Young author's 'real story' of GWR reveals a middle-of-the-road railway
Was it really God's Wonderful Railway – or was such a superlative raised on hype? Author Andrew Roden set himself the task of finding out, and to join him on this journey of discovery is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
Great Western Railway: A History (Aurum, £8.99) is neither a gushing eulogy to this national treasure nor a rivet-counter's manual. It is a meticulously researched account of the company, embracing origins, accolades and ultimate demise, by a writer who fires our interest from start to finish.
While the reign of the GWR ended with nationalisation and the creation of British Railways in 1948, its spirit lives on in legend and brand loyalty shared by legions of nostalgists and enthusiasts.
"There are more words written about the GWR than any other railway," says Andrew, who viewed that as no deterrent to adding a further 100,000 of his own.
While every aspect is already chronicled in volumes of specialist books, Launceston-based Andrew felt there was a need to pull the strands together. There is nothing new to say about the GWR – only the way of saying it.
"I wanted to bring a reality check to the GWR and find out the real story and tell it because it is such a thrilling tale. I wanted to take up what was important and present it in a way that makes sense and is accessible," he says.
"You get books covering various subjects, but in the past 25 years there hasn't been anything approaching an accessible history of the GWR."
The pages turn like a who's who and what's what of this mighty railway, whose fibrous roots ranged out of Paddington to the Midlands, Wales, and the Westcountry. Andrew takes the story beyond nationalisation to the days of the Western Region, demise of steam, rise of the preservation movement, and arrival of present-day privatisation.
Thankfully, the writer's pace and style deftly sidesteps the trap of turgid worthiness that often ensnares such tomes. A lifelong enthusiast, his 12-year career in railway journalism was ideal when sifting through interminable facts in order to bring nearly two centuries of history alive.
"Research took two years, and then the writing came easy," he explains. "The hardest part of this book was deciding what to leave out – I could have done so much more because there is 175 years of history to pack in."
Although a self-confessed admirer of the Great Western Railway, Andrew has kept his writing objective, often critical. Through his eyes we see God's Wonderful Railway, warts and all. Even the great civil engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel was not without his faults. A man with huge ambition and occasionally little patience, he was also afflicted with bouts of arrogance. He created such engineering icons as the Royal Albert Bridge spanning the Tamar and the SS Great Britain, but misguidedly championed the atmospheric railway for Devon's coastal route. This was a flawed system using a vacuum pipe created by steam-powered pumping stations – and was doomed to fail. Services between Exeter and Teignmouth began in 1847 but, within a month, the air-tight seals were failing, courtesy of the salty sea air. That December a hard frost froze the leather seal, preventing trains running. The following summer, hot weather dried out the seal, and waves crashed over the seawall section, corroding the metal that held the leather hinge in place.
However, of all its recorded difficulties, one frequently reported problem can be discounted according to the book.
"The one thing that didn't happen, contrary to popular myth, is that rats acquired a taste for the sealing grease and ate that and the leather, thus rendering the system inoperable. Even if the rats had eaten the ingredients, there were plenty of problems of a more fundamental nature to derail the atmospheric railway."
Broad gauge was another misplaced solution. "It was a disaster and shouldn't have happened. It was only rescued from the jaws of defeat when it was made standard gauge," says Andrew.
"The truth about the GWR was that it was a 'middle-of-the-road' railway. There were fantastic developments in the 20th century but it was a conservative railway. It didn't do anything unless it made money or there was a compelling reason for doing it."
Tracking its evolutionary progress makes gripping, and occasionally shocking, reading. Safety measures were scant to say the least in the early days, passenger comfort was negligible and conditions for staff bleak.
But most GWR enthusiasts set their sights on the golden years. Fondly-remembered images of glistening locomotives heading such expresses as the Cornish Riviera or Torbay Express come headily to mind. Such Swindon-built pedigrees as Castles and Kings, with copper and brass adornments, were star turns on the main line – their fame further fuelled by a pro-active Paddington-based publicity machine. If we believed the Great Western Railway was, in fact, great, this was due in no small part to it singing its own praises.
As well as telling the story, Andrew is also part of the tale. He was involved in preventing the Night Riviera overnight sleeper to Cornwall from being axed in 2005. This service has run from Paddington to Penzance for more than a century. Travelling over former GWR metals, and bringing the Westcountry closer to the capital, it is an enduring link between past and present.
Andrew has written two previous railway books, Flying Scotsman and The Duchesses – and is currently working on his fourth, Railways of the Western Front.