British narrow gauge railways

British narrow gauge railways

There were more than a thousand British narrow gauge railways ranging from large, historically significant common carriers to small, short-lived industrial railways. Many notable events in British railway history happened on narrow gauge railways including the first use of steam locomotives, the first public railway and the first preserved railway.


Early railways: before 1865

The earliest narrow gauge railways were crude wooden trackways used in coal mines to guide wooden tubs. Because of the restricted loading gauge of the tunnels and the need for the tubs to be small enough to be pushed by one man, these railways were almost all narrow gauge. These underground lines often had short above ground sections as well.

After the start of the Industrial Revolution it became possible to create railways with iron tracks and wheels, which reduced the friction involved in moving wagons and made longer horse-hauled trains possible. These could move more material over longer distances, allowing the construction of railways from mines and quarries to transshipment points on rivers, canals and the coast. The earliest narrow gauge railways that were more than simply internal mine or quarry systems were all horse drawn industrial railways of this sort. Prominent examples include the RailGauge|3ft6in gauge Little Eaton Gangway of 1793, the 3 ft 4frac|3|4 in gauge Lake Lock Rail Road of 1796, the RailGauge|2ft gauge Llandegai Tramway of 1798 and the 4 ft 2 in gauge Surrey Iron Railway of 1803. The Surrey Iron Railway was the world's first public railway.

Meanwhile the development of the stationary steam engine was proceeding to the point where early steam locomotives were being proposed. In 1804 Richard Trevithick demonstrated the first locomotive-hauled railway in the world: the RailGauge|4ft gauge Penydarren Tramway in south Wales. Although this first use of locomotives was a limited and short-lived experiment, in 1812 the 4 ft 1 in (1245 mm) gauge Middleton Railway in Leeds became the first in the world to make commercial use of steam haulage.

Steam technology developed rapidly in the early 1800s, allowing smaller locomotives to haul more goods. The horse-drawn Ffestiniog Railway opened in 1836 to connect the slate quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog with the coastal port of Porthmadog. The traffic on the line quickly grew to the point where the horses could no longer haul the empty slate wagons back to the quarries quickly enough to meet demand. In 1863 steam locomotives were introduced on the RailGauge|1ft11.5in gauge railway, with passenger services following in 1865. This was the first steam operated railway providing both freight and passenger services on such a small gauge, and it proved the model for the introduction of narrow gauge railways across the world.

In 1846 the British Parliament passed the Gauges Act that established RailGauge|4ft8.5in as the "standard gauge" for Britain. After the Gauges Act, most of the railway track laid in Great Britain was to standard gauge. However many minor railways, both public and industrial were built to narrower gauges. These lines either followed local traditions or were built in locations where the smaller size of the railway proved more economical or was simply necessary due to physical limitations such as bridges and tunnels.

The boom years: 1865-1900

The success of the Ffestiniog Railway triggered a boom in the construction of narrow gauge railways, not just in Britain but around the world. In the United Kingdom the centre of narrow gauge construction was north Wales. The mountains of the north held large quantities of slate and their narrow valleys and steep hillsides meant that the smaller narrow gauge railways were cost effective. The major slate mining regions at Bethesda, Llanberis, Blaenau Ffestiniog and Corris all developed multiple railways to serve the quarries. Some of these lines, like the Ffestiniog Railway, the Corris Railway and the Talyllyn Railway were common carriers, while others like the Penrhyn Quarry Railway and the Padarn Railway were purely industrial lines.

Outside Wales, other industries started to use narrow gauge railways to move freight, notably ironstone, limestone, china clay, brick clay and metals. Many common carrier lines were built: all of the railways on the Isle of Man were narrow gauge - mostly RailGauge|3ft gauge. A number of railways were built to connect standard gauge railways with smaller towns, including the Southwold Railway, the Wolverton and Stony Stratford Tramway and the famous Lynton and Barnstaple Railway in Devon. These lines allowed communities that did not merit a full railway service to connect to the mainline network at low cost.

The 1880s were the high point of British narrow gauge railways as traffic on many of these lines reached its peak volume and new lines were built across the country.

There were many narrow gauge lines, as the 1904 Railway Clearing House Railway Atlas shows:


This list contains those narrow-gauge railways that are primarily run as museums.

Visitor attractions

Many tourist-oriented theme and amusement parks, stately homes etc. include narrow-gauge railways as part of the attraction as well as to provide internal transportation within the venue.

Private railways

These are private lines or collections owned by individuals or small groups and generally not open to the public.

Military railways

Many British military establishments and former UK Government-owned explosives sites used narrow gauge railways. These locations were often subject to the Official Secrets Act and other government restrictions, so many of them are less well documented.

The industrial use of narrow-gauge railways was quite extensive amongst the various military and civilian explosive factories, for example ICI Nobel's works at Ardeer and the Agency Explosive Factories run by ICI Nobel in the Second World War. To give an example, the Ministry of Supply (MOS) Factory Dalbeattie used 30 inch (750 mm) gauge with a variety of bogie trucks mostly pushed by teams of three to six women. Stores, explosives, chemicals, rubbish and sewage, were all transported on this narrow-gauge system, which used at least 8 miles (12 kilometers) of track.

Industrial railways

Great Britain was home to many industrial narrow gauge railways, ranging from temporary hand-powered lines a few yards long to significant locomotive-worked complexes of lines that served substantial industrial concerns.

See also

* List of British heritage and private railways
* List of narrow gauge railways in Ireland
* Industrial railways
* Miniature railways
* Decauville


*cite web |url= |title=Extensive list of 2 ft gauge railways worldwide
*cite web |url= |title=Narrow Gauge Railway Museum's list of railways
*cite web |url= |title=List of British narrow gauge steam locomotives
*cite web |url= |title=Corris Railway

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