Brunel and the Great Western Railway

Brunel was an innovative engineer and a man of business acumen. He designed and built the Great Western Railway which opened in 1842, only 12 years after the first steam railway in the world from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830.

The GWR connected London to Bristol, what was then regarded as the second city in England. At 300km it was the longest railway line built at the time. It was the flattest and the straightest track, and therefore the fastest railway. Others followed the contours of more variable topography by pick and shovel to avoid cuttings and embankments, and were slower round the sharp bends. GWR was a success from the beginning.

Brunel cut the longest tunnel, 3000m, in England. He built a new brick double arched bridge. He had designed the largest, most powerful and fastest locomotives that reached 100kmh. He built a broad gauge track of 7 feet which gave a more stable and comfortable ride, but had to replace it later for standard gauge. He introduced the first signal system for his faster trains instead of a man with a flag.

The terminus at Bristol was the first to have offices and housing built above it. Brunel developed a housing estate in the town of Swindon for his workers It was a town developed by a railway. It became a railway workshop centre. At the London end the terminal was Paddington, an amazing new building.

Brunel combined a railway business and a shipping business, the integrated London/Bristol/New York line. He designed and built two great ships for the crossing from Bristol to New York. The first was the timber paddle-steamer Great Western. The second was the SS Great Briton. This was the largest ship of the time. It had a wrought iron hull. It was the first propeller driven and had the most powerful engine of any ship. Unfortunately, the river access to Bristol was tidal and unsatisfactory. Travel to New York was by Liverpool. These days it would have been an airline, not a shipping line.

Separately, Brunel built the first tunnel in the world under a major river in London. It is still used by London Underground.

The builder of High Speed Rail in Australia needs to employ the innovative engineering and business sense of Brunel.


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