How many types of railway tracks are there in the world? Probably more than you think. Types of railway tracks can be divided from different aspects such as the rail gauge, the construction form, etc.

Railway tracks with different rail gauges

Rail gauge is the distance between the rails of a railroad track or the wheels of a train. Generally, the types of railway track gauges can be divided into the standard gauge, the narrow gauge, and the broad gauge. The most common gauge is standard gauge 1435mm (4 feet 8 1/2 inches). Gauges narrower than 1435mm are called narrow gauge while wider than 1435mm are called broad gauge.

The standard gauge railway track has a total of 720,000 kilometres in the world. It only accounts for 60% of the world’s railways. The Cape Gauge railways, one kind of narrow gauge tracks, ranks third in the world in terms of utilization. With a total of more than 110,000 kilometres,  cape gauge railway tracks account for approximately 11% of the world’s railways. Besides, there are various gauges such as Indian gauge, Iberian gauge, Russian gauge, metre gauge, etc.

The standard gauge railway track


The standard gauge is 1435mm (4 feet 8 1/2 inches) wide and one of the most historic gauges. There is a story of the standard gauge dates back to the ancient Roman era. The roads at that time were far less paved than they are now, and most of them were made of dirt. Therefore, the carriages ran back and forth gradually left deep wheel marks on the ground. A carriage with the same width as this wheel mark will run very easily, but a carriage with a different width will risk the wheels accidentally falling into the ditch and damage the carriage. Over time, carriages in the same area had become the same track. After Emperor Nishizawa ruled the empire, he issued an edict requiring all of Rome to use the same carriage wheelbase, and even the new paved stone road would leave grooves for wheels to travel! From the historical sites, we can know now that the carriage gauge is 4 feet 9 inches, which is very close to the width of the standard gauge. But does it matter if it is passed down? There are different opinions on this part. The initiator of the standard gauge is George Stephenson. A more romantic view is that he just saw the excavation of a Roman monument, so he decided to set the gauge to this width. But it is more likely that this is just a simple coincidence. The width of the standard gauge is the same as asses of two horses. In the earliest days, the train was a product that replaced the rail-type wagon. Naturally, it would adapt to the existing track width, so this “standard” appeared!


Did everyone follow the 1435mm width from the beginning? The answer is no. The Great Western Railway built by Isambard Brunel uses an invincible wide track of 2140mm. The main purpose is that this design can increase stability and leave room for a larger steam engine. In the mid-nineteenth century, these two specifications also fought a lot in the United Kingdom, and finally won with a standard gauge that is easier to corner and lower in cost. After being recommended by a government research group, the United Kingdom enacted the Track Law in 1845 to force the newly constructed lines to adopt a width of 1435mm to facilitate direct operation between different lines. The final specification war ended with the Great Western Railway’s full conversion to standard gauge in 1892. Beginning in the United Kingdom, the European continent and the United States either hired British engineers to build the first railway in the early days or bought locomotives and trains produced by the United Kingdom. Therefore, the European continent and the United States. After turning over and punching, the standard gauge is the standard.

The narrow-gauge railway track

Gauges narrower than standard gauges are called narrow gauges.

  • Cape Gauge

Cape gauge is 1067mm wide, because it is narrower than the standard gauge of 1435mm, so it is a kind of “narrow gauge”. It’s named Cape Gauge because the former Cape Province of South Africa adopted this gauge in 1873. But the first country to install this gauge was Norway. Norway was still attached to Sweden at the time, and it was a border region with an underdeveloped economy. When engineer Carl Pihl tried to build Norway’s first railway, he considered two possible widths that suitable for mountainous Norway. One is 3 feet 6 inches (1067mm)  and the other is 3 feet 3 inches (meter gauge, 1000mm). He asked for advice from the Stevenson family who made the steam locomotive. Although it would be more expensive, Stevenson thought a slightly wider gauge will help the safety of the mountains. So in the end, 1067mm as settled as the Norwegian standard track width.

  • Metre Gauge

In addition to cape gauge, only meter gauge (1000mm) in narrow-gauge railways has a relatively high prevalence mainly in Southeast Asia and Brazil. Generally speaking, railways that are narrower than meter gauges will be greatly reduced in terms of carrying capacity. Therefore, only industrial railways like the 762mm five-minute car in a sugar factory will be used. However, due to the low laying cost of the five-minute train and the small turning radius, it is also suitable for use on the mountain railway.

The broad gauge railway track

Gauges wider than standard gauges are called broad gauges. Russian gauge, Iberian gauge and Indian gauge are three typical broad gauges.


Most areas of Russia are flat. When the engineer Pavel Melnikov built the first railway, he planned to use a gauge wider than the standard gauge to increase the load capacity and driving stability. The Russian gauge (1524mm) was thus born. Russia had many opportunities to synchronize the gauge with the rest of the European continent to become the standard gauge. But it was worried that the hinterland of Russia would be invaded if trains from other countries could enter freely. From World War I to World War II to the Cold War, it finally evolved into a phenomenon in which the former Soviet Union all adopted this own standard.

The regions that also adopted their specifications for military reasons are Spain and Portugal. These two countries are on the Iberian Peninsula, so the gauge used is called the Iberian gauge (1688mm). It is said that it was to prevent the invasion of France to get this own specification. But now the newly built Spanish high-speed rail uses standard gauges to facilitate the mutual operation of high-speed trains in Europe.

The Indian gauge (1676mm) is another reason entirely. It is said that the reason why India adopts such a wide rail is that if the rail is too narrow, the carriage is easily blown over by the wind? We can only say that the person who determines this width is farsighted! Looking at the situation of Indian trains that are full of people, narrower rails are not good.

Ballasted and ballastless railway track

The ballasted track is the traditional track structure made of wooden sleepers and crushed stones. The traditional ballasted track has the characteristics of simple laying and low overall cost, but it is easy to deform thus needs frequent maintenance. At the same time, train speed is restricted.


Ballastless track refers to the track structure that uses concrete, asphalt mixture and other integral foundations instead of the loose gravel trackbed. The sleepers themselves are made of concrete, and the roadbed does not need gravel. The steel rails and sleepers are directly laid on the concrete roadbed. Ballastless track is an advanced track technology in the world today, which can reduce maintenance, reduce dust, beautify the environment, and speed up trains to more than 300 kilometres per hour. The ballastless track has good smoothness, good stability, long service life, good durability, less maintenance work.

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