It was not only in the gauge of the line that Brunel differed in practice to those being adopted elsewhere but also in the actual method of construction of the track-work. The lines in other parts of the country had been laid on individual closely spaced stone blocks, as the Stephensons were doing, or, latterly on closely spaced cross-timbers (sleepers). With these methods the rail formed a load-bearing beam which, with the relatively weak materials of the day, necessitated a rather heavy cross-section. Brunel considered that laying down a broader gauge on closer spaced cross sleepers would be expensive in timber. He therefore developed his own design to get around this.
Firstly he designed a special rail section; which became known as bridge-rail. Brunel had this rail supported along its entire length on longitudinal timbers which were joined at intervals by transverse members (transoms), the up and down roads also being joined together by cross timbers. Using this system only a comparatively light rail section (at first) of 43lbs. per yard was necessary.
The method was basically sound except for one error of judgement. This was Brunel's use of piles between 8ft. and 18ft in length driven into the ground and then fixed to the transoms and the ballast then rammed home under the timbers as packing. The problem, which soon became apparent on the opening of the London to Maidenhead section was that the ballast settled, leaving the track supported only by the piles, leading to most uncomfortable switch-back rides!
Problems with locomotives
Track-work was not the only difficult area with which Brunel was dealing at this time. All the early locomotives purchased by the Great Western, with one exception, were proving themselves unequal to the tasks set them. They were decidedly unreliable. In fact, during the first 18 months of its existence the GW took delivery of the largest collection, even for those days, of freak locomotives ever to run, or in some cases, attempt to run on rails.
Some of the responsibility for this state of affairs must rest with Brunel who, when letting the contracts, laid down certain conditions. He allowed the manufacturers to decide upon general form and construction details but stipulated that the piston speed should not exceed 280ft/min. at 30mph., or the weight exceed l0½ tons in working order. This restriction of piston speed was at a time when on other railways a speed of 500ft/min. at 30mph. was commonplace.
The makers in keeping with these provisions adopted unorthodox designs. The keeping of the piston speed within the set limit necessitated the provision of large diameter driving wheels. This in turn incurred a weight penalty on an already restricted top weight limit. This in turn led to the adoption of small boilers which resulted in the engines being often short of steam. The engines supplied by Hawthorns 'Thunderer' and 'Hurricane' were so unorthodox as to put them in an experimental class.
Early in November of 1837 the first two engines; 'Premier' from the firm of Mather, Dixon and Co., Liverpool and 'Vulcan' from Charles Tayleur and Co., (Vulcan Foundry) Newton-le-Willows, Warrington, were delivered by canal to West Drayton, having come by sea from Liverpool to London Dock8. Vulcan became the first engine to run on the Great Western Railway on 28 December 1837, using the mile and a half of line completed between Drayton and Langley. After these two, the next engine to be delivered was 'North Star', built by Robert Stephenson and Co., for the New Orleans Railway, U.S.A. She was of orthodox design but constructed for that railway's 5ft. 6ins. gauge. The sale of this engine to the American company having fallen through, 'North Start was altered to suit the 7ft¼ins. gauge and purchased (with a similar engine 'Morning Star') by the GWR. 'North Star' arrived at Maidenhead by barge at the end of November 1837 and there she remained until the rails eventually reached this area in May 1838.
Gooch is appointed
Before delivery of the first engine, Brunel had been authorised to secure the services of a "Superintendent of Locomotive Engines". He, and the Great Western for that matter, were fortunate in his choice of a 21–year–old engineer Daniel Gooch.
Young Gooch had started his professional career in the Tredegar Ironworks, Monmouthshire, and on the death of his father he obtained work at the Vulcan Foundry (founded by Charles Tayleur and Robert Stephenson). But after trouble with his health he obtained a temporary draughtsman’s post with Messrs Stirling of East Foundry, Dundee. In 1836, Gooch moved onto Robert Stephenson and Co., Newcastle~on~Tyne.
However, it was whilst Gooch was working on the Manchester and Leeds Railway that Brunel interviewed him and offered him a post on the Great Western Railway as "Superintendent of Locomotive Engines".
Daniel Gooch proved to be a first-class locomotive engineer and it was largely through his efforts that the best of the 'freaks' were kept in working order enough to run trains during the railway's first difficult year.
It was he and Brunel who did so much to improve the steaming and reduce the coke consumption of North Star when it became evident that she was not as efficient as might be. North Star had shown that she was incapable of drawing more than l6tons at 40mph. Following modifications by Gooch and Brunel, which included increasing the size of the blast pipe and ensuring that the exhaust steam was discharged up the middle of the chimney, she proved capable of pulling 40tons at 40mph and using less than a third of the quantity of coke at that.
It was through trials and successes such as this that Gooch was able to design his famous 'Firefly' class of locomotives, which eventually totalled 62 engines. They, with the eventual total of twelve 'Stars' were to prove the backbone of the early Great Western passenger service.
Gooch was a stickler for high standards of workmanship and it was his disappointment with the workmanship emanating from some of the manufacturers, coupled with his desire for standardisation within locomotive classes, that lead him to construct at Swindon one of the first railway-owned locomotive works in the country.
The first locomotive to be built entirely at Swindon was the 2–2–2 express passenger engine 'Great Western', completed in April 1846. She was to prove the forerunner of a line of express passenger engines built there for the broad gauge. An 0-6-0 goods engine engine 'Premier' had emerged from Swindon works in February 1846, but because the boiler had been supplied by outside contract she was not classed as entirely "home produced".
Early problems overcome
Returning to 1838, for a moment, the early problems with locomotives and track had produced a situation whereupon independent engineers; namely Nicholas Wood and John Hawkshaw (later Sir John), were called in to report on the deficiencies considered to be apparent, not only in the viability of the broad gauge itself but also in the fitness of the locomotives. The professional discord created during this period had Brunel threatening to resign, and one of the leading company directors G.H.Gibbs to doubt the fitness of Daniel Gooch to he head of the locomotive department. Fortunately the combined effects of the inconclusive nature of the reports from the two independent engineers and the decisive way in which Brunel and Gooch had dealt with the shortcomings of the North Star won the day as far as the broad gauge was concerned, at least for the time being.
To rectify the shortcomings of the track, Brunel adopted the expedient of cutting through the piles which supported the track-work, allowing the track assembly to be supported by the ground, then re-packing with ballast as necessary. When this work was done the track behaved as had first been expected. The springing arrangements and wheel rims of rolling stock were improved in design and with the advent of more reliable motive power in the form of Gooch's 'Firefly' class the railway at last took on the form of a viable proposition.
The most difficult section of the line to construct was the section from Bristol to just west of Box. This 18 miles of line involved the cutting of no fewer than eleven tunnels, totalling just under 5.2 miles, of which Box Tunnel was the longest at 3212 yards being most difficult and labour intensive.
The methods used in constructing tunnels in Brunel's day would now be considered too dangerous but were dictated by the crude tools and equipment available. Brunel's success was partly due to the fact that he led his work forces very much from the front. He was often seen to roll up his sleeves and work alongside the men, particularly when the work became more difficult or dangerous. Short in stature but great in spirit and energy he was popularly known as the 'little giant'. His excellent working relationship with the men was helped to a great extent by his sense of occasion. After a force of four thousand men and three hundred horses had been working day and night from opposite ends of Box Tunnel, Brunel was on the spot when the two bores met. So delighted was he at the accuracy of the operation that he removed a ring from his finger and presented it to the ganger in charge. This story was remembered long after the casualties were forgotten..
Casualties were a part of everyday life in the early railway building age. When Brunel was shown a list of more than a hundred of the Box navvies being admitted to Bath Hospital between September 1839 and June 1841, he commented:,, I think it is a small list considering the very heavy works and the immense amount of powder used."
Broad gauge south of Bristol
Before the construction of the Bristol to London line had begun a broad gauge line from Bristol to Exeter had been sanctioned by Parliament. On its completion, because the Bristol and Exeter Railway Company found itself short of capital, the line was leased to the Great Western which provided the motive power and rolling stock for its operation. The Bristol and Exeter Railway went independent from May 1849 until its final and complete amalgamation with the Great Western in August 1876. During these years it produced its own locomotives at Bristol under the Superintendency of James Pearson, who had formerly been Atmospheric Superintendent of the South Devon Railway. Whilst producing locomotives at Bristol, Pearson introduced his most incredible type; the 4-2-4T well and back tank express passenger engines with nine foot driving wheels. They had a most impressive appearance the like of which was not seen anywhere else in the country.
The South Devon Railway Bill received the Royal Assent in 1844, with the Great Western, Bristol and Exeter and Bristol and Gloucester Railways putting up £400,000 of its authorised £1,100,000 of capital.
Despite initial success in operating atmospheric trains between Exeter and Teignmouth and then Newton (later Newton Abbot) the system was abandoned. It became more and more unreliable and expensive to repair, and it was dismantled - much to the expense of Brunel's reputation and his pocket (he always used some of his own capital in financing his ventures) and that of the South Devon Railway Company. Before its final shutdown some of Gooch's engines had been made available and normal locomotive working ensued from 9 September 1848. The steep gradients which remained as a result of these early South Devon Railway policies were to have a profound effect on the locomotive policy of the Great Western for the rest of its independent existence and beyond.
Impoverished as it was by this expensive failure it was not long before the South Devon Railway was annexed to the Great Western. When the broad gauge 'Cornwall Railway' was added to the Great Western, with its line from Plymouth over the Tamar, then through Truro to Falmouth and Penzance, the GW had the longest through route in the country.
Cornwall was to prove a broad gauge stronghold to the end of that gauge as the farming, clay and mineral interests appreciated the prodigious loads and fast times by which their produce was conveyed to London and other centres.