Sidetracks

On the broardway

First published in the West Briton
So, as you shove your way down the central corridor with your bags and cases, knocking heartlessly against the knees which project into your way; or as you jerk down the same narrow path with your coffee in one hand and often a stranger’s shoulder in the other; as you twist and turn and try to fold your constricted limbs into a comfortable position; or as you read of rail disasters like Hatfield, do you think back and once more confirm the genius of Ismbard Kingdom Brunel?

I can’t remember who championed Brunel in the TV “Great Britons” series, but I think it was the brash motor-racing chap. I’m sorry he didn’t win. I often think of Brunel while taking the train through Cornwall, making his first survey of the route I am travelling on; sitting quietly on his horse in the difficult hills around Bodmin and Liskeard with his big hat on, mentally tracing the line through the virgin landscape and visualising a cutting here, a tunnel there, and a spectacular bridge over a steep valley; in order to gentle the gradient to something the engines could manage. I always think of him as the trains slow down cautiously to trundle over the Albert Bridge at Saltash, his brilliance in utilising the tides to raise the massive bridge sections, stage by stage, to the right levels.

But I think of him most often whenever the built-in inconvenience of the mean-sized carriages afflicts the passengers with the usual frustration. It didn’t have to be this way.

If you stand at some of the smaller Cornish stations you can still see the redundant spaces at the sides of the lines and sidings, indicating something more substantial and magnificent, now gone. The ghost of the Broad Gauge still haunts the length of the former original Great Western Railway.

It is well-known that George Stephenson designed his railways using the arbitrary width of the horse-drawn wagons which served Killingworth Colliery, whose rails happened to be 4′ 8 1/2″ apart. It was a pragmatic decision, probably not even thought about until the extent of the network made it impractical to change. Brunel, on the other hand, did give the matter some thought, devising with his engineer’s mind the optimum compromise between engine capacity and weight, wind resistance and stability, and loading capacity for passengers and freight alike. He came up with a gauge of just over 7′, nearly thirty inches wider.

It made better sense. Present day trains teeter along like big ladies on high heels, tall and corseted, with their wheels gathered demurely beneath them. Brunel’s engines were monsters by comparison, slung between great wheels instead of balancing on top of them, making them far more powerful, durable and stable. The trucks were able to carry a far greater load and improve the economy of each journey by a large percentage. Passengers were not originally the priority, but when they became so, the added width gave a generosity of space we can only dream of.

History and politics favoured Stephenson, and the 1846 Standard Gauge Act gave the vote to the inferior model. The very last broad gauge line to be built in Britain was the St Ives branch line, which opened in 1877. When the change was inevitable the company directors decided not to disrupt their network over a long period (!) but did the remaining conversion over a single week-end. At 10.15 on 20th May 1892 the last broad gauge “Cornishman” left Paddingon for Penzance, and probably – although history doesn’t recount – arrived on time. And, ever since, we have only the memory of a great man to comfort us as we rattle through England like sardines in a can.

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