What is Narrow Gauge
Isembard Kingdom Brunel always believed in his seven foot Broad Gauge Railway
but the rest of the world did not. Four foot eight and a bit inches was adopted very early
on as the standard gauge to which all British railways would be built. Even today the
standard gauge in most parts of the world is around this figure. Although
clearly about right for major railways this is really quite arbitrary, their is
a story that it was chosen as the average distance between the wheels of horse
There is no doubt that very much smaller gauges are not practical for very high
speed trains or those required to carry hundreds of people on journeys lasting
many hours but there are also circumstances where the standard gauge is
impractical or prohibitively expensive.
Many narrow gauge railways were built in mountainous terrain. The track bed
would be built on a ledge partly built out from and partly cut into a steep
valley wall, such a construction obviously multiplies in cost alarmingly for
every extra inch of width required. Some of these railways are perched on
dramatic narrow ledges between a wall and a steep drop for long distances, this
makes them spectacular indeed to ride on!
Other railways were built for relatively short haulage of low volumes of
freight or passengers where it would have been totally uneconomic to provide a
standard gauge line. This group of railways were usually financed by
wealthy businessmen, motivated partly by an enthusiasm for the idea of narrow
gauge. The most noteworthy examples of this type of railway are the Ravenglass
and Eskdale Railway and the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, the former was
laid on an existing track bed left by an earlier railway.
While the above accounts for the majority of surviving narrow gauge railways
many more were built for heavy industry or agriculture, There was a time when
every quarry had its internal rail transport system and many large factories did
too, these of course have disappeared as industry has changed.
Narrow gauge railways also served with distinction in the First World War, with
hundreds of miles of track laid to supply the trenches and to transport troops
around the front line. Enormous amounts of locomotives and rolling stock were
built for the war effort, many of the locomotives coming from the USA. The most
numerous of all were the small Baldwin engines, no fewer than 495 locomotives to
this rugged (though not elegant) design were made in Philadelphia and shipped to
Britain for service in France. Of this vast number 9 were lost at sea and two were
dissassembled for spares, some of the remainder were too late for service and were
sold off in new condition.
Much of the war time stock eventually came onto the civilian market and contributed
to a rash of narrow gauge building immediately post war. Curiously almost all these
lines have disappeared and those that remain generally date from an earlier era, even
so, some of this equipment is still in use in Britain.
|A Hudswell Clarke engine
Built for the Western Front
|Many American Built Baldwin|
Locos served in France
|One of several ex War Department Baldwins|
Purchased by the Ashover Light Railway.
If you like facts and figures have a look at this table to see what narrow
gauge actually means:
|less than 15" (under 375mm)
|Sir Arthur Heywood stated in 1874 that 15" is the smallest practical gauge for
the carriage of passengers and freight, 12 1/4" and even 10 1/4"
is used, although the rolling stock is tiny!
||Romney Hythe and Dymchurch ,Ravenglass and Eskdale
||Just large enough to suit limited freight carriage and provide a level of
passenger comfort suitable for journeys of an hour or so.
||Bala Lake ,Ffestiniog
||A very practical gauge for the carriage of passengers and freight. It is
possible to provide comfortable passenger accommodation. Most railways known casually as 2' are actually a little less at 23.5".
|2' 3" (68cm)
||Not really very different to 2' gauge and often lumped in with the 'two foot' railways, only the Talyllyn and Corris railways were built with this unusual gauge.
Metric equivalents and even the actual gauges in this table are approximate (for example many
so called 2' gauge railways are about half an inch under this gauge), of course these general terms
are only applied within this site to help classify the railways, each railway is precisely engineered
to it's exact gauge.