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Encyclopedia > Metre gauge

Narrow-gauge railways are railroads (railways) with track spaced at less than the standard gauge of 4 ftin (1.435 m). In practice, all narrow gauge railroads in existence have gauges of 3 ft 6 in (1.067 m) or less. The rationale for the use of a narrower gauge railroad is that it can be substantially cheaper to build, equip and operate than a standard gauge railroad. Conversely, the standard gauge railroad is capable of greater haulage capacity and greater speed, which a narrow gauge can never hope to equal.

Historically, many narrow gauge railways were built as part of specific industrial enterprises and can be referred to as "industrial railways". These were built to be part of an industrial process rather than as general carriers like most standard gauge railways. Some common uses for these industrial narrow gauge railways included mining, logging, construction, tunnelling, quarrying and the transport of agricultural products. Extensive networks were constructed for logging or agricultural products in many parts of the world. Significant sugar cane railways still operate in places such as Queensland (in Australia), Fiji, and Java, while tunnel construction remains a common use for narrow gauge railway equipment.


Advantages of narrow gauge

Narrow-gauge railroads cost less to build because they are lighter in construction, using smaller cars and locomotives as well as smaller bridges, smaller tunnels and tighter curves. Narrow gauge is thus often used in mountainous terrain, where the savings in heavy civil engineering work can be substantial.

Extensive narrow-gauge installations served the front-line trenches in World War 1.

For temporary railroads which will be removed after a short-term need, such as for construction, the logging industry and to a lesser degree the mining industry, a narrow gauge railroad is substantially cheaper. However, this use of railroads is almost extinct thanks to the capabilities of modern trucks.

In many countries, due to their lower construction costs, narrow-gauge railroads were built as "feeder" or "Branch" lines to feed traffic to more important standard-gauge railroads. The choice was often seen as not between a narrow-gauge railroad and a standard, but rather between some kind of railroad and none at all.

In some countries, especially countries with a lot of hilly or mountainous terrain, extensive systems of narrow-gauge railroads were built, especially in remote areas of limited economic development, where there would not be enough traffic to justify the cost of building full standard-gauge railroads.

Disadvantages of the narrow gauge

The disadvantages of narrow-gauge railroads is that the initial savings, while possibly large, are often outweighed by ongoing costs.

The most fundamental problem is that most narrow-gauge railroads are 'islands' - they cannot interchange equipment with the standard gauge railroads they link with. Therefore, a narrow gauge common carrier in such a situation has a built-in and inevitable cost when it comes to receiving traffic, whether people or more importantly freight, from outside of its own system, and sending to destinations outside its own system. The cost of transshipment is a substantial drain on the finances of a small railroad, and transshipment is almost always a task involving much expensive and time-consuming manual labor. For certain bulk commodities transshipment can be mechanised, such as for coal, ore, gravel and the like.

The problem of interchangeability is less serious when a large system of narrow-gauge lines exist which carry considerable amounts of internally self-contained traffic, such as in northern Spain, South Africa and Tasmania. But most narrow-gauge lines were constructed as stand alone "feeders" entirely dependent upon transshipment to a larger main-line network.

When there was no competitor to the narrow gauge railroad this was less of a problem, but it made narrow gauge lines very vulnerable to truck competition. The railroads' trump card has always been economy of scale and distance, and the transshipment requirement removed that. Trucks had no worse a transshipment problem and were more flexible to boot.

Other problems with narrow gauge railroads came down to that they lacked room to grow - their cheap construction was bought at the price of only being engineered for their initial traffic demands. While a standard-gauge railroad could much more easily be upgraded to handle heavier, faster traffic, most narrow-gauge railroads were impossible to improve. Speeds could not increase, loads could not increase, and traffic density could not increase very much.

One can build a narrow-gauge railroad to be able to handle such increased speed and loading, but at the price of removing most of the narrow gauge's cost advantage over standard gauge.

Another disadvantage of narrow-gauge trains is that, due to lower stability including vulnerability to winds, the trains are restricted to slower speeds than on standard gauge. 3 ft 6 in gauge (approximately 1 m) express trains in countries such as Japan and South Africa reach top speeds of only 115 km/h (70 mph). Narrower gauge lines such as 2 feet (600 mm) railroads are restricted to even lower speeds.

Contradictions of gauge

The very heavy duty narrow gauge railways in South Africa and Queensland, Australia show that if the track is built to a heavy duty standard, a performance almost as good as a conventional standard gauge line is possible. Conversely, cheap and low cost standard gauge lines can be built with light rails and no fencing, so long as you accept that your low cost light weight standard gauge train travels at very low speeds.

Heavy duty narrow gauge lines and light duty standard gauge lines show that gauge is not the pivotal factor affecting the cost of construction. Thus a single gauge of about the Stephenson gauge could have done the job for all tasks done by 3' to 7' gauges, albeit with a mini-gauge such as 2' for a range of very light weight tasks from cane tramways to mountain lines to military lines to construction to mining railways.

The real parameters that affect the capacity of a line are things like axle loads and loading gauge. Axle loads can be increased incrementally by increasing the weight of the rails, etc, while loading gauge can be difficult to increase if there are awkward bridges and tunnels to widen or deepen. If carriages and engines are made smaller, then tunnels can also be made smaller, saving money, but restricting loads.

Gauges used

The larger narrow gauges are the more common; in those parts of the world where the railroads were built to British standards, this meant, most commonly, a gauge of 3 ft 6in (1.067 m), while those built to American standards were normally of 3 ft gauge (0.914 m). Those built in Metric to European standards were most commonly of 1 m (3 ft 3.4 in) gauge. These larger narrow gauges are capable of hauling most traffic with little difficulty and are thus suitable for large-scale "common carrier" applications, although their ultimate speed and load limits are lower than for standard gauge.

The next natural 'grouping' of narrow-gauge railroads covers the spread from just below 2 ft gauge (600 mm) to about 2 ft 6 inches (760 mm). These lightweight lines can be built at a substantial cost saving over even the larger narrow gauge lines, but are very restricted in carrying capacity. The vast majority of these have been built in heavily mountainous areas and most were to carry mineral traffic from mines to ports or standard-gauge railroads. Most were industrial lines rather than common carriers, with the exception of the extensive 76cm. lines built in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Gauges below that are rarely used, most commonly in such restricted environments as underground mine railways. The other use of such lines is for the tourist industry; these are called miniature railways if they attempt to reproduce full-size railway equipment in miniature.

Narrow gauge worldwide



The first railway in Austria was the narrow gauge line from the Salzkammergut to Budweis, now in the Czech Republic, this was 1106mm gauge. Some two dozen lines were built elsewhere at 76cm. (2' 6") gauge. The first was the Steyrtalbahn. Others were built by provincial governments, four are still in common carrier use and a number of others are preservation projects.


The Vicinal or Buurtspoor were a system of local railways covering the whole country and having a greater routage than the actual railway system. They were metre gauge and the half of the system was electrified. This sytem was as well city lines appearing to be Tramlines to all intents and purposes as rural lines using steal loco and railcar. Many carried freight. Only the coastal line and two routes near Charleroi are still in commercial use, four museums hold significant collections of former SNCV/NMBS rolling stock. See also the ASVi (http://www.asvi.org) museum in Thuin (near Charleroi).


The French National Railways used to run a considerable number of metre-gauge lines, a few of which still operate. The original French scheme was that every sous-prefecture should be rail connected. Extensive 2' gauge lines were also built for the sugar-beet industry in the north often using ex-military equipment after the First World War.


A large network of narrow-gauge lines exist in former East Germany, although few remain as active commercial carriers. Most important is the Harz mountain group of Metre gauge lines which is currently (2004) being extended by re-gauging one standard gauge branch line. Many still operate for the tourist trade.


Several 3ft narrow gauge systems once existed in Ireland. In County Donegal an extensive network existed, with two companies operating from Derry – the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway (L&LSR) and County Donegal Railways (CDR). Well known was the West Clare Railway – in County Clare, which saw diesel locomotion before closure. The Cavan & Leitrim Railway (C&LR) operated in what is now the border area of County Cavan and County Leitrim. Some smaller narrow gauge routes also existed in County Antrim and also County Cork – notably the Cork Blackrock & Passage Railway.

Apart from small heritage venues, the Irish narrow gauge today only survives in the bogs of the Midlands as part of Bord na Móna's extensive industrial network for transporting harvested peat to distribution centres or power plants.

See also: History of rail transport in Ireland


There are 158.8 kilometres of 750mm narrow gauge lines left, with only 68.4 km of them used, comprising five stations and 12 locomotives. This is included in the Registry of Immovable Cultural Heritage Sites of Lithuania.


There are some hundreds of kilometres of 600mm, 750mm, 785mm and 1000mm narrow gauge lines. The one-metre lines exist mainly in the NW part of the country (Pomerania), 785mm lines are used only in Upper Silesia region, 750mm is the most commonly used. Some of the lines still operate as common carriers, some are only tourist attractions. There also existed 760mm, 800mm and 900mm lines in the past. A 900mm recreational line (4.2 km) still operates in Amusement-Recreation Park in Chorzow, Upper Silesia.


In Russia, narrow gauge is most often 750 or 1000 mm. The 1067 mm gauge is found only in the southern part of Sakhalin, where railroads have been built by the Japanese.


In Spain there is an extensive system of metre gauge railroads, in the north-west of the country, run by FEVE, at the centre of this system, is a metre-gauge line which runs for 650 km (400 miles) along the entire length of Spain's north coast. The FGC (Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya, Catalan regional government railways) line from Barcelona to Manresa and Igualada is also a one-metre gauge railway.


Sweden once had some fairly extensive narrow gauge networks, but most narrow gauge railways are now closed. Some were converted to standard gauge (the latest one the line between Hultsfred and Kalmar in the 1990s) and some remains as heritage railways. The only commercial narrow gauge railway left is the Roslagsbanan suburban railway in north-eastern Stockholm.


Switzerland boasts an extensive network of metre gauge railways, many of which interchange traffic. They are concentrated in the more heavily mountainous areas.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom had many narrow gauge railways, principally in Wales, but also in other areas. None is a commercial common carrier any longer, but a very large number survive as tourist attractions. Well-known railways include the Ffestiniog Railway and Talyllyn Railway in Wales, and the miniature Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent and the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway in the Lake District.

Though the Isle of Man is not technically part of the United Kingdom (though is part of the British Isles), her principal railways are both 3 feet gauge. The Isle of Man Steam Railway to the west is operated largely as a tourist attraction but the Manx Electric Railway to the east is a commercially operated railway system though its operation is closer to a tramway than a railway. There is also a railway operating on the princpal mountain, the Snaefell Mountain Railway (operated as part of the Manx Electric Railway, that is 3 feet 6 inches, the extra width to allow a central double headed rail laid on its side. This rail, the Fell rail allows not only additional driving wheels but also a braking system operating directly on the rail.

North America


The Yucatán region of Mexico has a network of narrow gauge lines, established before the region was linked by rail to the rest of Mexico in the 1950s. Only the main line connecting Merida to central Mexico has been widened to standard gauge.

United States

In the United States a major narrow-gauge railway system was built in the mountains of Colorado by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Small remnants of that system remain as tourist attractions which run in the summer, including the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad [1] (http://www.cumbrestoltec.com/) which runs between Antonito, CO in the San Luis Valley and Chama, NM; and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad [2] (http://www.durangotrain.com/) which runs in the San Juan Mountains between its namesake towns of Durango and Silverton.

The last surviving commercial common carrier narrow-gauge railroad in the United States or Canada was the White Pass and Yukon Route in Alaska; this closed down in 1982 when the metal ore market collapsed, though it has since reopened as a purely tourist railway. There is but one narrow gauge railroad still in commercial operation in the United States, which is the US Gypsum operation in Plaster City, California which uses a number of locomotives obtained from the White Pass after its 1982 closure.

The famous San Francisco cable car system has a gauge of 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm).

There were 3ft. gauge systems throughout the country, and the last remaining 3ft. line east of the Mississippi River is the East Broad Top Railroad in Central Pennsylvania. Running from the 1800's until 1956, it supplied coal to brick kilns and general freight to the towns it passed through, connecting to the Pennsylvania Railroad at Mount Union, Pa. Purchased for scrap by the Kovalchick Corp. when it was shut down, it sat for four years until it was partly resurrected by townspeople of Orbisonia in 1960. Still owned by the Kovalchick family, trains operate over 5 miles of the original 32 mile line. As of the end of 2004, only one (#14) of 6 Mikado-type locomotivess (2-8-2) is currently operable. Locomotive 15 is being rebuilt to comply with current FRA requirements. In addition to various freight and passenger cars, the railroad also has a gas-electric railcar, the M-1. The car operates only on special occasions, such as the Fall Spectacular, held on Columbus Day weekend every year. The rest of the railroad is intact, but overgrown with 48 years worth of plant growth.

There were extensive two-foot gauge (610 mm) lines in the Maine forests early in the 20th century. Although essentially for transport of timber, the Maine lines even had passenger service. Some cars and trains from these lines are now on display at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum in Portland, Maine after having spent years on the Edaville Railroad on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

South America

Metre gauge and 3' 0" are found in South America. Some of the metre gauge lines cross international borders, though not as efficiently as they might.


India has a substantial narrow gauge network, using metre gauge, a 2 ft 6 in gauge (762 mm), and in some places a 2 ft (610 mm) gauge. About 17,000 km of routes are metre gauge in India.

In the 1990s, India concluded that cities on the metre gauge network have a second-rate train service, and is now converting most of the metre gauge network to broad gauge as Project Unigauge. In other words, the advantages of uniformity and interoperability were judged to overshadow any supposed benefits of non-uniform gauges.


Hong Kong

The Kowloon-Canton Railway (now East Rail) was built with narrow gauge, but later converted into standard gauge. The now-defunct Sha Tau Kok Railway was also narrow gauge. The Hong Kong Tramways uses 1067mm narrow gauge. The MTR uses 1432mm gauges, 3mm narrower than the standard gauge.


Except for the high-speed Shinkansen lines, all of Japan Railway group's network is narrow gauge, built at 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm). Some companies, such as Keisei or Tokyo Metro's Ginza Line and Marunouchi line, use standard gauge. There are some dual gauge lines which allow Shinkansen trains to travel on narrow gauge branches.


Indonesia had large numbers of narrow gauge railways supporting industry, mainly sugar cane plantations. In recent years, sugar cane production has been declining and the railways are now largely closed.


Keretapi Tanah Melayu the main railway operator in Malaysia, uses metre gauge for the main west and east coast lines. However, standard gauge is used by the newer light rail operators in Kuala Lumpur city (Putra LRT, Star LRT, KL Monorail and KLIA Ekspres).

In Sabah, the North Borneo Railway ("Keretapi Negeri Sabah") runs a metre-gauge line from Kota Kinabalu up to Tenom in the Crocker Ranges, via Beaufort.


Except for the high speed railway and the metro systems in Taipei and Kaohsiung, all of Taiwan's railway network is narrow gauge, built at 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) or 2 ft 6 in (762 mm).


Narrow-gauge railways are common in Africa, where great distances, challenging terrain and low funding have made the narrow gauges attractive. Many nations in particularly southern Africa use a 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) gauge, including South Africa's extensive network. Metre gauge is also common. There used to be extensive 2 ft (610 mm) and 600mm gauge networks in countries such as Morocco, Congo, Angola, Namibia and South Africa, but these have mostly been dismantled.

Because Africa is fragmented politically, railways built by governments tend not to link up with each other, each country's lines connecting its outlands with its own port. Incompatible gauges are therefore not obvious. For example, a link from Nigeria to Cameroon would join 1067mm to 1000mm.


Further north, Eritrea retains its 950 mm narrow gauge railway, a relic of its former Italian colonial days. Neighbouring railways (should they ever connect) are 1067mm in Sudan and 1000m in Ethiopia.

South Africa

Originally standard gauge, the railways of the then Cape Colony changed to narrow gauge 3' 6" for cost cutting reasons. However, with the development of a strong economy, with heavy export coal and iron ore traffic, South Africa operates with Queensland several narrow gauge trains that out do most standard gauge and all broad gauge trains.


Prior to Australia becoming an independent unified country in 1901, each of the six British colonies in Australia were responsible for rail transport infrastructure. Of the six colonies, only three (Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania) opted for narrow gauge railways. The other colonies (later states) opted for either standard gauge or broad gauge railways, maintaining only limited narrow gauge rail lines. As a result of this legacy, Australian railways are a confusing mix of all three gauges. Over time most of the mainland lines of whatever gauge linked up with inconvenient break of gauge station from place to place. Some lines remained isolated because they were cut off by long stretches of desert.

Much work has been done to rectify the gauge chaos, and there is still much to do. By and large any uniform gauge from 3' 6" to 4' 8.5" to 5' 3" would have done the job satisfactorily.


The massive narrow gauge (3' 6") coal trains of the Queensland Railway with 100 wagons and 2 midtrain electric locomotives show what is possible with narrow gauge if you strengthen the track enough - "World's Best Practice". South Africa has similar heavy trains.

In the beginning, 1865, Queensland Railways had the brief to build a semi-mountainous line in very sparsely populated territory, and it chose light rails, sharp curves, small loading gauge, light engines and rolling stock, 32km/h speeds to make a limited budget go a long way. A clever salesman convinced the Queensland government that a narrow gauge would save money, and do the job for a hundred years. Queensland Railways was the first mainline narrow gauge railway in the world, its tracks would extend to about 9000 route-km.

In the intervening century, the rails have been replaced with heavier rails, there are now concrete sleepers, there are colour light signals, sharp curves have been straightened, tunnels have been opened out. The one thing that hasn't changed is the narrow gauge, even though the rest of the country is converting its main lines to standard gauge 1435mm.

Dual gauge has been added to give access from the interstate standard gauge line to the Port of Brisbane.

Dual gauge is also proposed to convert the standard gauge interstate line for use by narrow gauge commuter trains.

Queensland Cane Trams

Queensland also has extensive sugar cane tramways of 2' gauge. These lines haul only sugar cane, so there is no break of gauge problem. These cane tramways sometimes use second hand standard gauge shunting locomotives suitably regauged, and the trams can be up to 500 tonnes, and because there are no continuous brakes, they may have a radio-controlled brake van coupled to the rear. By comparision, an early mainline QR train on the steep Toowoomba section had a 32 tonne steam locomotive hauling a mere 70 tonnes.

To avoid speed restriction where some cane tram cross the main line, several of these crossings have been converted to drawbridges.


The first railway in the island state of Tasmania was broad gauge 5' 3", but following the success of narrow gauge in Queensland, a third rail was fitted, to allow conversion to narrow gauge. The state's rail network is now entirely narrow gauge.

South Australia

The first railways in this state were broad gauge 5' 3" including some light weight horse drawn lines. But following the success of narrow gauge in Queensland, several narrow gauge lines where started. Because of the geography of the state with deep gulfs of the ocean, the various narrow gauge lines where isolated from each other to begin with, and indeed isolated from even broad gauge lines for some time.

In the 1920's several narrow gauge lines were converted to broad gauge.

The South Eastern narrow gauge lines were converted to broad gauge in the 1950's, with steel sleepers able to be converted to standard gauge at a later date if required.

Three gauge yards (broad, standard and narrow) have existed at three stations at various times, Port Pirie 1938, Gladstone (1970) and Peterborough (1970), though none survive in 2004.

During the conversion of the original narrow gauge Port Augusta to Marree line, whole narrow gauge trains were loaded onto rails mounted on standard gauge trains, to avoid transhipment and the steep gradients on the old narrow gauge route.

The privately owned iron ore mines at Iron Knob and Iron Baron are connected to the steel works at Whyalla by an isolated narrow gauge 3' 6" line through desert country. Legally, it is a tramway, not a railway. These 2000 tonne "trams" must be the heaviest "trams" ever.

Western Australia

Inspired by the success of narrow gauge in Queensland, Western Australia adopted the same gauge. There were however differences that would have created problems had the WA and QR systems ever met (unlikely as they are separated by 2000km of desert).

  • WA and QR use different couplings.
  • WA and QR use different train brakes.
  • WA and QR use different loading gauges, the WA loading gauge being bigger.
  • WA and QR use the same electification system, 25kV AC.

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory adopted narrow gauge when it was still part of South Australia, and a North-South transcontinental line was planned from Adelaide to Darwin in the 1870's. In the event this line was never completed, and due to flood damage and lack of traffic, the narrow gauge line was closed. A 3000km standard gauge line from Adelaide to Darwin opened in 2004.

Because there are no tunnels or narrow bridges on the old narrow gauge line, the line received a lot of second hand standard gauge rolling stock, this rolling stock being noticeably larger that the original narrow gauge waggons and carriages.

New South Wales

The large silver-lead mine at Broken Hill is only 30km from the South Australian border, but separated by hundreds of kilometres of desert from the main NSW standard gauge railway system. These mines were therefore connected by a narrow gauge "tram".

The long serving Engineer of the NSW railways John Whitton resisted all attempts to introduce other gauges, based on experience of the break of gauge problem in England. He also resisted horse drawn operation. Later engineers introduced "Pioneer" construction, whereby money was saved by lighter weight contruction, and absence of fencing.

Meanwhile on the main lines radiating from the Capital Sydney, every increasing traffic required heavier engines, and therefore heavier track and stronger bridges. Fortunately, track can be upgraded one length of rail at a time, unlike gauge conversion which is generally a daunting all or nothing task.

In NSW in 2004, the are now about 10 classes of track from 1 to 5. All engines and rolling can operate on the heaviest class 1 track, while only certain light locomotives and rolling stock can operate at low speeds on class 5 track. The track classes are a kind of break-of-gauge that permits through running with careful attention to detail.


Most railway lines in Victoria were built to the 5ft 3in broad gauge. However four common carrier lines were built to the 2ft 6in narrow gauge standard, to serve local farming and forestry communities. There was also wide-spread usage of narrow gauge forestry railways and tramways. Apart from one line, all the narrow gauge lines have now closed.

The remaining narrow gauge line originally ran from Upper Ferntree Gully station in the Melbourne suburbs to Gembrook station in the the Dandenong Ranges to the east of Melbourne. The first section of this line, as far as Belgrave station, has been converted to become part of Melbourne's broad gauge electified suburban network. The remainder of the line is now better known as the Puffing Billy Railway, which is maintained and operated by volunteers as a steam hauled preserved railway and tourist attraction.

Commonwealth Railways

The Railways in Australia were originally organised at a colonial and then a state level after federation. The Commonwealth has some role in railways, especially an interstate railway 2000km through desert to connect Kalgoolie in Western Australia, and Port Augusta in South Australia.

Now Kalgoolie and Port Augusta are both narrow gauge railheads, albeit with different couplings and braking systems. A narrow gauge Transcontintal line might be the obvious choice, but an earlier conference of railway commissioners had decided that interstate lines were to use the Stephenson gauge 1435mm. So the Transcontinental line was built as an isolated standard gauge line, its lsolation lasting from 1917 to 1970. During wartime, when traffic was very heavy, the breaks of gauge at either end of the Transcontinental line meant that it could not easily draw on the resources of the systems at either end.

See Also: Standard gauge, Broad gauge

External links

  • Railroad Gauge Width (http://parovoz.com/spravka/gauges-e.html)
  • Polish Narrow Gauge Railways (http://www.cleeve.com/poland/)

Further Reading

  • 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

  Results from FactBites:
Narrow gauge - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (6807 words)
Separate metre gauge railways are operated by the FGC (Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya, Catalan regional government railways) from Barcelona to Manresa and Igualada, the FGV (Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat Valenciana, Valencian regional government railways) around the city of Valencia, and the SFM (Serveis Ferroviaris de Mallorca) on the island of Majorca.
The railways in Ecuador are 3 ft (914 mm) gauge.
Metre gauge is also common, as in the case of the Uganda Railway.
  More results at FactBites »



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