Great Western Railway

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Seal of the GWR
Great Western Railway Company share dated November 30, 1840

The Great Western Railway ( GWR ) was a British railway company that existed from 1833 to 1947 . It linked London with South West England, West England and South Wales. The GWR was the only company that continued to exist under the same name after the reorganization of the British railway system in 1923. In 1948 it was part of the state company British Railways (now British Rail). Today's First Great Western serves essentially the same area and its name refers to its predecessor. In 2005 the American Society of Civil Engineers added the GWR to the List of International Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks .

Great Western trains included long-haul express services such as the Flying Dutchman, the Cornish Riviera Express, and the Cheltenham Spa Express. It also operated many suburban and rural routes, some of them with steam rail engines or so-called "autotrains". The company pioneered the use of larger, more economical freight cars than the UK. It operated a network of bus routes, was part of the railroad service and owned ships, docks and hotels. In the vernacular, the GWR was jokingly called “God's Wonderful Railway” or “Great Way Round” , as the first routes were partly built with long detours. In the first decades, the track width of the GWR routes differed from that of the other companies, it was 2140 mm. By 1892 the lines were converted from broad gauge to standard gauge of 1435 mm.


The London-Bristol route

Statue of Brunel on London Paddington Railway Station

With the construction of a railway line to London, Bristol was to maintain its position as the second most important port in the country after freight traffic increasingly went through the port of Liverpool . The founding assembly took place in Bristol in 1833, and Parliament granted the concession in 1835. Isambard Kingdom Brunel , then 27 years old, was hired as chief engineer .

Brunel made two important decisions: Since he believed that a wider gauge would improve the running characteristics at high speeds, he chose not the standard gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches (1435 mm) that is common today, but a broad gauge of 7 feet (2140 mm). He also chose a route through the Marlborough Downs and through the Thames Valley to London; there were no major cities in this area.

Brunel carried out the measurements himself on the entire route. The first section between London Paddington Station and Taplow near Maidenhead opened in 1838. At the same time, the line was also built from Bristol and in 1840 the Bristol Temple Meads to Bath Spa line opened. From 1841, trains ran on the completed Great Western Main Line to London Paddington. In 1839, the GWR put the world's first commercial telegraph line into operation.

Main workshop in Swindon

Gooch's locomotive "Hirondelle" of the GWR

In 1837, Brunel hired the then 21-year-old mechanic Daniel Gooch for the revision of the operations service for the locomotive types that had been procured . He recognized the need for a central main workshop and in 1840, together with Brunel, chose the former village of Swindon at the junction of the railway line leading from London in the directions of Bristol and Cheltenham as the location. With the expansion of the repair and operations workshop to include the Swindon Railway Works under Gooch, the town quickly grew into a railroad town with around 70,000 inhabitants towards the end of World War II , of which up to 14,000 found work at GWR.

The gauge war

7-foot broad gauge track from Brunel

In the so-called "gauge war" ("gauge war"), the GWR fought fierce competition with the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). In 1846 the Bristol and Gloucester Railway was bought by the Midland Railway and converted to standard gauge in 1854 . Three- rail tracks were laid on this route , on which trains of both gauges could run. Plymouth was reached in 1849 and Penzance in 1867 on the south-western tip of England with other own line structures . The South Wales Railway was opened in 1850 and connected to the GWR by the Wye Bridge built by Brunel in 1852 and Birmingham with Snow Hill station in the same year . Through such takeovers and further line construction, the GWR grew to the largest company in the south-west of England.

After the conversion to standard gauge broad gauge locomotives of the GWR (1892)

In the 1860s, the GWR realized that they could not win the gauge war and that the broad gauge would not prevail. Step by step, the GWR converted the broad-gauge network to standard gauge, with three-rail tracks being laid in some cases as an interim solution. The merger with the West Midland Railway meant that Paddington station was first served by standard gauge trains in 1861. After 1869 there were no broad gauge tracks north of Oxford . The conversion of the last broad gauge section took place in May 1892. Since the route from London to Wales took a detour via Gloucester, the construction of the Severn Tunnel began in 1873 at Brunel's instigation , but the opening of the Severn Tunnel was delayed until 1886.

Nationalization efforts

In 1904 a GWR class Iron Duke (the City of Truro ) steam locomotive ran faster than 100 mph (161 km / h ) for the first time . After the outbreak of World War I , the government placed GWR and the other major railroad companies under its control. After the end of the war, the government considered nationalizing these companies, but decided to merge them into four large companies, known as the "Big Four". Only the GWR kept its old name when the Railways Act 1921 came into force on January 1, 1923 . The GWR took over several small companies, mostly in Wales .

During the Second World War , the railways were again placed under government control. After the end of the war, a Labor government came to power and planned to nationalize all railways. The GWR went on January 1, 1948 in the state British Railways (now British Rail). After British Rail was broken up and privatized in 1994, the First Great Western company was founded, which revived the traditional name “Great Western”.

Companies merged with GWR in 1921

Great Western Railway route network 1930

Main companies

In 1921 the following companies were merged:

Other companies

Five more independent companies were listed in the law "subsidiary companies":

Two other companies had their own rolling stock, but operation was carried out by the GWR:


The other subsidiaries only existed by name, but were nevertheless mentioned in the Railways Act for legal reasons.

Original parent company Great Western Railway

Original parent company Taff Vale Railway

Original parent company Cambrian Railways

Original parent company Port Talbot Railway and Docks

Original parent company Barry Railway


GWR “Caerphilly Castle” in the STEAM museum

Two museums deal with the history of the Great Western Railway, the Swindon Steam Railway Museum (STEAM) in Swindon and the Didcot Railway Center in Didcot . Several branch lines are now operated as museum railways.

See also


  • Anthony Coulls: Railways as World Heritage Sites = Occasional Papers of the World Heritage Convention. ICOMOS 1999, p. 21.

Web links

Commons : Great Western Railway  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files