Track gauge

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Rail gauge
Broad gauge
Standard gauge
Scotch gauge
Narrow gauge
Dual gauge
Rail tracks
Tramway track
List of Rail Gauges

Rail gauge is the distance between the inner sides of the two parallel rails that make up a railway track. Sixty percent of the world's railways use a gauge of 4ft 8½ in (1,435 mm), which is known as the standard or international gauge. Gauges wider than standard gauge are called broad gauge, those smaller are called narrow gauge. Some stretches of track are dual gauge, with three (or sometimes four) parallel rails in place of the usual two, to allow trains of two different gauges to share the same path. The term break-of-gauge refers to the situation at a place where different gauges meet.


Broad and Standard gauge


The standard gauge of 4 ft 8½ in (1435 mm) was chosen for the first main-line railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), by the British engineer George Stephenson, because it was the de facto standard for the colliery railways where Stephenson had worked. Whatever the origin of the gauge it seemed to be a satisfactory choice: not too narrow and not too wide. Indeed, Stephenson originally chose 4ft8in, but added an extra 0.5in for leeway.

Brunel on the Great Western Railway chose the broader gauge of 7 feet partly because it offered greater stability and capacity at high speed, but also because the Stephenson gauge was not scientifically selected. The Eastern Counties Railway chose five-foot gauge, but soon realised that lack of compatibility was a mistake and changed to Stephenson's gauge. The conflict between Brunel and Stephenson is often referred to as the Gauge Wars.

In 1845 a British Royal Commission recommended adoption of 4 ft 8½ in (1435 mm) as standard gauge, and in the following year Parliament passed the Gauge Act, which required that new railways use standard gauge. Except for the Great Western Railway's broad gauge, few main-line British railways used a different gauge, and the last Great Western line was finally converted to standard gauge in 1892.


In the 19th century, Russia chose a broader gauge. It is widely believed that the choice was made for military reasons, to prevent potential invaders from using the Russian rail system. Others point out that no clear standard had emerged by 1842. Engineer Pavel Melnikov hired George Washington Whistler, a prominent American railroad engineer (and father of the artist James McNeill Whistler), to be a consultant on the building of Russia's first major railroad, the Moscow – St Petersburg line. The selection of 1500 mm gauge was recommended by German and Austrian engineers but not adopted: it was not the same as the 5 feet gauge in common use in the southern United States at the time. Now Russia and most of the former Russian Empire, including the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasian and Central Asian republics, and Mongolia, have the Russian gauge of 1520 mm, 4 mm (532in) narrower than 5 feet, though rolling stock of both gauges is interchangeable in practice.


Finland, which was a Grand Duchy under Russia in the 19th century, uses 5 feet gauge. Upon gaining independence in 1917, much thought was given[citation needed] to converting to standard gauge, but nothing came of it.

Iberian peninsula

The main railway networks of Spain and Portugal were constructed to gauges of six Castilian feet (1,672 mm) and five Portuguese feet (1,664 mm). The two gauges were sufficiently close to allow inter-operation of trains, and in recent years they have both been adjusted to a common "Iberian gauge" (ancho ibérico or trocha ibérica in Spanish, bitola ibérica in Portuguese) of 1,668 mm. Although it has been said that the main reason for the adoption of this non-standard gauge was to obstruct any French invasion attempts, it was in fact a technical decision, to allow for the running of larger, more powerful locomotives in a mountainous country.[1]

Since the beginning of the 1990s new high-speed passenger lines in Spain have been built to the international standard gauge of 4 ft 8½ in (1435 mm), to allow these lines to link to the European high-speed network. Although the 22 km from Tardienta to Huesca (part of a branch from the Madrid to Barcelona high-speed line) has been reconstructed as mixed Iberic and standard gauge, in general the interface between the two gauges in Spain is dealt with by means of gauge-changing installations, which can adjust the gauge of appropriately designed rolling stock on the move. This is a slight over simplification. The procedure is for the loco to stop, detach and run into a siding. The train is then coupled to the other gauge locomotive, track being laid to both over the short gauge changer installation length. This pulls the train into the actual gauge changer very slowly. Automatic 'arms' unlock wheels on the axles in turn which now being free are guided to move to the next gauge width.Equivalent arms now lock each axle into the new gauge securily.Time for a 'Talgo' set, is under 10 minutes, incuding the first stop to detach and attach locomotives, with a final visual check that the axle locks have been restored correctly.

There are plans to convert the whole broad gauge network to standard gauge, but nothing has been done yet.

United States

Originally, a variety of gauges were used in the United States and Canada. Some railways, primarily in the northeast, used standard gauge; others used gauges ranging from 4 ft (1219 mm) to 6 feet. Given the nation's recent independence from the United Kingdom, arguments based on British standards had little weight. Problems began as soon as lines began to meet and in much of the north-eastern United States, standard gauge was adopted. Most Southern states used 5 feet gauge. Following the American Civil War, trade between the South and North grew and the break of gauge became a major economic nuisance. Competitive pressures had forced all the Canadian railways to convert to standard gauge by 1880, and Illinois Central converted its south line to New Orleans to standard gauge in 1881, putting pressure on the southern railways.

After considerable debate and planning, most of the southern rail network was converted from 5 feet gauge to 4feet 9in gauge, then the standard of the Pennsylvania Railroad, over two remarkable days beginning on May 31, 1886. Over a period of 36 hours, tens of thousands of workers pulled the spikes from the west rail of all the broad gauge lines in the South, moved them 3 inches (76 mm) east and spiked them back in place. The new gauge was close enough that standard gauge equipment could run on it without problem. By June, 1886, all major railroads in North America were using approximately the same gauge. The final conversion to true standard gauge took place gradually as track was maintained.

In modern uses certain isolated occurrences of non-standard gauges can still be found, such as the 5ft 2.25in and 5ft 2.5in gauge tracks of the Philadelphia streetcars, the Philadelphia subway cars and the New Orleans streetcars. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area, chose 5ft 6in gauge. (The San Francisco cable cars use a gauge of 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm).)

Commonwealth of Nations (former British Empire)


In the 19th century, Australia's three mainland states adopted standard gauge, but due to political differences, a break of gauge 30 years in the future was created. After instigating a change to 1600 mm agreed to by all, New South Wales reverted to standard gauge while Victoria and South Australia stayed with broad gauge. Three different gauges are currently in wide use in Australia, and there is little prospect of full standardisation, though the main interstate routes are now standard gauge.


The first railway in British North America, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, was built in the 1830s to 5ft 6in gauge, setting the standard for Britain's colonies for several decades. Well-known colonial systems such as the Grand Trunk Railway and Great Western Railway, along with the European and North American Railway and Nova Scotia Railway later expanded the use of broad gauge. In 1851 the 5ft 6in broad gauge was universally adopted as the standard gauge for the Province of Canada, and government subsidies were unavailable for railways that chose other gauges. The broad gauge was used until the early 1870s, after which time there was a gradual change of the industry to standard gauge over several years. However, each railway had to change quickly, coordinating locomotive and track replacement with rolling stock replacements or upgrades. The notion that rolling stock could earn money while on other railways had become attractive, and this spurred standardization.

The rise in standardization with the US came about because of increasing trade across the border after the American Civil War. Some railways had installed dual gauge track, which was expensive, and others used variable gauge wheels, which proved unreliable. The Grand Trunk system started converting its border lines in 1872 and finished converting its lines east of Montreal in 1874. The Canadian government-owned Intercolonial Railway converted from broad to standard gauge in 1875 while still under construction.

After the 1870s, the Canadian Pacific Railway(1880) and most major new lines were built to the standard gauge, including all the railways built through the Canadian Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast. In addition to the CPR these included the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the Canadian Northern Railway and the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. The latter three were eventually acquired by Canadian National Railway, which is now the largest railway in Canada. All remaining Canadian freight railways use standard gauge.

In Toronto the Toronto Transit Commission subways and streetcarsuse 4ft 10.875in gauge, making their equipment incompatible with standard gauge rail systems, including Toronto's own Scarborough RT system. Ten years before standard gauge was established in Canada, but after it had been established in England, this unusual gauge was chosen to accommodate horse-drawn wagons on the streetcar tracks. The Articles of Agreement signed in 1861 between the City of Toronto and the Toronto Street Railways required "That the gauge of the said railways shall be such that the ordinary vehicles now in use may travel on the said tracks". There was no mention of a specific track gauge, but because ordinary wagon wheels did not have a flange, they could not travel on the same rails as conventional streetcars. To meet the requirement, the streetcar tracks were placed wide enough apart so that ordinary wagon wheels could run on the inside step of the tracks. (In practice, the five miles of T rail had no such step.[1]) This resulted in Toronto streetcar tracks being slightly broader gauge than standard-gauge tracks. Later, when the Toronto subway was built, it was designed to use the same track gauge as the streetcars. This provided for sharing of rail equipment and maintenance facilities, and provided for future use of 'subway-surface' cars that could pass between systems. However, only a few streetcars have ever been used on the subway system.

Hong Kong, China

(See The People's Republic of China)


Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka inherited a diversity of rail gauges, of which 5ft 6in was predominant. Indian Railways has adopted Project unigauge, which seeks to systematically convert most of its narrower gauge railways to 1,676 mm.


The track gauge adopted by the mainline railways in Ireland is 5ft 3in. This unusual gauge is otherwise found only in the Australian states of Victoria, southern New South Wales (as part of the Victorian rail network) and South Australia (where it was introduced by the Irish railway engineer F. W. Shields), and in Brazil.

The first three railways all had different gauges: the Dublin and Kingstown Railway, 4ft 8in; the Ulster Railway, 6ft 2in; and the Dublin and Drogheda Railway, 5ft 2in. The Board of Trade, recognising the chaos that would ensue, asked one of their officers to advise. After consulting widely he eliminated both the widest and narrowest gauges (Brunel's 7ft and Stephenson's 4 ft 8½ in (1435 mm)), leaving gauges between 5ft 3in and 5ft 6in. By splitting the difference, a compromise Irish gauge of 5ft 3in in was adopted.

(See history of rail transport in Ireland)



Afghanistan is in an interesting position, because it is at the cross-roads of Asia and is completely without railways. Should it decide to build any, the choice of gauge will be complicated by its being surrounded by three different gauges. Iran to the west uses standard gauge, as does China to the east; to the south, Pakistan uses 5ft 6in gauge, while to the north, the central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan use 1,520 mm gauge.

The People's Republic of China

Most of the railway network of the People's Republic of China is standard gauge.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC), which currently running East Rail, West Rail and Light Rail uses 1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in).

The Mass Transit Railway uses 1432 mm gauge, 3 mm (⅛in) narrower than standard gauge. A new railway line across the Tsing Ma Bridge, an extension to the 1,432 mm gauge Tung Chung Line. This 3 mm difference should cause no more problems than the 4 mm (532in) difference causes between Russia and Finland or the former 8 mm (516in) difference between Spain and Portugal.

Hong Kong Tramways, which has been operating tram service on Hong Kong Island since 1904, uses 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauge.

South America

Argentina and Chile use 5ft 6in gauge. Brazil uses 5ft 3in (known as "broad gauge", most common for passenger services and a few corridors in the Southeast) and 1 m (3 ft 338 in) (known as "narrow gauge" or "metre gauge", most common for cargo services). Exceptions are the Estrada de Ferro do Amapá North of the River Amazon, which has 1,440 mm gauge and the new Line 5 of São Paulo Metro, which uses standard gauge. Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Peru use standard gauge. In the past a few lines in Northern Chile also had standard gauge, as the only international railway between Arica (Chile) and Tacna (Peru) a bit more than 60 km has standard gauge. The El Cerrejón Coal Railway and Venezuelan Railways are also 4 ft 8½ in (1435 mm).

Narrow gauge

In many areas, a much narrower gauge was chosen. While narrow gauge generally cannot handle as much tonnage, it is less costly to construct, particularly in mountainous regions. Sugar cane and bananas plantations are appropriately served by narrow gauges such as 2 ft (610 mm), as there is little through traffic to other systems.


There were also a large number of narrow gauge lines such as the following shown on the 1904 Railway Clearing House Railway Atlas:

Railway gauge
Southwold Railway 3 ft (914 mm)
Ffestiniog Railway 1 ft 1112 in (597 mm)
Croesor Tramway 2 ft (610 mm)
Welsh Highland Railway 1 ft 1112 in (597 mm)
Talyllyn Railway 2 ft 3 in (686 mm)
Corris Railway
Welshpool & Llanfair Railway 2 ft 6 in (762 mm)
Vale of Rheidol Railway 1 ft 1112 in (597 mm)
Lynton and Barnstaple Railway
East Cornwall Mineral Railway 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm)
later converted to
ft 8½ in (1435 mm) standard gauge
Pentewan Railway 2 ft 6 in (762 mm)

See the main article British narrow gauge railways

Commonwealth of Nations (former British Empire)


Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia and parts of South Australia adopted 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauge to cover greater distances at lower costs. Most industrial railways are built to 2 ft (610 mm) gauge. Three different rail gauges are currently in wide use in Australia, and there is little prospect of full standardisation.


The Prince Edward Island Railway used 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) Cape gauge from its opening in 1874 until it merged with the Canadian National Railways in 1918, the same time as a new ferry permitted interchange with North America's rail network. From 1918-1930 there was a mix of standard, dual and narrow gauge in the province until CNR's standardization was completed; standard gauge being maintained until abandonment in 1989.

The Newfoundland Railway was constructed to Cape gauge as well, beginning in the 1880s, and this gauge was maintained under CNR ownership post-1949 until abandonment in 1988, except for some dual Cape/standard gauge track used at the ferry terminal to North America's rail network; standard gauge rolling stock was hauled in Newfoundland by changing out standard gauge wheelsets (or trucks) for Cape gauge wheelsets/trucks in Port aux Basques.

The New Brunswick Railway used Cape gauge until the 1880s when it was acquired by the Canadian Pacific Railway, after which time standard gauge prevailed.

A number of 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge mining and logging railways were built in the mountains and islands of British Columbia in the late 19th century, including the Kaslo and Slocan Railway, but all have since been either converted to standard gauge or abandoned.

The 3 ft (914 mm) White Pass and Yukon Railroad which was completed in 1900 at the end of the Klondike gold rush is Canada's last remaining narrow gauge carrier. It no longer carries freight, but is the busiest tourist railroad in North America. Its tracks connect to no other railroad but do connect to the cruise ship docks at Skagway, Alaska, which provide it with most of its passengers.

New Zealand

New Zealand adopted narrow gauge 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) due to the need to cross mountainous terrain in the country's interior. This terrain has necessitated a number of complicated engineering feats, notably the Raurimu Spiral. There are 1787 bridges and 150 tunnels in less than 4,000 km of track. Around 500 km of this track is electrified, on the North Island Main Trunk, between Palmerston North and Hamilton.


Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka inherited a diversity of rail gauges, some of which was 1 m (3 ft 338 in). Indian Railways has adopted Project unigauge, which seeks to systematically convert most of its narrower gauge railways to 5 ft 6in.


The People's Republic of China

Some of the railway network of the People's Republic of China is 1 m (3 ft 338 in) gauge.

Southeast Asia

The railways of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia are predominantly 1 m (3 ft 338 in) gauge. The proposed ASEAN Railway would be a standard-gauge or dual-gauge, using both metre and standard gauge regional railway networks, linking Singapore at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to the standard-gauge railway network of the People's Republic of China. Indonesia's railways are predominantly 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm).


Except for the high-speed Shinkansen lines (which uses standard gauge), all of Japan Railways Group's network is narrow gauge, built to a gauge of 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm).


Taiwan started to build up railway in the Qing dynasty using 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauge. The Japanese colonial government, which ruled from 1895 to 1945, continued using 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm). The system is now under Taiwan Railway Administration. The new Taipei Rapid Transit System and the metro system under construction in Kaohsiung use standard gauge. The Taiwan High Speed Rail (HSR) which started operation in January 2007 also uses standard gauge. An isolated 2 ft (610 mm) gauge line on the east coast was regauged to 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) when the line was interconnected. The Alishan forest railway is narrow gauge 2 ft 6 in (762 mm).


The railways of South Africa and many other African countries, including Angola, Botswana, Congo, Ghana, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe, use 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauge, sometimes referred to as Cape gauge. Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and others use 1 m (3 ft 338 in) gauge lines.



Haiti has had two different gauges on its railroads. 130 km of rural line between Port-au-Prince, Saint-Marc, and Verrettes (1905-about 1960s) used 3 ft (914 mm) gauge. Tramlines in Port-au-Prince (1878-1888 and 1896-1932), which was the first known track in Haiti, and a total of 80 km of rural line west to Léogâne and east to Manneville (1896-1950s) used 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge. Totalling over 100 km of track, the plantation railroads in the north and north-east most likely used 2 ft 6 in (762 mm). There were at least four separate isolated lines. The story of the demise of one Haitian railroad is that it was sold and physically picked up, and shipped to Asia during the Papa Doc period (approx. 1957-1971). Other gauges may have been used on the plantation tracks in the north and north-east of Haiti. The CIA fact book suggests that in the 1990s there were only 40 km of abandoned track left.

South America

Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile have 1 m (3 ft 338 in) gauge lines. Colombia and Peru have 3 ft 4 in (914 mm) gauge lines.

Dual gauge and adjustable axles

Dual gauge allows trains of different gauges to share the same track. This can save considerable expense compared to using separate tracks for each gauge, but introduces complexities in track maintenance and signalling, as well as requiring speed restrictions for some trains. If the difference between the two gauges is large enough, for example between 4ft 8in and 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm), three-rail dual-gauge is possible, but if the difference is not large enough, for example between 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) and 1 m (3 ft 338 in), four-rail dual-gauge is used. Dual-gauge rail lines are used in the railway networks of Switzerland, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, North Korea, Tunisia and Vietnam.


m (3 ft 338 in) and 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauges are too close to allow three-rail dual gauge. m (3 ft 338 in) and 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauges can be used together, with four-rail dual gauge - note the third (useless) 1,267 mm gauge. m (3 ft 338 in) and 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauges can be used together with four-rail dual gauge, with bonus standard gauge.

Africa is particularly affected by gauge problems, where railways of different gauges in adjacent countries meet.

Gauge rationalisation in Africa is facilitated since four-rail dual gauge of 1 m (3 ft 338 in) and 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) contains a hidden gauge, which can be made to be standard gauge 4ft 8in. The four-rail system reuses and doubles the effective strength of the old light rails, which might otherwise have only a low value reuse as fenceposts.

Variable gauge axles

Variable gauge axles (VGA), developed by the Talgo company and Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF) of Spain, enable trains to change gauge with only a few minutes spent in the gauge conversion process. The same system is also used between China and Central Asia, and Poland and Ukraine. Both China and Poland are standard gauge, while Central Asia and Russia are 1520 mm gauge.

Possible reasons why the VGA system is not more widely used could include:

  • Marketing and/or economics
  • Unfamiliarity.
  • Conservatism.
  • Not Invented Here
  • From standard to narrow gauge, not enough space between the wheels to accommodate the mechanism, especially to 3 ft (914 mm) gauge.


Further standardization of rail gauges seems likely, as individual countries seek to build inter-operable national networks, and international organizations seek to build macro-regional and continental networks. National projects include the Australian and Indian efforts mentioned above to create a uniform gauge in their national networks. The European Union has set out to develop inter-operable freight and passenger rail networks across the EU area, and is seeking to standardize not only track gauge, but also signalling and electrical power systems. EU funds have been dedicated to convert key railway lines in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia from 1,520 mm gauge to standard gauge, and to assist Spain and Portugal in the construction of high-speed rail lines to connect Iberian cities to one another and to the French high-speed lines. The EU has also developed plans for improved freight rail links between Spain, Portugal, and the rest of Europe.

High speed

All high-speed rail systems around the world have been built using or planning to use standard gauge, even in countries like Japan, Taiwan, Spain and Portugal where most of the country's existing rail lines use a different gauge (save for Russia and Finland that have 5 ft high-speed rail, very recent). Once standard gauge high-speed networks exist, they may provide the impetus for gauge conversion of existing passenger lines to allow for interoperability. All high speed lines have adopted 25 kV, 50 Hz AC., Overhead Line as the standard electrification system, except Germany, Sweden and Switzerland (15 kV AC) and the first high speed lines in Italy (3000 V DC).


Mining railways which have little interconnection with other lines also tend to choose standard gauge to allow them to use off-the-shelf equipment, especially heavy-duty rolling stock.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) is planning a Trans-Asian Railway that will link Europe and the Pacific, with a Northern Corridor from Europe to the Korean Peninsula, a Southern Corridor from Europe to Southeast Asia, and a North-South corridor from Northern Europe to the Persian Gulf. All the proposed corridors would encounter one or more breaks of gauge as they cross Asia. Current plans do not call for widespread gauge conversion; instead, mechanized facilities would be built to move shipping containers from train to train at the breaks of gauge.

  • Rail lines for iron ore to Oakajee port in Western Australia are now proposed to be a combined dual gauge network.
  • Rail lines for iron ore to Kribi in Cameroon are likely to be 1435mm with a likely connection to the same port from the 1000mm gauge Cameroon system.

Kenya-Uganda-Sudan proposal

A proposal was aired in October 2004 to build a high-speed electrified line to connect Kenya with southern Sudan. Kenya and Uganda use 1 m (3 ft 338 in) gauge, while Sudan uses 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauge. By choosing standard gauge for the project, the gauge incompatibility is overcome. A bonus is that Egypt, further north, uses standard gauge. Since the existing narrow gauge track is quite likely of a "pioneer" standard, with sharp curves and low-capacity light rails, substantial reconstruction of the existing lines are needed, so gauge unification would be sensible.


Developments in 2007 may see several lines of different gauges, 1000mm and 1067mm meet in a hub in Rwanda

Early origins of the standard gauge

There is a story that rail gauge was derived from the rutways created by war chariots used by Imperial Rome, which everyone else had to follow to preserve their wagon wheels, and because Julius Caesar set this width under Roman law so that vehicles could traverse Roman villages and towns without getting caught in stone ruts of differing widths (another example is Qin Shihuang's law of a standard gauge for carriages and chariots after his unification of China). A problem with this story is that the Roman military did not use chariots in battle. However, an equal gauge is probably coincidence. Excavations at the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum revealed ruts averaged 4ft 9in center to center, with a gauge of 4 ft 6 in (1371 mm).

The designers of both chariots and trams and trains were dealing with a similar issue, namely hauling wheeled vehicles behind draft animals. A more likely theory as to why the 1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in) measurement was chosen is that it reflects vehicles with a 5 ft outside gauge. Italy defined its gauges from the centres of each rail[citation needed], rather than the inside edges of the rails, giving some unusual measurements (950 mm instead of 1000 mm).

  • Ambrussum has some extant Roman chariot tracks.

See also


  1. Pursley, Louis H., "Street Railways of Toronto, 1861-1921", Page 14, Interurbans 25, 1958

External links