A short history of the Britain’s 7 foot gauge railways, 1835 – 1892. © Richard J. Marshall 2006


In 1835, in the early days of railway construction, the Great Western Railway was born. The original main line ran between London and Bristol, a distance of 117 miles (187 kms), which was opened throughout in June 1841. What made the Great Western Railway unusual was the choice of gauge. Instead of building the railway to what became the British standard gauge of 4ft 8½ins, the track was laid to a gauge of 7ft 0¼ins (“broad gauge”).

Over the following 25 years, many of the railways connecting to the Great Western Railway built their lines with broad gauge track, resulting in a network of broad gauge railways extending from London to Bristol, Wolverhampton, South Wales, Weymouth, and westward through the counties of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall to reach Penzance. At its peak in 1868, broad gauge railways covered 1,070 miles (1,712 kms). Because of the wider gauge, trains were more stable and capable of higher speeds. However, the inconvenience of having to transship goods between wagons at junctions where there was a change of gauge resulted in pressure for all British railways to adopt the “standard gauge”. Consequently lines were gradually converted and, on Friday 20 May 1892, the last broad gauge trains ran between London and Penzance and a chapter of history closed.

Maps and Fact-Sheets

The fact-sheets record the dates lines were opened, or were converted to/from broad gauge, as well as a summary of the number and type of broad gauge locomotives in service.

Maps of the Broad Gauge network

Fact-sheet for 1841 1846 1851 1856 1861 1866 1871 1876 1881 1886 1891

Glossary of terms and Bibliography


  1. Early Locomotives
  2. Construction
  3. Early Stations
  4. The First Standard Locomotives
  5. Bristol & Exeter Railway (1)
  6. Signalling
  7. Gooch Locomotives
  8. The Broad Gauge in South Wales
  9. The Broad Gauge to Birmingham
  10. London Paddington Station
  11. The South Devon Railway
  12. Passenger Rolling Stock
  13. The Broad Gauge in Cornwall
  14. Gauge Conversion in South Wales and the Midlands
  15. Accidents on the Broad Gauge
  16. Bristol & Exeter Railway (2)
  17. Armstrong & Dean Locomotives
  18. Champions of the Broad Gauge
  19. Train Services
  20. Broad Gauge in Retrospect
  21. The End of the Broad Gauge


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2 thoughts on “A Short History of Britain’s Broad Gauge Railways

  1. In your broad gauge paper you feature, under ‘Accidents’, a photograph of a GWR derailment at Llanwern, dated 6th May 1857. The locomotive is an 0-6-0 with the name ‘Sterupes’, if my magnifying glass serves me correctly. Do you have any further details of any kind relating to this incident.

    My thanks,

    Bill Trite – Swanage, Dorset


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