Broad Gauge - History


See also: Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act 1846

In Britain the Great Western Railway, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, pioneered broad gauge from 1838 with a gauge of 7 ft 0¼ in. (2,140 mm), and retained this gauge until 1892. A number of harbours also used railways of this gauge for construction and maintenance. These included Portland Harbour and Holyhead Breakwater, which used a locomotive for working sidings. As it was not connected to the national network, this broad-gauge operation continued until the locomotive wore out in 1913.

It became apparent that standardization on a single gauge throughout a rail transport system was advantageous. Rolling stock did not need to match the gauge exactly; a difference of a few millimeters could be coped with, so that interoperability on systems with gauges only slightly different was possible.

While the parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was initially prepared to authorise lines built to the broad gauge of 7 ft 0¼ in. (2,140 mm), it was eventually rejected by the Gauge Commission in favour of all railways in the British Isles being built to standard gauge of 1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in.), this being the gauge with the highest route-mileage. Ireland, using the same criteria, was allocated a different standard gauge, the Irish gauge, of 5 ft 3 in. (This gauge is also used in the Australian state of Victoria). Broad-gauge lines in Britain were gradually converted to dual gauge or standard gauge from 1864, and finally the last of Brunel's broad gauge was converted over a single weekend in 1892.

Many countries have broad-gauge railways. Ireland (see History of rail transport in Ireland) and some states in Australia (see History of rail transport in Australia) and Brazil have a gauge of 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm), but Luas, the Dublin light rail system, is built to standard gauge. Russia and the other former Soviet Republics use a 1,520 mm (4 ft 11 5⁄6 in) (originally 5 ft (1,524 mm)) gauge while Finland continues to use the 5 ft (1,524 mm) gauge inherited from Imperial Russia (the two standards are close enough to allow full interoperability between Finland and Russia).

In 1839 the Netherlands started its railway system with two broad-gauge railways. The chosen gauge was 1,945 mm (6 ft 4 23⁄40 in) after a visit of engineers to England and a large consignment of Brunel's lighter bridge rail removed from his "Bath Road" was imported for the construction. This was applied between 1839 and 1866 by the Hollandsche IJzeren Spoorweg-Maatschappij (HSM) for its Amsterdam-The Hague-Rotterdam line and between 1842 and 1855, firstly by the Dutch state, but soon by the Nederlandsche Rhijnspoorweg-Maatschappij, for its Amsterdam-Utrecht-Arnhem line. But the neighboring countries Prussia and Belgium already used standard gauge, so the two companies had to regauge their first lines. In 1855, NRS regauged its line and shortly afterwards connected to the Prussian railways. The HSM followed in 1866. There are replicas of one broad-gauge 2-2-2 locomotive (De Arend) and three carriages in the Dutch Railway Museum in Utrecht. These replicas were built for the 100th anniversary of the Dutch Railways in 1938–39.

The Baltic states have received funding from the European Union to build new lines with standard gauge. Portugal and the Spanish Renfe system use a gauge of 1,668 mm (5 ft 5 2⁄3 in) called "Ancho Ibérico" in Spanish or "Bitola Ibérica" in Portuguese (see Iberian gauge & Rail gauge); there are plans to convert to standard gauge. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a gauge of 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) is widespread. This is also used by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In Toronto, Canada the gauge for TTC subways and streetcars was chosen in 1861, years after the establishment of 'standard gauge' in Britain, but well before 'standard gauge' in the US and Canada. Toronto uses a unique gauge of 4 ft 10⅞ in. (1.495 mm), an "overgauge" originally stated to 'allow horse-drawn wagons to use the rails', but with the practical effect of precluding the use of standard-gauge equipment in the street. In 1861, the province was supplying subsidies only to broad 'provincial gauge' railways.

The value of interoperability was initially not obvious to the industry. The standardization movement was gradual; over time the value of a proprietary gauge diminished, being replaced by the idea of charging money for equipment used on other railroad lines.

The use of a non-standard gauge precludes interoperability of rolling stock on railway networks. On the GWR the 7 ft 0¼ in. (2,140 mm) gauge was supposed to allow high speed, but the company had difficulty with locomotive design in the early years, losing much of the advantage, and rapid advances in permanent way and suspension technology allowed standard-gauge speeds to approach broad-gauge speeds within a decade or two. On the 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) and 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) gauges, the extra width allowed bigger inside cylinders and greater power, a problem solvable by using outside cylinders and higher steam pressure on standard gauge. In the event, the most powerful engines on standard gauge in North America and Scandinavia far exceeded the power of any broad-gauge locomotive.

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