The Last Years
Prior to its amalgamation with the Great Western Railway in January 1876, the Bristol & Exeter Railway had started to convert some of its branch lines to standard gauge. After the merger, the GWR continued this practise and by the end of the 1880s only the Chard branch remained to be converted. This branch line had been deliberately left until the last to prevent the London & South Western Railway from exercising its running powers into Taunton over the GWR Chard branch from its own station at Chard.
No attempt was made to convert any lines west of Exeter, which became the only area of the country that remained purely broad gauge. Although the mileage of broad gauge track had reduced significantly from its peak in the 1860s, traffic had increased and new “convertible” broad gauge locomotives were being built as late as August 1891, only 7 months before the scheduled end of the broad gauge. The last pure broad gauge locomotive to be built was Tornado (Rover class) in July 1888.
On 15 October 1889, Sir Daniel Gooch, chairman of the Great Western Railway and its original locomotive superintendent died. Gooch was the last surviving member of the original group of men that championed the broad gauge in its early years, and while in his role as chairman he had to sign the broad gauge’s “death warrant”, it is perhaps fitting he did not have to witness its final demise in 1892.
Broad gauge services out of Paddington had reduced to six trains in each direction by the mid 1880s. While these express trains maintained good speeds, they were not significantly faster than standard gauge trains of the time. Traffic into Devon and Cornwall had increased steadily since the 1870s, and the Cornwall Railway and West Cornwall Railway, over which the GWR provided train services, were gradually recovering from the dire financial straits they had been in since the 1840s. The increased revenue made it possible for the Cornwall Railway to seriously consider the long anticipated conversion of its line to standard gauge. In 1885, the directors of the Cornwall Railway requested the GWR make plans for the conversion of the line between Plymouth and Falmouth, and, as a consequence, all other remaining broad gauge lines.
The End of the Broad Gauge – 21/22 May 1892
While the end of the broad gauge had been anticipated since the 1860s, difficult economic conditions had slowed conversion work. In 1885, the directors of the Cornwall Railway voted to convert its line between Plymouth and Falmouth at the earliest opportunity, and the Great Western Railway made plans to convert all the remaining 177 miles of broad gauge track in May 1892.
The last broad gauge services ran on Friday 20 May 1892, the final train into Paddington being the Night Mail hauled by Bulkeley which arrived at 5.30am on Saturday. As soon as services ceased, all rolling stock and locomotives were worked to Swindon where several miles of additional sidings had been laid in preparation. By early Saturday morning all broad gauge stock had been removed from the lines west of Exeter.
Approximately 4,000 men had been hired to convert the track, most of which was laid on longitudinal sleepers. As with previous conversions, the transoms between the longitudinal sleepers were cut (some having been already prepared in the preceding weeks) and one rail slewed on its sleeper into the new standard gauge position.
The work was completed on schedule and normal services resumed on Monday 23 May, using the standard gauge locomotives and stock that had been readied in the preceding weeks.
At Swindon the convertible locomotives were changed to standard gauge over the following months and most of the older broad gauge stock scrapped. The locomotives North Star and Lord of the Isles were initially preserved, but were then scrapped in 1906. Hedley and Tiny continued in use as stationary engines at Conwil Quarry and Newton Abbot respectively. Hedley was sent to Neath in 1905 and was scrapped in 1929, leaving the little 0-4-0 dock shunter Tiny the only surviving original broad gauge locomotive today – an ironic testimony to Brunel’s vision of a high speed railway.