Standard gauge

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The standard gauge (also named the Stephenson gauge after George Stephenson, or Normal gauge) is a widely-used track gauge . Approximately 60% of the world's existing railway lines are built to this gauge (see the list of countries that use the standard gauge). The distance between the inside edges of the rails of standard gauge track is 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm).



The dominant track gauge in each country shown. Standard gauge is in light blue.
ft in mm
5' 6" 1676
5' 5.85" 1668
5' 3" 1600
5' 1524
4' 11.85" 1520
4' 8.5" 1435
4' 6" 1372
3' 6" 1067
3' 5.35" 1050
3' 3.37" 1000
3' 4.1" 950
3' 914
2' 6" 762
2' 5.55" 750
2' 610
1' 11.6" 600

As railways developed and expanded one of the key issues to be decided was that of the track gauge (the distance, or width, between the inner sides of the rails) that should be used. The eventual result was the adoption throughout a large part of the world of a "standard gauge" of 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) allowing inter-connectivity and the inter-operability of trains.

In England some early lines in colliery (coal mining) areas in the northeast of the country were built to a gauge of 4 ft 8 in (1,422 mm); and in Scotland some early lines were 4 ft 6 in (1,372 mm) (Scotch gauge). By 1846, in both countries, these lines were widened to standard gauge. Parts of the United States rail system, mainly in the northeast, adopted the same gauge because some early trains were purchased from Britain. However, until well into the second half of the 19th century Britain and the USA had several different track gauges. The American gauges converged over time as the advantages of equipment interchange became more and more apparent; notably, the South's 5 ft  (1,524 mm) broad gauge system was converted to be compatible with standard gauge over two days, beginning May 31, 1886.[1] See Rail gauge in North America.


A popular legend, which has been around since at least 1937,[1] traces the origin of the 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) gauge even further back than the coalfields of northern England, pointing to the evidence of rutted roads marked by chariot wheels dating from the Roman Empire. Snopes categorized this legend as false but commented that " is perhaps more fairly labeled as 'True, but for trivial and unremarkable reasons.'"[2] The historical tendency to place the wheels of horse-drawn vehicles approximately 5 feet (1,500 mm) apart probably derives from the width needed to fit a carthorse in between the shafts.[2] In addition, while road-traveling vehicles are typically measured from the outermost portions of the wheel rims (and there is some evidence that the first railroads were measured in this way as well),[citation needed] it became apparent that for vehicles travelling on rails, it was better to have the wheel flanges located inside the rails, and thus the distance measured on the inside of the wheels (and, by extension, the inside faces of the rail heads) was the important one.

There was no standard gauge for horse railways, but there were rough groupings: in the north of England none were less than 4 ft  (1,219 mm).[3] Wylam colliery's system, built before 1763, was 5 ft  (1,524 mm); as was John Blenkinsop's Middleton Railway, the old 4 ft  (1,219 mm) plateway was relaid to 5 ft  (1,524 mm) so that Blenkinsop's engine could be used.[3] Others were 4 ft 4 in (1,321 mm) Beamish or 4 ft 7 12 in (1,410 mm) (Bigges Main and Kenton and Coxlodge).[3]

The English railway pioneer George Stephenson spent much of his early engineering career working for the coal mines of County Durham. He favoured 4 ft 8 in (1,422 mm) for wagonways in Northumberland and Durham and used it on his Killingworth line.[3] The Hetton and Springwell wagonways also used the gauge.

Stephenson's Stockton and Darlington railway (S&DR) was built primarily to transport coal from several mines near Shildon to the port at Stockton-on-Tees. The S&DR's initial track gauge of 4 ft 8 in (1,422 mm) was set to accommodate the existing gauge of hundreds of horse-drawn chaldron wagons[4] that were already in use on the wagonways in the mines. It was built and used at this gauge for fifteen years before being changed to 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) gauge.[3][5]

Other chariot and ox-cart citations

The beginnings of the 4 ft 8½ in gauge

George Stephenson used the 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) gauge (with a belated extra 0.5 in/13 mm of free movement to reduce binding on curves[5]) for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, authorised in 1826 and opened 30 September 1830. The success of this project led to George Stephenson and his son Robert being employed to engineer several other larger railway projects. However, the Chester and Birkenhead Railway, authorised on 12 July 1837, was 4 ft 9 in (1,448 mm);[13] the Eastern Counties Railway, authorised on 4 July 1836, was 5 ft  (1,524 mm);[14] London and Blackwall Railway, authorised on 28 July 1836, was 5 ft  (1,524 mm);[15] the London and Brighton Railway, authorised on 15 July 1837, was 4 ft 9 in (1,448 mm);[16] the Manchester and Birmingham Railway, authorised on 30 June 1837, was 4 ft 9 in (1,448 mm);[17] the Manchester and Leeds Railway, authorised on 4 July 1836, was 4 ft 9 in (1,448 mm)[18] and the Northern and Eastern Railway, authorised on 4 July 1836, was 5 ft  (1,524 mm).[19] The 4 ft 9 in (1,448 mm) railways were intended to take 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) gauge vehicles and allow a (second) running tolerance.

The influence of the Stephensons appears to be the main reason that the 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) gauge became the standard, and its use became more widespread than any other gauge.[citation needed].

During the "gauge war" with the Great Western Railway, standard gauge was called narrow gauge.

The Royal Commission

In 1845, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a Royal Commission reported in favour of a standard gauge. In Great Britain, Stephenson's gauge was chosen as the standard gauge on the grounds that lines already built to this gauge were eight times longer than that of the rival 7 ft 0 14 in (2,140 mm) gauge, adopted principally by the Great Western Railway. The subsequent Gauge Act ruled that new passenger-carrying railways in Great Britain should be built to a standard gauge of 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm); and those in Ireland to a standard gauge of 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm). It allowed the broad gauge companies in Great Britain to continue repairing their tracks and expanding their networks within the Limits of Deviation and the exceptions defined in the Act. After an intervening period of mixed-gauge operation (tracks were laid with three running-rails), the Great Western Railway finally converted its entire network to standard gauge in 1892.

Pioneer lines

John Whitton, the longest serving engineer of the New South Wales Railways, was always being pressured to cut costs on new construction, by using horses or by using a narrower gauge. He resisted as much as possible so as to avoid any wasteful breaks-of-gauge, but did eventually introduce so-called pioneer lines for more remote and lightly trafficked areas to reduce costs. These lines eliminated extravagances like fencing, used half-round sleepers, light rails and replaced metal ballast with earth or ash. Only light locomotives were allowed. Speeds and axleloads and train loads were thus limited.

Pioneer rolling stock would have light and thus weak drawgear and couplings limited the length and weight of trains, forcing these waggons at best to be marshalled at the rear of trains containing ordinary strength drawgear and couplings.

Only if traffic increased would these lines be upgraded to normal standards of construction. Indeed as the country was developed, many lines including those not of the pioneer type have seen their rail weights increase to allow heavier axleload, heavier engines and heavier and faster trains, all of which can be done progressively and incrementally without any need to change the gauge.


  • 1892 - A discussion of gauge in Australia[20]

Road Vehicles

Several states in the United States had laws requiring that road vehicles have a consistent gauge. This would allow the vehicles to follow ruts in the road all the better. These gauges were roughly similar to the railway standard gauge.[21]

See also



  1. ^ "STANDARD RAILWAY GAUGE.". Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1885-1954) (Qld.: National Library of Australia): p. 12. 5 October 1937. Retrieved 3 June 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "Urban Legends Reference Pages: Railroad Gauges and Roman Chariots". Snopes. 
  3. ^ a b c d e baxter 1966, p. 56
  4. ^ Chaldron wagons
  5. ^ a b Vaughan, A. (1997). Railwaymen, Politics and Money. London: John Murray. ISBN 0719551501. 
  6. ^ "Standard Rail Gauge Set By Old Ox-Carts.". Worker (Brisbane, Qld. : 1890 - 1955) (Brisbane, Qld.: National Library of Australia): p. 17. 19 May 1947. Retrieved 18 October 2011. 
  7. ^ Wetwang chariot
  8. ^ "QUEENSLAND WOMEN WIN.". Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954) (Qld.: National Library of Australia): p. 3. 14 April 1947. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  9. ^ "STANDARD GAUGE LINES.". The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954) (Brisbane, Qld.: National Library of Australia): p. 23. 24 August 1937. Retrieved 10 October 2011. 
  10. ^ "RETROGRESSION.". Northern Standard (Darwin, NT : 1921 - 1955) (Darwin, NT: National Library of Australia): p. 2. 23 February 1923. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  11. ^ "POULTRY NOTES.". Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954) (Qld.: National Library of Australia): p. 4. 16 February 1952. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  12. ^ Buried Chariot found on M1
  13. ^ (Whishaw 1842, p. 54)
  14. ^ Whishaw (1842). p 91
  15. ^ Whishaw (1842). p 260
  16. ^ Whishaw (1842). p 273
  17. ^ Whishaw (1842). p 303
  18. ^ Whishaw (1842). p 319
  19. ^ Whishaw (1842). p 363
  20. ^ "The Sydney Morning Herald.". The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) (NSW: National Library of Australia): p. 4. 23 May 1892. Retrieved 14 August 2011. 
  21. ^ NLS


  • Baxter, Bertran (1966). Stone blocks and iron rails (Tramroads). Industrial Archaeology of the British Isles. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. 
  • Whishaw, Francis (1842). The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland: practically described and illustrated. London: John Weale. Republished 1969, David & Charles reprints: Newton Abbot. ISBN 0-7153-4786-1. 

Further reading

  • Pomeranz, Kenneth and Steven Topik (1999). The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and World Economy, 1400 to the Present. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 0-7656-0250-4. 
  • Puffert, Douglas J. (2009). Tracks across Continents, Paths through History: The Economic Dynamics of Standardization in Railway Gauge. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226685090. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Standard gauge — Standard Stand ard, a. 1. Being, affording, or according with, a standard for comparison and judgment; as, standard time; standard weights and measures; a standard authority as to nautical terms; standard gold or silver. [1913 Webster] 2. Hence:… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • standard gauge — n. 1. a width of 56.5 in (143.5 cm) between the rails of a railroad track, established as standard 2. a railroad having such a gauge 3. a locomotive or car for tracks of such a gauge standard gauge adj. * * * …   Universalium

  • standard gauge — n. 1. a width of 56.5 in (143.5 cm) between the rails of a railroad track, established as standard 2. a railroad having such a gauge 3. a locomotive or car for tracks of such a gauge standard gauge adj …   English World dictionary

  • standard gauge. — standard gauge, standard gauged, adj. See under gauge (def. 13). Also, esp. in technical use, standard gage. [1870 75] * * * …   Universalium

  • standard gauge. — standard gauge, standard gauged, adj. See under gauge (def. 13). Also, esp. in technical use, standard gage. [1870 75] …   Useful english dictionary

  • standard-gauge — adj. Standard gauge is used with these nouns: ↑railway, ↑track …   Collocations dictionary

  • standard gauge — noun railroad track having the standard width of 56.5 inches • Hypernyms: ↑railroad track, ↑railroad, ↑railway, ↑gauge …   Useful english dictionary

  • standard gauge — noun Date: 1871 a railroad gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches (1435 millimeters) …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • standard gauge — /stændəd ˈgeɪdʒ/ (say standuhd gayj) noun See gauge (def. 13) …   Australian English dictionary

  • standard gauge — noun A specification of the width of railway tracks of 56.5 inches (1435 mm) …   Wiktionary

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