The Broad Gauge

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The Gauge
The line at Dawlish was originally laid as “Broad Gauge” where the distance between the tracks was 7ft ¼ inch instead of “Standard Gauge” at 4ft 8 ½ inch which was standard in most other parts of the country and the world.   The Broad Gauge had been adopted by the
Great Western Railway which was building its line to the west of England from London, Paddington.  The advantages of Broad Gauge had been recognised by the Great Western’s   engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, where trains could be more stable, run at higher speeds and provide more space for passengers or for carrying goods.

The Route
The route across South Devon was originally surveyed by Brunel in 1836 which, whilst similar today, proposed a route tunnelling behind Dawlish and Teignmouth to avoid having to build the “sea wall”.  The costs of tunnelling were considered to be too high including several other proposals which followed on.  It was only in September 1843 that Brunel resurveyed the route when the Great Western and Bristol and Exeter Railway agreed to provide a large share of the Capital for the building works to commence, under name of the South Devon Railway.  The Act was received in July 1844, despite much opposition on environmental grounds, especially at Dawlish where it was thought that the line would “drive away many residents and perhaps all the visitors”.  The greatest opposition came from the Exeter Corporation who said that enemy ships would be able to shell trains running along the sea wall! 

The laying of track began in August 1845 and by March 1846, the Broad Gauge line had been laid from Exeter to the other side of Teignmouth.  It had been intended to have double Broad Gauge line tracks but a decision had been made to operate the line as an Atmospheric Railway.  With substantial costs involved, it was soon decided to make the line single in order to save money.  Unfortunately, the Atmospheric system was no where near completion, much to the annoyance of the Directors and the railway initially operated with Broad Gauge steam locomotives, hired from the GWR.  The first official opening day was on the Bank Holiday weekend of Saturday, 30th May 1846, with two locomotives Exe and Teign (renamed Viper for the event), hauling nine coaches from Exeter to Teignmouth.

The running of Atmospheric trains on the Broad Guage track was short lived with normal running for just one year.  Following various teething problems and a financial loss, the last Atmospheric train ran on Saturday night 9th September 1848, reverting to normal steam hauled trains.  To help improve the flow of traffic, the line was widened to accommodate double Broad Gauge lines from Exeter to Dawlish, which was completed in 1874.  A single line existed west of Dawlish to Parson’s Tunnel until 1905, initially as Broad Gauge track and then as Standard Gauge track from May 1892.

The Broad Gauge operated with some dubious practices although the South Devon Railway introduced “Absolute Block” working right from the start, where no train would be allowed to enter a section before the previous train had arrived at the next.  The points and signals were all worked by individual levers and not connected or interlocked, which was standard practice in the early days of railways.  Although there were collisions, the damage was never really serious, due to low speed restrictions enforced through the stations and staff were simply fined or dismissed for such errors.  Improvements were slow coming, although interlocked signal boxes were introduced at Starcross, Dawlish, Parson’s Tunnel and Teignmouth between 1874 an 1884, including modern style semaphore signals rather than Brunel’s disc and cross-bar signals.  To help save on costs, the Great Western Railway put off many improvements until converting to Standard Gauge, when many alterations would have to made anyway.

End of the Broad Gauge
There were several reasons for the end of the Broad Gauge, despite its brilliant performance.  As the Broad Gauge was only limited to the
Great Western Railway, there was considerable inconvenience in transferring passengers and freight to places further afield, where Standard Gauge was the norm.  Railways with Standard Gauge refused to invest money to widen their tracks to Broad Gauge.  Some flexibility was gained however, through introducing a third rail, so that trains of mixed gauges could run over the Broad Gauge lines, although these dual gauge lines never went as far as Dawlish.  After 1865, the Directors of the Great Western Railway began a policy of converting Broad Gauge tracks to Standard Gauge.  To help speed up the process, the remaining 171 miles of Broad Gauge were converted to Standard Gauge over just one weekend from Friday, 20th May to Sunday 22nd May, which included the line at Dawlish.

The last day of Broad Gauge operation, Teignmouth , on Friday 20th May 1892

The two last up and down Broad Gauge trains actually passed each other at Dawlish station on Friday night, 20th May 1892.  When the trains arrived, the passengers pulled down their windows and shook hands with each other and sang the chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”!  Such was the speed of conversion, the first down Standard Gauge test train reached Dawlish at 1.15pm on Saturday, 21st May 1892; the up line was finished at on the Sunday, with normal Standard Gauge operation from Monday morning, 23rd May 1892; so ending 54 years of Broad Gauge operation on the Great Western Railway.

Useful Links.....
Broad Gauge Society
Broad Gauge Story
Great Western Railway