Do you know that «The General» did not run on so-called «standard» gauge tracks?

14  August  2011

John Ayres Mills  has said:

«Consistent with this interpretation
of the history of rail gauge choice,
no case was found where rail gauge choice was
a function of the disciplined search
for the best value-for-money option.»

This is a quote from
«The Myth of the Standard Gauge:
Rail Gauge Choice in Australia»

For further details, please check


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  –

For the purposes of our discussion, Standard Gauge (SG) is 4′ 8½» (1,435 mm). Broad Gauge (BG) is any railway with tracks wider than «standard». BG, if not qualified as Brunel, Spanish, Iberian, Portuguese, Irish, Russian, or «metric Russian», means 5′ 6″ (1,676 mm). Narrow Gauge (NG) is any measure under «standard». «CAP» (from Carl Abraham Pihl’s initials) or «Cape» is 3′ 6″ (1,067 mm), MG is Metric or Metre Gauge, 3′ 3 3/8″ (1,000 mm). And there are several more sizes in the world. The Indian 2′ 6″ (762 mm) lines are notable in having a loading gauge only marginally smaller than that of the MG lines. And some mountain lines are just 2′ (610 mm) wide.

Maybe you would like to glance at these very relevant Wikipedia articles before reading this:

Rail gauge  –

Broad gauge  –

Timeline of railway history  –

Actually, most of the data hereupon, and the underlying timeline, come from the Wikipedia…

George Stephenson

George Stephenson was born 9 June 1781. He built the first modern railways. The line from Stockton to Darlington was inaugurated 27 September 1825, followed quite soon by other routes. The Liverpool to Manchester was opened 15 September 1830. They happened to be built with a gauge 4′ 8½» wide because the first steam locomotive built by Stephenson, the «Blücher», was ordered by the Killingworth Colliery, whose wagons’ gauge was 4′ 8″. Probably he added the extra half an inch to improve negotiation of curves. This same gauge was adopted for the Grand Junction and the London and Birmingham railways. And this is all the «technical» reasoning behind the choice of so-called «standard» gauge.

History of rail transport in Great Britain   –

Rail gauge in Great Britain  –  The Battle of the Gauges  –

Allegedly, it comes from the measure of the ruts in Roman roads. There is no demonstrable truth to it at all, but the tale adds a lot of respectability to the notion of so-called «standard» gauge. I have found -again, in Australia- a very good debunking of this myth. It came from Coninbraga, in Portugal, via Canada. The world is becoming bigger, and smaller also…

«Roman gauge»  –

A. Trevor Hodge’s Column  –

Snopes  –  Horse’s Pass…  –

The first steam locomotive to run on the United States was the «Stourbridge Lion». She had been built in England for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company railroad, whose gauge was 4′ 3″ (1,295 mm).

History of rail transport in the United States  –

Rail gauge in the United States  –

On 9 October 1834, Ireland’s first line, the Dublin and Kingstown Railway (D&KR) was opened. The first three companies all had different gauges: the Dublin and Kingstown Railway was SG, but the Ulster Railway (UR) used 6′ 2″ (1,880 mm), and the Dublin and Drogheda Railway 5′ 2″ (1,575 mm). Following complaints from the UR, the Board of Trade investigated the matter, and recommended the use of 5′ 3″ (1,600 mm). This Solomonic decision had -quite probably- the virtue of making everyone unhappy.

History of rail transport in Ireland  –

Irish gauge  –

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Photo by Robert Howlett  –

The very gifted engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, born 9 April 1806 in Portsmouth, was chosen in 1835 as technical director of the Great Western Railway, to be built from London to Bristol. The 4′ 8½» gauge was generally specified by a clause in the Acts authorising construction of the railways, but this was somehow missing in the GWR Act, and Brunel started to lay the line with tracks 7′ ¼» (2,140 mm) wide, the broadest in commercial use ever.

Lionel A. Smith  –  The Broad Gauge Story  –

(( Brunel was right about the coal cart gauge  –  pending ))

(( Brunel would have loved Talgo trains  –  pending ))

The first railway in British North America, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, was built in the 1830s to 5′ 6″ gauge, setting the standard for Britain’s colonies for several decades. In 1851 this BG was adopted for the Province of Canada, and government subsidies were unavailable for railways that chose other gauges. But Canadian BG lines were changed to SG, mainly between 1872 and 1874, by reason of the great increase of traffic to and from the US.

History of rail transport in Canada  –

Rail gauge in Canada  –

The first railway in Russia was inaugurated in 1837. It ran between two palaces in Saint Petersburg and Tsarskoye Selo, and the gauge was 6′ (1,831 mm). It was a sort of glorified carriage path for the Royal Family.

History of rail transport in Russia  –

Russian gauge  –

The first Spanish railway was inaugurated 19 November 1837 in Cuba, a part of the kingdom at the time. It ran from La Habana to Bejucal, and was later extended to Güines. The main promoter was D. Marcelino Calero y Portocarrero. It was laid with SG, probably by no special reason.

History of rail transport in Cuba  –

On 4 June 1838, Brunel inaugurated the first BG stretch of the new GWR line, from Paddington to Maidenhead.

History of the Great Western Railway  –

The Great Western Archive  –

Mike’s Railway History  –

In Scotland, the engineer Thomas Grainger had chosen the 5′ 6″ gauge for two short railways because he deemed Stephenson’s too narrow, and Brunel’s too wide. The Dundee and Arbroath line was opened in October 1838, followed by the Arbroath and Forfar in November.

Railscot  –  History of rail transport in Scotland  –

Scotch gauge  –

On 3 October 1839 the first railway in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Italy, ran from Naples to Portici. It was laid with SG.

History of rail transport in Italy  –

Rail gauge in Italy  –

Het laantje van Van der Gaag  (in Dutch)

The first line in the Netherlands connected Amsterdam and Haarlem, and was opened 20 September 1839. The tracks were 1,945 mm wide (6′ 23/40″). All the neighbouring countries adopted SG, and this railway was regauged in 1855.

History of rail transport in the Netherlands  –

On 12 September 1840, the Großherzoglich Badische Staatseisenbahnen (Grand Duchy of Baden State Railways) opened their first line, between Mannheim and Heidelberg. It was laid with Irish BG, as were all the following ones. After it turned out that all her neighbouring states had opted for SG, they rebuilt all their existing routes to SG within just one year during 1854/55.

Großherzoglich Badische Staatseisenbahnen  –

The first MG railway (3′ 3 3/8″) – in the world was opened about 1841. The line ran from Cliff Quarry to Ambergate, and was made… if you can believe it… by George Stephenson, no other.

Metre gauge  –

On 12 September 1842, the 5′ (1,524 mm) gauge is legally adopted for Russian railways.

On 4 July 1843, the first railway in Congress Poland -then under Russian control- was opened. It ran from Warsaw to Pruszków. Being the first section of the line to Vienna, it used SG instead of Russian BG.

History of rail transport in Poland  –

Juan Subercase Krets

The Spanish «Informe Subercase» (Subercase Report) was published 2 November 1844. It was made by three engineers: Juan Subercase Krets, Calixto Santa Cruz and José Subercase Jiménez. They recommended laying the new railways with a gauge of six Castilian feet. They have been charged with a lack of foresight. This is undeserved slander. The steam engine was «the» invention of the XIXth century, and everything -literally, everything- was being accomodated to obtain the best results from its ever more widespread use. The foreseeable tendence was to broaden the tracks. In Brunel’s own words to the Gauge Commissioners:

«Looking to the speeds which I contemplated would be adopted on railways and the masses to be moved it seemed to me that the whole machine was too small for the work to be done, and that it required that the parts should be on a scale more commensurate with the mass and the velocity to be obtained.»

And this is the core of the Subercase Report:

«We have adopted 6 (Castilian) feet (1,672 mm), because without substantially increasing the cost of establishing the road, this will allow locomotives large enough to produce in a given time the sufficient steam to obtain with the same load a higher speed than could be achieved on the 4,25 feet (1,184 mm) tracks proposed by one of the companies that has made proposals to the Government, and also higher than could be obtained with the 5,17 feet (1,440 mm) tracks most frequently used so far; and moreover, without loss of stability the diameter of the wheels can be made larger, which also leads to increase the speed. The separation between tracks of 6 ½ feet (1,811 mm) proposed in the same article is generally adopted in the day to prevent accidents, and the several dimensions proposed are also generally accepted, although somewhat greater than is strictly necessary, to avoid heavy expenditure if the need of widening the railways should eventually be recognized.»

The Report is an excellent example of «disciplined search for the best value-for-money option».   –  in Spanish

Subercase Report  –  in modernized Castilian ortography  –  in Spanish

(( English translation  –  pending ))

In 1846 many American railways, e.g. the Pennsylvania Railroad, used a 4′ 9″ (1,451 mm) gauge. Arguably, the Pennsy has been the best railway in the world. The corporation still holds the record for the longest continuous dividend history: it paid out annual dividends to shareholders for more than 100 years in a row.

History of the Pennsylvania Railroad  –

About the several gauges in the United States, this is a quote from Mike’s Railway History:

«It is not generally known in other countries that American rail transport as a whole was greatly hampered in its progress by the variety of gauges adopted. The first roads built in the eastern States conformed to the British gauge of 4 ft 8-1/2 in. Later, however, gauges were adopted ranging from 3 ft to 6 ft. The States of New Jersey and Ohio established by law a gauge of 4 ft 10 in; 5 ft was fixed as the gauge of South Carolina Railroad, and was also adopted by a number of other roads in the South; 5-1/2 ft was established for Missouri and Canadian roads; and 6 ft as that of the New York and Erie and the Atlantic and Great Western.»

Mike’s Railway History  –

18 August 1846, the British Parliament passed the «Act for regulating the Gauge of Railways», usually referred to as the Gauge Act:

«WHEREAS it is expedient to define the Gauge on which Railways shall be constructed: Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty That after the passing of this Act it shall not be lawful to construct any Railway for the Conveyance of Passengers on any Gauge other than Four Feet Eight Inches and Half an Inch in Great Britain, and Five Feet Three Inches in Ireland.»

Gauge of Railways Act  –

This Act is proof that no one, at least no one in the British Parliament, was thinking of the railway as a global transport system to encompass the whole world. By its virtue, so-called «standard» gauge is not standard even in the United Kingdom: the Act sets two different measures in the same sentence, separated by a comma… just a little comma. Nowadays, there are 206,61 miles (330,58 km) of Irish BG tracks in the six Ulster counties, and 1,210 miles (1,947 km) in the Republic of Ireland.

I found in the Wikipedia a listing of the advantages of BG for Maine railways. It was compiled in 1847 by Mr. Alvin C. Morton, the chief engineer of John A. Poor.

Indian gauge  –

Alvin C. Morton  (pending)

John A. Poor  –

These are some excerpts:

– Wider cars offered more room for passengers and cargo. Train length would be reduced for cars carrying more cargo. Shorter trains would lessen the effects of side winds, and permit more efficient application of power.

– Wide gauge locomotives offered more room to place reciprocating machinery inside, rather than outside the driving wheels. Reciprocating machinery was a source of vibration before mechanical engineering encompassed a good understanding of dynamics; and keeping such vibration close to the center of mass reduced the angular momentum causing rocking.

– Wider fireboxes and boilers allowed more powerful locomotives. The alternative of longer boilers held the disadvantage of poor firebox draft through the increased frictional resistance of longer boiler tubes.

– More powerful locomotives carrying fewer, larger cars would have reduced manpower requirement for engine crews and shop personnel.

– For locomotives of equal power, fuel consumption increased as gauge decreased.

– Several gauges were in widespread use, and none had yet come into clear dominance.

Clear dominance, indeed… We have seen a wide variation in gauges… The ensuing chaos is not hard to imagine.

The first train in Switzerland, the Spanisch-Brotli-Bahn, started operations on 9 August 1847. The Railway Act of 1852 mandated SG, but many Swiss lines have been laid to MG, and a few to narrower gauges. This choice had a great weight in the future of European railways, because many routes to and from France, Germany, Austria, and Italy will cross Switzerland.

History of rail transport in Switzerland  –

Lord Dalhousie

(( ))

12 January 1848, James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, styled Lord Dalhousie, assumed charge of his duties as the Governor-General of India.

Robert Stephenson

George Stephenson died 12 August 1848. He was greatly helped in his endeavours by his son and partner Robert Stephenson (16 October 1803 – 12 October 1859). May their spirits live forever.

Miquel Biada i Bunyol

The first railway in metropolitan Spain, from Barcelona to Mataró, was inaugurated 28 October 1848. It was laid to Spanish BG. Its main promoter, Miquel Biada i Bunyol, born 25 November 1789, had died 2 April 1848.

Aristogeronte  –  El ancho de vía en los ferrocarriles españoles  –

My English translation  –  Gauge width in Spanish railways  –

History of rail transport in Spain  –

Spanish gauge  –

19 July 1849, a Spanish law set the meter as the fundamental unit of length. The Commission on Weights and Measures was formed that same year. They investigated the equivalences between the old Spanish measures and the Metric ones. The conversion values were published by Royal Order of 9 December 1852.

8 February 1851, the second railway in Spain  – the third one, if you remember that Cuba was then a Spanish province –  started service from Madrid to Aranjuez. It was laid with Spanish BG.

Madrid to Aranjuez  (in Spanish)  –

A vintage train:  el  Tren de la Fresa  (in Spanish)  –

On 1 November 1851 the Moscow-Saint Petersburg Railway was inaugurated. It was built with Russian BG, of course. We might say that this was truly the first commercial road, since the Tsarskoie Selo line had been just an expensive fancy.

On 25 December 1851 the first train in Chile travelled from Caldera to Copiapó. The line was laid with SG, and was converted to MG in the first years of the XXth century. BG was introduced later, perhaps on the assumption that the Chilean railways should be connected with the Argentinian network via several Trasandino lines. Now the country enjoys about 3,743 km BG, 2,923 MG, 116 Cape gauge… and only 40 km of SG, from Arica to Tacna, Peru. The Metro de Santiago is SG.

John Speller  –  History of rail transport in Chile  –

The first railway in Africa was opened in 1852, linking Alexandria and Cairo. It was built by Robert Stephenson and used SG.

History of rail transport in Egypt  –

25 August 1852, the fourth Spanish railway  – or the third one, if you do not count Cuba –  was opened. There was an extraordinary thing in this line: it was laid to a gauge of five feet two inches (Spanish, of course), so near SG as to be able to buy American rolling stock with no problems: it was 1,441 mm wide. This oddity survived until 1983, when FEVE rebuilt the tracks to MG.

Ferrocarril de Langreo  –

The «Erie Gauge War» was a conflict between the citizens of Erie, Pennsylvania, and two railroad companies. The casus belli was the standardization of the rail gauge between Erie and the New York State border. It started on 7 December 1853, and ended on 1 February 1854. The citizens derived substantial profits from a break-of-gauge, and did everything in their power to keep it where it was.

«Erie Gauge War»  –

Photograph titled, «Dapoorie Viaduct [Bombay].»

The bridge was completed in 1854 and linked Bombay Island with the mainland of Thane.

16 April 1853, the first Indian railway was opened. It ran between Bombay (Bori Bunder) and Thane, and was laid with BG.

History of rail transport in India  –

Indian gauge  –

IRFCA  –  Railway gauges in India  –

On 20 April 1853, Lord Dalhousie issued his famous minute on railways. Since he came from Scotland, maybe he had seen the aforementioned Arbroath 5′ 6″ BG lines, but there was already a sufficient number of customers in Canada and the US to foster a healthy demand of BG rolling stock.

(( Lord Dalhousie’s minute  –  pending ))

The first railway in Brazil was inaugurated on 30 April 1854. It ran from Porto de Mauá to Fragoso, and was laid with Irish BG. Your guesses as to which reasons led the Barão de Mauá to make this choice are as good as mine. Now the country has got about 4,057 km of Irish BG, 23,489 MG, 336 dual BG-MG… and only 202 SG, mainly in São Paulo Metro.

History of rail transport in Brazil  –

Rail gauge in Brazil  –

Carl Abraham Pihl

On 1st September 1854, the Hovedbanen, the first railway in Norway, started service between Oslo and Eidsvoll. It was built by Robert Stephenson with SG. The engineer Carl Abraham Pihl (16 January 1825 – 7 September 1897) urged that other lines should be built with a narrower gauge to keep costs down, and the 3′ 6″ measure he chose was known by his initials (CAP) until the South African railways adopted it. Then the name changed to «Cape Gauge».

History of rail transport in Norway  –

CAP or Cape gauge  –

Rail gauge in Norway  –

The following two paragraphs have been written with stuff from the Wikipedia, but I intend to revise them if and when I get enough time  – and peace of spirit –  to study «The Myth of the Standard Gauge: Rail Gauge Choice in Australia» with the attention it deserves.

(( In 1848 the three British colonies in Australia, i.e. New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, adopted SG for their future railways. The Sydney Railway Company was already building a line to Parramatta. The chief engineer, Irish-born Francis Webb Sheilds, persuaded the company and the NSW legislature to adopt Irish BG instead. This decision was endorsed by the NSW Governor, and Secretary Earl Grey in London agreed in 1851.

The other two colonies also adopted this gauge, with the Victorian Railways opening a line in 1854, and the South Australians using it on their first steam-hauled railway in 1856. Meanwhile, the Sydney Railway Company gained a new Scottish engineer, James Wallace. He preferred SG… and convinced the NSW legislature to make the change. NSW Governor William Denison gave the go ahead in 1855, despite a request by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to reconsider. The Sydney to Parramatta SG railway opened in September 1855, and the gauge conversion was brought up as early as 1857. At the time there was only 37 km of track, four engines and assorted cars and wagons on the railway, but by 1889 NSW had laid almost 3,500 km of SG lines. No comment… ))

History of rail transport in Australia  –

Rail gauge in Australia  –

Opened on 28 January 1855, the Panama Railway, from Colón to Ciudad de Panamá, was the first transcontinental – or interoceanic, at least – railroad in America. It was laid with 5′ «Russian» BG, and regauged to SG only in 2000.

History of the Panama Canal Railway  –

On 3 June 1855 a Law (Ley General de Caminos de Hierro) set the gauge for Spanish railways at six Castilian feet.  –  in Spanish

Ley General de Caminos de Hierro –  in modernized Castilian ortography  –  in Spanish

(( English translation  – pending ))

The first Portuguese railway was completed on 28 October 1856, linking Lisbon to Carregado. The first lines were laid with SG. In 1861 they started changing them to «bitola larga», five Portuguese feet wide (1,664 mm). The reason was the choice of a 1,672 mm BG by Spain… combined with the political impossibility of adopting any Spanish standard. Both gauges were close enough to allow interoperability of rolling stock.

Rail transport in Portugal  –

Rail gauge in Portugal  –

The first railway in Argentina, built by the Ferrocarril del Oeste with BG, ran between Buenos Aires and Flores. It was opened to the public on 30 August 1857. Nowadays, there are 24,481 km of BG («trocha ancha»), 11,080 km of MG («trocha angosta»), and 2,765 km of SG («trocha media»). There is also a 750 mm (2′ 5½») NG railway («la Trochita») between El Maitén and Esquel. It is quite a respectable line, 402 km long. The Buenos Aires underground, named «Subte» (short for «subterráneo») is SG.

History of rail transport in Argentina  –

Isambard Kingdom Brunel died 15 September 1859. He was just 53 years old. Had he lived longer, he might have won the managers of some new rail company -abroad, of course…- to the advantages of «his» BG, as he had persuaded the directors of the GWR… After achieving this feat, I believe that he was not just an outstanding engineer… he must also have been one of the ablest communicators in History.

Norway placed its first order for a 3′ 6″ gauge locomotive in 1860, and the first CAP line opened in June 1862, from Hamar to Grundset.

The first railway in South Africa was opened 26 June 1860. It ran from Durban to Cato Creek, and was laid to SG. Other lines were laid to SG and 2′ 6″. In 1873 the Cape Parliament decided the adoption of the CAP gauge. As aforesaid, it came to be known as «Cape Gauge».

History of rail transport in South Africa  –

CAP or Cape gauge  –

The American Civil War started 12 April 1861. The breaks-of-gauge in the South were a serious disadvantage for the Confederate forces. In 1862, the Union established the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps to manage railways in the occupied territories. At war, of course, you are in for all sorts of fun… You have seen «The General», haven’t you?

Buster Keaton and his Li’l Howitzer

The General (1926)  at  IMDB

On 13 May 1861 the first railway line in the territory that is now Pakistan was opened for public traffic between Karachi City and Kotri, a distance of 105 miles (169 km). It was laid with BG.

History of rail transport in Pakistan  –

The history of rail transport in Finland began on 31 January 1862, with the opening of the railway line between Helsinki and Hämeenlinna. It was laid with Russian BG because the country was a Grand Principality of the Russian Empire.

History of rail transport in Finland  –

Railway operation in today’s Bangladesh began on November 15, 1862:  53,11 kilometers of BG line were opened for traffic between Darsana and Jagiti. The next 14,98 kilometers long MG line was opened for traffic on 4 January 1885. In 1891, the construction of the Bengal Assam Railway was taken up by the British Government assistance, but that was later on taken over by the Bengal Assam Railway Company. On 1 July 1895, two sections of MG lines were opened between Chittagong and Comilla, a length of 149,89 kilometers, and between Laksam and Cahndpur, a length of 50,89 kilometers. Railway Companies formed in England took up the construction and operation of these sections in middle and late 19th century.

History of rail transport in Bangladesh  –

History of Bangladesh Railway  –

On 15 December 1862, the Warsaw-Saint Petersburg Railway was completed. Originally laid with Russian BG, the portion between Vilnius and Warsaw was regauged to SG in the 1920s, when that area belonged to Poland.

Broad gauge Metropolitan train behind a Gooch 2-4-0T at Edgware Road station, London

The first underground railway in the world was built by «cut-and-cover» methods between Paddington and Farringdon Street in London and opened as a mixed gauge gauge railway in January 1863. The engineer was Sir John Fowler, Bart., LL.D. The line was at first a mere 3¾ miles long. At first it was worked by the Great Western Railway on the 7′ 0¼» gauge but the Metropolitan soon found itself dissatisfied with the service it received from the GWR. This was mainly because the GWR was far too conservative for the Metropolitan’s go-ahead General Manager Myles Fenton. Accordingly the Great Northern Railway took over and ran narrow gauge trains from 1 November 1863. For a year or two some joint GWR/Metropolitan trains continued to be run through to Windsor on the broad gauge. The broad gauge rails were finally removed in 1869. Later the Metropolitan Railway ran its own trains, electrified, and became part of the London Transport. And the rest is history…

John Speller  –  Broad Gauge Metropolitan  –

Alternate History  –  Brunel’s 7ft standard gauge  –

The first railway in New Zealand was laid to Irish BG in 1863, followed by another in 1867 to SG. From 1870 onwards, the Government adopted the CAP gauge. The first NG line was opened on 1 January 1873, and the previous ones had been already regauged by 1870.

History of rail transport in New Zealand  –

The Festiniog Railway (Ffestiniog Rheilffordd in Welsh) had a line 1′ 11½» wide to carry slate. On October 1863, it started to use steam engines. In 1865 it began to carry passengers, being the first NG railway in Britain to do so. In 1869, the Fairlie articulated locomotives boosted its capabilities to unprecedented heights. It became a showcase for the new NG technologies, and received visitors from many foreign countries.

Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways…  –

Michael Bell has written a very interesting speculation about what might have happened if a small rail gauge had become widespread before the automobile boom. Please read this article, it is quite short, and gives a lot of healthy food for thought…

Michael Bell «What if? (In Motion, No. 12, November 1989)

Minimum gauge  –

The first train in Sri Lanka ran on 27 December 1864, with the construction of the Main Line from Colombo to Ambepussa, 54 kilometers to the east. This line was officially opened for traffic on 2 October 1865. It was laid with BG.

History of rail transport in Sri Lanka  –

History of Sri Lanka Railways  –

SG track laid in Indonesia from 1867 was gradually -and slowly- narrowed to CAP. The change was only completed during the wartime occupation, from March 1942 to August 1945. Probably, the Japanese preferred to use their own «off the shelf» rolling stock.

History of rail transport in Indonesia  –

On 12 January 1869, Richard Southwell Bourke, 6th Earl of Mayo, styled Lord Mayo, was appointed as the Governor-General and Viceroy of India. In 1870 he introduced MG as a compromise between proposals for NG railways less than 3′ wide and BG, for use in areas with limited traffic. He had chosen a 3′ 3″ (993 mm) gauge, based on calculations to allow four passengers to sit abreast in compartmented cars. There was then a push to move to the Metric System, and so the gauge became metric (3′ 3 3/8″). Obviously, Lord Mayo used a set of technical reasons that was wildly different from Lord Dalhousie’s. If BG was the most suitable for India because smaller ones were unsafe in the monsoons, MG was a most unwise choice.

A 2-8-2 locomotive derailed and lying on its side probably due to monsoon damage to the permanent way. Location and details unknown.

The first four-wheeler wooden cars were light, and capsized easily. MG metallic cars running on heavy rails would be fairly stable against quite strong winds. Then again, as stated in the «Narrow gauge railway» Wikipedia article, «The choice was often not between a narrow gauge railway and a standard gauge one, but between a narrow gauge railway and none at all.» Nowadays, social changes brought about by Independence have made desirable to convert the whole Indian network to «expensive» BG, but this was not so important when you had «changars» (maybe this is the English word «changers»?) readily available by the hundred.

Narrow gauge  –

All this reasoning was further subverted by a colonial system that discouraged any building of locomotives in India, even when British factories could not cope with demands from the whole world. The Tata Company built a steel mill in 1912. They could not get any order for rails until well after the First World War. Every deal with the Companies had to be conducted at their respective headquarters… in London, of course. A nice city, no doubt. but a little too removed from Jamshedpur for easy travelling.

Railway history  –

On 10 February 1871, the first line in Tasmania was opened, between Deloraine and Launceston. It was Irish BG, later changed to Cape NG when other railways were laid.

Rail transport in Tasmania  –

Upgrading TasRail – why not standard gauge?  –

On 28 August 1871, the first railway in Moldova was officially opened, linking Tiraspol with Chisinau. The country was then a part of the Russian empire and it was laid with Russian BG. In the early 1920s, as Moldova had united with Romania, the tracks were converted to SG. After World War II Moldova became part of the Soviet Union and the rail network reverted to Russian BG.

Rail transport in Moldova  –

On 12 September 1872, the first railway in Japan was opened. It ran between Shimbashi and Yokohama, and was laid to CAP gauge. I have found an article by our fellow railfan, Mr. Akira Saito, «Why Did Japan Choose the 3′ 6″ Narrow Gauge?», and I heartily recommend you to read it. These are the opening words thereof:

«The reason why narrow gauge (1067 mm) was adopted for early Japanese railways is unclear.» This is the first sentence of Chapter 6 in «A History of Japanese Railways, 1872-1999″, written by four well-known specialists in Japanese railways and published in English by EJRCF (East Japan Railway Culture Foundation). Some Japanese readers might hope for a Japanese version too.»

«Why Did Japan Choose the 3′ 6″ Narrow Gauge?»  –

History of rail transport in Japan  –

The first Indian MG line was opened 4 February 1873, and linked Delhi to Rewari and Farukh Nagar salt depot. It was the first commercial MG service in the world. The gauge was changed to BG in 1993.

The first railway in China was opened in July 1876. It linked Shanghai and Wusong (Woosung in the Wade-Giles transliteration). I have found no information about its gauge, so I assume that it was SG. The only BG line in China was the Chinese Eastern Railway. Originally laid with Russian BG, regular passenger traffic started on 1 July 1903. It was converted to SG by the Japanese, when they invaded Manchuria. With the benefice of hindsight, we see that the country that might have got the greatest benefits from Brunel BG uses «narrow» SG…

History of rail transport in China  –

According to the law of 28 July 1879, the only legal gauges in Italy were 1500, 1000 and 750 mm measured to the middle of the rail, corresponding to 1445, 950, and 700 mm inside the rail. So, «Italian gauge» refers to three sizes of track gauge:

1,445 mm (4 ft 8.9 in) Italian broad gauge 1500 mm
950 mm (3 ft 1 3/8 in) Italian metre gauge 1000 mm
700 mm (2 ft 3 9/16 in) Italian narrow gauge 750 mm

A disadvantage of measuring from the centre of the rail is that the width of the rail varies, affecting the gauge. It is easier and more reliable to measure from the inner edges of the rails.

Rail gauge in Italy  –

In Spain, a Royal Decree issued on 14 November 1879 made the Metric System compulsory. This was effective from July 1880. Some thirty years had elapsed since the metre had been imposed by law as the basic measure. The System had been adopted by France in 1791 to replace and supersede an incredibly tangled chaos of regional sets of units. Then again, human beings may be very conservative…

The railway reached Goa, then a Portuguese possession, in 1881. It was laid with MG and run by several British companies, which eventually founded the West of India Portuguese Railway to manage the line. Nowadays, the Konkan Railway has opened a new BG line from Mumbai to Mangalore. It reached Pernem in August 1997, and was fully completed in 26 January 1998.

Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway  –

Konkan Railway Corporation  –

Konkan Railway  –

The Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company started their SG cable service in 1885. While compiling data for this little article, I have found -again, in Australia- a most interesting piece of information: nowadays, this city has the largest tram network in the world. It used to be Russian BG Saint Petersburg’s, but many lines thereof have been closed.

Transport in Melbourne  –

On Monday 31 May 1886 the southern US railroads started to change the gauge on all their tracks. In three days, the «Russian» BG lines were converted from 5′ to 4′ 9″ (1,448 mm), then the standard of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Thousands of workers pulled the spikes from the west rail and moved them 3″ east. The new gauge was close enough to SG that all rolling stock could run on it without difficulty.

Gauge conversion  –

16 May 1886, the «Conférence Internationale pour l’Unité Technique des Chemins de Fer» (International Convention for the Technical Unity of Railways) closes in Bern, Switzerland, with an agreement to promote SG in Europe.

20 May 1892, the last Brunel BG train ran on the GWR main line out of London’s Paddington station, and the last BG lines were converted to SG. You might think that BG was ultimately a failure, but the facts say otherwise. The Great Western Railway ran BG trains for fifty-four years. Among these, the «Flying Dutchman», the world’s fastest express for many years. When the BG Cornwall Railway was merged with the GWR, they had the longest through route in Britain. And BG had many staunch supporters in Cornwall. Their wares and other goods might be profitably sold at quite distant markets, because the «God’s Wonderful Railway» moved them in great quantities, within short delays, and charging affordable fares.

10 june 1926, the Metro Transversal is inaugurated in Barcelona, Spain. Being an integral part of the rail links, it is laid with Spanish BG (1,672 mm), so being the broadest metro line in the world until Delhi Metro starts operating with tracks just four mm wider.

The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway was opened on 16 July 1927. It had a gauge of 1′ 3″ (381 mm) only. From 1926 to 1978, the RH&DR was the smallest public railway in the world, in terms of track gauge. The title was lost to the 12¼’ (311 mm) gauge Réseau Guerlédan in France in 1978, and regained from 1979, when the Réseau Guerlédan closed, until 1982, when the 10¼» (260 mm) gauge Wells and Walsingham Light Railway opened.

The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway  –,_Hythe_and_Dymchurch_Railway#Smallest_public_railway_in_the_world

From 1955 onwards, Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses and Renfe started to renew their lines -those that got renewed, that is- with a common Iberian BG, 1,668 mm.

Lisbon’s metro is SG. The future high-speed lines will also be SG.

Nowadays, the only surviving Spanish BG railway is the Red metro line of Barcelona, formerly the Transversal company.

In the late 1960s the Russian BG was changed to 1,520 mm. Finland, after pondering a SG conversion, has kept the original 1,524 mm.

And the Suomen Valtionrautatiet have a website in Finnish, Swedish, English… and Russian. A glance at this map will show you why.

Finland, Sweden, Estonia… and Russia

On 1 October 1964 the new SG Tokaido Shinkansen of the Japanese railways began service. I have written another article to deal with the «fast» and «modern» version of the SG myth.

Spanish original  –  Alta velocidad ferroviaria y ancho «estándar»

English translation  –  High-speed railways and «standard» gauge

Broad Gauge trains are ROOMY…  –  Bear on BART

On 11 September 1972, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) started operations. It uses BG, the very same 5′ 6″ as you may find in India, Argentina, etc. The rationale for choosing this gauge in a SG country was the improved stability of trains against high winds on a bridge over the Bay of San Francisco… that was never built. They bore a tunnel instead. A spokesperson of BART wrote this to me:

«If you know our system, you already know our trains don’t cross any other rail lines, so there’s no need to hitch onto someone else’s railroad. We’re self contained. Trying to standardize our gauge to the rest of the US wasn’t a need back when we began to design and build the system more than 50 years ago. The broader gauge also isn’t something that presents a significant problem for us now. We enjoy our broader gauge and our passengers like the more stable, smoother ride. Perhaps the rest of the world could learn from us.»

Bay Area Rapid Transit  –

History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit  –

In 2001, Jim O’Neill coined the acronym BRIC, standing for «Brazil, Russia, India and China». Please ponder for five seconds which rail gauges are mainly used in these countries.


24 December 2002, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) opened the Red Line, from Rithala to Dilshad Garden. It was the first one, and it was laid with BG. There had been a lengthy discussion between proponents of SG and defenders of BG. The second and third lines, Yellow (opened 20 December 2004) and Blue (31 December 2005), were also BG, but the BG versus SG debate was not ended. On 26 May 2006, «The Hindu» published an article, «Conflicting views over Mumbai Metro gauge», by Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar. He said that «Former Member (Engineering) of the Railway Board, S.P.S. Jain, holds a contrary view. «In a mega city like Mumbai or Delhi, there is actually a need for a seven-foot gauge to allow for heavy passenger volumes» as a wider gauge means larger carrying capacity. Insisting that almost all countries follow a uni-gauge policy, he said it results in better interconnectivity. But this is countered by DMRC officials who claim interconnectivity has more to do with goods trains and not passenger traffic.»

On 2 April 2010, the Green Line of Delhi metro started the service. It was the fourth in the system, and it was… SG. But the loading gauge is only marginally smaller than that of the BG lines, thus negating any advantages that would allegedly come from the SG… The new Violet Line was inaugurated on 3 October 2010, and it is also SG.

Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC)  –

History of Delhi Metro  –

«Conflicting views over Mumbai Metro gauge», by Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar  –

Iranian Railways have been trying to persuade Pakistan Railways to convert its route to Quetta to SG, in order to facilitate the flow of international traffic to Europe. Pakistan responded in 2006 with a statement that it is to convert its network to SG, and would plan a link with the system of China. Alternately, three-rail dual gauge track is quite feasible between the gauges used by Iran and Pakistan. Bogie exchange and/or variable gauge axles might be interim solutions. There is a transhipment yard at Zahedan.

Link between Iran and Pakistan  –

Gautrain  – Gautrein

On 18 June 2010, the new Gautrain, or Gautrein in Afrikaans, started service in Gauteng, South Africa. It is an isolated SG line inside a very successful «Cape gauge» system. Time will tell if it remains so, or grows into a full-fledged SG network.

Gautrain  – Gautrein  –

History of Gautrain – Gautrein  –

BG, far from being dead, keeps growing. The Project Unigauge is the best proof. It means to regauge 12,000 kilometers (yes, twelve thousand) of MG and NG to BG, to improve freight connectivity and passenger services as well.

Project Unigauge  –

And there are also some interesting pieces of news elsewhere. For instance, a Russian BG planned extension from Košice in Slovakia to Vienna in Austria.

Uzhhorod – Košice «metric Russian» line  –

And we must watch what happens in Brazil and Argentina… And also in South Africa.

Sid Urry

This is a quote from «A Losing Battle», the last article of the «Broad Gauge Trilogy» by Syd Urry:

«The broad gauge had been born a few years too late for its advantages to prove decisive and its fate was decided by commercial rather than technical considerations. Throughout its history it was condemned and criticised by the narrow gauge protagonists, chief among them George Stephenson. It is therefore revealing to end this story with his private opinion as given at a dinner party to Professor Babbage who recorded it thus:

«The second glass of champagne now interrupted a conversation which was, I hope, equally agreeable to both, and was certainly very instructive for me. I felt that the fairest opportunity I could desire of ascertaining my friend’s real opinion of the gauge had now arrived. Availing myself of the momentary pause after George Stephenson’s glass was empty, I said:

«Now, Mr Stephenson, will you allow me to ask you to suppose for an instance that no railways whatever existed, and yet that you were in full possession of all that large amount of knowledge which you have derived from your experience. Under such circumstances, if you were consulted respecting the gauge of a system of railways about to be inaugurated, would you advise 4 feet 8.5 inches?»

«Not exactly that gauge», replied the creator of railroads; «I would take a few inches more, but a very few». I was quite satisfied with this admission, though I confess it reminded me of the frail fair one who, when reproached by her immaculate friend with having had a child -an ecclesiastical licence not being first obtained- urged, as an extenuating circumstance, that it was a very small one.»

Broad Gauge Trilogy  –

Well… Summing up, «standard» is just a name, because any system of measures is just a convention. The metre (or meter) is allegedly a measure taken from the circumference of the planet Earth. We might as well have adopted a suitable fraction from the Great Pyramid dimensions. Or from the Taj Mahal, this being the most beautiful building in the world. As to railways, please go tell the Russians to regauge the Moscow underground and the Saint Petersburg trams with SG because «it conforms to international standards». By that reasoning, you should also ask the Indian authorities to kindly change the driving rule from the left side of the roads to the right, in order to conform with international standards… and hence to be able to buy «off the shelf» imported cars by the million. All those «reasonings» would be debatable, even if they were not so suspect. India is big enough to set her own standards.

Standard boxes on four-wheeler flatcars  –  NG & BG in «squat» and «tall» loading gauges

If «the broader the better», then «the narrower the worse»? If SG is better than MG, then BG is better than SG… Within reason, what is the maximum? Had Brunel managed to lay his 7′ ¼» tracks in India, someone might perhaps have invented many years ago a modular container to mechanise the transfer of goods between 3′ 6″ or MG flatcars and 7′ ¼», just twice as wide. It would have been smaller than the modern type, born well after big port cranes became commonplace. Then again, this was of little consequence when you had the «changars», so…

These three underground trains are all SG, but you see that the choice of loading gauge has important consequences.

London Underground  –

Sydney Cityrail Millenium  –

In 1990, Arthur C. Clarke published «The Ghost from the Grand Banks», a book about an hypothetic raising of the «Titanic» from her sub-aquatic grave. Patrick O’Brian asks this question to his boss, Donald Craig: «Do you want it quick, cheap or good? I can give you any two.» Now «quick» and «cheap» refer to quantities: you may count time and money. «Good» is a lot harder to agree upon, because it is a value judgment… hence, a subjective matter. How do you define Quality? Stephenson’s Gauge, Microsoft Windows, and Coca-Cola enjoy a rare privilege: those who sell them say that they are «the» standards of Quality. As long as these Holy Myths of Conventional Wisdom are widely believed, they will be «true». Let us think by ourselves. Truth will set us free.




Links from this article…

Links  –  The Broad Gauge in the World…

(( Brunel was right about the coal cart gauge… ))

(( Brunel would have loved Talgo trains… ))

Masa indivisible…

(( Loading gauge… ))