Category Archives: Transports of Delight

Steaming to Dartmouth

Kingswear Station, Dartmouth Steam Railway:  British Railways locomotive 7827, Lydham Manor

Kingswear Station, Dartmouth Steam Railway: British Railways locomotive 7827, Lydham Manor

The Dartmouth Steam Railway is part of an exceptional heritage-railway enterprise which operates as a full commercial operation, with a small amount of volunteer help at one of the five stations.

The original railway, the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway, opened between Paignton and Churston in 1861 and to Kingswear in 1864.  The Kingswear terminus connected by ferry with Dartmouth, where there remains a railway station that has never seen a train, like the former station at Hull (Corporation Pier).  An independent branch line three miles long, the Torbay & Brixham Railway, opened from Churston into Brixham in 1868.  The two railways were absorbed into the Great Western Railway in 1876 and 1883 respectively.

Both branches carried heavy passenger traffic until the 1960s, when the Brixham branch closed in 1963 and most through trains to Kingswear were cut back in 1966.

Complete closure was avoided when the Dart Valley Railway Co Ltd, which had been set up to run what is now the South Devon Railway between Totnes and Buckfastleigh, agreed to purchase the Paignton-Kingswear line directly from British Rail.  The last BR train ran on December 30th 1971 and the first service by the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway, as it was then called, began on January 1st 1972.

The £250,000 cost of the purchase was balanced by the sale of surplus land, including a hotel in Kingswear, and astute management has kept pace with demand from holidaymakers as well as rail enthusiasts ever since.

While the Dartmouth Steam Railway has developed as a commercial enterprise, the former Dart Valley Railway, now the South Devon Railway, has remained a volunteer operation, successful enough to purchase the freehold of its trackbed and premises from the Dartmouth Steam Railway PLC in 2010.

There’s more to the Paignton-Kingswear railway than trains.  As the Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company it runs a fleet of river boats between Kingswear and Dartmouth, and between Dartmouth and Totnes, and its vintage bus service no 100 connects Totnes Quay with the rebuilt GWR-style railway station at Paignton (Queens Park) so that, tide permitting, it’s possible to make a full circuit within the day.

The railway also opened Greenway Halt in 2012, providing direct access to the Agatha Christie estate, Greenway, a National Trust property.

The combination of glorious seaside, heritage transport and the beauty of the River Dart and its estuary make the Kingswear peninsula a magnet for visitors.

All this is accessible by means of the Round Robin ticket [http://www.dartmouthrailriver.co.uk/tours/round-robin], as well as a variety of other options to suit individual visitors’ inclinations.

The Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour includes a visit to the Dartmouth Steam Railway as part of a rail, bus and riverboat Round Robin tour of the Dart estuary.  For further details, please click here.

The branch line that Beeching opened

Buckfastleigh Station, South Devon Railway

Buckfastleigh Station, South Devon Railway

Dr Richard Beeching could open the heritage railway then called the Dart Valley Railway with a clear conscience, because it was not one of the railways that his now notorious Report had closed.

The branch line from Totnes to Ashburton, opened in 1872, had never made a worthwhile profit.  The company that built it, the Buckfastleigh, Totnes & South Devon Railway, eventually sold out to the operator, by then the Great Western Railway, at a huge loss in 1897, and by the 1930s the three stations were between them selling less than twenty tickets a day.

The last passenger train ran on November 3rd 1958 and freight continued until September 1962.  Although Dr Beeching had been appointed Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961, the first of his two reports, The Reshaping of British Railways, came out in 1963.  Dr Beeching returned to his substantive post at ICI in 1965.

The branch line reopened as the Dart Valley Railway in April 1969.  Because service trains had always used the main-line platform at Totnes station, rather than a bay platform, access to heritage trains at Totnes remained a problem for years, until the specially constructed riverside station short of the main-line junction, Totnes (Littlehempston), was linked by a pedestrian footbridge in 1993.

Since 1991 this charming little line has been operated by the South Devon Railway Trust.  It carries far more passengers – around 100,000 a year – than it ever did as a commercial railway.

In the early days, until 1971, the Dart Valley Railway trains operated all the way to Ashburton, but an upgrade of the A38 trunk road blocked the trackbed and the terminus ever since has been Buckfastleigh.

That might seem to be the end of the matter, but Ashburton station remains intact, and the Friends of Ashburton Station [https://friendsofashburtonstation.co.uk] have put forward a business case for retaining the station’s environs and restoring the rail connection with Buckfastleigh.  Their report itemises nine such unlikely reinstatements, ranging from the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways to the linking of the two Great Central Railway lines at Loughborough:  http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/549983/FoAS-Proposal.compressed.compressed.pdf.

The South Devon Railway Trust has committed to supporting this venture, though the process of enlisting local community support is delicate:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/ashburtonstation (see January 16th 2017 post).

The chairman of the Trust, Allan Taylor, provided a statement of his board’s position under the heading ‘Background information’ at http://everythinggwr.com/save-ashburton-station.

In the meantime, on high days and holidays, there is a rail replacement bus service between Buckfastleigh and Ashburton:  http://www.rm1872.org.uk.

The Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour includes a visit to the South Devon Railway.  For further details, please click here.

’Ackydoc

Worksop Road Aqueduct, Sheffield & Tinsley Canal (1977)

Worksop Road Aqueduct, Sheffield & Tinsley Canal (1977)

I’ll journey some distance to hear Mike Spick, the distinguished Sheffield local historian, and indeed I travelled as far as Chesterfield when he gave his Sheffield Canal presentation to the North-East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeological Society.

At the risk of showing disrespect I took issue when Mike referred to the Worksop Road Aqueduct as “T’ackydoc”.  The “t’” may be useful in print, but in Attercliffe dialect it was a pure glottal stop, as in “Weer’s thi dad?”  “Is on ’closet.”

Otherwise I listened to Mike’s presentation with admiration for the accuracy of his account, the richness of his illustrations and his adept use of PowerPoint to animate and explain.

The Sheffield & Tinsley Canal, not quite four miles long, climbs from the River Don at Tinsley, very near to the latter-day M1 viaduct and the much-lamented cooling towers that were demolished in 2008, by a flight of eleven (originally twelve) locks to its terminus on the edge of Sheffield city centre.

For over a century before it was built the nearest navigable waterway was the River Don Navigation at Tinsley;  the next nearest was the River Idle at Bawtry, over twenty miles away.

The canal was financially supported and its route along the south side of the Don Valley was directly influenced by the estate of the Duke of Norfolk, the ground-landlord for much of Sheffield.

To please the Duke a branch canal was built to his Tinsley Park collieries.  The course of the Greenland Arm is now Greenland Road, part of the Sheffield ring-road.

Authorised in 1815, four years after Attercliffe Common was enclosed, the Sheffield Canal opened with much celebration in 1819.

It was the first effective means of breaking Sheffield’s physical isolation, surrounded by seven hills.

Its heyday lasted barely twenty years, until the Sheffield & Rotherham Railway opened in 1839, following (as it still does) the north side of the valley.

For thirty years Sheffield passengers and goods headed east to Retford or north to Rotherham in order to travel south to London.  Only in 1870 did the Midland Railway complete its direct line from Chesterfield, the present-day route via Dronfield that to this day is known to railwaymen as the “New Road”.

The canal continued to serve the city under railway ownership well into the twentieth century.  Indeed, a new warehouse was built, for lack of anywhere else to put it, over the quay in 1896 and is known for obvious reasons as the Straddle Warehouse.

The last commercial cargo went down the canal in 1980.  It never became unnavigable but it was practically derelict by the time the opening scene of The Full Monty was filmed near Bacon Lane in 1997.

Now, as part of the regeneration of the Lower Don Valley, the canal has become almost unrecognisably emparked.  The terminal basin is a marina called Victoria Quays, presumably commemorating the defunct Victoria railway station.  The Quays, like the former station, is out on a limb, not easily accessible from the city centre.

There are hotel boats offering an alternative pied-â-terre to the corporate hotels, and a trip-boat offering “cruising for all occasions”, along the surprisingly silvan Attercliffe Cutting, over ’Ackydoc and down the locks to Tinsley.

In fact, it’s an ideal venue for a birthday party.

The Sheffield’s Heritage (October 2nd-6th 2017) tour includes a visit to the former industrial East End of Sheffield.  For details, please click here.

Meldon Viaduct

Meldon Viaduct, Devon

Meldon Viaduct, Devon

If ever there’s a need to restore the old L&SWR main line between Exeter and Plymouth, perhaps because the present route past Dawlish becomes unsustainable, there will be a problem at the Meldon Viaduct, three miles west of Okehampton.

It’s a spectacular piece of engineering, 120 feet high, crossing the West Okement River on a curve.  The initial single-line crossing, which opened in 1874, was duplicated by an identical structure, spliced to the original, in 1878.

Designed by the company engineer W R Galbraith, it has five wrought-iron piers which support cast-iron Warren truss spans, and as such is a unique survivor and a Scheduled Ancient Monument

Even more spectacular examples of this type of construction have vanished – the Crumlin Viaduct (200ft high, built 1857, demolished 1965) in south Wales and the Belah Viaduct in Cumbria (196ft high, built 1861, demolished 1963).

The nearest equivalent is the much longer but lower Grade II*-listed Bennerley Viaduct on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, which has lattice-work spans rather than Warren trusses.

The trackbed across Meldon Viaduct, having been used as a roadway for lorries serving the construction of the Meldon Dam in 1970-2, is now part of the Granite Way, which links Okehampton with Lydford.

This presents a difficulty if there’s ever a need to restore the railway because apart from being a Scheduled Ancient Monument the viaduct is no longer strong enough to support the weight of trains.

The easiest way to visit Meldon Viaduct and to clamber down steps to see it from below is by riding the volunteer-operated Dartmoor Railway from Okehampton station to Meldon Quarry station.

A single dining car from an electric multiple unit serves as a café with a spectacular view of the viaduct as the walkers and cyclists cross to and fro.

Meldon Viaduct is a destination on the Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour.  For further details, please click here.

Maids of all work

British Railways D4167, otherwise 08 937, built 1962, in service on the Dartmoor Railway (2016).

British Railways D4167, otherwise 08 937, built 1962, in service on the Dartmoor Railway (2016).

The most ubiquitous locomotive still in use on Britain’s railways is a design that dates back to the late 1930s.  It still does its job, moving rolling stock around rail yards and sidings, which is why it remains a favourite with both commercial and heritage railways.

British Railways Class 08 diesel shunters are based on the specification of the great steam-locomotive engineer William A Stanier (1876-1965) and were built for the London Midland & Scottish Railway from 1935 onwards.

They were intended to make use of the advantages of diesel traction – quick starting, cleanliness, flexibility and economy.

They capitalised on the twin technical breakthroughs of newly developed smaller, more powerful diesel engines connected to electric transmission that was more robust than the mechanical clutch-operated gearbox that serves smaller road vehicles.

Yet to deliver adhesion while minimising wear on the track, the engines were mounted on a steam-locomotive frame and drove the wheels through a jackshaft, connecting rods and coupling rods.

In the post-war period, when British Railways owned thousands of steam shunting locomotives, the diesel-electric shunter proved equal to the required physical tasks without the need to keep the boiler fired up in slack periods, and they didn’t send the crew home filthy at the end of a shift.

None of the pre-war English-Electric built LMS shunters survived past the 1960s, but several of the post-war version, built from 1945 onwards, became British Railways Class 11 and are still maintained by heritage railways.   Other versions of this design, developed for the War Department during the Second World War, were exported to the Netherlands, Australia and Liberia.

They were followed by Class 08, of which nearly a thousand were built between 1952 and 1962.

Their reliability and efficiency stood out from the heterogeneous ragbag of inadequate shunters ordered, many of them off-plan, in response to the 1955 British Railways Modernisation Plan.

There were variants – a low-height version (Class 08/9) for the Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley Railway in South Wales, and a faster but less powerful variant with a maximum speed of 27½mph instead of 15mph (Class 09), another batch with different engines (Class 10) and a Southern Railway derivative (Class 12).  A small number were paired as master-and-slave units with one of the cabs removed (Class 13) to work over the humps at Tinsley Marshalling Yard between Sheffield and Rotherham.

All these together amounted to nearly twelve hundred locomotives, and though many were scrapped or cannibalised for spares in the 1970s and 1980s, their adaptability meant that industrial users such as the National Coal Board snapped them up, and heritage lines found them extremely useful as well as historically interesting.

Many main-line freight and passenger operators still run Class 08 locomotives to marshal rolling stock, and over seventy are preserved.

Like the long-lived High Speed Train, the longevity of Class 08 proves that British railways had the expertise to design world-beating locomotives after the age of steam.

Railways round Dartmoor

Okehampton railway station, Devon

Okehampton railway station, Devon

The premier rail route to the South West has always been the Great Western main line, the first to open and the best-known.

It was engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who visualised his line from London to Bristol should be extended to New York by means of steamships, the first of which was Great Western (1838), followed by the celebrated Great Britain (1845).

Beyond Bristol, a series of railway companies, either sponsored or taken over by the Great Western Railway, extended the line through Devon and Cornwall via Exeter (1844) and Plymouth (1849) to Penzance (1852).

Brunel chose to direct this route across difficult, spectacular country along the south coast:  that was the reason for his failed atmospheric experiment, his magnificent Royal Albert Bridge (1859) and his long-vanished timber viaducts.

The early rail route from London to Southampton grew into the London & South Western Railway, which reached Exeter in 1860 via a southerly route through Andover, Salisbury and Yeovil.

The only way the L&SWR could penetrate into Devon and Cornwall was by taking the opposite route to the GWR, round the northern fringes of Dartmoor via Okehampton and Tavistock, reaching Plymouth in 1876.

This line was severed in 1968, and regular services now run only from Plymouth to Bere Alston (for Gunnislake) and along the so-called Tarka Line from Exeter to Barnstaple.

Track remains along the former L&SWR main line to a quarry three miles beyond Okehampton for quarry traffic, and occasional Sunday services operate between Exeter and Okehampton.

Okehampton Station is maintained by the Dartmoor Railway, a volunteer-led group which runs trains up the line as far as Meldon Viaduct, and sometimes eastwards to Sampford Courtenay.

The track between Okehampton and Coleford Junction, where it joins the Tarka Line, is now operated by British American Railway Services, a subsidiary of the American railroad operator Iowa Pacific Holdings.

There is an as-yet-unfulfilled plan for the Dartmoor Railway services to extend to Yeoford, the station south of Coleford Junction, to provide passenger interchange with Exeter-Barnstable.

Increasing concern about the sustainability of the Great Western main line through Dawlish, particularly after a washout in 2014 which halted services completely for three months, has led to suggestions that the L&SWR line through Okehampton should be reinstated to Plymouth as an alternative route.

The plan to reinstate the line from Bere Alston to a new station at Tavistock West is at least a step in implementing this proposal.

So yet again one of Dr Beeching’s cuts may at great cost be rolled back.

Network Rail’s consideration of the options to safeguard the rail route into Devon and Cornwall can be found at https://www.networkrail.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/West-of-Exeter-Route-Resilience-Study.pdf

Okehampton Station is a destination on the Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour.  For further details, please click here.

Friargate Bridge

Friargate Bridge, Derby (1977)

Friargate Bridge, Derby (1977)

The magnificent cast-iron railway bridge across Friargate, north of Derby city-centre, made a grand statement proclaiming the arrival of the Great Northern Railway in the home town of its rival the Midland Railway in 1878.

The Midland’s monopoly of the East Midlands coal trade had been a grievance of local businesses and the new railway was welcomed, to the detriment of the local environment:  the bridge cuts across Derby’s grandest Georgian street, Friargate, authorised in 1768 as a speculation by the notoriously unscrupulous banker-brothers, John and Christopher Heath.

Many important personalities in late-eighteenth-century Derby had residences on Friargate, including the architect Joseph Pickford (1734-1782), whose house at 40-41 Friargate is now a museum.

Though it’s commonly referred to as Friargate Bridge, there are in fact two bridges side by side accommodating pairs of tracks fanning out to the station platforms immediately beyond. 

To mitigate – or perhaps to pay back – for the intrusion, the GNR engineer, Richard Johnson, provided a particularly dignified design with elaborate decorative spandrels cast by the Derby ironmasters Andrew Handyside & Co, featuring the buck within the palings of a park that appears in the coat of arms of the borough, now the city, of Derby.

The gesture did not go down well with some residents, one of whom described it as “meretricious decoration, which only emphasised the insult”.

Passenger services between Derby and Nottingham closed in 1964 and goods services finally ceased four years later.

Little remains of Friargate Station itself, which stood on a brick viaduct west of the bridge, except for the enormous goods station, now ruinous.

Bud Flanagan told a BBC interviewer that seeing homeless men sleeping under the railway viaduct at Friargate gave him the idea for the 1932 song ‘Underneath the Arches’, which he co-wrote with Reg Connelly) while Bud and Chesney Allen were playing at the nearby Hippodrome Theatre.

It’s ironic that the bridge, like the viaduct at Monsal Dale, has become a conservation issue.  Derby City Council, which bought it from British Railways for £1, has been vexed for years finding a practical solution to safeguard its future.

It was listed Grade II in 1974, oddly suggesting a lesser value than the other surviving structure on the line, Bennerley Viaduct (Grade II*).

At present a species of hairnet protects the cast ironwork from pigeons, and also creates difficulties for photographers.

Beside the line of the former railway viaduct on the north side of Friargate remains one of the oddest survivals of Derby’s transport history, the 4ft-guage rails and setts of the horse-tram depot of the Derby Tramways Co, which were in use from 1890 until the route was electrified in 1907.

Bennerley Viaduct

Bennerley Viaduct, Nottinghamshire (1973)

Bennerley Viaduct, Nottinghamshire (1973)

The River Erewash is not widely known (and often wrongly pronounced – three syllables, “Er-e-wash”).  Indeed, it’s an unremarkable river, meandering between its wide, low-lying valley sides, bordering Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.  It gives its name to the Erewash Canal and is the location for many of D H Lawrence’s stories, including much of the novel The Rainbow (1915).

Eastwood, the town of Lawrence’s birth, claims to be the “birthplace of the Midland Railway”, on the strength of a meeting at the Sun Inn, which led to the formation of the Midland Counties Railway in 1832.

In fact the railway didn’t reach the valley until the late 1840s, after which the local mine-owners deserted the canals to send their coal by rail to Leicestershire and London.

This was the heartland of the Midland Railway, until its rival the Great Northern Railway, egged on by local businessmen anxious to break the Midland’s monopoly, chose to compete by building a line west from Nottingham across the southern edge of the coalfield and on to Derby and beyond.

This Derbyshire & Staffordshire Extension, authorised by Parliament in 1872, spawned numerous branches to local collieries, and was intended also connect with the North Staffordshire Railway to take some of the Midland’s Burton beer traffic.

Little survives of the route, which closed in the 1960s, except for the remarkable Bennerley Viaduct, which strides across the Erewash flood-plain east of Ilkeston, opened in 1878.

The wrought-iron lattice construction, designed by the GNR engineer, Richard Johnson, was necessary because the floor of the Erewash valley was already riddled with coal workings.  A brick-arch viaduct would have been vulnerable to subsidence;  iron legs could be jacked up if necessary.

The structure survives because wrought iron cannot be cut by an oxy-acetylene torch, and dismantling it piece-by-piece proved unduly expensive.

It’s a unique survivor, now listed Grade II*:  two taller and more spectacular viaducts, at Crumlin on the Taff Vale Railway near Caerphilly (1857, 200 feet high) and Belah near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria (1860, 196 feet high) were demolished in 1965 and 1962 respectively.

Belah Viaduct, designed by Thomas Bouch who went on to build the first Tay Bridge, had the same lattice construction as Bennerley;  Crumlin, like the surviving Meldon Viaduct near Okehampton, Devon, had distinctive Warren Trusses.

Bennerley Viaduct belongs to Sustrans, and may one day form part of the National Cycle Network.  For the present, it’s remarkably difficult to approach or see.  Indeed, the best view is from passing trains (on the left-hand side heading south) between Langley Mill and Nottingham.

Not one of Brunel’s best ideas

Starcross Pumping Station, Devon

Atmospheric railway track, Didcot Railway Centre

Atmospheric railway track, Didcot Railway Centre

Starcross Pumping Station, Devon

Starcross Pumping Station, Devon

To modern eyes the atmospheric railway, with its leather flaps and rats in the pipes, seems a Heath Robinson contraption, but when it was devised by a gas engineer, SamueI Clegg, and the brothers Jacob and Joseph Samuda and patented in 1839 it attracted the serious attention of the brightest brains in the engineering profession.

The idea was to evacuate the air from a tube between the rails, so that the vacuum in front of a piston underneath the train would cause air behind the vehicles to propel them forward at speed, without the weight of a heavy locomotive and the fuel it had to carry.  The slot that admitted the piston was sealed by leather flaps that maintained the vacuum before and after the train passed.

This worked quite well on a 1¾-mile extension of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway in Ireland.  This former horse tramway had an average gradient of 1 in 110, and opened in 1843.

Trains carrying up to two hundred passengers weighing 38 gross tons were propelled by the vacuum in a tube between the running rails at speeds of up to 40mph.

On one occasion the piston carriage set off without its train, and covered the entire line in 75 seconds at an average speed of 84mph.

The London & Croydon Railway ran trains using the atmospheric system between Dartmouth Arms (now Forest Hill) and Croydon from January 1846.

The interior of the pipe was sealed by a mixture of tallow fat and beeswax which melted in hot weather and attracted rats, whose corpses were regularly evacuated each morning.

In frosty weather the leather flaps froze stiff and broke away and snow, instead of rats, got into the tube.

The system was so unreliable that it soon gave way to steam locomotives and the tube was dismantled after May 1847.

Brunel was attracted to the apparent advantages of the atmospheric principle so that he could take the South Devon Railway around the south coast from Exeter to Newton Abbot, where the gradients and tight curves were challenging to contemporary locomotives.

He was unconcerned when questioned about the wisdom of adapting the workings of a 1¾-mile branch line to a fifty-mile main line.

Daniel Gooch, the young locomotive engineer of the Great Western Railway, remarked, “I could not understand how Mr Brunel could be so misled.  He had so much faith in his being able to improve it that he shut his eyes to the consequences of failure.”

The first atmospheric passenger trains between Exeter and Teignmouth ran on September 13th 1847 and to Newton Abbot on January 10th 1848.  The entire service was operated by atmospheric propulsion from February 23rd 1848.

The new system was much admired for the lack of noise, smuts and smoke, and in the first few months barely 1% of atmospheric trains were more than ten minutes late.  A 28-ton train could reach an average speed of 64mph over three miles.

On January 18th 1848, however, cold weather froze the leather and no trains ran until the afternoon.  Increasingly, the leather flaps tore away from their fixings, allowing air leakages to diminish the partial vacuum.  The underpowered steam pumping engines broke down repeatedly and coal consumption was excessive.

Everyone was aware that the London & Croydon Railway had given up on the atmospheric system in May 1847, and through the summer the directors and Brunel himself backpedalled.

The last atmospheric train ran on September 10th 1848.

The most visible reminder of the atmospheric railway is the pumping station alongside Starcross station which was used as a Methodist chapel from 1867 to 1958, while the boiler house became a coal store.

The entire building opened as a museum of the atmospheric railway in 1982 and is now the headquarters of the Starcross Fishing & Cruising Club.

Starcross Pumping Station is a destination on the Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour.  For further details, please click here.

One of Brunel’s best ideas

Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash, Devon

Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash, Devon

The career of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) is punctuated by two great bridges.  His first major project was the Clifton Suspension Bridge, begun in 1831 but completed posthumously in 1864.  Towards the end of his life he devised and constructed the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash, to carry the railway across the Tamar into Cornwall.

Throughout his working life his professional rival, Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), was also a close personal friend and ally.

Brunel supported Stephenson at the enquiry into the Dee Bridge collapse in 1847, which first exposed the weakness of long cast-iron girders to support railway locomotives.

The two of them regularly discussed how to bridge wide waterways at height as Stephenson designed the High Level Bridge in Newcastle-on-Tyne (1849) and the box-girder bridges at Conwy (1849) and Menai (1850).

A suspension bridge such as Brunel’s design at Clifton was useless to carry a railway, because the weight of the locomotive would cause the chains to deflect dangerously.

When Brunel took the South Wales Railway across the River Wye at Chepstow in 1852, crossing from an abrupt cliff to a flat flood plain, his solution was to brace the suspension chains with circular tubes.

His great bridge across the wide Tamar estuary, linking Devon and Cornwall by rail, had to leave 100 feet of headroom for passing ships.  Its approaches had to be on curved viaducts.

So his freestanding central spans combine the three classic types of bridge – beam, arch and chain.  He developed the Chepstow design by changing the circular tube to an oval profile, bowed in the form of a convex truss to brace the vertical suspension chains.

Each span was fabricated in turn on the Devonport bank of the river, floated out into the stream and then jacked into position, three feet at a time, as the piers were built.

Brunel conducted the complex positioning of the first, western span in a two-hour process, watched by thousands in complete silence until the Royal Marines Band struck up ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ to signal success.

By the time the bridge was finished in 1859 Brunel was so ill that he missed the royal opening ceremony.

He only once saw his great work in its completed state, when he was drawn gently across the bridge in a coach secured to an open rail wagon.

He died on September 15th the same year, and his friend Robert Stephenson followed him a month later on October 12th.  Both of them suffered from what was then called Bright’s disease.

The Cornwall Railway subsequently added the tribute ‘I K BRUNEL – ENGINEER – 1859’ to each end of the bridge.

The Royal Albert Bridge is a destination on the Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour.  For further details, please click here.