Isambard Kingdom Brunel Era Edit

Perhaps one of the most ingenious engineers in history, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was appointed chief engineer of the newly found Great Western Railway in 1833. The goal for the railway was simple, yet daunting, to connect London and Bristol by rail. Brunel would take such a challenge in his stride, and envisaged a time when one would board a train in London, travel to Neyland, West Wales, and step aboard the Great Western steamship bound for New York, all on one ticket.

Brunel personally surveyed the route upon which the Great Western Railway would stand. The route would travel duly east from Bristol, bypassing the Marlborough Downs, and then follow the Thames Valley into Central London. This route was controversial at best, as very few major towns laid in its path, but it offered the potential for future expansion, something evidently undertaken when looking at today’s vast GWR network.

Even by the 1830s, the adopted railway gauge was 4ft 8 1⁄2in, however, this would not hinder Brunel’s desire to build the Great Western Railway with his own 7ft gauge. This broader gauge would be the largest ever built and held significant benefits over ‘standard gauge’, notably its performance at higher speeds, and of course capacity. So it was that London and Bristol were connected with 7ft-wide tracks, a practise short-lived after Brunel’s passing.

Construction of the “Great Western Main Line” began in 1835, starting from a temporary station in Paddington, London and heading west. The first phase stretched to Maidenhead Riverside and was opened in 1838, with extensions to Twyford, and Reading, opening in 1839 and 1840 respectively. The path of the GWML crossed the famed River Thames no less than 3 times, twice in-between London and Reading, and it was at the first crossing that Brunel built his impressive double-span viaduct, Maidenhead Bridge; so impressive in fact, Turner painted a scene depicting a GWR locomotive crossing the Thames at this point.

With a broad gauge, came the broad locomotives. The initial batch was to Brunel’s design, and aside from the North Star locomotive, they left a lot to be desired, so Daniel Gooch was appointed as superintendent to design future engines. Brunel and Gooch made Swindon the home of their locomotive works, and in doing so, built a workshop that would produce some of the UK’s most recognisable locomotives to date.

While London and Bristol were connected quite successfully by 1841, and further branches to Wales and Oxford were started, the line still didn’t receive a complete terminus within London until 1854. However, when Brunel’s impressive “London Paddington” station was built, it defined the GWR. 3 roof spans played home to Great Western locomotives, and a 4th span would be required in later years. The Great Western Railway grew so exponentially, that London Paddington was chosen to also be the terminus of the world’s very first underground railway, the Metropolitan, in 1863.

Pre-nationalisation Era Edit

As mentioned above, Brunel’s broad gauge was controversial and unique, far too unique to last forever. Mixed-gauge tracks had already been provided to allow the use of ‘standard’ rolling stock, vital for the rapidly growing passenger numbers, but it was soon decided that broad gauge had to go. The immediate downside, of course, was a universal loss of capacity, as new rolling stock would conform to standard gauge only, and so it was also decided to widen the line to four tracks.

After the line out of London was quadrupled, and stations were appropriately modified to suit, the Great Western Main Line is now becoming akin to how it is seen today. One thing that railways did lack, however, was reliable safety systems, and it became apparent that the busy GWR network needed something new after the incident at Slough in 1900. So by 1908, Great Western Railway installed ‘Automatic Train Control’ between London and Reading, and it works similarly in principle to the more modern AWS (Automatic Warning System); where a horn sounds on approach to a caution signal, and failure to acknowledge the sound by the driver initiates an emergency brake application. ATC would be replaced by AWS in the 1970s, and the GWML would also be fitted with ATP (Automatic Train Protection) following the Southall and Ladbroke Grove disasters.

Over the 20th Century, the character of the Great Western Railway continued to develop and grow more independent of other railway networks. Generations of spotters would have seen this change; Stars became Castles, Saints became Halls, and Castles became Kings. The grandeur of the Great Western Railway was unparalleled.

Nationalisation Era Edit

Of course, the steam era would soon come to a close, yet the Western Region of British Railways still held a certain moxie to it; what with unique diesel-hydraulics such as the Hymeks, Warships and Westerns on the scene, alongside the venerable Class 50 ‘Hoovers’. Despite all the successes, the Great Western Main Line still had one more trick up its sleeve. British Rail was looking for ways to improve journey times, and they did so spectacularly with the introduction of the High Speed Train.

The High Speed Train, branded as the InterCity 125 by BR, ushered in a new era of rail travel for Britain, and this genesis of speed was fully realised first on the Great Western Main Line in 1976. Promising for the first time 125mph operation, the High Speed Trains were instant marvels with passengers, though not entirely taken to by enthusiasts initially. They fundamentally changed the way that Britons would travel for decades. Above all, they are still working strong to this day, with the oldest examples now in their 5th decade of service; and even with their replacements, the Class 800s of the Intercity Express Programme, under construction, there are plans for the High Speed Trains to see good use in years to come.

Privatisation Era Edit

The privatisation of British Rail was perhaps the biggest change to the UK rail network since the 1955 Modernisation Plan. Instead of being a unitary organisation in charge of all operations, the network would be split into franchises, and companies that were successful in bidding for these franchises would operate them for a given time, and would be known as Train Operating Companies (TOCs).

In December 1995, the Great Western InterCity franchise – which dealt with all long-distance services originating and terminating at London Paddington – was awarded to Great Western Holdings, a joint venture between FirstGroup, 3i and former BR managers. Services began in February 1996 and were branded as Great Western Trains, and the InterCity 125 sets were given a new dark green and white livery.

This lasted for just over two years, as in December 1998, FirstGroup decided to buy out its partners to achieve 100% ownership of the franchise; the transfer was a success and the franchise was rebranded as First Great Western. It was in the early years of ‘FGW’ that the much-remembered “Fag Packet” and “Barbie” liveries were born.

Up until this point, the local services out of London Paddington, which served the Thames Valley and beyond, were part of a separate franchise altogether. Thames Trains, owned by Go-Ahead, were in charge of these services from October 1996 until March 2004, but the winning bidder for the next franchise was none other than FirstGroup themselves, and so First Great Western Link took over the local services in April 2004.

Again, this regime lasted for 2 years, almost exactly in fact, however it was decided to combine the Great Western, Great Western Link and Wessex Trains franchises into one monopoly. A total of three bidders were shortlisted for the new, much larger franchise, including FirstGroup, and they were awarded the Greater Western franchise in December 2005, and started operating network-wide as First Great Western in April 2006.

After brief debate, it was decided that all service types would receive the same livery, and so was born “Dynamic Lines”. This livery remained on a majority of the fleet for quite some time, however the HST power cars were soon seen in a plain ‘corporate’ FGW blue instead.

FirstGroup were offered the chance to extend their franchise in 2011, which would see them in charge until March 2013, but with the Great Western Main Line modernisation right around the corner, they declined in an effort to find a longer term deal. A late Invitation to Tender went out, and FirstGroup, National Express and Stagecoach were shortlisted for the bid. Due to the short notice, this bid was eventually abandoned and a franchise extension was awarded to FirstGroup anyway. By March 2015, the franchise had been extended to April 2019.

In September 2015 came the biggest change, to recognise the heritage of Brunel’s Billiard Table, FirstGroup rebranded First Great Western into Great Western Railway, and adopted a new two-tone green livery. The new GWR livery was debuted on the HST, Class 166 and Class 57 Sleeper sets, and several classes of units have followed including the brand new Class 387 and Class 800 units which will replace the Networker Turbos and HSTs respectively.

Today Edit

FirstGroup now run one of the longest running rail franchises since privatisation in 1996, having been involved since the beginning and claiming complete ownership by 1998. They will now be in charge until at least April 2020, by which point a new bidder will be awarded and they could still win that and operate the Great Western network for many years to come.

Conclusion Edit

Little would have Brunel imagined what the Great Western Main Line would have become over the last 175+ years, a line of great character, home to the journey shrinker, and now subject to a development project which will see the line speed towards the future.

Great Western Express
Locomotives BR Class 43 HST - BR Class 66 - BR Class 166
Rolling Stock BR Mk3 - HKA Hopper - FKA Container Flat
Locations Paddington - Old Oak Common TMD - Reading
Operators Great Western Railway - DB Cargo UK
Tutorials Class 43 Introduction - Class 166 Introduction - Class 66 Introduction - Station Stopping
Scenarios Down the Line - West World - Christmas Closures - Aggregate Industries - Drag Line
Miscellaneous History - Signalling