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Track Gauges and Railway Construction (Part 1)

Posted January 04, 2010 12:01 AM by PWSlack

Engineers and designers need to develop long-distance strategic thinking if their designs are going to last and have global appeal. One area where this hasn't happened is railway construction.

The Stephensons Standardise

In the U.K. in the early nineteenth century, the Stephensons standardised on their 4ft 8 1/2in (1435mm) track gauge simply because it was the average distance between the wheels of carts on the roads in Northumberland. Those carts had a heritage that goes back to Roman chariots and the average distance between two horses' anuses, according to legend. However, the fledgling Eastern Counties Railway company started building eastwards from its former London Bishopsgate terminus, long derelict and overdue for redevelopment, at a gauge of 5ft 0in, until it realised that it was going to meet Stephenson-gauge track rather early in its career, and converted its whole system to that dimension instead before the point of no return had been reached.

Enter I.K. Brunel

A prominent nineteenth century gentleman by the name of I.K. Brunel, recently voted second in a television-sponsored contest for the Greatest Briton behind Winston Churchill, had a passion for things a bit larger at 7ft 1/4in and built miles of it. This passion inadvertently caused loads of grief at transhipment centres such as Gloucester, among other places, where his Great Western Railway came into intimate contact with Stephenson-gauge lines. It took an Act in the U.K. Parliament and an awful lot of work over many years to sort out. A small piece of demonstration Brunel-gauge line has been recreated at Didcot, together with a reproduction locomotive and vehicles to that standard. Tailed jacket, cigars and a tall stovepipe hat for the gentleman visitor there are optional.

It is 5ft 3in between the rails in Eire and Northern Ireland, making the prospect of a rail link under the Irish Sea, along similar lines to that under the English Channel/La Manche, rather unlikely. Brunel was involved in Eire, too, although he seemed to have left his 7ft gauge the other side of the Sea at that time.

How Long is a Foot?

Somehow, things went their own way in Spain and Portugal, too. The Spanish gauge was set at "six Castilian feet". This foot, of course, is smaller than an Imperial foot at a gnat's under eleven Imperial inches, making the predominant track gauge in the Iberian peninsula something around 5ft 5 2/3 in. It looks good and it rides well, but it caused a lot of work for Engineers in designing the gauge-changing equipment for vehicles where Spanish RENFE equipment came onto the French SNCF system at the border crossings. Actually, it's still causing lots of work for Engineers. RENFE is championing the construction of French-compatible Stephenson-gauge track for its AVE high-speed passenger rail network, with a vast amount of money being poured into the new system via the European Economic Community's central coffers.

Gauges Around the Globe

The situation in India and in Australia is similarly confounded with several gauges in different places, though some unused equipment from Australia is being cascaded usefully onto the "colonial gauge" 3ft 6in network in nearby New Zealand.

Finland and Russia share a common track gauge despite having been on different sides of the Iron Curtain for many years.

In Japan, 3ft 6in gauge is used for the bulk of the national rail network. The high-speed "bullet train" passenger-only network is, however, to the Stephensons' standard gauge instead.

South Africa's railways are also 3ft 6in gauge. The redoubtable Mr. Brunel, had he been involved from the start, would probably have doubled it to make things suitable for the vast overland distances involved and to provide for higher speeds. Sadly, it was never to be.

Many tramway and light rail systems in European cities make use of the metre gauge (1000mm). Given that they are self-contained systems and that street running is a requirement, the choice is understandable.

The use of 60cm track gauge for feeder lines is common. The Festiniog Railway in Wales has an interchange with the Stephensons' gauge at Penrhydeudraeth, which, given the terrain the FR had to conquer, was perhaps forgivable. The nearby Padarn Railway had a first interchange with a 4ft 0in gauge line near the quarries, and then a second one to Stephensons' gauge at Port Dinorwic, which was not.

Editor's Note: CR4 would like to thank PWSlack for writing this blog entry. (Cheers!) Click here to read Part 2.

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