Narrow Gauge Pleasure

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 drawn carts!

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.


The Gauges

If you like facts and figures have a look at this table to see what narrow gauge actually means:
GaugeExample RailwaysComments
less than 15" (under 375mm) Fairbourne Railway
Mull Rail
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!
15" (375mm) 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.
2' (60cm) 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) Talyllyn 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.

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