Best Gauge
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The Best Gauge

Railways in Australia, as in many other countries, were built to a variety of gauges, depending upon the industry involved, geography of the area, perceived relative costs, engineering preferences, and political considerations. The result in Australia was a transportation nightmare with change-of-gauge, and transhipment hassles, both within and between states.

The notes (right) discuss some of the reasons for choosing one gauge over another and include highlights from an early 2007 series of e-mail messages on LRRSA's on-line discussion group (then yahoo, now io group).

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There are many stories about how 4' 8.5" (1435mm) was chosen as a gauge but most relate to the ruts in the old Roman roads, the result of chariots and later wagons built to be hauled by two horses working side by side. More credible, the gauge likely resulted from one of the first railed systems which had a gauge of 5' to the outside of the railhead and operated with outside flanges. However an inside flange works far better, and when wheels were reversed the result was an inside gauge of 4' 8.5".

George Stephenson chose 4' 8.5" for the first British mainline railway because it was the standard for the colliery railways where he had worked. This gauge was eventually mandated as a 'standard' by the British government.

The adoption of a 'standard gauge' resulted from the need for interchange of goods and equipment from one system to another. While what was the 'standard' in any country might be different, the adoption of 4' 8.5" as a more or less world standard was the result of industrialisation, economics, and politics.

In general, the broader the gauge, the greater the stability and the wider (and heavier) the load that can be carried safely. The actual weight that can be carried on a particular rail gauge is then a function of the number of wheels, the weight of the rail and the quality of the related track structure. A broader gauge requires a more extensive roadbed and a larger turning distance, thus a greater cost.

Narrow gauges... ranging from roughly 12" to 3' 6"... were adopted as a lower cost alternative, particularly for industrial and development railways. The narrow gauge mountain railways (Colorado and Darjeeling, for example) are perhaps the best known to the general public but narrow gauge railways were found in many areas of the world, even as common carriers.

The choice of gauge had far reaching implications for the size of equipment, capacity of wagons and carriages, tractive power of locomotives, etc. Many of the world's narrow gauge railways might use a different gauge if built today, but their survival into the modern world indicates many of their limitations have been overcome.

  • Queensland and Fijian sugar cane railways tended to be 2', following the almost universal 2' gauge for portable (temporary) track. French sugar beet lines were 600mm gauge while Indonesian sugar and palm oil lines were generally 700mm as a result of the Dutch influence. Queensland's passenger carrying tramways, however, generally chose 3' 6", the same gauge as the state railway, as they were hoping to become part of that system.
  • British dam and reservoir construction railways were generally 3' but industrial applications were often 2'. USA-influenced industrial applications tended to be 3'. Ironstone mines used 3' or metre gauge. The Welsh slate mines, which were never connected together, used a variety of narrow gauges including 2'.
  • British naval depot narrow gauge was 2' 6" but Army and RAF tended to be 2', including target tramways. In WWI the British had to adopt the French 600mm (not 2') gauge for the trench railways.
  • In Britain, there were more 2' gauge peat railways than 2' 6" and 3'. The German peat railway gauge was generally 600mm. Ireland started off as 2' but all the many major (extensive and well populated) systems are 3'. (Peat railways in Ireland are comparable in number and complexity to cane railways in Queensland).
  • 750mm was widely used in central and eastern Europe while 762mm was strong in areas of British influence.
  • Worldwide there was probably more mileage of 2' 6" gauge common carriers than 2' gauge, and certainly more than 3' gauge. The 2' 6" Antofagasta (Chili) & Bolivia Railway started construction in 1872, and had a 1500km route that climbed from sea level to over 4500 metres, while handling goods traffic totalling near 2 million tons per annum.
  • Site/content copyright © A C Lynn Zelmer or as marked. Last updated: 31 March 2020 [lz]; e-mail: Lynn @