The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

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3 January 2006

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Aspects of the Great Western
Peter Lugg
13 March 2000

Peter signed on with the GWR at Old Oak Common as an apprentice on the mechanical side. He then moved to the civil engineering side and made his way through the system to finish in the British Railway Board HQ as head of welding.

He promised a surfeit of chocolate and cream and didn't disappoint his audience

We started with a view of the Metropolitan line at Kings Cross station and a 9700 class condensing locomotive appearing out of the tunnel. This was taken 14 years after nationalisation but the engine was still sporting its GWR logo. We moved to Paddington on the Metropolitan Railway which still exhibits much of the Victorian styling. Paddington Station itself still proudly showing displays its GWR origins and the Royal Paddington Hotel has much of its original owners designs. The canopy over platforms 11-13 still has the crest of the GWR showing on its girders. Paddington is often called "Brunel's Cathedral". The architecture was intended, like a cathedral, to encourage people to go in, with no dark areas - in many ways it is the Victorian equivalent of a modern airport. Like a cathedral, it has its monuments, including the Jaggar memorial to the war dead below the directors balcony (Jagger also designed the Wellington memorial). In total 1312 GWR staff lost their lives in the wars.

Peter noted that while there are nine different liveries for HSTs shown in his slides of the BR era, there was only one GWR livery. However, we started along the GWR mainline with a Eurotunnel train on tour round country hauled by class 47 "Sir Daniel Gooch". We also saw a "King" leaving Paddington in modern days which is virtually the same photograph as could have been taken 60 years ago.

As we left Paddington, Peter made a diversion to "Mousehole" tunnel - previously called "Cape of Good Hope" tunnel. It fell into disuse and was used for trials of long welded rail.

We stopped next at Slough Station with its wonderful fishscale roofs. The building is Grade 1 listed. The station is little changed from Victorian days and was built to broad gauge dimensions. A stuffed dog on display on the platform still collects £250 per year at Slough for the Railway Orphans.

Taplow station is a nugget of Brunel Victoriana. It has altered little from Brunel's day and was originally the terminus of the GWR. Although it has the date 1884 on the canopy, this is not the original date of the building just the date of the quadrupling of the line at this point.

Not far away, Maidenhead bridge is still the flattest brick arch bridge in the world. Through Sonning cutting there are several elegant bridges originally built just to carry foot paths.

At Reading, we see the slip coach in operation. The GWR, and subsequently BR, kept slip coaches in operation until the 1960s. Further west, the railway passes over the Thames five times between Maidenhead and Oxford. All of these bridges are unaltered, now carrying HSTs instead of much slower steam engines.

The Didcot power station now dominates the countryside. Peter tells us there are 1082 steps to the top of the chimney - he has personally counted them! Didcot is now well know as a working museum - and a return to brass and copper. The GW Society's first purchased engine was 1466 0-4-2T, which worked the autocars, in many ways the predecessors of modern multiple units. The oldest loco at Didcot is the Wantage Tramway engine No 5. It also is the home for the only Churchward engine still extant.

Peter showed us a photograph of a small Prairies with an Ocean Saloon carriage, which at 9ft 6ins width exceeds Railtrack standards. These carriages had blue axle boxes indicating mineral oil lubrication. The mixed traffic Prairie tanks were originally built to show that steam could compete with electric. In contrast, the 2-8-0 goods engines were built with low speed power in mind. They regularly hauled the "long Tom" - 2000 tons of loco coal for Old Oak Common. They could also run fast. Peter once was on the footplate of one which, when deputising for a failed engine, kept the passenger timings for a 13-coach train from Paddington to South Wales. This was impressive, however an empty coal train were more difficult because they had so much air drag. A Mogul in being rebuilt for 2001 steaming. A Saint is being restored and a single chimney King is also being rebuilt.

The original broad gauge Firefly was cut up by Churchward after being on a pedestal at Swindon but a brand new replica is now being built. The originals ran at up to 80mph in the 1880s even with its Gab valve gear (like Lion) which cannot be notched up. There were no brakes on the engine, just the train - but the new one will have brakes on the tender for safety purposes. It should be running in 18-24 months.

To allow running of Firefly there is a mixed broad and standard gauge track already in place. The rail is mounted on longitudinal transoms, which makes the track very resilient - but caused the engines to suffer from the vibration. A fishplate/chair junction from longitudinal to transverse sleepering was shown. These were about to be scrapped having been recovered from a site in the South-West, but a very quick-witted dealer saw them and telephoned the Society - they were rapidly snapped up. The transfer shed illustrates the complex track needed to ensure that the broad gauge and standard gauge are at the right side. The Australians used exactly the same design in handling their mixed gauge. An famous picture from the Illustrated London News of "change of gauge" brought about the standardisation of gauge. The Didcot layout has replica signalling, both main line and ground signals, stop blocks, Signal Box, and parachute water tank.

It is not all steam engines at Didcot; the AEC cars are represented. With its 7 litre diesel engine, it could travel up to 70mph, often working in multiple. The wagon collection includes special vans, banana, insulated fish vans. We must also remember that it was from Didcot that the APT1 set the British speed record.

We moved to Swindon in mixed gauge days, which also showed the complications of this form of track. The national monuments centre is now housed in the offices of Swindon Loco Works which are themselves listed buildings. The buildings have base reliefs of early GWR engines, the reliefs originally being incorporated into Gloucester sheds. A shot of the works after closure shows how well it was lit by the north-light roof. The Swindon works had a number of war memorials which unfortunately disappeared when the works came down - if anyone know where they are Peter would like to know. It was thought in its time to be the biggest assembly plant in Europe. It had a complex system of subterrainian walkway to separate people from the workings. The Swindon hooters could be heard 10 miles away. When the retail park was opened, they tried to get the hooter to work, but despite using 3 compressors and a reservoir, they only just managed to get a peep out of it!

We considered the class 47xx, which comprised big 2-8-0 engines which easily kept time during night-time coal-traffic work. Peter would like to rebuild one if he wins the pools. The gas turbine Metro-Vic and Brown-Boverie "Kerosene Castles" also went through Swindon works. Although they had two cabs they could only work one way, because the exhaust would be sucked into the intake if they tried to go through Box Tunnel. Kestral was effectively the first of the diesel class 47 - many of which were worked on at Swindon. The diesel hydraulic (the Hymech) was the first 100mph diesel. They were designed with the advice of the Design Council. The design based on the German system, but the UK ones ran much greater mileage. The diesel hydraulic class 14 shunters and Wickham cars showed how the aesthetic standards had slipped since the Hymek days. The last stock built at Swindon was the Waterloo and City stock. A shop became the dismantling shop in the end.

The GWR was still in the vanguard with the introduction of the HSTs. Peter travelled on the prototype at over 125mph. It was also from Swindon that Peter travelled on City of Truro down the Newbury line, but at a more leisurely pace.

We then travelled by way of Box tunnel, Bristol east yard cutting and to Bristol. Here, the original station roof is being restored with a heritage grant. The "new" station was built on a curve to avoid intimidating the passenger - in effect you can only see part of the station from the platforms. The Blue Pullman, which was introduced on the Bristol-Paddington line, had a lot of GWR input and had a ride which was excellent in the cab - an old 3d piece would stay standing on the cab console for 15-20 miles.

We moved down the Bristol and Exeter to Starcross. The atmospheric railway was one of Brunel's failures. Although it had the advantage of centralised power, but the technology of his day wasn't up to it - if only he had had electricity! Nevertheless, Didcot is attempting to rebuild a short section of atmospheric line for demonstration purposes.

Now across Dawlish Warren to Dainton and into Plymouth. Most of the viaducts we encounter from here were originally wooden trestles. A large diesel depot was positioned at Laira. Further west, the Tamar bridge is on of the most elegant of Brunel's bridges. In the middle of the Royal Albert bridge is the 251 milepost, measured via Box and Devonport - not the direct route which is about 30 miles less. Peter has inspected to bridge close up and can confirm that it is good for another 100 years. The title "I.K. Brunel Engineer 1859" can be seen on its towers - although Brunel didn't survive to see it finished. It is possible to walk over the upper tubes, which have a 15 inch high handrail. The inside is dry and in good repair. There are weepholes at the bottom which have the effect of a pinhole camera which show the outside girders. Peter showed a number of photographs of the bridge, taken from unusual angles.

Now towards South Wales, via Pilling. Here, the tunnels are at different heights, designed specifically so that the loaded coal trains had an easier grade out of the cutting. The Severn Tunnel still has the "Great Spring", which is of sweet water despite it being under the estuary.

Further north is the Sharpness (Severn) bridge. Nearby, the Chepstow bridge was the original predecessor of the Saltash Bridge. Further along the South Wales lines, the Cromline Viaduct was the highest viaduct in the UK.

We stop to see Cardiff Central station, which was the first to have bilingual signs. A visit to South Wales just after steam days, wouldn't be complete without a visit to Di-Woodhams yard at Barry. Peter showed a number of photographs of engines awaiting rescue. Down the South Wales main line we find the well known flying buttresses, inserted into a cutting to prevent mining subsidence. Unfortunately, they had only 1 inch clearance between the chimney and roof. The only way some of the larger engines could get through was by stopping just before, filling the boiler will water and then creeping through.

Peter finished his steam slides with views of the Vale of Rheidol line.

As he said "the GWR may be Gone with Regret but the name lives on".

In answer to on interesting question from the audience, Peter explained the origin of the odd 1/4 inch in the broad gauge? The original engines came down from Birmingham with exactly 7ft gauge wheels. There was only a few miles of track all of which was at 7ft - and of course it wouldn't fit. Brunel consider it cheaper to re-drill the track than rebuild the engine. Peter has found baulk rail with the bolt holes widened giving credence to this explanation.