What is a narrow gauge railroad? If you’re not a train enthusiast, or even if you are, you may be a bit unclear on this term even if you hear it all the time. Let’s talk about narrow gauge, why it exists, and why hobbyists like to model narrow gauge instead of standard gauge trains like the ones you probably see every day.
Narrow gauge railroads are railroads with a narrower track than the standard 4 feet, 8.5 inches. They typically occur in areas where a full-size train is impractical.
You’ve seen narrow gauge in Thomas and Friends
If you watched the children’s TV series Thomas and Friends, you occasionally see narrow gauge engines in some shows. These engines are smaller than Thomas and work in the mountains, and I can recall at least one episode where Thomas struggled to run on their track.
While Thomas the Tank Engine doesn’t exactly set out to teach railroading, that exposure to narrow gauge is accurate. Well, except for that part where Thomas ran on that narrow track by sheer will and saved the day. At least I think that’s what happened.
Narrow gauge in the real world
In the real world, narrow gauge occurs in the mountains, like it does in Thomas and Friends. The Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad was originally a narrow gauge line, and its motto was Through the Rockies, not around them. By using a three-foot track gauge, this was practical. As the D&RGW expanded, it utilized standard gauge in some areas and narrow gauge in others, or dual-gauge track with a third rail to accommodate both types of trains.
But most narrow gauge operations aren’t anything near the scale the Rio Grande undertook. Most frequently you find narrow gauge in short lines or in railroads serving an industrial area. A mining operation, for example, will have a railroad running into the mine, but it won’t be anywhere near standard gauge in size. The inclines are far too steep for full-size cars to be practical.
Why narrow gauge is popular with model railroaders
Model railroaders like narrow gauge if they really like realism. While the majority of model railroaders run big-name trains like the Union Pacific and BNSF in their basements, the actual space in scale miles on most basement layouts is very small, just a few city blocks. A stickler for detail won’t like that.
If you’re a stickler for detail, you can model a narrow gauge operation realistically, because it’s entirely plausible for a narrow gauge operation to fit entirely within a few city blocks, or less.
Even if you’re not a huge stickler for detail, using narrow gauge can allow you a bigger train in the same space. An aging model railroader whose sight is declining may switch to narrow gauge in order to model in a larger scale, but without having to increase their commitment in terms of space required.
On30 is perhaps the most popular narrow gauge model train, but there are nearly as many standards and practices as there are hobbyists. There’s even a highly regarded magazine, the Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette, dedicated solely to narrow gauge model railroading.