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What is a Track Gauge?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A track gauge is the inner distance between two rails on a track designed to accommodate trains, trolleys, and other vehicles which are intended to run on tracks. Like many things around the world, track gauge is not entirely standardized, which can lead to conflicts and confusion. The dominant gauge in use around the world is known as standard gauge, and it measures four feet, eight and a half inches (1,435 millimeters). Many nations including the United States, Great Britain, Mexico, Egypt, Australia, Canada, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Venezuela, Gabon, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, and Uruguay, use this gauge.

As people began to develop vehicles for rail, track gauge was initially highly irregular because people were working and inventing in scattered locations. Within individual nations, gauge could vary by region, and was determined in part by manufacturers of such vehicles. Over time, this proved to be extremely inconvenient. At every break of gauge, where track gauges of different sizes met, obstacles would be encountered. Irregular gauge sizes even led to derailments as vehicles under or overestimated track gauge and thought it was safe to proceed.

As a result, many nations began adopting standard track gauge sizes. The gauge now considered “standard gauge” originated in England, and because many nations used rolling stock shipped from England, they began adopting standard gauge for their tracks. In areas where break of gauge still occurs, gauge conversion may be used to allow vehicles to traverse both sets of tracks; many vehicles have some tolerance and can fit on slightly wider or narrower track.

It is also possible to see dual gauge. In the case of dual track gauge, multiple tracks are laid down together to allow trains of different gauges to travel through the same area. This technique may be used in regions where nations with different standard track gauge sizes border each other. Gauges beyond the standard size are known as broad or narrow gauge, and there are varying reasons for their popularity.

Some model railroad enthusiasts also take track gauge very seriously. If they are trying to keep their trains scrupulously true to scale for a specific time period or region, they will take the time to select the appropriate track gauge and to make modifications, if necessary, to allow their trains to run on it. Accuracy is highly prized among some train enthusiasts, and the attention to detail will be appreciated by fellow fans.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By allenJo — On Mar 10, 2012

@miriam98 - I used to hear this urban myth about the origins of the railway track gauge. I don’t remember all the details but the essence of the story is that it goes back to the time of ancient Rome.

Of course they didn’t have railroad tracks back then but they did have wagons. The story goes that the wagons used ruts in the roads to help steady them as they traveled along.

Supposedly the ruts are the same width as that of standard track gauges as they are used for railroads today. That sounds interesting in theory, but it never really happened, at least according to one of the ‘myth buster’ sites I found.

Track gauges are in fact a fairly recent phenomenon, as the article points out, coinciding only with the invention of the railroad track.

By miriam98 — On Mar 10, 2012

I’ve seen movies where trains were derailed because a track was incomplete but never a situation where the railway track gauge size differential caused a derailment. That’s unusual and tragic indeed.

I am pleased that these sizes have been standardized for the most part. I think they should have some kind of signaling system installed in these tracks, so that at various intervals the gauge will transmit a signal that will let you know what its width is.

That way if there is a discrepancy the train can stop and you can avoid disaster.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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