Living Museum of the Great Western Railway

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Brunel's Broad Gauge Railway

Didcot 1982
One of the last Broad Gauge trains to pass through Didcot Station, in 1892

Brunel originally built the Great Western Railway to his unique broad gauge of 7 feet between the rails as he thought this would give extra speed and comfort.

But as the railway network expanded the Great Western had increasing problems with transshipping goods onto the standard gauge, or 'narrow gauge' as they called it, of the other railways and its broad gauge was finally abandoned in 1892.

However, at Didcot Railway Centre the Great Western Society has recreated a section of broad gauge railway using materials recovered from a disused railway near Burlescombe in Devon together with the relocated Didcot Transfer Shed built in the 1850s to trans-ship goods between broad and standard gauge trains.

Much of the recreated railway is laid as mixed gauge track, capable of carrying both broad and standard gauge trains. A quick look at the resultant complexity of pointwork shows the considerable increase in material and maintenance costs that such a layout involves.

The Transfer Shed

In addition to the track and the Transfer Shed there are many other features reminiscent of the Great Western Railway's ‘broad gauge’ era in this part of the centre - Look out for the characteristic disc and crossbar signal and the Railway Policeman’s Hut.

Fire Fly

Firefly and Train

‘Fire Fly’ is a faithful replica of the original ‘Fire Fly’ locomotive designed by Daniel Gooch in 1840 to run on Brunel’s broad gauge Great Western Railway between Bristol and London.

The replica was conceived by the members of the Firefly Trust and they have assembled it at Didcot Railway Centre where it now operates.

‘Fire Fly’ has operated the broad gauge railway together with replicas of a third class coach, open to the elements, and a second class coach, which at least has a roof! Both were originally built by the National Railway Museum for the 150th anniversary of the Great Western Railway in 1985 and have been extensively rebuilt by the Great Western Society. 'Fire Fly' is currently out of service, awaiting a boiler overhaul.

Fire Fly

The original ‘Fire Fly’ was the first locomotive designed by Daniel Gooch, first locomotive superintendent of the Great Western Railway, and was one of a class of sixty two; built in May 1840 it ran until 1870. Gooch took advantage of the broad gauge; his locomotives travelled at much faster speeds than those made previously. In all he designed 340 locomotives.

The Firefly class handled the principal trains from London to Bristol when they were new and were capable of hauling trains weighing 80 tons at speeds up to 60 miles per hour; one of the class hauled the first royal train, taking Queen Victoria from Slough to London, in 1842. The wheel arrangement is 2-2-2, the single driving wheel being 7 feet diameter, and the weight 24 tons 4 cwt.

The Firefly Trust’s achievements were recognised by the Heritage Railway Association by the award of the 2005 John Coiley Memorial Prize for locomotives. In 2013 the locomotive was given to the Great Western Society who are now its custodians.


Broad Gauge Turntable

Broad Gauge Turntable

This is displayed near to the Railway Centre entrance. It was originally installed within Devonport Dockyard and is thought to have been manufactured for the Cornwall Railway circa 1868 when they were contracted to carry out some work at the dockyard involving laying a short loop on the east side of the North Basin in North Yard, to include a 13 feet diameter Heanett & Spinks turntable. It may be that this is the example preserved here, though by the time it was recognized as historically important (in 1992) it was located on the east side of No. 3 basin in South Yard, apparently having been moved there at some time after the Second World War.

There had been a scheme to preserve the turntable at Devonport as part of a proposed museum, but with this proving impractical the turntable was purchased by the Bristol Group of the Great Western Society in 2008.

These small turntables are often known as ‘wagon turntables’, though they are easily traversed by a small locomotive, and can even be used to turn one provided the wheelbase is short enough. Unlike the larger turntables which were used to turn locomotives at the end of their journey so that they were facing in the correct direction for their return, these turntables were mainly used to provide access to awkward locations. In dock areas this allowed access for single wagons into buildings and onto jetties and quays, and they were also much used inside goods warehouses and industrial premises. However they were also heavily used at major stations in the early days of railways, where they would allow for individual coaches and wagons carrying the road carriages of the wealthy to be easily attached to trains.

Such turntables were operated by manpower, generally by the simple mechanism of pushing against whatever it was standing on the turntable ready to be turned. In many cases the spur lines running from these turntables were quite short and any movement of vehicles to and from the turntables would also be by manual operation, although sometimes horses, or even systems of ropes and powered capstans might be used on larger or more heavily used installations.

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