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Narrow gauge

Narrow-gauge railways are railroads (railways) with track spaced at less than the standard gauge of 1.435 meters (56.5 in).

In practice, the economics of narrow gauge dictate a gauge of approximately three feet or less. The one-meter gauge, or in the US three-foot gauge, are most common, although many other widths are seen. In India there is 3,794 km (2300 mi) of track with widths of only 610 mm (24 in) and 762 mm (30 in).

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 smaller curves. Narrow gauge is thus often used for mountain railways. Likewise, the lighter construction suits narrow gauge to timber work where roads must be moved after the work is done. Some narrow-gauge timber lines were built almost entirely on trestles through the woods with virtually no roadbed.

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.

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.

The main disadvantage of narrow-gauge railroads is that the trains that run on them are restricted to much lower speeds those on standard gauge railroads, due to a lack of stability at higher speeds. Metre-gauge express trains in countries such as Japan and South Africa reach speeds of up to 115 km\h (70 mph), but this is about the upper limit. Narrower gauge lines such as 2 feet (60cm) railroads are restricted to even lower speeds.

Another major disadvantage of narrow gauge is that, unless there is a large self-contained system of narrow-gauge lines, where there is significant internal traffic, there are transshipment costs. That is, because narrow gauge trains cannot travel on standard gauge tracks or vice versa, freight or passengers carried on narrow-gauge trains will have to be transferred to standard-gauge trains to complete the journey. The time and cost of transferring freight and passengers between trains of different gauges has lead to many narrow gauge lines being unable to compete with road transport, and closing down.

Famous narrow-gauge railways include the Ffestiniog railway in Wales and the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway[?] in Kent, England. There are many narrow gauge railways in Switzerland. The French National Railways used to run a considerable number of meter-gauge lines, a few of which still operate. As does the Southern Railway of India.

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. Many African and Asian nations have narrow-gauge lines, and many island nations. Most notably South Africa where the entire railway system is metre gauge.

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. In other words, the advantages of uniformity and interoperability overshadow supposed benefits of non-uniform gauges. In still other words, a gauge differential from standard gauge of only metre gauge is not worth the difference. Only gauges as narrow as 762mm (30 in) or 610mm (24 in) are worth the difference.

The Yucatan 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.

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 Toltec and Cumbres[?] railway which runs from Antonito, Colorado in the San Luis Valley to Chama, New Mexico; and the train which runs in the San Juan Mountains between Durango and Silverton. The famous cable cars of San Francisco have a gauge of 1067 mm (3 ft 6 in).

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.

See Also: Standard gauge, Broad gauge

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

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