Railroads - Broad Gauge

The standard rail track in Russia is significantly wider than the one in Europe. In the 19th Century Russia became one of the first countries in the world to introduce a single gauge standard. The Russian gauge of 5 ft / 1520 mm was approved as the new standard on 12 September 1842. The selection process was done chiefly by Mel'nikov. It was not by chance that the gauge of 1524 mm was selected. It was broader that the American one, and as a result ensured better stability, and higher tonnage capacity, and, moreover, allowed higher speeds than the narrower gauges. Secondly, 1524 mm is 5 feet sharp - a round number, which was very convenient for calculations. In 1852 the broad gauge became standard for new railways in Russia and its vassals, and later in the Soviet Union. In late 1960s a transition to the 1520-mm railways started to ease calculations.

Popular belief holds that wide Russian gauge was selected to prevent railroad invasion. Also important were the defensive concerns - broader gauge was deemed to be a delaying factor: it was to prevent the enemy from moving fast using Russian railways. In the territories they occupied in 1939, the Soviets converted the standard gauge railroads to the Russian broad gauge. During World War II Germans had a headache trying to find rolling stock and organize freight transportation in occupied territories. By the end of 1941, over 23000 km of track had been converted from Russian broad gauge to German standard gauge.

Where trains encounter a different gauge (a break-of-gauge), such as at the Spanish-French border or the Russian-Chinese one, the traditional solution has always been transshipment - transferring passengers and freight to cars on the other system. This is obviously far from optimal, and a number of more efficient schemes have been devised. One common one is to build cars to the smaller of the two systems' loading gauges with bogies that are easily removed and replaced, with switching of the bogies at an interchange location on the border. A more modern and sophisticated method is to have multigauge bogies whose wheels can be moved inward and outward. Normally they are locked in place, but special equipment at the border unlocks the wheels and pushes them inward or outward to the new gauge, relocking the wheels when done. This can be done as the train moves slowly over special equipment. In some cases, breaks of gauge are avoided by installing dual gauge track, either permanently or as part of a changeover process to a single gauge.

The Spanish railways run on a 5ft 3 in / 1668 mm broad gauge [rather broader than that of Russia]. The Talgo train that runs from Paris to Barcelona used a mechanical method of expanding the undercarriage to accommodate the broader Spanish tracks. All other trains stop at Irun or at Port Bou, where the passenger get off the French train and climb aboard a Spanish one. The move to extend the French TGV to Barcelona required the construction of an entirely new rail line, leaving the older broader gauge intact.

Being situated on the main Berlin-Moscow railway line and intercontinental highway, Brest became a principal border crossing since World War II in Soviet times. Today it links the European Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Because of the break-of-gauge at Brest between the Russian broad-gauge system and the European standard gauge, all through rail passenger cars must have their bogies changed here, cargo in freight trains must be transshipped.

At the initial phase of railway construction in the 17th - 19th Centuries there were no standards for gauges. For instance, the first railways in France had a gauge of 500 mm, while the British Grand Western Railway was 2140-mm wide. In fact, at one time there were 70 railways with different gauges in England alone. Such a variety was a result of the fact that leaders of every new railway had their own understanding of how wide the gauge should be. It was far cheaper to lay and operate narrow-gauge railways. Moreover, narrow-gauge suited best building railways in restricted mountainous and urban terrains. In their turn broad-gauge railways had advantages of their own - they were much more reliable and could ensure higher tonnage capacity. It goes without saying that no single standard for railway gauge within one country could not help jeopardizing railway transportation activities, and thus delay cargo supplies and passenger conveyance.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, this new means of transport had established itself as the most efficient form of overland transport. The main obstacle to further development was extremely high construction costs. In order to reduce them, lines using lighter structures and lightly-laid track were built. These were used for local transport, mainly to transport timber and agricultural products to ports or junctions with broad-gauge lines.

In Britain the Great Western Railway Great Western Railway designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel pioneered broad gauge from 1838 with a gauge of 7 ft 0 in, and retained this gauge until 1892. While Parliament initially supported the broad gauge, it was eventually rejected by the Gauge Commission in favor compatibility with all railways being built to Standard Gauge - 4'-8" / 1435 mm. Most U.S. southern states before the American Civil used a broad gauge of 5' / 1524 mm. Much but not all of the United States used a broad gaugue of 6'-0" / 1828 mm until about 1880, but eventually adopted a broad gauge of 5'-2" / 1581 mm.

Among the key areas of international activity of Russian Railways is developing closer partnerships with those countries which, like Russia, also use the 1520 mm broad gauge track, namely the members of the CIS, the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and Finland. The cooperation between these countries results from the historical traditions of joint development of international transport using broad gauge track, close mutual economic ties oriented towards rail transport and unitary technical and technological standards of rail shipments.

The broad gauge railways are second-longest in the world. Ranking first in terms of mileage are the so-called Stephenson-gauge railways, also referred to as the European or the Standard gauge railways, which are 1435 mm or 4 feet and 8.5 inch wide. The total mileage of the Stephenson gauge railways is about 720,000 km. The gauge was first introduced by George Stephenson during the construction of his first railway, and then spread in the greater part of Europe, and eventually became standard there and in North America.

The so-called Cape-gauge goes second after the standard gauge in terms of numbers of countries where it is in use. It is 1067 mm or 3.5 feet wide. As many as 112,000 km of Cape-gauge railways cross dozens of countries on both sides of equator (but mainly Japan, South African countries and Australia. The fourth long in the world with 95,000 km are the meter-wide gauge railways, popular in Brazil, India, South East Asian and some African countries.

The head of Russian Railways RZD, Vladimir Yakunin, wants to connect central Europe with the trans-siberian railway. A visit last in May 2007 by President Putin to Austria produced a milestone agreement to remove this impediment to Eurasian trade across Russian territory. This company and its counterpart organization in Austria agreed to explore possibilities for a Russian-type wide-gauge line from the border between Ukraine and Slovakia to Vienna. At a cost of just 12 hundred million dollars, this would create an uninterrupted wide-gauge axis beading Southeast Asia, China, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. The roll of goods will be cheaper, increasing the transit from Southeast Asia alone from 15 billion dollars to at least 100 billion dollar each year.

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