Who crossed the European border by train, was certainly wondering why the wheelbase of the train should be changed, or one should change train to the “European” one. The reason is that in Europe, the railway gauge is narrower than in the territory of the former USSR, and not all the train models can use them. Interesting, why it is so, that our domestic railway gauge is wider than European one?
Indeed, the issue of the railway gauge has its own history, closely connected to the history of humanity. The most widespread of the world is the railway gauge of 1435 mm (4 Feet and 8, 5 inches). This railway gauge is used in North America, China and Europe (excluding the CIS-countries, Baltic, Finland, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal). Engineer George Stephenson, applied this exact gauge to construct the first passenger train line from Liverpool to Manchester. This gauge was actually the narrowest one from the great number of different variants, so it was chosen in order not to alter gauges and not to spend additional money for reconstruction of bridges, embankments, and excavations. Stephenson got many orders for his locomotives, so such gauge became widespread all over Europe and America. He founded a locomotive construction plant that was a monopolist for a while and got a great number of orders. All the locomotives were designed for the gauge of 1435 mm, which is also called “Stephenson gauge” or “Normal broad railway gauge”. 1833, engineer Brunel initiated the construction of the Great Western Railroad with the railway gauge of 7’ (2135 mm). He believed it would positively affect the train speed. The railway was built. Till now, it is the only railway with the widest gauge in the world. This gauge was later called after its inventor “Brunel gauge”. At the beginning, there were complications with Europe gauges. Different railway gauges made passengers constantly change trains, and that of course was extremely inconvenient. However, freight trains had to be constantly trans-shipped. A special Parliament Commission was created in order to solve this problem. August 12th 1846, 46 experts of the Commission, adopted a bill on the issue of railway gauge. The law adopted by the British Parliament obliged the owners of the railroads to alter their railways to a common Stephenson gauge. Most European countries have accepted this standard. With the exception of Ireland with the railway gauge of 1600 mm, as well as Spain and Portugal with the gauge of 1668 mm.
The first Russian gauge
The first railroad in Russia “St. Petersburg - Tsarskoye Selo” had the gauge of 6’ (1829 mm). Then on September 29th, 1842, a decree “About founding of Arrangement Committee of the railroad Petersburg-Moscow” was issued. The longest railroad in Russia of 650 km and the gauge of 1524 became the antecedent of all the Russian railroads, as well as of the railroads of Finland.
Russian Engineer P. Melnikov, having visited America before, commenced the railway construction. He suggested the gauge of 5’ (1524 mm). The new gauge was 89 mm broader than the Stephenson one. With wide spread opinion that the military influenced the decision on the new gauge. The new gauge that differs from the European one would hinder the military logistics of a hypothetic enemy in the Russian territory. There is no written evidence, but extreme suspicion.
Since the second half of the 19th century, the standard railway gauge in Russia, later in USSR, Finland, and Mongolia, constituted 1524 mm. In the second half of the 20th century, to be exact May 1970 until the beginning of 90s, the railway gauge of USSR was changed to 1520 mm. That should have a positive influence on the stability of the freight trains to increase the speed without improving the rolling stock itself.
After the collapse of USSR, the gauge of 1520 mm remained as standard in all of his former republics. The railways of Finland still have the gauge of 1524 mm. The difference of 4 mm doesn’t require any re-equipment of the rolling stock, but it caused serious problems with the tear of the wheel pairs, that increased drastically. However, the influence of the gauge, or to be more correct the clearance between the inner edge of the rail and the flange of the wheel pair, over the tear intensity was not proved. The same railway gauge is used in all the subways of Russia and CIS-countries. Many street railways use the gauge of 1524 mm (although, there are also narrow-gauge street railways with the gauge of 1 m., for instance in Kaliningrad, Pyatigorsk, Tallinn, Lvov). In Rostov-on-Don, the street railway has the “European” gauge of 1435 mm. In the frontier territories where different gauges exist, sometimes, the tracks with mixed-gauge are used.
In general, about 75 percent of the world’s railways use the Stephenson gauge of 1435 mm, 11 percent of the railways use the broader gauge, and 14 percent have the narrower gauge.