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Brunel's Great Railway Adventures in Devon

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s best known memorial to his pioneering railway work in Devon is the magnificent Royal Albert Bridge, which carries the Great Western Railway (GWR) over the River Tamar into Cornwall. Completed in 1859, the year of his death, the 157 year old bridge bears the inscription I.K. Brunel Engineer, which is how he wanted to be remembered. The name ‘Isambard’ means iron bright, an appropriate name for an engineer.

There are other memorials to Brunel in Devon and Cornwall including statues at Pennycomequick in Plymouth and another on the quay at Saltash. At Newton Abbot, near the railway station there is also a metal sculpture of Brunel. This one shows him smoking his trademark cigar, a habit which may have led to his early demise in 1859 at the age of 53.

There are also roads named after Brunel in Plymouth, Saltash, Ivybridge and Exeter. Most recently in Plymouth a main road leading to the ferryport area of Millbay Docks has been named Isambard Brunel Way. It seems strange however that this is not called Isambard ‘Kingdom’ Brunel Way as his mother Sophia Kingdom, the daughter of a naval contractor, was born in Plymouth.

Brunel was among the most innovative and daring civil engineers of the C19th. He designed and built railways, tunnels, bridges, viaducts, stations and ships. These were often of completely novel design for the time. The grand sweep of the Great Western Railway along the very edge of the English Channel at Dawlish, and the lofty dramatic wooden viaducts at Ivybridge and Grenofen, must have been breathtaking to rail travellers at the time.

Brunel enjoyed the attention, controversy, debate and excitement that his daring designs generated. Once criticised in 1836 by GWR directors for the excessive length of the initial section of the GWR route from Bristol to London he replied “why not extend it to New York?”.

This he had achieved by 1838 with the Great Western steam ship, part of an integrated transport system including hotels which linked Bristol and London to New York. The railway was extended to Plymouth by 1848, the section between Exeter and Newton Abbot having opened in 1846, effectively linking Devon to London and New York via the Great Western Railway and steamship.

The GWR was built using broad gauge tracks which were 7ft 01⁄4” wide, compared with the existing standard gauge of 4’ 81⁄2”. The standard gauge had been based on the width of a horse drawn wagon, as the earliest railways in England were horse drawn wagonways. The first passenger railway, using a steam driven locomotive, was the 1830 Liverpool and Manchester, built by George Stephenson using standard gauge tracks.

Brunel argued that broad gauge tracks allowed superior locomotives with huge driving wheels, which could achieve speeds of over 60 miles an hour and a smoother ride. Problems arose however, at transfer stations where passengers transferred from one gauge of service to another. The transfer station at Gloucester from southern broad gauge to northern standard gauge caused expensive delays in transferring passengers and their luggage. In 1845 when the GWR failed to get control of the Bristol and Gloucester and the Birmingham and Gloucester railways the writing was on the wall for broad gauge. Brunel had gambled that broad gauge would be adopted as standard and he had lost.

By 1846 an Act of Parliament declared that all new lines had to be laid in standard gauge with no new broad gauge tracks. Over the weekend of May 21st and 22nd 1892 the last broad guage tracks were lifted and replaced with standard gauge including those at Millbay Station in Plymouth.

The broad gauge section of the railway built by the South Devon Railway (SDR, later incorporated into the GWR) between Exeter and Newton Abbot was started in 1844. Brunel had persuaded the board to adopt a novel and little tested system called the ‘atmospheric system’. He argued that this would be much more economical in running costs and passengers would enjoy a smooth silent ride with no noise, smoke or smuts from steam locomotives. There would also be little inconvenience to landowners hosting the route. In theory the system was futuristic and an unbelievable solution to cheap rail travel, but sadly it lasted less than one year from 1847 to 1848.

The system was based on a vacuum being produced in a pipe laid along the centre of the broad gauge track. This cast iron pipe had a leather seal running along a slit in its length. Within this slit a piston was connected to the lead or piston carriage of the train. The motive force was produced by a vacuum in the pipe, which would suck the carriages along the track in a similar fashion to those pneumatic tube cash carriers which used to whizz around shops carrying change in the 1950s.

Stationary steam engines to evacuate the pipes were located in pumping stations, positioned every 3 miles at Exeter St Davids, Countess Wear, Turf, Starcross, Dawlish, Teignmouth, Bishopsteignton and Newton Abbot. The carriages moved forward by the difference in the vacuum in the pipe ahead of the carriage and the atmospheric pressure in the pipe behind, which pushed the train forwards. The pumping stations however, could not communicate with one another, but ran to a schedule and often pumped unnecessarily if the train was delayed.

In theory this was a marvellous system but unfortunately in operation proved to be a disaster. The steam engines in the pumping stations were underpowered to evacuate the pipes and the leather seals along the pipe intended to maintain a vacuum never worked properly. Various agents were blamed for failure of the seals. Sea spray often washed over the track in rough weather rusting the pipes and rats were supposed to have been attracted to eat the oiled or tallow smeared leather seals as a tasty treat. Amazingly, sometimes the system actually worked and speeds up to 68 mph were recorded. Often it broke down and third class passengers were expected to get out and push the train to the next station.

Due to the various problems of the system and the enormous costs of rectifying them, Brunel and the SDR board decided to close the system in September 1848. It had lasted just one year. He and the investors in the system had lost a lot of money in the venture, which became known later as the ‘atmospheric caper’.

The only remnants now are the atmospheric pumping station buildings at Starcross beside the GWR route today, and one at Totnes, which was never used. Pieces of the cast iron pipes were sold off as scrap or used as drains at Paignton and Goodrington and in a lead mine near Ashburton.

The GWR service reverted to steam locomotives and still runs along Brunel’s precarious and dramatic coastal route at the mercy of the winter storms. In 2014 we were all shocked by the destruction of the railway line at Dawlish, which cut the southwest businesses off from fast intercity travel. The line was repaired between February and April 2014 at a cost of £35 million. The storm damage was blamed on climate change but in The Illustrated London News on March 3rd 1855, a print shows very similar damage to the South Devon Railway near Dawlish. Brunel’s scenic Great Western Railway, nicknamed the Great Way Round, has been in existence for 168 years. Long may it continue to delight rail travellers.

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