

Cultural impact

The GWR was known admiringly to some as "God's Wonderful Railway", jocularly to others as the "Great Way Round" (some of its earliest routes were not the most direct). The railway, however, promoted itself from 1908 as "The Holiday Line" as it carried huge numbers of people to resorts in the southwest and Wales.


The GWR had operated hotels at major stations and junctions since the early days, but in 1877 it opened its first 'country house hotel', the Tregenna Castlemarker in St Ives, Cornwallmarker. It later added the Fishguard Bay Hotel in Wales and the Manor House at Moretonhampsteadmarker, Devonmarker, to which it added a golf course in 1930.

It promoted itself from 1908 as 'The Holiday Line' through a series of posters, postcards, jigsaws, and books. These included Holiday Haunts, which described the attraction of all the different parts of the GWR system, and regional titles such asSPB Mais's Cornish Riviera and A.M. Bradley’s South Wales: The Country of Castles. Guidebooks described the scenery seen Through the Window of their trains. Other GWR books were designed to encourage an interest in the GWR itself. Published as 'Books for Boys of All Ages, these included The 10:30 Limited and Loco’s of the Royal Road

Cheap tickets were offered and excursion trains operated to popular destinations and special events such as the Great Exhibition in 1851. Later, GWR road motors operated tours to popular destinations not served directly by train, and its ships offered cruises from places such as Plymouth. Redundant carriages were converted to camp coaches then placed at country or seaside stations such as and and hired to holiday makers who arrived by train.

Cultural references

The GWR attracted the attention of the artists from an early date. John Cooke Bourne's History and Description of the Great Western Railway was published in 1846 and contained a series of detailed lithographs of the railway that give us a glimpse of what the line looked like in the days before photography. J. M. W. Turner painted his Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway in 1844 after looking out of the window of his train on Maidenhead Railway Bridgemarker, and in 1862 William Powell Frith painted The Railway Station, a large crowd scene on the platform at Paddingtonmarker. The station itself was initially painted for Powell by W Scott Morton, an architect, and a train was specially provided for the painting, in front of which a variety of travellers and railway staff form an animated focal point.

The GWR has featured in many television programmes, such as the BBC children's drama series God's Wonderful Railway in 1980. It was also immortalised in Bob Godfrey's animated film Great, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film of 1975. It tells the story of Brunel's engineering accomplishments.


The GWR's memory is kept alive by several museums such as STEAM – the museum of the GWRmarker (in the old Swindon railway worksmarker), and the Didcot Railway Centremarker where there is a section of operating broad gauge track. Preserved GWR branch lines include the Totnes to Buckfastleighmarker, Paignton to Kingswearmarker, Bishops Lydeard to Minehead, and Kidderminster to Bridgnorthmarker lines. Many other heritage railways and museums also have GWR locomotives or rolling stock in use or on display.

Numerous stations still operated by Network Rail also continue to display much of their GWR heritage. This is not seen at only the large stations such as Paddingtonmarker (built 1851, extended 1915) and Temple Meadsmarker (1840, 1875 & 1935) but other places such as Bath Spamarker (1840), (1878), (1879), (1897), and (1927). Many small stations are little changed from when they were opened as there has been no need to rebuild them to cope with heavier traffic; good examples can be found at (1841), (1848), (1850, with the last surviving Brunel-style train shed), (1857), and (1859). Even where stations have been rebuilt, many fittings such as signs, manhole covers and seats can be found with 'GWR' cast into them.

UNESCOmarker are considering a proposal to list the Great Western Main Line as a World Heritage Site. The proposal, which is supported by English Heritage, comprises seven individual sites. These are Bristol Temple Meads railway stationmarker (including Brunel's Company Offices, Boardroom, train shed, and the Bristol and Exeter Railway Offices along with the route over the River Avon); Bath Spa railway stationmarker along with the line from Twerton Tunnel to the Sydney Gardens, Middlehill and Box Tunnelsmarker; the Swindon area including Swindon railway worksmarker and village; Maidenhead Railway Bridgemarker; Wharncliffe Viaductmarker; and Paddington railway stationmarker.

Great Western locomotives

Several locomotives were honoured with the name Great Western. The first was an Iron Duke class broad gauge locomotive built in 1846, the first locomotive entirely constructed at the company’s Swindon locomotive worksmarker. This was withdrawn in 1870, but in 1888 one of the modernised version of the same class was built and given the same name; this was withdrawn just four years later when the broad gauge was taken out of use. A standard gauge 3031 class locomotive, number 3012, was then given the Great Western name. The final GWR locomotive to carry the name was Castle class number 7007, which continued to carry it in British Railways days.

The name later reappeared on some BR diesels. The first was 47500 which carried the name from 1979 until 1991. Another Class 47, this time 47815, had the name bestowed on it in 2005; it is currently (2009) in operation with Riviera Trains. A High Speed Train power car, number 43185, also carries the same name; it is currently, and appropriately, a part of the First Great Western fleet.

Notable people

  • Daniel Gooch – the GWR's first Locomotive Superintendent (1837-1864) and its Chairman (1865-1889). He was responsible for the railway's early locomotive successes, such as the Iron Duke Class, and for establishing Swindon railway worksmarker.

  • James Grierson – Goods Manager (1857-1863), he then became the General Manager (1863-1887) from which position he saw the railway through a period of expansion and the early gauge conversions.

  • Henry Lambert – the General Manager (1887-1896) responsible for managing the final gauge conversion in 1892.

  • Felix Pole – as General Manager (1921-1929) he oversaw the Grouping of the South Wales railways into the GWR following the Railways Act 1921, and promoted the use of 20 ton wagons to bring efficiencies to the railway's coal trade.

See also


  1. Reprinted 1982, Ian Allan, ISBN 0-711004-12-9
  2. God's Wonderful Railway on track to be world heritage site, Steven Morris, The Guardian, 2006-07-07.
  3. ,

Further reading

  • Adams, William (ed) (1993) Encyclopaedia of the Great Western Railway, Patrick Stephens, ISBN 1-85260-329-1
  • Bryan, T. (2004) All in a Day's Work: Life on the GWR, Ian Allan, ISBN 0-7110-2964-4
  • Great Western Railway (1904) Rules and Regulations - For the Guidance of the Officers and Men, Reprinted 1993, Ian Allan, ISBN 0-7110-2259-3
  • Peter R Lewis and Alistair Nisbet, Wheels to Disaster!: The Oxford train wreck of Christmas Eve, 1874, Tempus (2008) ISBN 978 0 7524 4512 0
  • L. T. C. Rolt, Red for Danger: the classic history of British railway disasters Sutton Publishing (1998)
  • Nock, O.S. (1962) The Great Western Railway in the nineteenth century, Ian Allan
  • Nock, O.S. (1964) The Great Western Railway in the twentieth century, Ian Allan
  • Nock, O.S. (1967) History of the Great Western Railway. Volume Three: 1923-1947, Reprinted 1982, Ian Allan, ISBN 0-7110-0304-1
  • Tourret, R. (2003) GWR Engineering Work, 1928-1938, Tourret Publishing, ISBN 0-905878-08-6
  • Vaughan, Adrian (1990), Signalman's Reflections, Silver Link Publishing, ISBN 0-947971-54-8

External links

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