Back when railways were being massively build, in the 1900-1910 decade for example, most new lines were made with narrow gauge, instead of the standard gauge which is 1435mm for most of the world.

For instance, in Switzerland, most new train lines built between 1890 and 1914 used a gauge of 1m. Urban tramways used 1m gauge too.

The reason for this is that this was much less expensive. I wonder however what factors lead to the construction of such smaller railways to be less expensive. Understandably the earthworks are lighter, but not so much as the width of the vehicles dictates this and not the width of the tracks.

Quotes as for where I learned that narrow gauge was supposedly cheaper : From Wikipedia page on narrow gauge railways.

Since narrow-gauge railways are usually built with smaller radius curves, smaller structure gauges and lighter rails, they can be less-costly to build, equip and operate than standard- or broad-gauge railways (particularly in mountainous or difficult terrain).

Also quoting the page for the railways line between Glovelier and La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland

La voie normale permet de mettre en service des trains directs depuis Bâle jusqu'à Saignelégier pour les jours de Marché-concours. Mais la construction a coûté cher. La compagnie est rapidement en difficultés financières et n'a plus d'autres choix que demander de l'aide à sa rivale. Les deux compagnies font direction commune dès 1906.

(My translation (emphasis mine) ) The normal gauge allowed to have trains directly from Basel to Saignelégier on days of Market. But the construction costs were prohibitive. The company was quickly in financial difficulties and had no other choice than asking the rival company [translation note:The narrow gauge railwy Saignelégier-La Chaux de Fonds] for help. Both companies had common leadership since 1906

If a new line were to be built today, now that massive industrial construction machinery is available, would it still be significantly less expensive to make it narrow gauge ?

  • $\begingroup$ Please provide citations for the choice being purely, or even primarily, on cost of railbed. BTW the earthworks depend on total mass of the train, not its width. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2019 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ I'll collect sources for that, and in exchange, you'll collect sources about how earthworks depends on the total mass of the train, because this sound very interesting. $\endgroup$
    – Bregalad
    Jan 16, 2019 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ oops, I first read your comment as "earthWORMS" -- see comments at engineering.stackexchange.com/questions/25541/… :-) $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2019 at 20:16

1 Answer 1


I think that the main reason is indeed for the weights of the trains, locomotives and carriages alike. Of course, one could also make standard gauge rolling stock lighter, but there is some savings already for everything being smaller (not just narrower, but scaled down to keep its proportions) and so it goes from there.

In a way, "narrow gauge" at that time was also synonymous with smaller, lighter, slower, and cheaper, which lead to rolling stock being adapted to this. So while one could of course build luxurious long-distance carriages in that size, "narrow-gauge" implied "local" and therefore attracted those who were making things more affordable.

Today, we see a similar trend with so-called "light-rail" vehicles. The main difference to "heavy rail" is that light rail doesn't need physical collision protection with heavy trains, since they don't share track with anything other than light-rail itself. (I am not going into exceptions from this.) But going from there, light-rail means using trams that are not just lighter, but also cheaper to build and operate, need much less in terms of stations and platforms, and are of course slower. No point paying and maintaining a fast vehicle when it stops at every village on the way.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, at least some narrow gauche railways and even tramways allowed to transport freight(scroll down for the picture). Of course it might have been light freight. Also, narrow gauge railways still have to carry human passengers, so they can't be just shrinked standard-gauge wagons. This also doesn't really explains the lower costs. $\endgroup$
    – Bregalad
    Jan 26, 2019 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ It was also the turning radius. Narrow gauge could turn tighter. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Jan 11 at 5:21

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.