In the early part of Brunel’s life, the use of railways began to take off as a mean of transport for passengers and goods. This demand for railway expansion greatly influenced Brunel’s involvement in stretching railways
across Britain. This resulted in the railway bridges.
In 1833, before the Thames Tunnel (Brunel’s tunnel) was complete, Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, one of the wonders of Victorian era. The railway ran from London to Bristol and afterwards was expanded to Exeter.
At the time of Brunel, there were 100 rich families whom practically owned everything. Their eldest sons were in the House of Lords and their sons in The House Of Commons. Things then started to change.
The Company for the Great British Railway was founded at a public meeting in Bristol in 1833, and was included by Act of Parliament in 1835. Brunel made two decisions: to use a broad gauge of 7ft for the track, which he believed would make the trains go at high speeds.
His decision to use broad gauge for the line was controversial because almost all British railways in the country had used a standard gauge of 4 81/2 feet. Brunel said that this was nothing a carry-over from the mine railways that George Stephenson had worked on.
Even before the Great Western Railway was opened, Brunel was moving on to his next project: transatlantic shipping. He used his standing to convince his railway company employers to build the Great Western, at the time by far the largest steamship in the world. The ship first sailed in 1837.
The Great Western was 236 ft long, made of wood, and propelled by sail and paddlewheels. Her first return trip to New York City took just 29 days, compared to two months for a sailing ship. In total, 74 goings to New York were made. The Great Britain was made in 1843 and was much larger at 322 ft long; she was the first iron-hulled, ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Building on these two successes, Brunel made a third ship in 1852, even larger than both of the others, and intended for trips to India and Australia. The Great Eastern was ‘cutting-edge technology’ for her time: almost 700 ft long, fitted out with the most luxurious activities and capable of carrying over 4,000 people.
She was designed to be able to cruise under her own power non-stop from London to Sydney and back since engineers of the time were under the thought that Australia had no coal, and she remained the largest ship built until the 19th century. However, this soon ran over budget.