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Track gauges
General concepts
Track gauge · Break-of-gauge ·

Dual gauge · Conversion (list·
Bogie exchange · Variable gauge

By transport mode
Tram · Rapid transit · High-speed rail
Miniature · Scale model
By size (list)

  Breitspurbahn 3,000 mm (9 ft 10 18 in)
  Brunel 2,140 mm (7 ft 14 in)
  Indian 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in)
  Iberian 1,668 mm (5 ft 5 2132 in)
  Irish 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in)
  Pennsylvania 1,588 mm
1,581 mm
(5 ft 2 12 in)
(5 ft 2 14 in)
  Russian 1,524 mm
1,520 mm
(5 ft)
(4 ft 11 2732)

  Standard 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)

  Scotch 1,372 mm (4 ft 6 in)
  Cape 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)
  Metre 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in)
  Three foot 914 mm (3 ft)
  Imperial and Bosnian 762 mm
760 mm
750 mm
(2 ft 6 in)
(2 ft 5 1516 in)
(2 ft 5 12 in)
  2 ft and 600mm 610 mm
600 mm
597 mm
(2 ft)
(1 ft 11 58 in)
(1 ft 11 12 in)

  Fifteen-inch 381 mm (15 in)
By location
North America · South America · Europe

A narrow gauge railway (or narrow gauge railroad) is a railway that has a track gauge narrower than the of standard gauge railways. Most existing narrow gauge railways have gauges of between and .


Since narrow gauge railways are usually built with smaller radius curves, smaller structure gauges, lighter rails, etc., they can be substantially cheaper to build, equip, and operate than standard gauge or broad gauge railways, particularly in mountainous or difficult terrain. The lower costs of narrow gauge railways mean they are often built to serve industries and communities where the traffic potential would not justify the cost of building a standard or broad gauge line.

Narrow gauge railways also have specialized use in mines and other environments where a very small structure gauge makes a very small loading gauge necessary.

Narrow gauge railways also have more general applications. Non-industrial narrow gauge mountain railways are or were common in the Rocky Mountains of the United States and the Pacific Cordillera of Canada, in Mexico, Switzerland, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, India, and Costa Rica.

In some countries narrow gauge is the standard, like the Cape gauge in Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, and Tasmania, and the metre gauge in Malaysia and Thailand.

There are many narrow gauge street tramways, particularly in Europe where gauge tramways are common.

History of narrow gauge railways

The earliest recorded railway is shown in the De re metallica of 1556, which shows a mine in Bohemia with a railway of approximately 2 ft (610 mm) gauge. During the 16th century railways were mainly restricted to hand-pushed narrow gauge lines in mines throughout Europe. During the 17th century mine railways were extended to provide transportation above ground. These lines were industrial, connecting mines with nearby transportation points, usually canals or other waterways. These railways were usually built to the same narrow gauge as the mine railways from which they developed.[1]

Historically, many narrow gauge railways were built as part of specific industrial enterprises and were primarily industrial railways rather than general carriers. Some common uses for these industrial narrow gauge railways were mining, logging, construction, tunnelling, quarrying, and the conveying of agricultural products. Extensive narrow gauge networks were constructed in many parts of the world for these purposes.

For example, mountain logging operations in the 19th century often used narrow gauge railways to transport logs from mill sites to market. Significant sugarcane railways still operate in Cuba, Fiji, Java, the Philippines and in Queensland in Australia. Narrow gauge railway equipment remains in common use for the construction of tunnels.

Extensive narrow gauge railway systems served the front-line trenches of both sides in World War I. They were a short-lived military application, and after the end of the war the surplus equipment from these created a small boom in narrow gauge railway building in Europe.

Advantages of narrow gauge

Narrow gauge railways usually cost less to build because they are usually lighter in construction, using smaller cars and locomotives (smaller loading gauge) as well as smaller bridges, smaller tunnels (smaller structure gauge) and tighter curves. Narrow gauge is thus often used in mountainous terrain, where the savings in civil engineering work can be substantial. It is also used in sparsely populated areas where the potential demand is too low for broader gauge railways to be economically viable. This is the case in some of Australia and most of Southern Africa, where extremely poor soils have led to population densities too low for standard gauge to be viable.

For temporary railways that will be removed after short term use, such as for construction, the logging industry, the mining industry or large scale construction projects, especially in confined spaces, such as the Channel Tunnel a narrow gauge railway is substantially cheaper and easier to install and remove. The use of such railways has almost vanished due to the capabilities of modern trucks.

In many countries narrow gauge railways were built as "feeder" or "branch" lines to feed traffic to more important standard gauge lines, due to their lower construction costs. 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.

Disadvantages of narrow gauge

Narrow gauge railways cannot interchange rolling stock such as freight and passenger cars freely with the standard gauge or broad gauge railways they link with, the transfers of passengers and freight require time consuming manual labour or substantial capital expenditure. Some bulk commodities, such as coal, ore and gravel, can be mechanically transshipped, but this still incurs time penalties and the equipment required for the transfer is often complex to maintain.

Also in times of peak demand, it is very difficult to move rolling stock to wherever they are needed when there is a break of gauge. So there had to be enough rolling stock to meet a narrow gauge railways own peak demand, which might be much more than needed by equivalent standard gauge railways, and the surplus equipment generated no cash flow during periods of low demand.

Solutions to these problems of transshipment is bogie exchange between cars, a rollbock system, variable gauge, dual gauge, or even gauge conversion.

Another problem for narrow gauge railways was that they lacked the physical space to grow: their cheap construction meant they were engineered only for their initial traffic demands. While a standard or broad gauge railway could more easily be upgraded to handle heavier, faster traffic, many narrow gauge railways were impractical to improve. Speeds and loads hauled could not increase, so traffic density was significantly limited.

Narrow gauge railways can be built to handle increased speed and loading, but at the price of removing most of the narrow gauge's cost advantage over standard or broad gauge.

Successful narrow gauge railways

The heavy duty narrow gauge railways in Australia (e.g. Queensland), South Africa and New Zealand show that if the track is built to a heavy-duty standard, performance almost as good as a standard gauge line is possible. 200-car trains operate on the Sishen-Saldanha railway in South Africa, and high-speed tilt-trains in Queensland (see below). Another example of a heavy-duty narrow gauge line is EFVM in Brazil. gauge, it has over-100-pound rail (100 lb/yd or 49.6 kg/m) and a loading gauge almost as large as US non-excess-height lines. It sees multiple 4,000 hp (3,000 kW) locomotives and 200+ car trains. In South Africa and New Zealand, the loading gauge is similar to the restricted British loading gauge, and in New Zealand some British Rail Mark 2 carriages have been rebuilt with new bogies for use by Tranz Scenic (Wellington-Palmerston North service), Tranz Metro (Wellington-Masterton service) and Veolia (Auckland suburban services).

Fastest narrow gauge trains

The reduced stability of narrow gauge means that its trains cannot run at the same high speeds as on broader gauges, unless the tracks are aligned with greater precision . In Japan and in Queensland, Australia, recent permanent way improvements have allowed trains on gauge tracks to run at 160 km/h (99 mph) and faster. Queensland Rail's tilt train is currently the fastest train in Australia and the fastest gauge train in the world, setting a record at 210 km/h.[2] A special gauge railcar was built for the Otavi Mining and Railway Company with a design speed of 137 km/h.[3]

Compare these speeds with standard gauge or broad gauge trains which can run at up to 320 km/h (199 mph).[4] The contrast is most evident in Japan, home of the Shinkansen, a network of standard gauge lines built solely for high speed rail in a country where narrow gauge is the predominant standard.

Curve radius is also important for high speeds: narrow gauge railways tend to have sharper curves, which limits the speed at which a vehicle can safely proceed along the track.


Many engineers considered the cost of a railway varies with some power of the gauge, so that the narrower gauge the cheaper it might be. This applied also to different narrow gauges, such as a proposed line in Papua using either or .[5]


In general, a narrow gauge railway has a track gauge less than gauge. However, due to historical and local circumstances the definition of a narrow gauge railway can be different.

Historical narrow gauge

When there were only two gauges, one being Brunel's broad gauge, the smaller gauge, now standard gauge or Stephenson gauge was called narrow gauge.

Medium versus narrow gauge railways

  • In Australia, and gauge railways are classified as medium gauge[6][7] in order to make a distinction with standard gauge and the narrow gauges such as the widely used gauge sugar cane railways.
  • In India and Bangladesh, broad gauge (BG) is the classification for the dominant Indian gauge, Metre[8] or medium [9][10] (MG) for gauge railways and narrow gauge (NG) for and railways.
  • In 1847, the Irish gauge was considered a medium gauge compared to Brunel's broad gauge and the narrow gauge, nowadays being standard gauge.[11]
  • In North America medium gauge was track gauge, also called "Canada Gauge".[12]
  • Sometimes railways built on gauges between and are referred to as "medium-gauge" railways.[13]

Gauges used

There are many narrow gauges in use or formerly used between gauge and gauge. They fall into several broad categories:

Scotch gauge

Main article: Scotch gauge

Scotch gauge was the name given to a track gauge, that was adopted by early 19th century railways mainly in the Lanarkshire area of Scotland.

Cape gauge railways

Main article: Cape gauge

Cape gauge is one name for the track gauge of between the inside of the rail heads. The name and classification varies throughout the world. It has installations of around 112,000 kilometres (70,000 mi).

Metre gauge railways

Main article: Metre gauge

Metre gauge is the system of narrow gauge railways and tramways with a track gauge of .

Three foot, Imperial, Bosnian and gauge

Main articles: Three foot gauge railways, Imperial gauge and Bosnian gauge

Three foot gauge railways have a track gauge of and are generally found throughout North and South America Imperial gauge , Bosnian gauge , and the gauge predominantly found in Russia and Eastern Europe.

These lightweight lines can be built at a substantial cost saving over medium or standard gauge railways, but are generally restricted in their carrying capacity. The majority of these lines were built in mountainous areas and most were to carry mineral traffic from mines to ports or standard gauge railways.

Two foot (610mm), 600mm and similar gauges

Gauges: , , and .

Although having only slight differences in track gauge, this category shares many characteristics like rolling stock and loading gauge. As a matter of fact, these shared characteristics made interchanging of rolling stock between these similar track gauges a common occurrence.

For example, the SAR NG15 Class started its career on the gauge Otavi Mining and Railway Company in South-West Africa, was transferred to the lines in South Africa, and currently some surviving locomotives reside on the gauge Welsh Highland Railway and the Brecon Mountain Railway.

Many were industrial lines rather than common carriers, though there were exceptions such the "Maine two footer" lines in New England, the Chicago Tunnel Company's 60-mile (97 km) network under the Chicago Loop, the Chemins de Fer du Calvados of Normandy, and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

Trench railways of World War I produced the greatest concentration of gauge railways observed to date. The Maginot Line also used railways.

Australia has many networks of over 4,000 kilometres (2,500 mi) 2-foot (61 cm) sugar cane railways in the coastal areas of Queensland, carrying more than 30 million tonnes of sugar cane a year.

Minimum gauge railways

Main article: Minimum gauge railway

Gauges below were rare, but did exist. In Britain, Sir Arthur Heywood developed gauge estate railways, while in France Decauville produced a range of industrial railways running on and tracks, most commonly in restricted environments such as underground mine railways, parks and farms. A number of gauge railways were built in Britain to serve ammunition depots and other military facilities, particularly during the First World War.

See also


Further reading

  • "Trade House" Kambarka Engineering Works "
  • P.J.G. Ransom. Narrow Gauge Steam – Its origins and worldwide development, Oxford Publishing Co., 1996, ISBN 0-86093-533-7
  • P. Whitehouse, J. Snell. Narrow Gauge Railways of the British Isles, David & Charles, 1994, ISBN C-7153-0196-9
  • Railroads of Colorado: Your Guide to Colorado's Historic Trains and Railway Sites, Claude Wiatrowski, Voyageur Press, 2002, hardcover, 160 pages, ISBN 0-89658-591-3
  • Keith Chester. "East European Narrow Gauge" 1995
  • "Narrow Gauge Through the Bush – Ontario's Toronto Grey and Bruce and Toronto and Nipissing Railways"; Rod Clarke; pub. Beaumont and Clarke, with the Credit Valley Railway Company, Streetsville, Ontario, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9784406-0-2
  • "The Narrow Gauge For Us – The Story of the Toronto and Nipissing Railway"; Charles Cooper; pub. The Boston Mills Press; Erin, Ontario, 1982.
  • "Narrow Gauge Railways of Canada"; Omer Lavallee; pub. Railfair, Montreal, 1972.
  • "Narrow Gauge Railways of Canada"; Omer Lavallee, expanded and revised by Ronald S Ritchie; pub. Fitzhenry and Whiteside, Markham, Ontario, 2005.
  • "The Toronto Grey and Bruce Railway 1863–1884; Thomas F McIlwraith; pub. Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto, 1963.
  • "Steam Trains to the Bruce"; Ralph Beaumont; pub. The Boston Mills Press; Cheltenham, Ontario, 1977
  • "Running Late on the Bruce"; Ralph Beaumont & James Filby; pub The Boston Mills Press, Cheltenham, Ontario, 1980
  • Nevada Central Narrow Gauge; Michael J. Brown

Template:Navbox Narrow gauge railways by continent

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