The chief depot for the line was at Bulls Bridge [Southall], since this was convenient for canal transport from Paddington and Brentford. Nearly all the timber for sleepers was unloaded and treated there, but the first locomotive was taken on to West Drayton by canal.
The line was finally opened to the public on 4th June, 1838. There were only three stations at this time: Paddington, West Drayton and Maidenhead. (Trains also stopped at Slough even though the governors of Eton College prevented the railway company from building a station.) The following December saw new stations at Ealing and Hanwell, and Southall Station was opened on 1st May, 1839. Hayes station curiously enough, was not opened until 1864.
For some time the residents [of Southall] had to put up with a level crossing by the station as the bridge and station buildings were not erected until twenty years later. The original track was Brunel’s preferred broad guage of seven feet, though later it was made to conform with the commonly accepted narrow guage of four feet eight and a half inches; for some time both guages were in use until all the broad guage rolling stock was either withdrawn or modified.
In 1855 The Great Western and Brentford Railway Company was authorised to construct a line between Southall and Brentford docks. Work began under Brunel’s direction in 1856. In July 1859 the line was opened to goods traffic and passenger trains began to run the next year. The main purpose was to provide a goods line, and passenger services were only ever a secondary consideration. They were withdrawn during the two world wars and have not been restored since the second. This line proved to be one of Brunel’s last undertakings as he died in September 1859, but it incorporates one of his most extraordinary achievements.
When the canal had been cut in the 1790s it had been found necessary to build a bridge over it to carry traffic on Windmill Lane. Now Brunel realised that the new railway line would have to intersect the canal at precisely the same point. Since he wanted the railway to pass underneath the canal, the water was temporarily diverted through the asylum grounds while an iron trough was put in place under the road bridge. Then the water was channelled through the new trough on its original course, and the cutting for the railway could now be dug out beneath it. Although its official name is Windmill Bridge, locally it is generally called Three Bridges – strictly speaking a misnomer as there are, of course, only two bridges on top of each other. Such a coincidence of three modes of transport is believed to be unique.
Windmill Lane derives its name from a mill that stood close by to where the bridge now is. This was the subject of a painting by J.M.W. Turner.
The new railway enabled the Great Western Railway to transfer their hydraulic and other plant from Bulls Bridge to Brentford without having to rely on the canal which was proving costly and slow as it meant transferring everything to barges and navigating the numerous locks.