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How did we get “standard gauge,” “broad gauge” and the like?

Untangling track gauges: not all railway tracks are the same

It is widely known that, around the world, railway tracks have different widths. Sometimes there are even different track gauges within the same country. But how did this happen, what advantages do narrow or wide gauges offer, and what do horse hindquarters and Roman chariots have to do with any of it? Learn more about crucial millimeters, the changing of axle gauges on wagons, and a megalomaniacal project of Adolf Hitler.

One chariot or the hindquarters of two horses?

The first track gauge was chosen in the initial days of steam-driven railways starting in 1804 on the basis of dimensions already used in mining. Primitive forerunners of the first modern rails consisting of rudimentary “guide rails” made of wood were used to transport excavated material in minecarts. The width of these rails is said to have been based on the wheel grooves in old Roman roads. These were created during the construction of the road so that a Roman chariot – drawn by two horses – could easily be kept within the track. There was in fact a recognized standard in ancient Rome for the axle width of chariots, therefore it is unsurprising that many transport wagons also adopted this dimension. This sounds like a plausible story and may have contributed somewhat to the establishment of one track gauge, but since no sound evidence exists to support it, the theory should be relegated to the status of myth.

How did the track gauges come about?

Defined as the difference between the inside edges of the rails, the various track gauges were developed for one very simple reason: in the early days of railroads, when there were few interconnected rail networks, the builders were each able to choose their own “operating system.” Frequently, a mine was connected to a port or a town, and the first passenger connections between two cities did not come until later. In addition, the operators were not initially able to agree on shared standards. The track gauge of a railroad influences the transport capacity and efficiency, but also the labor and costs for construction of a crossover. It is therefore no wonder that each builder used whichever dimensions suited him best. This resulted in bizarre track gauges as narrow as half a meter (France) or as wide as over two meters (England). And in between were countless competing “standard dimensions.” Although they sometimes differed by only a few millimeters, these differences nonetheless had consequences which we can still see today.

Anarchy on the tracks

The rail networks continued to develop, and as it became possible to connect them together, it only made sense to match the track gauges. This led to a first “harmonization,” which was initially tentative but was later pursued more actively. In some cases, however, cultural or geographic differences as well as geostrategic considerations led to the retainment of these deviating track gauges. For example, a different track gauge was deliberately chosen for the railroad networks of Russia, making the transition more difficult with the purpose of slowing the approach of a foreign military in the event of war, among other reasons.

Cost vs. speed – and other considerations

Narrow track gauges made building railroads less expensive. In addition, narrow track gauges allowed tracks to be built more quickly and easily on narrow routes. But broad gauges also had their advantages: better running properties of the train, higher load capacities even on poor ground, and higher speeds. In the remote, open plains of Russia, for instance, this style was definitely not a disadvantage. On the other hand, it posed challenges in almost impassable or mountainous terrain. Unavoidably large bending radii do not allow for winding routes and also increase the material and construction costs. No wonder the standard gauge eventually emerged as a good compromise solution.

The standard gauge

The most commonly used gauge today is the standard gauge of 1,435 mm – in early 19th century England this was 4 feet 8.5 inches. This gauge was first used in England in 1825 by the legendary railway pioneer George Stephenson. It gradually became the standard, finally becoming fully established in 1846 when it was mandated by law in Great Britain. Another reason is that the Pennsylvania Railroad – at the time the largest and most significant railroad company in the world – had also chosen this gauge. This explains why the same gauge “dominates” in North America and also grew to prominence in much of continental Europe. The colonial and economic activities of the European nations are additionally responsible for introducing the standard gauge throughout North Africa, the Near East and the People’s Republic of China. Including some lines in Australia, Japanese high-speed railway lines, parts of Argentina as well as Uruguay, Paraguay and Peru, the standard gauge now extends 720,000 kilometers around the world. That corresponds to 18 times around the equator!

In the vastness of Russia and at the South Cape

In second place with 1,520 mm (or 1,524 mm, corresponding to five English feet – with some room for “play”) is the official gauge of the Russian railways. This track gauge was used in particular under the Tsardom of Russia for connecting its vast, resource-rich lands. It has continued to serve well today on the most famous train route in the world: the trans-Siberian railway. Railroad fans still feel a thrill today when they reflect on this unbelievably long and diverse route, which, in terms of its freight handling, has received a tremendous boost in importance as part of the “New Silk Road.” But even beyond this route, the Russian track gauge is found on 222,000 kilometers of railway around the world – primarily in the former Soviet republics, in Afghanistan, Mongolia and Finland (as a former part of the Tsardom of Russia).

In third place comes the so-called “Cape gauge” with 1,067 mm, or three-and-a-half English feet. Conflicting accounts are given for the history of this gauge as well as its name. On the one hand, the track gauge is said to have been named after the Cape of South Africa, where it was first laid on a large scale. On the other hand, “Cape” is strikingly similar to the initials of Carl A. Pihls, the talented engineer who first introduced this gauge in northern Norway. Now it is used on about 112,000 kilometers of railways around the world (primarily in South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Australia).

Obscure hodgepodge of other track gauges

Do you think you have already learned enough about different track gauges? In fact, we are nowhere near the end of the list. In contrast to gauges measured in English feet and inches, there are also “metric gauges.” In the spirit of the metric system, it made sense to simply build a “classic gauge” of 1,000 mm. This is the fourth most common gauge in the world at just short of 100,000 kilometers. The metric gauge is truly used all over the world: in Brazil, India and on various routes in Asia and Africa. It has also found use in the high alpine regions of Switzerland.

Then there is the “Bosnian gauge,” which is much narrower. Together with its numerous variants, it is considered the most popular narrow gauge (750-762 mm) in the world. The unofficial designation of the gauge is “Bosnian” because it was used for the first time in Bosnia during World War I. It is also found all over the world, including in places like Nepal and North Korea. This gauge is not far removed from the countless “field railways” with narrow gauge tracks that have proven themselves not only in military use. Myriad different widths exist within this category, so we will do you a favor and dispense with listing them all.


Can we go any wider?

Naturally, there are also tracks that are wider than the standard or Russian gauges. The “Indian gauge” with 1,676 mm is, as its name suggests, popular in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as in Argentina and Chile (over 92,000 kilometers).

The “Irish gauge” has a width of 1,600 mm and originated – you guessed it – in Ireland. But do not be fooled: it can also be found in Australia and Brazil (15,000 kilometers worldwide). Both countries are home to a wide variety of different track gauges.

But even these gauges are paltry compared with the never constructed broad gauge railway planned by Adolf Hitler. One of his favorite pet projects, often referred to as “Hitler’s toy train,” this was to be a wide-gauge railway three meters in width for wagons with two levels. This megalomaniacal project envisioned 500-meter long passenger trains with over 1,500 passengers and freight trains as long as 1,200 meters with up to 10,000 tons total weight. It was not believed that these values could be achieved on a standard gauge under normal conditions. The planned four-track design of the new railways and the additionally required infrastructure were also expected to be manageable once the war had been won. Thankfully, Hitler lost, and this oversized monstrosity is not crisscrossing the entire continent.


Separate but still connected

Although the many different track gauges form many independent route networks, they still coexist peacefully. Even during the early days of railroads, switching trains was perhaps not popular, but the new transportation options were still accepted. Today, it is not even necessary to change trains when moving from one gauge to another. For example, at the western borders of the former Soviet Union, you can comfortably watch the bogie change procedure from the window of your train compartment. Each wagon is raised by a massive wagon jack, the bogies underneath are exchanged and the train continues its travel on another gauge.

For freight transports, the operative word is “trans-shipment.” For bulk goods, the cargo is simply transferred to new wagons with the appropriate gauge, but the process is even simpler for containers. The entire container is quickly and easily lifted over to the appropriate rolling stock. On the Iron Silk Road, for instance, the containers are simply transferred from the standard gauge to the Russian gauge at either the China-Kazakhstan or China-Russia border. The same spectacle is repeated again a few days later in Poland or Slovakia, since isolated broad gauge lines still reach like long fingers into the European rail network in these countries. The entire procedure has become so fast that the reason for many delayed transports is more likely to be customs processes or other bureaucracy, rather than mismatched track gauges.

It is now clear that no new gauges will be seeing the light of day and that the three or four most commonly used gauges will continue to expand as the most significant options. The standard gauge in particular is experiencing constant growth in the quickly developing countries of East Asia, especially China. The railways and their tracks may be diverse, but the advantages of rail transport as an efficient way to move people and cargo remain undisputed around the world.