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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Life of Robert Stephenson by William Pole: Chapter I (Volume 2)

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CHAPTER I (Volume 2). The Battle of the Gauges (age 40-42)

WHILST Robert Stephenson was proving that the locomotive was superior to atmospheric propulsion in economy and adaptability of power, he was involved in another controversy, of not less importance, which brought him again in collision with the brilliant engineer, who was throughout life his constant professional opponent, and warm private friend. The relations that subsisted between him and Brunel could not have endured between rivals endowed with merely ordinary generosity. Continually as they were pitted against each other, much as the reputation of the one was exalted by the failures of the other, they not only preserved strong mutual affection, but in their gravest periods of public trial were always ready to assist each other with counsel and support. When Robert Stephenson with fearful anxiety was watching the floating of his first enormous tubular bridge to the piers, Brunel stood by his side; and when Brunel was heroically contending with the gigantic difficulties of launching the Great Eastern, Robert Stephenson disregarded the claims of failing health, in order that he might be on the spot to encourage and advise his brother engineer. Two nobler adversaries the world never witnessed.

Whilst ordinary men were admiring the phenomena of railway developement, Brunel was criticising George Stephenson’s system and planning improvements. It struck him that iron roads were not all they might be, or ought to be; and it was not long before he struck out a novel method for their construction. At the first projection of the Great Western Railway in 1833, it was contemplated that that line and the London and Birmingham Railway should have a common terminus in the metropolis. The combined opposition of the Eton and Oxford authorities threw out the Great Western Bill in its first parliamentary campaign, and before the renewal of the contest, Brunel, as engineer of the line, proposed to some of the directors that their gauge, or distance between the rails, should be 7 feet instead of 4 feet 8^ inches. This suggestion was submitted to Robert Stephenson, and was by him promptly rejected. Under ordinary circumstances there would have been an end of the novel scheme ; but Brunel was gifted with no ordinary powers of persuasion, and the directors of the Great Western were induced by him to separate themselves from the London and Birmingham Company, and make their line according to his wishes.

As the reader is well aware, the gauge of George Stephenson’s first public railway was 4 feet 8.5 inches, which had been the gauge of the colliery tramways of Northumbria from the time of their first construction. In the Life of Lord Keeper North, A.D. 1676, it is recorded —

The manner of the carriage is by laying rails of timber from the colliery to the river, exactly straight and parallel; and bulky carts are made with four rollers fitting those rails, whereby the carriage is so easy that one horse will draw down four or five chaldrons of coals, and is an immense benefit to the coal merchant.

Made to be drawn by horses, these wagons differed little from the carts previously used, the innovation consisting only in finding for them smooth wooden ways, and wheels adapted to those ways. When the wooden trams were first cased with metal, and later on the introduction of iron rails, the same width was continued. The introduction of the locomotive brought with it no new conditions inviting men to change the usage of the country; and George Stephenson therefore made his lines in accordance with the ancient custom. This 4 feet 8.5 inches was the original tramroad gauge.

Other gauges were in existence. In some of the mineral districts of England, where the tramways have to meander down hills and into positive gullies, a gauge of two feet had been adopted. In such a country, and for the carriage of minerals, a very broad gauge was clearly not to be thought of. But for comparatively open and level regions no objection to the introduction of greater width between the rails presented itself, to counterbalance the advantages hoped for from the change. Those advantages Brunel expected to find in greater speed, ease of motion, and economy of working. With the wider way, the engineer contemplated the use of larger carriages and more powerful engines. From his engines fitted with wheels ten feet high he looked for a vast increase of speed; and he hoped to effect greater safety by placing his passenger carriages between instead of over the wheels. According to his calculation one grand advantage of the wide gauge would be diminution of oscillation at high speeds.

The most obvious objection to a wider gauge, at that period of railway history, was the increase it would necessarily effect in the expenses of constructing a line— especially where tunnels, earth-works, and viaducts were frequently needed. The next point for criticism to fix upon was the inconvenience that would ensue to the public wherever fines with different gauges ran into each other. These two difficulties Brunel handled with characteristic adroitness, treating the former as of little weight with regard to the works he contemplated, and finding in the latter an argument actually in favour of his scheme. Making the most of his theory that each district of the country should have the gauge most adapted to its geographical features, he reminded his opponents that it was no part of his plan to do away with the two, three, and four feet gauges of mineral districts, or to oppose the 4 feet 8.5 gauge in countries where that width had already been used or was likely to be most serviceable, but only to introduce his wide gauge in regions, comparatively open, sparsely populated, and untried by railway engineers. London and Bristol, he argued, were separated by a sweep of country offering (except at two or three points) comparatively few obstacles to the maker of iron roads. The difference of cost, therefore, between a wide road and a narrow road would be slight— at least slight compared with the advantages of a system which would convey with unexampled rapidity an entire army of passengers from the metropolis to the capital of the West, in a single train. So cleverly was the objection of expense thus put aside, that shareholders were almost ashamed of their folly in raising the question. The next point—the inconvenience, namely, of ‘break of gauge,’ as it was soon called—Brunel treated in a very different way. It was true the inconvenience of a break of gauge would be grave, if it occurred; but then he maintained it never would occur.

In his report of 1838 to the directors of the Great Western, he said: —

I shall now consider the subject of the width of gauge. The question of the disadvantage of differing in point of gauge from other railways, and the consequent exclusion from communication with them, is the first. This is undoubtedly an inconvenience; it amounts to a prohibition to almost any railway running northwards from London, as they must all more or less depend for their supply upon other lines or districts railways already exist, and with which they most hope to be connected. In such cases there is no alternative.

The Great Western Railway, however, broke ground entirely new district, in which railways were unknown, present it commands this district, and has already sent forth branches which embrace nearly all that can belong to it.

Such is the position of the Great Western Railway. It could have no connection with any other of the main lines, and the principal branches likely to be made were well considered, and almost formed part of the original plan, nor can these be dependent upon any other existing lines for the traffic which they will bring to the main trunk.

Such was Brunel’s language in the early stages of the gauge controversy, and such it had been when he prevailed on the directors of the Great Western to adopt his innovation.* Briefly stated, his argument was this ;—

The west country at present has no railways, it lies open to our enterprise. Let us seize the opportunity, and drive a grand trunk line with a few important branches through it, making our gauge such that no line of the old gauge can run into our roads and suck our traffic. By adopting this course we shall have a monopoly of the west country.

At first Brunel met with little encouragement from the directors. They were not alarmed at the novel proposals, nor did they condemn them as chimerical, but commercial caution made them apprehensive that they might sink in public estimation if they declared themselves the leaders of a revolutionary movement. Brunei’s suggestion, however, of a monopoly of the west country, from the impossibility of narrow gauge hues acting harmoniously with broad gauge lines, sunk deep in the minds of the projectors, and bore fruit.

There is no ground for thinking that Brunel acted disingenuously towards his directors. He saw in railways only the future channels of communication between important centres of manufacture and commerce— not the means of passage between petty market towns and secluded hamlets. Each range of country would have its grand trunk, with its limited number of branches to cathedral towns and harbours; but it was not on the list of chances that the branches of these gigantic arteries would multiply, extend, and cross each other—that the surface of the island would be one patch of network. Holding this view (which was the view almost universal in 1833), Brunel gave his directors honest counsel.

He gained his object. The bill was obtained, and the line was made in accordance with his wishes. It was true that its construction was attended with costly accidents and vain experiments. The engines with the huge wheels turned out failures, in consequence of their being deficient in boiler power; but at length the railroad began its career with dazzling eclat. The Great Western was the topic of ‘ the season.’ Everyone was in raptures with the smoothness of its way, the height of its speeds, and the luxury of its first-class carriages. As far as the drawing rooms of May Fair were concerned, the success of the broad gauge was established. Many a humble family has cause to lament that experience, and vulgar calculations of pounds, shillings, and pence have signally falsified this flattering verdict.

A few years gave the public an opportunity of judging how far the theory of distinct fields of railways, not running into each other, was likely to be realised in practice. The plans of projectors soon indicated that iron roads would refuse to run to the capital without intercommunication, and the year 1844 saw the Western and Midland counties in actual collision. The extension of the line between Birmingham and Gloucester, uniting the latter town with Bristol, had, in order that it might accord with the line of which it was a continuation, been planned on the narrow gauge. The directors of the Great Western, seeing in this narrow gauge extension, known as the Bristol and Gloucester, an alarming irruption into their broad gauge field, contrived by a stroke of finance to gain control over its company. Their control was of course exercised to convert the proposed narrow gauge into an actual broad gauge. The result was that on the opening of the extension in 1844, the two scales of roadway met, and Gloucester had the honour of being the scene of the first ‘break of gauge.’ At first ‘ the break’ attracted but httle attention beyond engineering circles. The public were not sufficiently familiar with railways to be highly critical. If passengers from Birmingham to Bristol had to get out of narrow gauge carriages at Gloucester, and crossing over a platform with their baggage, had to seek fresh places in the broad gauge extension, the trouble was trifling compared with that of the shiftings from stage-coach to stage-coach to which travellers had been accustomed. When ‘ the battle of the gauges was at its height,’ pamphleteers were pathetic on the sufferings of delicate ladies and young children, compelled to ‘ change places,’ and pass through the raw night air on their way from one gauge to the other.

Had passengers only been affected by ‘ break of gauge,’ little attention would have been paid to their discomfort and complaints; for the hardship is slight which an ordinary traveller sustains in changing his carriage once in half a hundred miles. The real inconvenience of ‘a break of gauge’ was found in the conveyance of goods.

Railway communication had not existed many weeks between Birmingham and Bristol, before the manufacturers of Birmingham and the railway officials at Gloucester knew what was the real difficulty. The heavy goods, sent from Birmingham for shipment at Bristol, had to be shifted from gauge to gauge by the Gloucester porters. Packages were misplaced, delayed, or missent. Complaints daily increased; and ‘ Birmingham men’ learnt the discomfort of having a break of gauge between themselves and the Bristol Channel. In due course a comparison of the goods traffic on the Grand Junction, the London and Birmingham, and the Midland lines, with that on the route between Birmingham and Bristol, gave a triumph to the opponents of the broad gauge.

‘ Break of gauge ’ was no longer a matter of speculation, but an evil in actual existence. The agitation it aroused soon attracted the attention of the legislature. In the session of 1845, the London and Birmingham and Great Western Companies were in the field with rival bills for a line of railway between Oxford and Wolverhampton. The manifest evils of ‘ break of gauge ’ induced the railway department of the Board of Trade to decide against the pretensions of the Great Western. The House of Commons, however, set aside the decision of the Board of Trade, and without offering any opinion on the advantages of uniformity or variety of gauges, gave the preference to the Great Western on the ground that it was the better hne, their choice being endorsed by the House of Lords. Thus for the moment victory was with the broad gauge party, but the facts brought to light by the contest between Robert Stephenson’s company and Brunel’s company induced both Houses of Parliament to ask for further investigations.

The battle now began in earnest. All the preceding encounters were mere skirmishing, compared with the tug of war which now set in. On the one side were drawn up the forces of narrow gauge, on the other appeared those of broad gauge, double gauge, and mixed gauge; whilst hovering on the flanks of the two armies were the scattered companies of the medium gauges.

The revelations of the Oxford and Wolverhampton Committee were followed by the motions of Lord Dalhousie in the Lords and Mr. Cobden in the Commons, which resulted in an address, unanimously voted, for a Royal Commission to ascertain ‘ whether in future private acts for the construction of railways, provision ought to be made for securing an uniform gauge; and whether it would be expedient and practicable to take measures to bring railways already constructed, or in progress of construction, into uniformity of gauge.’ Without delay the commission was appointed. It was composed of Colonel Sir Frederick Smith, of the Royal Engineers, who had previously acted as Inspector-General of Raibvays; Professor Barlow, of the Woolwich Military Academy (ex-commissioner of Irish Railways), and Professor Airy, the Astronomer Royal.

The men whose memories survey seven years with accuracy are few. But the few who bore in mind Brunei’s position in 1836, ’37, and ’38 were not a little amused with the line he adopted before the Oxford and Wolverhampton, and the Gauge Commissions. Of course, inconsistencies and plausible arguments in their support were looked for from the man who, in the full observation of men of science and the general public, appeared as the champion of two novelties in railway locomotion, involving diametrically opposite principles. While the broad gauge demanded larger and heavier locomotives than the narrow gauge, the atmospheric system was represented as immeasurably superior to the locomotive system, because the grinding weight of the traveling engines (such as were used on narrow gauge hues) caused ruinous damage to the rails. That is to say, Brunel, at one and the same time, was exclaiming against the destruction of rails by the use of heavy locomotives, and urging the employment of locomotives of an unprecedented weight. On the broad gauge Brunel asked for easy curves; while he represented that the peculiar merit of the atmospheric system was the capability which it afforded of constructing hues with very sharp curves. In railway administration, argued the engineer of the broad gauge hues, the first object was to limit the traffic to a few heavy trains; but changing his tone, the versatile engineer, in pleading for the atmospheric system, insisted that the exigencies of the public required trains to be many and light.

Nothing daunted Brunel. His theory of railway districts had signally broken down. At the outset of his crusade against the narrow gauge, he had argued that break of gauge could never happen — partly because railway lines would have a natural tendency towards London, and partly because the enormous and manifest inconveniences of ‘ a break of gauge ’ would deter any line of one width from running into another. But the break, which he maintained sheer terrorism would render an impossibility, had through his instrumentality occurred. The case was unquestionably an awkward one, but he could meet it. He stood up, and smiled at the fears of his opponents. It was true that breaks of gauge, if the broad gauge system were extended, would be frequent,* but they could be easily dealt with. With inexhaustible fertility of resource, he enumerated various expedients by which the gigantic evil of 1838 could in 1845 be reduced to a merely nominal inconvenience. The passengers could be left to take care of themselves. As for goods, porters could shift small packages by hand. Heavier goods might be packed on carriages, so constructed that their bodies by the aid of a mechanical apparatus might be shifted, without unpacking their contents, from frames with narrow wheels and axles to broader frames with wheels and axles suited to the wide gauge. He was even prepared to shift the narrow gauge carriages, wheels and all, and place them on broad gauge frames. Coals and other minerals might be packed in loose boxes made of iron, two of which when shifted from the narrow roads would fill one broad gauge truck. He invented telescopic axles which enabled carriages to travel on either gauge. Or he would lay down narrow gauge lines within his broad gauge rails. Of course these expedients involved great additional expense, in porters and machinery and time. But pecuniary expense was a consideration to which Brunel was indifferent.

A few extracts from his evidence before the Gauge Commissioners will show how little care he now had for expenditure in an arrangement which was in the first instance recommended to the public on the score of economy.

As regards goods (he said in the conclusion of his long answer to interrogatory 4029), it is of course a mere question of money; and if there is a considerable stream of goods in one line, and it is the interest of two parties meeting at a certain point to interchange those goods, I believe the inconvenience and expense will be so trifling that it is hardly worth consideration, if there are other important considerations in the question of the change of gauge.

When, however, he was pressed as to the details of his plans for interchange, he became even more vague :—

4048. Having dealt with the passengers, and having had now some considerable time to think of the question of goods, since it was brought forward in the last session of parliament, have you made up your mind at all as to the mode in which you would arrange respecting them ?— No; because it must depend upon what other companies choose to do on the other side; if they do not afford assistance, I will not say if they throw impediments in the way, but if they do not afford assistance to exchange, the mode must be different from that which it would be if they did. As regards coal, there is no doubt that there would be every facility, because the mode of carrying an article in large quantities like coal, will no doubt be influenced by the wishes and desires of the coal-owners, and the coal-owners will, of course, be desirous of doing whatever will encourage their trade with Oxford.

4049. You would have no difficulty with them ?—I think we shall have no difficulty whatever with them. As regards general goods, it must depend upon what the other companies may choose to do ; the worst that could happen, of course, would be the entire unloading and reloading of goods ; even that does not uinount to anything in time or money that would be much felt by the public.

A reference to the returns for the year 1845 of the Railway Clearing House will show how far interchange between railways could be hindered or disturbed, without causing the public serious inconvenience. Under the auspices of Mr. Hudson and Mr. Glyn, the Railway Clearing House was established on January 2,1842, to relieve railway companies of the burdensome calculations consequent on a system of correspondence which had grown up since the opening of the public lines of railway between London and Liverpool. The leading principles of the Clearing House system are three. Firstly, passengers are booked through at all principal stations, and conveyed to their destinations without change of carriage—horses, cattle, goods, being in like manner sent through without change of conveyance. Secondly, companies respectively pay a fixed rate per mile, for such carriages and wagons, not their own property, as they may use ; and a further sum per day by way of fine or demurrage for detention, if kept beyond a prescribed length of time. Thirdly, no direct settlement may take place between the companies in respect of any traffic, the accounts of which have passed through the Railway Clearing House. This is no place for a minute description of the Clearing House operations. It is enough to say, that through them ‘ the transactions of one company with all other companies, amounting frequently to many thousand pounds a week, are cleared weekly by a sum seldom exceeding a few hundred pounds.’

An institution so manifestly adapted to commercial exigencies met with immediate success. With a few very unimportant exceptions, all the narrow gauge companies joined the association as soon as they came into existence, and had need to correspond with other companies. The transactions of the House soon became very heavy; their returns for 1845 showing, that 517,888 persons were in that year each conveyed through an average distance of 146 miles, the average length of the lines travelled over being forty-one miles, so that each passenger travelled over four railways on the average, and must have passed three junctions or points of convergence. To accommodate these passengers, 59,765 railway carriages, and 5,813 carriages, were sent through. There were also sent through in the same year, 7,573 horse-boxes, 2,607 post offices, and 180,606 goods wagons, besides wagons conveying minerals, of which no record is kept in the Clearing House.

Of course the extension of the broad gauge would have crippled, if not altogether put an end to this admirable system of correspondence. The Clearing House, therefore, was another powerful antagonist to the broad gauge, and its returns, giving the aggregate of railway correspondence throughout the entire country, famished the advocates of uniformity of gauge with valuable facts and illustrations for their arguments.

The witnesses examined by the Gauge Commissioners in 1845 were forty-six f in number, and they included every person eminent in the railway world as an engineer, a manufacturer of locomotives, a manager, a secretary, a carrier, or an amalgamator, Of them, only four were in favour of a seven-foot gauge and against uniformity. Three offered no opinion as to the desirability of a uniform gauge. But all the others—i. e. 39 out of 46—were so impressed with the inevitable evil consequences of break of gauge, that they concurred in desiring uniformity of road width, though five of that number had a theoretical preference for an intermediate gauge, and four others refrained from offering an opinion as to which gauge was best,

Brunel found himself alone. Not one member of his profession sided with him. Indeed his only companions in ‘the forlorn hope,’ of which he was the leader, were three gentlemen holding office under the Great Western Company, and pledged in honour to fight to the death for the broad gauge. At this date it is easy to see how Brunel fell into his error, but it is difficult to judge him with the generosity he merits. He was betrayed into an embarrassing position not so much by seeing less, as by seeing farther, than ordinary men. Of the crowd of witnesses who came against him in 1845, there were few who in 1834 and 1835 thought of the consequences of ‘ a break of gauge.’ He, however, foresaw them, and fancied that by seizing a wide tract of country he could by the fear of those very consequences drive off competition. Had he been a few years sooner in the field, he might possibly have succeeded so far as to make his gauge the gauge of the southern districts of the country, and in some counties not only to have checked, but even to have supplanted the narrow gauge. When witness after witness came up to beat down his fallacies before the Gauge Commissioners, they were only proving to him what he had seen ten years before, and they had only learnt by recent experience. It is true that Robert Stephenson had seen farther than Brunel. He had not only foreseen the evils that would arise from ‘ a break of gauge,’ but with his clear vision, and thorough familiarity with the powers which he and his rival were contemplating, discerned that in spite of those obstacles, different fields of railway would run into each other.

As Robert Stephenson had been the first to foresee the evil consequences of diversity of gauge, he was, apart from being the recognised chief of his profession, selected as leader of the narrow gauge party before the Commissioners. In this position, therefore, he was the first to give his evidence before the Commission on August 6, 1845. On all occasions Robert Stephenson’s evidence was peculiarly impressive. If he saw the truth, he stated it, although it was against his interests. With equal honesty, he declined answering a question of opinion, if he had not sound and valid reasons wherewith to support his reply, even when he might feel confident that a quick off-hand statement, agreeable to his interests, would gain a point. ‘I cannot answer that question,’ was often heard from his lips. This straightforward candour at first told against him, but the influence of his testimony was in the long run enormously enhanced by it. When it was stated in railway discussions, that ‘ Robert Stephenson said such or such a thing,’ it was understood that the statement, be it right or wrong, was the conscientious and deliberate opinion of the first practical engineer of his day.

Before the Gauge Commission, Robert Stephenson’s evidence was temperate and convincing, as it was when ever he spoke on a subject connected with his profession. At the outset he admitted that at one time the narrow gauge had appeared to him too confined; and then he succinctly stated the changes which had removed the considerations on which that opinion was based.

As an engine builder (he said), at one time when I was called upon to construct engines of greater power than we commenced the line with, I felt some inconvenience in arranging the machinery properly; we were a little confined in space, and at that time an increase of three or four inches would have assisted us materially, and to that extent I thought at one time that an addition to five feet would have been desirable, but on no other account, looking at it as a mere engine-builder. Since that time the improved arrangements in the mechanism of the locomotive engines have rendered even that increase altogether unnecessary ; at present, with the inside cylinders, which is the class of engine requiring the most room between the rails, and the cranked axle with the four eccentrics, we have ample space, and even space to spare.

With reference to space, in the arrangement of the machinery, which is the main question having reference to the width, the working gear has been much simplified, and the communications in the most recent engines, between the eccentric and the slide valve, have been made direct communications; whereas formerly it was made through the intervention of a series of levers, which occupied the width. But even without that which I have just now alluded to, which gives us an extra space with the engines on the South Western and on various lines in this country by the improvements which have been made, there is quite space enough for the whole of the working gear.

Then with reference to the increase of power, the size of boiler is, in point of fact, the only limit to the power, and we have increased them in length on the narrow gauge, because we have always made the boiler as wide as the narrow gauge would admit of, but we have increased their length both in the firebox and in the tubes; we have obtained economy, I conceive, by lengthening the tubes, and we have obtained an increased power by increasing the size of the fire-box; in fact, the power of the engine, supposing the power to be absorbed, may be taken to be directly as the area of the fire-grate, or the quantity of fuel contained in the fire-box.

After enumerating the different items—roadway, tunnels, embankments, viaducts, bridges—which would absorb the funds of a broad gauge company in the process of construction, he took into consideration the various expedients suggested by Brunel for effecting transfer of goods. The loose-box system, experience, he said, had proved to be a failure.

Whilst I think the Great Western has obtained no advantages by the wide gauge, I think its introduction has involved the country in very great inconvenience, because wherever a meeting of the gauges takes place, it must create an inconvenience, and a very serious one; in fact, it is nothing more or less than tantamount to asking the Great Western or the London and Birmingham Company to move their passengers at Wolverton ; that is an exaggerated case perhaps, but still it is one which, if it takes place in the midst of a large traffic, would, I believe, give canals or another existing mode of communication a decided advantage over a railway. I stated in my evidence before the Wolverhampton Committee, that from Rugby, to which point it is proposed that the wide gauge should come, the Derbyshire coal-owner, or the Leicestershire, would inevitably send their coal by canal, in preference to changing the gauge, because they would have to transfer their coals there; it is proposed in order to avoid the actual removal of the coals, to move them in boxes, and to have loose bodies to the wagons. Now, that is a system which has been tried over and over again, and which has failed. It was tried on the Liverpool and Manchester line originally. There was a great coal-pit about 200 or 300 yards from the line of railway; they wanted to send coals to Liverpool, and small wagons were placed on the backs of large wagons, and carried to Liverpool; that was soon abandoned. Loose boxes were tried at Bolton for the purpose of leading the coal into the town by horses, without changing at the station; they were eventually abandoned. I tried the same thing at Canterbury, and we were obliged to abandon it, because sometimes we had loose boxes and we had no frames, and sometimes we had underframes when we had no boxes, and we could not fit them in. It is almost impossible to make this intelligible to any one who has not come directly in contact with the inconvenience of the system. Eather than introduce the loose-box system, it would be far better to move the coals by hand from wagon to wagon, because there would be an end of it. It also involves this, which I felt particularly at Canterbury: when the body of the wagon is attached, and made part of, and formed at the same time with, the frame, it strengthens that frame, and it strengthens also the body itself; but when they are made to separate, they are both of them weak, and they both get rickety, and they are exceedingly costly to maintain in repair.

The continuation of this portion of his evidence went to show that the evils enlarged upon were not so much defects from want of good management, but defects from which the system could not be freed.

As to the expedients proposed for shifting bodies of wagons by machinery, he showed that the time required for their application would render them commercially impracticable.

With similar force the witness unfolded the objections to the double gauge, i. e. the system which employs both gauges, by putting down narrow gauge rails within the broad gauge; and to the mixed gauge, or system which accommodates both broad and narrow carriages, by putting within the broad gauge a single rail at such a distance from the outer rail of the broad gauge that a narrow gauge line is thereby formed.

His evidence made it clear that uniformity of gauge was imperatively demanded for the transaction of business; that the expedients proposed for overcoming the discomforts of ‘ break of gauge ’ would scarcely mitigate them; and that since an uniform gauge throughout the country was required, no gauge was so well adapted as the 4 feet 8.5 inches for all varieties of country.

Uniformity of gauge being the grand object, the following table‡ of the hues completed, in progress, and projected, in 1845, will show how strong a case the advocates of the narrow gauge had for maintaining that in regard to comparative interests involved, apart horn all other considerations, the preference ought to be given to their system.

(See PDF version for the table inserted here)

To strengthen the case of the narrow gauge, on this ground, it was advanced that already various lines in England and Scotland (like Mr. Braithwaite’s Eastern Counties’) constructed with an intermediate gauge of 5 feet, had for the sake of uniformity been reduced to 4 feet 8.5 inches. Thus the proposition could never for an instant be entertained that to please an innovating minority, an overwhelming majority should alter arrangements which they had been at great cost to complete.

In the January of 1846, the Gauge Commissioners made a report, recommending,—

(1) That the gauge of four feet eight inches and a half be declared by the legislature to be the gauge to be used in all public railways now under construction, or hereafter to be constructed in Great Britain.

(2) That unless by the consent of the legislature, it should not be permitted to the directors of any railway company to alter the gauge of such railway.

(3) That in order to complete the general chain of narrow gauge communication from the north of England to the southern coast, any suitable measure should be promoted to form a narrow gauge link from Oxford to Reading, and thence to Basingstoke, or by any shorter route connecting the proposed Rugby and Oxford line with the South Western Railway.

(4) That as any junction to be formed with a broad gauge line would involve a break of gauge, provided our first recommendations to be adopted, great commercial convenience would be obtained by reducing the gauge of the present broad gauge lines to the narrow gauge of four feet eight inches and a half; and we, therefore, think it desirable that some equitable means should be found of producing such entire uniformity of gauge, or of adopting such other course as would admit of the narrow gauge carriages passing, without interruption or danger, along the broad gauge line.

On the appearance of this judicious report the agitation of the two great parties whom it especially concerned, and of society at large, was indescribable. Articles and pamphlets of an acrimony unusual even in party warfare were published in every quarter; and the farces and extravaganzas of the theatres were full of allusions to the quarrel. Of the more eccentric literature of the contest, the ‘Dialogues of the Gauges’ first published in the ‘ Railway Record ’ may be read with amusement by the curious.

Beaten successively on all the engineering points, Brunel and his party endeavoured to persuade the pubhc that their interests were concerned in maintaining a spirited competition between broad and narrow lines, ordinary view the engineer put before Commissioners in the following words:—

I think the spirit of emulation and competition (said Mr. Brunel before the Gauge Commissioners) kept up between different railway interests, both as regards the comfort and the construction of the carriages, and the times and mode of travelling, will do much more good to the public than that uniformity of system which has been talked of for the last two or three years.

After the publication of the Commissioners’ Report, this plausible fallacy was reiterated; and it was gravely maintained that the public would be benefited, if railway companies (composed of that same public) would lay down rival roads side by side, and ruin each other by competition. To this ridiculous proposition Mr. Thornton Hunt replied: —

It is not possible. There are not enough railways, likely to be enough to create a real competition. For most part railways branch off in different directions. Where they run in somewhat similar directions, the competition would occur between very few parties. Where parties are so few, so well-organised, managed by councils possessing so much of a deliberative character, and where the bad results of competition would be shown so tangibly, and in such large amounts, a continuous and injurious struggle for any length of time would be practicably impossible. ‘ I look upon it,’ says Mr. Laing, ' as inevitable, that if a rival line is made, the two must sooner or later agree to charge the rate of fares which will be the most productive.’

This argument, based on the supposed advantages of competition, is interesting, as it stands out to mark the extreme point to which Brunel was driven from the ground on which, at the outset of the memorable war of the gauges, he had taken his position.

Amongst laughable occurrences that enlivened the committee rooms during the gauge contest, was a scene occasioned by parliamentary counsel putting in as evidence, before the committee on the Southampton and Manchester Line, a printed picture of troubles consequent on a break of gauge. The picture was a forcible sketch, that had appeared a few days before in the pages of the ‘Illustrated London News.’ Opposing counsel of course argued against the production of the work of art as testimony for the consideration of committee. After much argument on both sides the chairman decided in favour of receiving the illustration, which was forthwith put, amidst much laughter, into the hands of a witness, who was asked if it was a fair picture of the evils that arose from a break of gauge. The witness replying in the affirmative, the engraving was then laid before the committee for inspection.

Fortunately for the immediate peace and the permanent interests of society, the conflict was concluded by legislation which in its chief principle accorded with Robert Stephenson’s views. By 9 & 10 Vict. cap. 57 (An Act for Regulating the Gauge of Railways, August 18,1846) it was enacted:—

That after the passing of this act it shall not be lawful (except as hereinafter excepted) to construct any railway for the conveyance of passengers on any gauge other than four feet eight inches and half an inch, in Great Britain, and five feet three inches in Ireland. Provided always, that nothing hereinbefore contained shall be deemed to forbid the maintenance and repair of any railway constructed before the passing of this act on any gauge other than those hereinbefore specified, or to forbid the laying of new rails on the same gauge on which such railway is constructed, within the limits of duration authorised by the several acts under the authority of which such railways are severally constructed.

Possibly somewhat at the expense and to the detriment of the public, sections II. III. and V. of the same Act paid full measure of respect to existing broad gauge interests. There is ground for the opinion that too great consideration was displayed to the interests of individuals whose action threatened to be, and already had been prejudicial to the state. But it must be remembered that the gauge party was compact, united, and animated with a determination to fight to the last. Nor was its influence solely dependent on its spirit and organisation. In the houses of parliament it numbered many devoted and powerful adherents, and it had a strong hold on the opinions of those who, beheving in the broad gauge as a system capable of supplying the public with greater and easier speeds than the narrow gauge, regarded the question from a selfish point of view, and placed personal comfort before commercial utility. Strong, therefore, within the walls of parliament, and strong without, the broad gauge party, even at the time of its overthrow, was to be conciliated. With 9 & 10 Viet. cap. 57, the gauge question, as far as the general public felt concern in it, was set at rest. An important professional question however was still to be discussed by engineers. A limit had been put to the construction of broad gauge fines. The question now to be considered was — how best to introduce the narrow gauge into broad gauge fines, so that the two systems might be worked together, where break of gauge could not be otherwise avoided ? Ought two distinct pairs of lines for each gauge to be put down? or would it be better to use only three rails, one of them being common to both gauges ? At first sight the choice, apart from the difference of original expense between putting down three lines or four lines, might seem unimportant. But practical men knew otherwise. Robert Stephenson’s opinions on these questions were published in a report.


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