Different track gauges in Europe: what are we talking about?

05/05/2022 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
(Version en français)
🟧 Back to homepage 🟧 See our brief news

The difference in gauges of Europe’s railways is one of the reasons why it is often misunderstood to mean that there are major differences between all European countries. This is obviously not the case, and this is an opportunity to put things into perspective.

Above all, a confusion must be avoided. Track gauge is the distance between the inside faces of the rails, whilst loading gauge is the available space within which it is safe to run trains. The loading gauge determines, for example, whether double-deckers can be driven or the maximum height of containers. The loading gauge is not related to the track gauge. Here we will only talk about the track gauge.

(Drawing Mediarail.be)

An historical choice
Since the 19th century, the vast majority of Europe’s railway networks have adopted a gauge originally designed by the British. Although many gauge projects existed, a Railway Regulation Act was enacted by the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 18 August 1846. It mandated the track gauge with a width of 1 435 mm to be the standard for Great Britain. At that time, the UK was the only one capable of exporting railway rolling stock.

This English advance explains why the vast majority of railways in Europe adopted the 1 435mm gauge. In 1922, at the creation of the International Union of Railways (UIC), the 1 435mm gauge was adopted as « standard gauge ». This did not mean that countries that had adopted other gauges had to change their network.

This means that a large number of European countries have their national rail network with the standard gauge, from Stockholm to Perpignan and from Inverness to Athens. The adoption of the loading gauge, on the other hand, can sometimes differ by a few centimetres from one country to another, which sometimes has an impact on the rolling stock.

The adoption of other gauges has sometimes been motivated by topography. In the mountains, for example, the importance of having tighter curves meant that a smaller gauge than the UIC standard had to be adopted. This is why Switzerland has a large secondary network that has adopted other gauges, such as the Rhaetian Railway (Rhätische Bahn), the largest metric network in Europe.

Many countries still have secondary lines with different gauges, such as the Train Jaune in France, the Roslagsbanan in north of Stockholm, the FEVE and EuskoTren in Spain or the Circumvesuviana in Naples, to name but a few examples.

The major problem with different gauges is of course the impossibility of simply running trains from one network to another. This is why all the networks with a different gauge live separately, as separate technical islands. They can only meet the standard gauge network in stations that accommodate both gauges. This is the case for example in Chur, Interlaken, Lucerne, Brig or Montreux in Switzerland, where the secondary networks can be connected with a few steps to the platforms of the SBB national network at 1 435mm.

Side by side: the BLS network on the left on 1 435 mm track, the MOB on the right on 1000 mm track. In the near future, MOB trains will be switched from one gauge to the other by means of an axle gauge changing device (see bellow) (photo wikipedia)

The difference in gauge between two mainline networks becomes problematic when dealing with international traffic. There are 7 European countries in this case, which may seem like a lot, but in reality, only 2 are problematic, due to trade flows.

Finland has a gauge of 1524mm (closer to the Russian gauge of 1520mm), and the orientation of its network is entirely towards Russia, with the exception of a branch in the very north of the country, towards Sweden. The lack of rail traffic to and from Europe is not a major problem for the country, thanks to the sea routes across the Baltic.

Ireland, which has a 1600mm gauge, is an island anyway and has no international rail traffic.

The three Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are former Soviet bloc countries. They have a network built entirely to Russian standards, with a gauge of 1520mm. This poses a problem for railway traffic to Poland, but not to Russia and Belarus.

The last two countries for which this is a real problem are Portugal and Spain. Both countries have a track gauge of 1668mm, also named Iberian gauge. As the trade with Europe, via France, is of great importance, it was necessary to create wagon axle changing facilities in Irun (Atlantic) and Port-Bou (Mediterranean).

What does this mean in the end? The map below shows us clearly: the vast majority of Europe, including Turkey, is at the standard UIC 1 435mm gauge (in green). So there are not as many problems as many media sometimes suggest.

Map from excellent website from Jacub Marian.

Technical solutions
Several technical solutions have been implemented in order to switch to the different gauge widths. Between Belarus and Ukraine, and Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, passenger trains still have to be lifted and bogies changed. This operation requires two hours of downtime for the trains.

The Rail Baltica project, which is to link the three Baltic countries with Poland and, by extension, to Europe, will be constructed with the standard UIC gauge of 1435mm. This should provide a solution for international traffic. The switch to the UIC 1435mm standard gauge on a north-south axis is of major geopolitical importance for the three Baltic countries, which want to show their willingness to stop depending on Russia and Belarus. This desire has become even more pronounced in recent months with the war in Ukraine.

In Spain, Talgo had already solved the gauge problem at the end of the 1960s with its famous independent wheel trains. However, this was only for passenger traffic and a special facility was built at Port-Bou on the Mediterranean side to transit with the same train to France. This system had never been installed on freight wagons.

A project being carried out by the consortium formed by Azvi, Tria and Ogi in collaboration with ADIF, consists of the development and homologation of a variable gauge axle suitable for freight wagons. This automatic gauge changeover system is based on the OGI technology developed in the 1970s, which has undergone major re-engineering work by the consortium to adapt it to modern times.

In the future, any type of wagon equipped with these axles can run on both Iberian gauge and standard gauge tracks in Spain. Once it has been homologated in the rest of European countries, a goods train equipped with this movable rolling axle will be able to run between the different existing borders with different track gauges, thus eliminating load breakage points. This will considerably shorten freight journey times and also improve the competitiveness of this mode of transport.

In Switzerland, the private Montreux-Oberland-Bahn (MOB) network has signed a contract for the delivery of 20 carriages equipped with special bogies to Stadler, which will change gauge at Zweisimmen station, in the manner of Talgo. The aim is to make a journey from Montreux to Interlaken without having to change trains in Zweisimmen. This installation will soon be inaugurated. This route is purely tourist and has no international implications as in Spain.

The rest of Europe has the standard UIC 1435mm gauge, for example as far to Constanza (Black Sea in Romania), Athens or also Istanbul (Turkish State Railways also has 1435mm gauge). Beyond Turkey, much of Iran’s rail network is also equipped with the standard 1435mm UIC gauge. It is therefore possible to send European wagons this far, but it is the geopolitics which unfortunately decides…

It therefore cannot be said that the major rail flows in Europe are handicapped by track gauge problems. There are, however, other more subtle technical differences, such as differences in traction current, although this is no longer a major problem today with modern locomotives that accept different currents. However, there is still the thorny problem of signalling, especially train detection. ERTMS/ETCS is trying to address this problem. More on this in another article.

Essen, Belgium. Network change between Infrabel (the level crossing) and the Dutch ProRail network which follows directly afterwards. The track gauge does not change between Belgium and the Netherlands. Fortunately…

05/05/2022 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
Suscribe my blog

(version en français)