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The Broad Gauge Map 


Map layers drawn by
Geof Sheppard  

Page design - Rob Speare

Please explore this BGS interactive map showing the growth of British  7' 0¼" broad gauge railway lines, and their later conversion to 'narrow' gauge.

Use the slider bar, or nudge arrows to examine the map in 5 year steps up to the end of broad gauge operation.

The map focuses only on lines that were at some time 'broad gauge' - and although there may be other railway lines in the areas and time periods shown, these are not displayed.

Press the 'Show' button to toggle to a display of the several Companies that may be operating the trains in that period - perhaps not so different to the franchise arrangements we see today. 
Note:  on some mixed gauge lines, there was no broad gauge service.

When activated, the Town and Origin Keys help illustrate the many, often small Companies formed to build a railway for the local area.  A colour next to a Town name represents the Company that originally constructed that line.  (Note; Towns and Origins will only display if your screen is wide enough).  Hovering the cursor over a Town name may display further info.

Not shown is a short self contained temporary railway, used to construct the Holyhead breakwater in 1848. 
There, 7' 0¼" gauge was chosen for the task of moving large stone blocks, rather than from any Brunel influence.  On completion, one of the 8 contractor's locos used was sold to the Azores, where it worked until the mid 1960s.

I hope this interactive map helps show the changes in broad gauge routes, and that you may find this page as interesting as I have.

Mapping Britain's Broad Gauge Lines - By Time


Map Key  
Origin Key 
Broad Gauge lines
    Mixed Gauge lines
Under Construction
    Former Broad Gauge

The recent history of railway privatisation, with a mix of operators running the trains, is almost a reflection back to how things were before the Railway Grouping of 1923.  However, a major difference is that the track routes of the early Great Western Railway, and of many adjacent independent railway companies were originally constructed to Brunel's favoured 7' 0¼" gauge.  But just 4 years into G.W.R. operations, the proliferation of other railways laid as 'narrow gauge', and the need to regularly transfer goods where the gauge changed, led to the setting up of the 'Gauge Commission' to determine a national standard.  While new broad gauge lines were still being conceived, many miles of mixed gauge track were also laid, allowing mutual running with other 'narrow gauge' Railway Companies, as depicted on the map.

Many lines were built by locally formed Companies, keen to ensure their Town or region didn't miss out in the predicted prosperity that would result from expansion of the railways.  But, sometimes although a Railway may be constructed, the Company might be too short of money to buy in locomotives or expertise - so a line could be operated using hired in stock, or run by a different Company.  This is illustrated by the alternate 'Operator' view of the map, but also showing how gradually, smaller companies were absorbed into larger concerns; although there were still independent railways up until the grouping into the 'Big 4' railway companies in 1923.

Considering the Gauge Commission was set up in 1845, shortly after the initial GWR route was completed, which found in favour of 'narrow gauge'; it is perhaps surprising that broad gauge trains were still running down the spine of the network close to 50 years later !  As can be seen from the map, although there was a gradual shrinkage in the broad gauge network, it was the far South West, more isolated from contact with other railways, where the broad gauge continued more or less intact right up to the end of operations.

Then under full track occupation for the weekend of 21-22nd May 1892, the remaining broad gauge lines in Devon & Cornwall were converted to standard gauge in one massive operation.  Once the final timetabled trains were run, inspections were carried out to ensure the recovery of all broad gauge stock from the lines.  Conversion work commenced as soon as the last train cleared an area, manually slewing one rail on its baulk timber inwards to form the new gauge for mile after mile, with wholesale replacement of complex items like pointwork.  This epic feat was achieved on time - with narrow gauge trains running all services again on the Monday.

And long after broad gauge trains had stopped running - tucked away in locations such as Dainton bank, some sections of narrowed baulk road track laid with bridge rail, were still in use carrying main line trains until the mid 1960s. 

Proving its resilience to later generations, this was surely a great tribute to Brunel's design.