Great Western Main Line

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Not to be confused with West Coast Main Line.
Great Western Main Line
Railway bridge Maidenhead.jpeg
Maidenhead Railway Bridge carrying the line over the River Thames.
Type Commuter rail, Higher-speed rail[1]
System National Rail
Status Operational
Locale Greater London
South East England
South West England
Termini London Paddington
Bristol Temple Meads
Stations 25
Opened 30 June 1841 (complete line)
Owner Network Rail
Operator(s) Great Western Railway
Heathrow Connect
Heathrow Express
Chiltern Railways
South West Trains
Depot(s) Reading TMD
Old Oak Common TMD
Rolling stock Class 43 "HST"
Class 57
Class 150 "Sprinter"
Class 153 "Super Sprinter"
Class 158 "Express Sprinter"
Class 159 "South Western Turbo"
Class 165 "Networker Turbo"
Class 166 "Networker Turbo Express"
Class 180 "Adelante"
Class 220 "Voyager"
Class 221 "Super Voyager"
Class 332
Class 360 "Desiro"
Line length 119 mi (192 km)
No. of tracks Four (London to Didcot)
Two (Didcot to Bristol)
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)
Old gauge 7 ft 14 in (2,140 mm)
Electrification Mk3, Series 1 and UK Master Series 25kV 50hz AC OLE
(Paddington to Airport Junction) (West Drayton to Temple Meads by 2016)
Operating speed 125 mph (201 km/h) maximum
Great Western Main Line
Circle & Hammersmith & City lines
0.00 enlarge… London Paddington London Underground
Royal Oak
Subway Junction
Westbourne Park
Circle & Hammersmith & City lines
A40 Westway
West London Line
1 - Old Oak Common TMD
2 - North Pole depot
Old Oak West Junction
New North Main Line
Central line
to Central London
North London Line
Central line
to North Acton
A40 Western Avenue
4.25 Acton Main Line
Central line
to North Acton
District line
5.75 enlarge… Ealing Broadway London Underground
6.50 West Ealing
Greenford Branch Line
Plasser Works
7.25 Hanwell
Wharncliffe Viaduct
over River Brent
Brentford Branch Line
9.00 Southall
Grand Union Canal
10.75 Hayes & Harlington
Airport Junction
to Heathrow Airport
13.25 West Drayton
River Colne
Home counties
Uxbridge (Vine Street) Branch Line
to Colnbrook and
former Staines West branch
M25 motorway
14.75 Iver
16.25 Langley
18.50 Slough
Slough to Windsor & Eton Line
21.00 Burnham
22.50 Taplow
Jubilee River
Maidenhead Railway Bridge
over River Thames
24.25 Maidenhead
Marlow Branch Line
A404(M) motorway
31.00 Twyford
Henley Branch Line
River Loddon
Sonning Cutting
1 mile (1.6 km) long
60 feet (18 m) deep
River Kennet
Waterloo to Reading Line
North Downs Line
Reading East Junction
36.00 Reading
Reading to Basingstoke Line
and Reading to Taunton line
38.75 Tilehurst
Purley Cutting
41.50 Pangbourne
Gatehampton Railway Bridge
over River Thames
44.75 Goring & Streatley
Moulsford Railway Bridge
over River Thames
48.50 Cholsey
Cholsey and Wallingford Railway
Didcot, Newbury and
Southampton Railway
53.25 Didcot Parkway
Cherwell Valley Line
leading to Cotswold Line
Stocks Lane, Steventon
The Causeway, Steventon
former Wantage Tramway
Wantage Road
A417 road
former Faringdon branch
Stratton Park Halt
former Highworth Branch
(now goods only)
77.25 Swindon
Golden Valley Line
M4 motorway
Wootton Bassett
South Wales Main Line
former Malmesbury branch
Christian Malford Halt
former Calne branch
94.00 Chippenham
Thingley Junction
Wessex Main Line
via Melksham
Box Tunnel
2939 yd 
2687 m 
Box (Mill Lane) Halt(1930-1965)
Bathford Halt(1929-1965)
Bathford Bridge
over River Avon
Wessex Main Line
Bathampton Junction
Hampton Row Halt
107.00 Bath Spa
108.00 Oldfield Park
Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway
Twerton Tunnel
Saltford Tunnel
114.00 Keynsham
Keynsham Tunnel
St Anne's Park
Bristol and North Somerset Railway
St Philip's Marsh TMD
Cross Country Route
118.50 Bristol Temple Meads
Bristol to Exeter Line

The Great Western Main Line is a main line railway in Great Britain, that runs westwards from London's Paddington station to the west of England and South Wales. The core Great Western Main Line runs from London Paddington to Temple Meads railway station in Bristol. A major branch of the Great Western, the South Wales Main Line, diverges from the core line west of Swindon and terminates in Swansea. The term "Great Western" is also used by Network Rail and other rail transport organisations in the UK rail industry to denote a wider group of associated routes.

The core London–Bristol Temple Meads line is the original route of the pre-1948 Great Western Railway which was subsequently taken over by the Western Region of British Railways and is now part of the Network Rail system.

The line is mostly non-electrified. It was partly electrified from Paddington to Heathrow Airport in the late 1990s. In 2011, Network Rail commenced a scheme to electrify the entire main Great Western route to Bristol by 2016.[2]


The line was built by the Great Western Railway and engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a dual track line using a wider 7 ft (2,134 mm) broad gauge and was opened in stages between 1838 and 1840. The alignment was so level and straight it was nicknamed ‘Brunel’s Billiard Table’. It was supplemented with a third rail for dual gauge operation allowing standard gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) trains to also operate on the route in stages between 1854 and 1875. Dual gauge was introduced as follows: London to Reading (1 October 1861), Reading to Didcot (22 December 1856), Didcot to Swindon (February 1872), Swindon to Thingley Junction, Chippenham (June 1874), Thingley Junction to Bathampton (16 March 1875), Bathampton to Bristol (June 1874), Bristol station area (29 May 1854). The broad gauge remained in use until 1892. Evidence of the original broad gauge can still be seen at many places where bridges are a wider than usual, or where tracks are ten feet apart instead of the usual six.

The original dual tracks were widened to four track in various places between 1877 and 1899. Paddington to Southall (1 October 1877), Southall to West Drayton (25 November 1878), West Drayton to Slough (1 June 1879), Slough to east side of Maidenhead Bridge (8 September 1884), Maidenhead Bridge to Reading (4 June 1893), Reading station (1899), Reading to Pangbourne (30 July 1893), Pangbourne to Cholsey and Moulsford (?), Cholsey and Moulsford to Didcot (27 December 1892), Various short sections between Didcot and Swindon, and at Bristol.

Following the Slough rail accident in 1900 when five passengers were killed, improved vacuum braking systems were used on locomotives and passenger rolling stock and Automatic Train Control (ATC) was introduced in 1908.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Great Western Railway was taken into government control, as were most major railways in Britain and were reorganised after the war into the "big four" companies, of which the Great Western Railway was one. The railways returned to direct government control during World War II before being nationalised to form British Railways in 1948.

The line speed was upgraded in the 1970s to support the introduction of the InterCity 125 (HST).[3]

In 1977 the Parliamentary Select Committee on Nationalised Industries recommended considering electrification of more of Britain's rail network, and by 1979 BR presented a range of options that included electrifying the GW Main Line from Paddington to Swansea by 2000.[4] Under the 1979–90 Conservative governments that succeeded the 1976–79 Labour government the proposal was not implemented.

In August 2008 it was announced that a number of speed limits on the relief lines between Reading and London have been raised so that 86% of the line can be used at 90 miles per hour (140 km/h),[5] however the time allowed between stations for trains running on the relief lines has been reduced in the December 2008 timetable to improve timekeeping.[6]


The communities served by the Great Western Main Line include: West London (including Acton, Ealing, Hanwell, Southall, Hayes, Harlington and West Drayton); Iver; Langley; Slough; Burnham; Taplow; Maidenhead; Twyford; Reading; Tilehurst; Goring-on-Thames; Streatley; Cholsey; Didcot; Swindon; Chippenham; Bath; Keynsham; and Bristol.

From London to Didcot, the line follows the Thames Valley, crossing the River Thames three times, including on the famous Maidenhead Railway Bridge. After Swindon, trains pass the Swindon Steam Railway Museum. From Wootton Bassett there are two different routes to Bristol, firstly via Box Tunnel and secondly via Bristol Parkway.

It is also possible to run via the Wessex Main Line, but this involves a reversal at Bradford Junction, so is only really suitable for multiple unit trains or via Reading to Bath via Newbury. Trains on the Great Western Main Line are sometimes diverted from Reading along the Reading to Taunton line, as far as Westbury, from where they can use the Wessex Main Line to reach either Chippenham, or Bath Spa. Beyond Bristol, some trains continue on the Bristol to Taunton Line to Weston-super-Mare or beyond.

The following routes as managed by Network Rail as part of the Great Western Main Line (Route 13):[7] Didcot to Oxford and Worcester via the Cherwell Valley Line and Cotswold Line, Swindon to Cheltenham Spa via the Golden Valley Line, Swindon to Cardiff Central and Swansea via the South Wales Main Line, Cross Country Routes south of Birmingham and also all connecting branch lines.


Main line and local services are provided by Great Western Railway (GWR). The stations served by trains between London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads are: Slough, Reading, Didcot Parkway, Swindon, Chippenham, Bath Spa and Keynsham. Not all trains between London and Bristol call at Slough, Didcot and Keynsham.

Fast trains from Paddington to London Heathrow Airport are operated by Heathrow Airport Holdings as the Heathrow Express. Local services on this route are jointly operated by GWR and BAA under the Heathrow Connect name.

CrossCountry operate trains between Reading and Oxford, using the Great Western Main Line as far as Didcot and South West Trains operate a limited number of trains between Bath and Bristol.

Great Western Railway also operate a train between London Paddington – Cardiff Central every 30 minutes, with hourly extensions to Swansea. At Swansea/Cardiff there is a connecting Arriva Trains Wales boat train to/from Fishguard Harbour for the Stena Line ferry to Rosslare Europort in Ireland. An integrated timetable is offered between London Paddington and Rosslare Europort with through ticketing available.[8] Daytime and nocturnal journeys are offered in both directions daily (including Sundays). Additionally, 2–3 Great Western Railway trains continue to Pembroke Dock on weekends during the Summer season to connect with ferry services to Ireland.


Between London and Didcot there are four tracks, grouped by speed with the "relief" lines on the north side of the "main" lines. The only stations that have fast line platforms in use are at London Paddington, Slough, Maidenhead, Twyford, Reading and Didcot Parkway. Between Didcot and Royal Wootton Bassett there are a series of passing loops lines to allow fast trains to overtake slower ones. This section is also signalled for bi-directional running on each line but this facility is usually only used during engineering working or when there is significant disruption to traffic in one direction.

The line is currently not electrified except for a short 12 miles section of electrified 25 kV AC overhead wires between Paddington and Airport Junction (the junction with the line to London Heathrow Airport near Hayes).

The line speed is 125 miles per hour (201 km/h). The relief lines from Paddington to Didcot are currently limited to 90 miles per hour (140 km/h) as far as Reading, and then 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) to Didcot. Lower restrictions apply at various locations. It is one of only two Network Rail-owned lines to be equipped with the Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system, the other being the Chiltern Main Line.

Planned developments[edit]

The Great Western is currently undergoing a £5 billion modernisation by Network Rail.[9]

Reading railway station is undergoing a major redevelopment with new platforms, a new entrance, footbridge and lifts.[10]

Swansea railway station is to undergo renovation which will include an enlarged concourse, a new entrance, a new partition wall between concourse and platforms together with a new cafe and more shops.[11][12]

A major renewal programme is underway from bases at Reading and Taunton.

Electrification west of Airport Junction[edit]

As part of Crossrail the Great Western was already planned to be electrified from Airport Junction to Maidenhead but, following a number of announcements and delays the government announced in March 2011 that the line would be electrified between London and Cardiff together with the section linking Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads.[13][14] In July 2012, the UK Government announced that the final portion of the Great Western from Cardiff to Swansea would be electrified.[15]

In addition to allowing Crossrail services with the new Class 345 EMUs to be used, the electrification will also accommodate the new Hitachi Super Express high speed trains: the Class 800s, the Class 801s and the AT300s. These will gradually replace the InterCity 125 sets currently used for the long-distance services.

Great Western Railway will also acquire Class 387 and Class 365 EMUs; the trains are currently used by Thameslink and Great Northern but will be cascaded after the arrival of the new Class 700 trains to be used on the Thameslink routes, although an additional 8 Class 387 sets are also being ordered.[16] The Class 165 and Class 166 DMUs currently used by First Great Western for Thames Valley services will displaced to services on the lines around Cardiff and Bristol, and the coastal routes around Devon and Cornwall.[17]

Other proposals[edit]

Network Rail plans to install European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) in-cab signalling on the Great Western line:[18][19] this is a pre-requisite for the Super Express trains to run at 140 mph (225 km/h).[20] Some or all of the resignalling work will be done during the electrification work.[18]

Further capacity improvements are also scheduled at Swindon, adding to recent changes and the new Platform 4.

Crossrail services are planned to terminate at Reading. Some of the current suburban services into London Paddington are planned to be transferred to the new Crossrail service, which will in turn free up some surface-level capacity at London Paddington.[18]

Other more distant aspirations include resignalling and capacity improvements at Reading; the provision of four continuous tracks between Didcot and Swindon (including a grade-separated junction at Milton, where the down (westbound) relief line switches from the north side of the line to the south); and resignalling between Bath and Bristol to enable trains to run closer together.

Access to Heathrow Airport from the west remains an aspiration and there is a proposed future link to Heathrow Airport directly from Reading under the Heathrow Airtrack scheme which would use a route south of the Great Western Main Line. Plans for electrification of the line will make it easier to access Heathrow from Reading given that lack of electrification between Reading station and Heathrow Airport Junction near West Drayton station was a limiting factor.[18] There are plans for a direct link for services from the west on the Great Western Main Line, via new tunnels between Heathrow and Langley, to London Heathrow Airport.[21]

Network Rail intends to replace the ATP system with ETCS – Level 2[22] from 2017 to 2035 along with the introduction of the new IEP trains.

Signalling Solutions is to resignal the 12 miles from Paddington to West Drayton, including the Airport branch, as part of the Crossrail project.[23]

Calls for station reopenings[edit]

There are calls for the reintroduction of a station at Corsham due to recent growth of the town.[24] The original station was closed to passengers in 1965.

A local group is campaigning for the reopening of Saltford station between Bath and Bristol, to coincide with electrification.[25]

There have also been calls to reopen the former Wantage Road station.[26] Oxfordshire County Council include a proposal for a new station to serve for Wantage and Grove in their 2015-2031 local transport plan.[27]


Slough rail accident[edit]

The Slough rail accident in June 1900 occurred after an express train from Paddington to Falmouth Docks ran through two sets of signals at danger, and collided with a local train heading for Windsor. The collision resulted in the death of 5 passengers, and 35 were seriously injured.

Ealing rail crash[edit]

The Ealing rail crash occurred on 19 December 1973 when a train from Paddington to Oxford derailed: ten passengers were killed and 94 injured. The cause of the accident was a loose battery box cover on the BR Class 52 "Western" locomotive, that struck line side equipment, causing a set of points to move under the train.

Southall rail crash[edit]

The Southall rail crash occurred in 1997 when an InterCity 125 operated by Great Western Trains from Swansea to London Paddington failed to stop at a red signal and collided with a freight train entering Southall goods yard. Seven people were killed and 139 were injured. The incident severely damaged public confidence in the safety of the rail system. It was found that the train's AWS was faulty, and the driver had been distracted (he had bent down to pack his bag). Great Western Trains was fined £1.5 million for violations of health and safety law in connection with the accident.

Ladbroke Grove rail crash[edit]

The Ladbroke Grove rail crash in 1999 resulted in 31 deaths (including the drivers of both trains) and more than 520 injured. It remains the worst rail accident on the Great Western Main Line.[citation needed] Thames Trains was fined a record £2 million for violations of health and safety law in connection with this accident.[28] Network Rail pleaded guilty to charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in relation to the accident. It was subsequently fined £4 million and was also ordered to pay £225,000 in costs.[29]

Wootton Basset SPAD[edit]

On 7 March 2015, SR Battle of Britain class locomotive No. 34067 Tangmere was hauling a return Cathedrals Express charter train from Bristol Temple Meads to Southend East that overran a signal at Wooton Bassett, Wiltshire. The train's operator, West Coast Railways, was banned from running trains on the British railway network as a direct consequence of this incident.


  1. ^ Bowen, Douglas John (1 December 2014). "Hitachi Rail Europe taps Huber+Suhner". Railway Age. Retrieved 2 December 2014. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Collins, R.J. "High speed track on the Western Region of British Railways". Institute of Civil Engineers. Retrieved 18 May 2009. 
  4. ^ Anonymous (Winter 1979). Railway Electrification. British Railways Board (Central Publicity Unit). pp. 0–2, 8. 
  5. ^ "First Great Western Customer Panel" (PDF). First Great Western. Retrieved 24 November 2008. 
  6. ^ "West Coast dominates timetable changes". Modern Railways (Ian Allan Publishing) 65 (723): 46–50. 2008. ISSN 0026-8356. 
  7. ^ "2007 Business Plan" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  8. ^ "Sail and Rail to Britain | Train and Ferry Travel to England & Wales | Stena Line". Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  9. ^ "Modernising the Great Western (page 8)" (PDF). Network Rail. 
  10. ^ "£425M transformation planned at Reading". 
  11. ^ "City rail station to be revamped". BBC News. 8 February 2010. Retrieved 24 May 2010. 
  12. ^ "Transformation of Swansea Station unveiled". 2010-02-08. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  13. ^ "Great Western electrification and IEP to go ahead". RailNews. 
  14. ^ "Modernising the Great Western (page 9)" (PDF). Network Rail. 
  15. ^ Woodman, Peter (16 July 2012). "£4.2bn of new rail schemes unveiled". The Independent. Press Association. 
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b c d "DfT Rail Electrification paper" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  19. ^ "Modernising the Great Western (page 11)" (PDF). Network Rail. 
  20. ^ See Hitachi Super Express article
  21. ^ "Heathrow rail link plan unveiled by Network Rail". BBC News (BBC). 6 February 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2015. 
  22. ^ "Network Rail Train Infrastructure Interface Specification" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  23. ^ Nigel Harris, ed. (1–14 June 2011). "GWML signalling contract signed". RAIL (671): 17. 
  24. ^ Hicks, Amber (30 October 2014). "Corsham Station campaigners meet Department for Transport officials". Wiltshire Times (Newsquest (Oxfordshire and Wiltshire Ltd.)). Retrieved 11 April 2015. 
  25. ^ "Rail-ly good news over station plan for Saltford". Bath Chronicle (Local World). 13 December 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2015. 
  26. ^
  27. ^ Connecting Oxfordshire: Local Transport Plan 2015-2031
  28. ^ "Thames Trains fined £2m for Paddington crash". The Guardian. 5 April 2004. 
  29. ^ "Paddington crash prompts £4m fine". BBC News Online. 30 March 2007. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Pre-grouping Atlas and Gazetteer. Shepperton: Ian Allan Limited. 1976. ISBN 0-7110-0320-3. 
  • MacDermot, E T (1927). History of the Great Western Railway, volume I 1833-1863. London: Great Western Railway. 
  • MacDermot, E T (1931). History of the Great Western Railway, volume II 1863-1921. London: Great Western Railway. 

External links[edit]