Broad Gauge

... read on


Brunel originally conceived the broad gauge railway in 1838 with its 7 feet between the rails as he believed, quite rightly, this would give it extra speed and comfort and this was applied to the whole if the GWR. The early locomotives were things of steel, brass and wood - both functional and elegant - enter the photographer.

The 7ft gauge really is impressive compared to the Stevenson's "standard" 4 feet 8 ½ inches, but by 1892 only the final section of the GWR line to Penzance, running through Devon and Cornwall was broad gauge only. Cheapness had won over technical superiority, now where have we heard that before?

The early class of engines that really made the GWR broad gauge railway so successful was the Firefly class named for first locomotive designed by Daniel Gooch, The Firefly, of which 60 were built and the one pictured below is a functional replica.

As well as The Firefly replica curated by the GWR Society at Didcot there is also a relocated Transfer Shed built in the 1850s to trans-ship goods between broad and "standard" gauge trains. This is great for creating pictures with receding lines leading to vanishing points giving the impression of great depth aided by light and shade created by light from side windows and sky lights.

Everything is about sweeping long lines and repeating geometric patterns that carry your eye from one end of the picture to the other, as below. The man oiling the suspension on the carriages giving scale to the whole thing.

The lighting in the picture below, yet again taken along the sweep of the shed, brings out the gorgeous deep rich metallic colours of the train complemented by the matured woodwork of shed.

Then there are lovely old details like the cases on the vintage porter's trolley shown below. As well as illustrating dark light technique, it also shows how the extreme overexposure latitude of colour negative film retains detail in highlights beyond the open ends of the shed. 

At the end of 1845 a trial between a broad gauge engine and two narrow gauge engines was arranged, supervised by the Gauge Commission. Two "standard" (as we now call them) gauge engines were chosen for comparison with the broad gauge engine Ixion of Gooch's 'Firefly' class.


One of these "standard" gauge competitors ran off the line and fell over after only 22 miles and Ixion proved its mastery despite being an older design and used less coal and water to boot. Despite this the Gauge Commission decided in favour of the "standard" gauge but admitted the technical superiority and potential of Brunel's ideas. It's a decision that led to the eventual complete demise of broad gauge.


But it left photographers and rail enthusiasts alike with a tiny but lovely remnant of a classic "what might have been".