The Swindon railway works has a long and storied history operating as the principal west England maintenance center for the Great Western Railway, or GWR. The company was opened in 1843, just eight years after the Parliament approved construction of the Great Western Main Line, and remained in continuous operation until it closed in 1986.
Located in Swindon, Wiltshire, England at the junction of the Golden Valley line, the maintenance center offered a convenient site for central repair work. Preparation for establishing this maintenance center began in 1940 when the center's Chief Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel hired a man named Daniel Gooch to identify the perfect site for the operation. Gooch then made a proposal to GWR directors, who authorized construction on the 25th of February, 1841.
While Gooch only began his work with the GWR in 1940, Brunel had already been working for the railway.
He was responsible for purchasing locomotives for the GWR from 1836 on. Unfortunately, his general specifications led some of the locomotive manufacturers entrusted with providing trains for the new railway to offer mixed-quality locomotives that came with a heavy repair burden. The need for making repairs on this diverse range of locomotives was one of the major factors contributing to the construction of the Swindon railway works.
Many of the earliest structures built for the new maintenance facility were fabricated out of stone extracted during the construction of the nearby Box Tunnel. The first of these buildings was a locomotive repair shed, completed in 1841. By 1842, all necessary machinery was installed in the initial repair shed, and by 1843, the Swindon railway works was in business.
During its earliest years, the maintenance center employed just 200 men and focused exclusively on repairs to existing locomotives. By 1846, though, the center's first new locomotive, the Premier, was already coming off the line. It took just two weeks to build and was later renamed the Great Western.
This first locomotive gave rise to six more, including the Lord of the Isles, which was widely considered to be the fastest broad-gauge locomotive of its day. By 1851, the 2,000 men employed by the center were producing roughly one locomotive per week.
In 1855, the first standard-gauge engine left the Swindon railway works, ready for use. In 1861, a rolling mill was installed for manufacturing rails. The maintenance center grew steadily from there, attracting workers from South Wales and steadily expanding its facilities and necessitating the construction of locally accessible housing and services in town.
Although the center's facilities had been steadily expanding and its scope of services had been increasing to match for decades, the Swindon railway works didn't reach its true heyday until the 1920's when Chief Mechanical Engineer Charles Collett managed to dramatically improve the works' boiler making and facilities. These improvements allowed employees to begin working heavy gauge sheet metal, which contributed in turn to the construction of the largest and most powerful engine of its time, the King class.
This impressive locomotive quickly became the flagship of the GWR fleet, helping to define and improve the railway's reputation and image. During the period from 1921 to 1941, more than 14,000 people were employed in the main fabrication workshop alone. The shop covered more than 11 acres and continued for the majority of this period to focus on locomotives and railway products.
The onset of World War II led Swindon to become involved with fabricating military hardware, including gun mountings, midget submarines, and loco wheel-turning lathes for turret rings. The center did, however, continue to produce locomotives throughout this period.
British Railways Nationalisation
The year 1947 marked the formation of the nationalized British Rail or BR. During this period, the works were producing 60 new locomotives per year, though that number had fallen to 42 per year by 1954. From 1948 to 1956, Swindon produced 452 steam engines according to GWR designs in addition to fabricating 200 BR standard classes between the years of 1951 and 1960.
In 1960, however, BR made the choice to begin transitioning from steam power to diesel power. While this brought the works new lines of employment, it also put an end to its supremacy as a steam locomotive producer. Instead, Swindon became a hub for storing and scrapping old steam locomotives and rolling stock.
By the time BR's last steam locomotive, the 92220 Evening Star, was produced, the works employed just 5,000 people. Ultimately, the switch to diesel power did not bear good news for Swindon railway works.
Decline and Closure
Ultimately, the future of the works was defined by the GWR's decision to develop experimental diesel-hydraulic transmission systems for their post-WW2 locomotives instead of diesel-electric. The works did manage to produce 38 Warship class D800s and 30 Western class D1000s beginning in 1957, but early diesel production relied substantially on the same locomotive construction strategies employed in building steam locomotives. This ended up being a mistake.
The result of these construction oversights was that the works produced multiple classes that had short production runs, high maintenance costs, and very particular applications. The Beeching Axe strategy employed to reshape BR for inter-city traffic removed the need for the majority of the works' recently developed diesel powered locomotive classes, placing increased emphasis on diesel-electric transmission. Since the works had focused almost exclusively on diesel-hydraulic technologies, the facility was no longer equipped to produce high-quality locomotives that met BR's changing needs.
After the facility's leaders made the decision to cease the fabrication of new locomotives, Swindon railway works was reassigned as a heavy repair facility. The last new locomotive constructed at the facility was a Class 14 diesel-hydraulic locomotive completed in 1965. However, the works did continue to provide locomotive, carriage, and wagon repairs for a number of years.
Once it was absorbed by BR's British Rail Engineering Ltd, the Swindon railway works began to win progressively fewer maintenance bids against internal competitors like Crewe and Derby Works. The decision to close the facility was made in 1986. The land has since been repurposed to house the Swindon Steam Railway Museum, the headquarters of English Heritage, and a mixed-use development containing everything from the Designer Outlet Village to the National Trust's central office building.