UK: Not many happy returns for GWR.

UK: Not many happy returns for GWR. - Conceived as a link between Bristol and London, the Great Western Railway flourished after a shaky start, only to finally fall victim to the car's rise in popularity.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Conceived as a link between Bristol and London, the Great Western Railway flourished after a shaky start, only to finally fall victim to the car's rise in popularity.

Eurotunnel's hapless investors, had they opened their history books before their chequebooks, might have saved themselves a lot of money.

Large infrastructure projects are more often than not financially iffy, and the development of The Great Western Railway is a case in point. For many years it provided a return that made burying your cash in the garden look attractive.

By the early 19th century, Bristol was a thriving port and London was already styling itself as 'the world's greatest city.' But travel between the two involved either a tedious canal or overland journey. So as early as the 1820s, Bristolian merchants were discussing a railway to link the port to the capital, even though steam was unproven technology and public support lukewarm. By 1832, the investment community had come round to the idea and so the Great Western Railway Company was founded. The newly formed business advertised for an engineer, saying it would give the job to the man who offered the lowest quote to build the thing. Twenty-seven-year-old Isambard Kingdom Brunel applied and told his interviewers that he who gave the lowest quote was simply the most accomplished liar. Impressed with his candour, they gave him the job.

Brunel estimated the line's cost at £2.8 million and a prospectus to raise £3 million in shares of £100 each was issued. Now all that was needed was Parliament's approval. During a 57-day inquiry Brunel attracted ridicule whenever he spoke of 100-mile-per-hour trains and 300-yard tunnels. The bill passed but was defeated by the Lords. Largely through the efforts of Brunel and George Arthur Saunders, the tireless company secretary, the scheme was kept afloat financially through a further £1.25 million in equity and a £416,000 loan. A field in the Paddington area was chosen for the terminus and - despite trenchant opposition from Eton College - the bill was passed in 1835.

The line opened in nine stages, with the first train running from Paddington to Maidenhead in 1838, and the final link being completed in 1841. While it may have been the greatest engineering feat of the greatest nation the world had ever known, it also relied heavily on new techniques which caused considerable delays in both opening the line and running to a timetable, making for less than enthralling shareholder returns.

The Great Western's other claim to fame was that it was a broad-gauge railway. Instead of opting for the more usual four foot eight and a half inch spacing between rails, Brunel had gone for whopping seven feet. The size of the train's broad gauge allowed truly massive freight cars, spacious passenger carriages and, Brunel claimed, a smoother ride. But like many superior ideas (Betamax, for example) broad gauge was pricey and everyone else was doing something different. GWR eventually abandoned broad gauge altogether in 1892.

Meanwhile, the company's fortunes were improving: in the 1860s, the shares actually rose above their par value and dividends were being paid. Great Western expanded considerably. From the 1880s until the first world war were probably the company's best years: GWR became a byword for grand, posh travel. And, the company's service remained one of the best in the world: in 1904, its trains ran between Paddington and Plymouth in a shade over four hours, only an hour more than today.

But by the 1920s, the golden age of rail was drawing to a close: affluence was growing, as was the number of cars. So rail use, and with it the Great Western, began a lengthy decline. With a Labour government in power after the war, the GWR (along with the rest of the network) was nationalised and became British Rail's Western Region. But, nearly 50 years on, in 1995, with the last gasp of Tory privatisation, Great Western again became a private company, though with 2,900 employees rather than the 70,000 plus it had in it heyday, the present Great Western Holdings shares little more than a name with its illustrious predecessor.

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