‘Narrow-Gauge’ or ‘Standard Gauge’?

On many Tours we find ourselves travelling on Narrow Gauge railways and clients are used to referring to them as such. People often understand what it means (or think they do) but for many, the phrase is almost meaningless. Let’s take a look at what is going on.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge railroad winds through a canyon. It was originally built to carry mine ores, both gold and silver, from the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. It’s a typical example of why a narrow gauge is necessary in some areas.

Rail gauge is the distance from the inside of one rail on a railroad track to the inside of the other. Most tracks use a standard gauge of 1,435 mm (4 ft, 8 1/2 in). Wider gauges are called broad gauge (1676mm), smaller gauges are called narrow gauge(762mm or 610mm).

This Narrow Gauge railway was of a type used extensively by all sides in World War I. It could be built incredibly rapidly (a few days), and therefore repaired when damaged, and was used for carrying munitions and equipment to the Front Lines and returning the wounded to the rear areas.

Approximately 55% of all world railroad tracks use Standard Gauge. Why not all? Why make life complicated with a different, Narrow Gauge?

Narrow Gauge is significantly cheaper to build. Simply put, it uses less construction material with lighter rails. Tunnels, Bridges and other track-side equipment can be made smaller. Narrow Gauge tracks also mean that curves can be made much tighter than on Standard Gauge, making them particularly useful in mountainous or other rugged terrain.

The downside of Narrow Gauge railways is that locomotives must operate at a lower speed than Standard gauge, especially on turns; Narrow Gauge also tends not to carry as much weight.

There are a few other things going on as well, and this video explain it all rather well.

There are some railways that are ‘Dual Gauge’ and certain trains can be rapidly changed from one gauge to another. Russia, for example, has a different rail gauge to its’ neighbours in Europe and Mongolia. The entire train has to be lifted up off its’ bogies (wheels) and then lowered down on new bogies that fit the different gauge. I took the pictures below at Brest in Belarus as the process happened on the border. It’s an odd feeling being in a carriage that is being elevated on hydraulic jacks!

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