Great Western Railway – “Dragon” at Taunton – 1892

The Broad Gauge Society

14  August  2011

The feet, inches and miles mentioned in this article
are those of the English system of measures,
also known as “Imperial.”

Please bear in mind that all the countries in the world
-and very many cities- had their own sets of measures…
until that not-so-very-general metrication.

Imperial units  –

Before reading this, you may like to refresh your memory with this Wikipedia article on gauges in the world. It’s at

Track gauge  –


Back in the happy nineties of the twentieth century I wrote an article,  “What I think of the TGV”,  which sums up my thoughts on something that was not exactly the “Alta Velocidad Española”, also known as AVE, but the Castilian translation of a French expression:  “Train à Grande Vitesse”.  Anyway, the first modern approach to the problems of high-speed railways was not the TGV. It had been the Shinkansen network in Japan. In the faraway Empire of the Rising Sun, the old lines were saturated, and they were narrow gauge: the 3′ 6″ (1,067 mm) of the “Cape gauge” or “CAP.”  The “Japanese recipe” was to build a new network with so-called “standard” gauge, because this increased very much the speed and capacity of the trains.

Shinkansen Hikari train in front of Mount Fuji  –

So, the major premise of the syllogism is that wider railways are better. At the end of the nineteenth century, the “Iron Duke” locomotives of the Great Western Railway were the fastest in the world. But they played with two advantages: the eight-foot drivers and the 7′ ¼” (2,140 mm) Brunel tracks that you have seen in the picture at the frontispiece of this article.

The “French recipe” used the same gauge as the Japanese, but their pre-existing lines were “standard” gauge. This allowed them to make new stretches where necessary and share the conventional approaches to cities. This is a wonderful virtue, because it greatly reduces the cost and duration of the works. If the objective of our scheme is to shorten the travel times from the “provinces” to Paris and back, this is perfect. But if we use the same Rule of Three as the “Japanese recipe”, the tracks of the new network should be 34% wider, about 1,930 mm. By chance perhaps, this is almost the Brunel gauge.

Officially, the first recipe for “Spanish High Speed” was an adaptation of the French one. The new access to Andalusia (NAFA) envisioned in the Railway Transport Plan (PTF) was to be laid with Iberian gauge. Someone decided to implement a variation of the “Japanese recipe”, changing the gauge to so-called “standard”. Hence, it became one of the greatest -and worst- pieces of nonsense wreaked upon us by the dumbasses that have managed such things. Remember, the Japanese did what they did for the benefits of wider tracks… and therefore, better tracks. But ours, thanks to the Subercase Report, all praise to them, were already wider… do you realize?

If wider railways are better, it would have been a good thing to take as “standard” the widest gauge in the market: the 5′ 6″ of the gigantic Indian network. More than fifty thousand miles, and growing. We also have those in Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which are not small countries. And the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) of San Francisco, California, has 104 miles (167 km) of lines. They add up to well over six percent of the railways in the world. If you like the subject, we can study the industrial complementarities and potential synergies. They are so obvious that perhaps we do not really need to discuss them.

Here are two excerpts from “Towards the ecological reconversion of transport in Spain”, a book by Antonio Estevan Estevan and Alfonso Sanz Alduán. These come from their “recipe” for intercity rail.

– Generalization of the concepts of “velocidad alta” (200 km/h top speed) for the renewal of the basic track network, and the Talgo rolling stock for the long distance trains, because of its high ecological efficiency.

– Retain the Iberian gauge across the peninsula, and make a careful evaluation of the only two reasonable options for the final solution of the gauge problem: systematic renewal of tracks with dual-gauge sleepers to prepare for a general change at some future time, or keeping the Iberian gauge indefinitely. This implies a medium-term plan to regauge the AVE Madrid-Sevilla and put it in agreement with the rest of the network.


The full Spanish text of the book -in .pdf – is available  here.


To my knowledge, it is the best study of the topic ever done since the Subercase Report. And there you are: an overall improvement of the tracks would have been enough, some new cuttings to smoothe lines… Nothing to worry about that much. But the Superior Government decided otherwise, and started a neverending nightmare of expenses. Don’t you go believing one word of those little speeches that gloss the supposed benefits of so-called “standard” gauge. We might make a little historical overview of the incidents that led to its adoption in Britain… but not in Ireland: it is “standard” not even in the United Kingdom, which retains to this date 206.61 miles (330.58 km) of 5′ 3″ broad gauge in the six Ulster counties. If someone tells you a tale about “high speed” being only possible with “standard” gauge, please ask him or her for the Euromed trains, which were just Alstom’s TGV,s with Iberian gauge bogies. They have run quite successfully between 1997 and 2009, have gone through the workshops of La Sagra to get “standard” bogies, and will remain in service in the AVE lines until the Superior Government decides otherwise. I am writing a little chronicle about rail gauges in the world. The starting point of our trip will be, of course, Australia.


The first TGV train  –


Well… We are already building the Spanish High-Speed railways. A network centered in Paris… oops, I mean, in Madrid, which repeats one by one -again- all the errors of the radial model in France, which has an exemplary public transport and a highly centralized administration. To make matters worse, the thing comes with several aggravating circumstances. You know that the mountainous terrain of this country is the second most difficult in Europe to make railways. The winner is, of course, Switzerland. The Swiss Confederation has an exemplary public transport and a highly decentralized administration. Another day, if you so wish, we can reflect on these facts… No way to account for them within the current Taifa philosophy.

The AVE network was born under the rule of the ineffable Railway Infrastructure Manager (GIF). That entity built railways with the philosophy that governs the roads. Its no less ineffable successor, the Railway Infrastructure Administrator (ADIF), followed the same line of thought. The results are obvious.

The Subercase Report is a basic document, essential for the study we are facing today. It gives us an analysis of the problem that I deem so useful right now as it undoubtedly was in 1844. The first rail vehicles could run either on regular roads or on some rail lines that were just carriage roads reinforced with iron bars to prevent rutting. At that time nobody had envisioned segregating freight traffic, moving long distance passengers or solving the daily trips of commuters.

But the benefits are inseparable from the drawbacks. As Edward de Bono says, “We may need to solve problems not by removing the cause but by designing the way forward even if the cause remains in place.”


Mohit Kumar Tandel  –  tandelbaba  at  YouTube  –  [ IRFCA ]  Gujarat express overtake by ADI Shatabdi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


If you so wish, we may discuss the “recipes” of Indian Railways to increase speed and capacity. Right now, fast Shatabdi and Rajdhani must overtake dozens of trains every day. This is good for some passengers… but delays everyone else, including freight. The British Race to the North was run on the same principles… but it did not last very much. As to capacity, twenty cars offer a lot of seats… but they must be comfortable. Freight should be given the importance it has. Dedicated freight corridors are a priority. And we must highlight the Project Unigauge: regauge over 12,000 (yes, twelve thousand) kilometers of narrow-gauge railways to 5′ 6″ broad gauge. In the words of D. Emilio Fernández Fernández, “We must make a railway of the poor to make it profitable.” By the same token, we must not make stupid investments in stupid roads, stupid airports, or stupid railways. As far as I know, D. Emilio has not said this, but it’s quite obvious. We should have some tea and discuss these matters at some length…

Links for more information

The Broad Gauge Society

Imperial units  –
“Lo que pienso del TGV”  (in Spanish)
Train à Grande Vitesse
(( Standard in Britain… but not in Ireland: “standard” not even in the United Kingdom ))
Cape or “CAP” gauge
Iron Duke Class
Great Western Railway
Alta Velocidad Española  (AVE)
Nuevo Acceso Ferroviario a Andalucía  (NAFA) – in Spanish

Lateral Thinking

Iberian gauge
Indian Railways’ “recipes”  (( pending ))
Bay Area Rapid Transit  (BART)
Industrial complementarities and potential synergies ((pending))
D. Emilio Fernández Fernández  (( pending ))
Informe Subercase
I have three articles on the Subercase Report…
(( pending, of course ))


Rail gauges…

The broad gauge in the world…

High-speed railways…

The Myth of the “Standard” Gauge…

Railway and railways / Railroad and railroads…

Original en castellano…