Comparing U.S. and European Narrow Gauge

Comparing U.S. and European Narrow Gauge

Repost with pictures

 By Ernest H. Robl

An oft repeated myth is that all railroads trace their gauge – the distance between the rails – back to the wheel spacing of roman chariots.  While this may be true in part for so-called standard gauge – 4 feet 8 ½ inches or 1,435 mm – there have been many other gauges through the history of railroading.

In the early days of railroading, in the early 1800s, railroads were built to whatever gauge their civil engineers and developers chose.  And, these gauges were chosen for a variety of reasons.

But, quickly, as railroads grew, it became apparent that, to connect to each other, they needed the same gauge.  England and continental Europe had the majority of early lines set at 4 ft. 8 ½ inches, so that ultimately became the standard.  Early American railroads used equipment built in England, so they ended up – mostly – adopting that gauge, too.

Though there are operational differences between American and European railroads, rolling stock from either side of the Atlantic can operate on the standard gauge tracks on the other side, and in a few cases, equipment has made the journey across the ocean.

And, you will see European-built track machinery (such as from the Austrian company Plasser & Theurer – available as Kibri models) in use in North America, without major modifications.

Other gauges

But, while some 60 per cent of the world’s railways use standard gauge. There are many miles or kilometers of other gauges.  Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union use a wider gauge; other countries have their most common railway gauge one that is narrower than standard gauge.

In this article, we’ll compare narrow gauge – less than standard gauge – lines in the U.S. and Europe, in part because many readers of this site reside in the U.S. and are interested in European railroads.

In the U.S., the most common narrow gauge was 3 ft., though a few lines, notably in New England, were built with the gauge of 2 ft.

In Europe, the most common narrow gauges include Meter 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in), imperial  2 ft 6 in (762 mm), Bosnian 760 mm (2 ft 5 1516 in) , and 600 mm (1 ft. 11 5/8 in.), with the so-called Bosnia gauge also widely used in the German-speaking parts of Europe.

In Africa, a widely used gauge is the so-called Cape Gauge of 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm).

Why narrow gauge?

Why were railroads built to narrower gauges, particularly after it became apparent that standard gauge was becoming the norm in most countries?

By far the greatest reason was cost.  A narrower gauge line was cheaper to build.  Less wood was needed for crossties; the smaller rolling stock was less expensive to build; and even the smaller tunnels required less excavation. Narrower bridges with lighter carrying capacity were also less expensive.

Keep in mind that most of these lines were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before the widespread availability of good heavy-duty roads.

Narrow gauge lines, with their smaller rolling stock could also negotiate tighter radii, again simplifying construction in some terrain.

In some cases, narrow gauge lines were actually built to a non-standard gauge because their builders did not want rolling stock from existing standard gauge line to operate on their tracks.  This proved to be a mistake, as seamless transportation became more important.

Types of narrow gauge

At this point we also need to distinguish between two kinds of narrow gauge operations – with differences that are not related to gauge.

There are/were basically two kings of narrow gauge railroads (on both sides of the Atlantic) – the common carrier narrow gauge and the single-purpose industrial operation.

A common carrier narrow gauge lines operates in the same way as standard gauge railroads, carrying both freight and passengers.

Industrial railways serve a special purpose, moving freight in and around an industrial operation.  While, in a few cases, such as railroads operating into a mine, they may also transport people, these are workers at the industry, and not the general public.

While a common carrier and industrial narrow gauge railway may use the same gauge, such as the 760mm Bosnia gauge, their equipment and construction standards would be quite different.

Industrial railways in Germany are often classified as “Feldbahn” or field railway operations.  This is worth noting because a manufacturer of narrow gauge model railroad equipment may offer both common carrier and Feldbahn equipment and tracks.

Feldbahn tracks were typically built to lesser standards than normal narrow gauge tracks.  These include wider tie spacing (and often less carefully finished ties) and lighter rails, due to lighter rolling stock.

Most important, Feldbahn track installations were often considered temporary and laid directly on a minimally prepared ground, with no ballasting.  These tracks could then be moved as the industrial operation changed.  An example would be a surface mine, where a Feldbahn was used to collect raw rock or clay and bring it to processing machinery.

Another important Feldbahn application, up to and past WW I, were military installations.  Here munitions and other supplies were moved on both surface and underground lines (at fortifications).

As with almost all aspects of railroading, there are always exceptions.  In the area of industrial narrow gauge railroads, one of these was that in some cases, the tracks were actually built to very high standards and that heavier rolling stock was used.  For example, within a large industrial complex, tracks might be set into pavement, essentially being a permanent installation.

The big difference

Okay, now we get to the big difference between narrow gauge operations in the U.S. and Europe, something very important to modelers:  While almost all narrow gauge operations in the U.S. have either been abandoned or turned into museum/tourist operations, there are still modern common carrier narrow gauge operations in Europe.

Not only do these European narrow gauge lines still carry revenue passengers, often daily commuters, but they continue to renew their rolling stock.  Many have modern diesel or electric railcars (Triebwagen in German), but they may also use such operations as push-pull passenger trains with a locomotive on one end and a cab control car on the other end.

Yes, there are European narrow gauge lines that are now only museum/tourist operations.  But, one of the things that makes modeling European narrow gauge even more fun is the fact that many modern narrow gauge common carrier operations have also preserved vintage rolling stock, including steam locomotives, and still operate these on special occasions.  So you can realistically mix equipment from several eras.

Common carrier narrow gauge lines can be either operated by the national railway system of a country or be classified as private railroads.  In Europe, many “private” railroads (both standard and narrow gauge), while organized as stock-based corporations, actually have most of their stock owned by local or regional governments and/or industries located along the line.


The good news for modelers is that there is a vast amount of European narrow gauge model material available, and, as is the case for standard gauge models, there are standards that let equipment from different manufacturers be used together.

You can either model a specific narrow gauge operation or a fictional one that combines aspects of several different kinds of operations.

As is the case with the standard gauge lines, each narrow gauge operation is different.

In Europe, the two most common narrow gauges are the so-called Bosnia gauge of 760mm and meter gauge, with the latter being widely used in Switzerland.



At Gmünd, Austria, ÖBB locomotive 399.06 awaits its next assignment in 1979.  These locomotives, built in 1906 for the Mariazell railway (prior to its electrification) continued in revenue service on Austria’s narrow gauge lines into the early 1980s. Notice the well-maintained 760mm tracks in the station area.

[Click on images to view a larger version.  Use your browser's "back" button to return to the main text.]

Therefore, models based on these gauges are also the most common.

Scale vs. gauge

One area of frequent confusion for beginning modelers is the difference between scale and gauge.  Scale is the proportion to the prototype.  Gauge is the distance between the rails.

Therefore you can have in HO (1:87) several gauges, each being 1/87th of the prototype.  While HO standard gauge is approximately 16.5mm; HO Bosnia gauge is approximately 9mm.

Well, 9mm is also the gauge for N scale standard gauge, so that allows many manufacturers who make both HO and N scale models to use the mechanisms developed for their N scale models in the HO narrow gauge models.  The models themselves and the tracks look totally different, though they have the same gauge.

HO models of equipment in the Bosnia gauge are normally designated HOe (with the e being for the German “eng” or narrow).  HO models of meter gauge prototypes are designated as HOm.  You can, of course also have narrow gauge versions of other scales.  A popular narrow gauge version is Om, meaning an O scale version of the (usually Swiss) meter gauge.

So, if you decide to model narrow gauge, you have to pick both a scale and a gauge.  If you model HOe, for example, while the tracks are narrower, everything else – figures, vehicles, buildings, etc. – are still to the 1/87th HO scale.


You can have both standard gauge and narrow gauge lines on the same layout.  In fact, one of the more interesting aspects is the connection between narrow gauge and standard gauge lines.  In one station, there may be both standard gauge and narrow gauge lines.  For passengers, the transfer is simply cross platform.

Freight is slightly more complicated.  It may be loaded from cars of one gauge to cars of the other gauge with an overhead crane.  Or, it may go piggyback.

Believe it or not, there were (now mostly no longer used) narrow gauge operations that carried smaller standard gauge cars on special narrow-gauge piggy back cars.  This was most often used when there was an industry only a short distance up the narrow gauge line that shipped or received a lot of goods.



In 1979, ÖBB locomotive 399.06 departs Gmünd, Austria, with a mixed train of passenger and freight cars.  The train includes some standard gauge freight cars on transporter cars.  Gmünd, near the Czech border, was a connecting point between standard and narrow gauge lines.


If there was a lot of heavy freight traffic on a narrow gauge line, it was usually ultimately converted to standard gauge.  But, if freight traffic only went partly up the line, then the rest of the line, with primarily passenger traffic could continue the enjopy the benefits of narrow gauge – smaller tunnels, lighter bridges, tighter curve radii.

Explaining all the technical aspects of standard gauge piggyback on narrow gauge would require a whole article in itself.

And, of course, narrow-gauge equipment was often delivered loaded onto standard gauge freight cars.  And, in some cases where narrow gauge equipment needed extensive shop work that the narrow gauge line could not do, the engines were loaded on standard gauge cars to go to the mainline shop.


Two famous examples of still active narrow gauge lines in Austria, the European country I know best, are the Mariazellerbahn and the Zillertalbahn.  The Mariazellerbahn has long been electrified, something quite unusual for Austrian narrow gauge, and the Zillertalbahn has a highly active commuter service that connects to the Austrian Westbahn main line in Jehnbach, near Innsbruck.



Liliput Hoe model of a modern Zillertalbahn diesel locomotive that is capable of being used in push-pull commuter service.  (Liliput catalog illustration.)  HOe models represent the 760mm gauge in HO.


There’s a lot of literature available on both operations – and HOe models suitable for both lines from several manufacturers.  And, though both lines are primarily passenger operations, they do still have some freight cars for internal use, such as carrying track maintenance supplies.


Roco HOe model of that same 399.06 depicted above, though in its original green livery.  The locomotive is still operable in excursion service, so would still be at home on Era V and VI layout.  The prototype.locomotive has been restored to its earlier appearance.  (Roco catalog illustration.)

The model photo shows the unusual design of this locomotive, a so-called “Stütztender” application.  Rather than having a trailing truck to support the firebox, the weight of the rear of the locomotive is supported by the tender.


Finally don’t forget the most important contemporary use of Feldbahn equipment – the construction of major tunnels.  Though these tunnels may ultimately consist of two tracks in different bores, they are built one bore at a time.  And during the construction of that bore, you need to both bring in construction materials such as concrete or prefabricated sections of tunnel liner; and you need to remove excavated materials.  The only way to have two-way traffic within the tunnel is to temporarily lay two narrow gauge tracks side by side – with crossovers that allow trains to change tracks.




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