14 January 2014

The break of gauge

'The break in gauge'
Image sourceIllustrated London News, June 1846, reprinted in The Railway Age, Luton Museum & Art Gallery, 1981. 

This marvellous engraving comes from a series published in the Illustrated London News in June 1846, highlighting the newspaper's concerns about the increasingly chaotic railways of Britain, which were being built in a wide range of gauges (track widths). The resulting difficulties in transferring freight and passengers between different gauge tracks were satirised and dramatised by the artist, who had been dispatched to Gloucester where the ILN reported that 'two different railways unite; one running southwards, from Birmingham; the other northwards, from Bristol. The first has a width of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches between its rails; the last, 7 feet: and an effect like this which we here make manifest in straight lines takes place'.

The Times of 19 June 1846 reported that a petition of '26 carriers and carriers' agents, including all the chief firms in England, was presented to the House of Commons on Tuesday evening'. The petition beseeched the House to consider the plight of those affected by the break in gauge:

There are at present about 2000 miles existing of the narrow gauge, and about 300 of the broad gauge. That at Glocester [sic], in consequence of the meeting of two railways of different gauges, your petitioners are compelled to unload the goods or merchandise placed under their care from the waggons and trucks of the one gauge of one size, and transfer the same to the waggons and trucks of another size. 
That this unloading and reloading is attended with an absolute delay of from six to 48 hours, or more, and occasions very considerable expense in the wages of the extra clerks and porters, who are necessarily maintained where this change of gauge takes place, in the loss from damage to brittle articles, from pilferage, and from the mislaying and miscarriage of goods so unpacked and repacked, especially the perishable articles, such as fruit, fish, butter, cream, eggs, yeast, cheese, &c. [...] 
That your petitioners are satisfied, from their experience, that no contrivances, however ingenious they may appear, will in practice be efficacious in remedying such evils, which can only be obviated by avoiding the trans-shipment. 
Your petitioners, therefore, humbly pray that your right hon. house will take means for carrying out the recommendations of Her Majesty's commissioners, who have lately reported on the gauge question, and will establish, at the earliest possible period, a national uniformity of gauge. 
And your petitioners will ever pray.
A dispute was then flaring between the recommendations of the Gauge Commissioners and the Board of Trade, which had acknowledged the problems of variable gauges but in return only offered a feeble compromise, as reported by the Spectator of 13 June 1846: 'that no line shall hereafter be formed on any other than the 4 feet 8 1/2 inches gauge, excepting lines to the South of the existing line from London to Bristol, and excepting small branch lines of a few miles in extent joining the Great Western Railway'. This would only continue to perpetuate the problem.

The 'standard gauge' was eventually agreed by the Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act 1846, but it would take until 1892 for the alternative gauges - particularly on the Great Western Railway - to be removed from the main rail network in Britain.

See also:
Transport: The old Western Hutt line, 10 October 2013
Transport: Coach travel from London in 1658 & 1739, 4 October 2013
Transport: Ohakune signal hut, 24 May 2009
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