Gauges in India

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Gauges Used in India

Q. What gauges are used in India?

Broad Gauge - 5'6" (1676mm)

This is the primary gauge on IR. All major passenger and freight routes are now broad gauge. This is the widest gauge in regular use anywhere in the world. (In the past, though, an 8' gauge was used in Oregon, USA, and a 7'¼" gauge was used for the Great Western Railway in the UK.) Outside India, the 5'6" gauge is found in Pakistan, a spur from Pakistan into Iran, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Argentina, Chile, and the BART rapid transit system in the USA. The decision to use a gauge wider than the one in use in Great Britain was made with an eye towards economies in freight movement, and also to ensure stability in the face of Indian weather and the perceived threat of cyclonic winds.

As of April 2020, about 63,500 route km of IR's network are broad-gauge.

Meter Gauge - 1m

(11/2021) This is now found only in isolated branch line areas that see very little traffic or those that cannot be converted easily due to environmental concerns. The currently operational lines are:

  1. Bahraich - Nepalganj Road (NER)
  2. Nanpara - Mailani (NER)
  3. Amreli - Visavadar - Talala - Veraval (WR)
  4. Junagadh - Visavadar (WR)
  5. Talala - Delvada (WR)
  6. Mhow - Omkareshwar Road (WR)
  7. Marwar - Mavli (NWR)
  8. Mathura - Vrindavan (NCR)

IR does eventually plan to convert these lines or close them if the case arises, but timelines are not known.

Of course, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway is a metre gauge line and is expected to be operated with no plans for conversion.

It is said that this gauge was chosen by Lord Mayo (then Viceroy of India) based on calculations to allow 4 persons to sit comfortably abreast — it would have been 3ft 3in except that there was then a push to move to the metric system and so the gauge became 1m. The first MG line was built in 1872 from Delhi to Farukh Nagar. Interestingly, the metric system was not after all adopted until nearly a century later, so the gauge was the only thing in India that was ‘metric’ for a very long time.

In early 2000, about 17,000 route km was metre gauge with a steady decline over the years as they were converted to broad gauge. In 2009, there were 14,500 route km and in 2014 that figure was about 4800 route km. The MG network was especially dense in the west (in Gujarat and Rajasthan), in the east/north-east (West Bengal, Assam) and, before Independence, the areas in what is now Bangladesh), and in much of the south of India.

Until the late 1980s, the North-Eastern Railway had a completely MG network. The MG networks of northern India (including the north-east via the Assam Rail Link) and southern India (16,690 and 7940 route kms, respectively) remained separate until 1960, when the completion of the Khandwa - Hingoli section connected the two. This link went through Akot, Akola, and Basim, across the Tapti and Purna rivers and had 2 tunnels and 50 major bridges, and a spectacular spiral at Dhulghat. This made possible the transit of freight from any MG station in India to any other (except, of course, the Nilgiri line which was always an isolated MG section), which was important even though MG's share of freight was never very large (about 12% before the Unigauge project started).

In 1994, the gauge conversion of the Secunderabad - Mahboobnagar section broke an important MG freight route connecting the northern and southern MG networks. Then in 1995, the gauge conversion work on the Purna - Mudkhed section completely broke the north-south connections of the MG network. In 2001, this meant that the Secunderabad-Jaipur Exp. ran in 3 portions. An MG one from Secunderabad to Mudkhed, a BG portion from Mudkhed to Purna, and a final MG portion from Purna. In 2004, work began on the BG conversion of the Purna - Akola section, with eventual completion and opening of the line as BG on Nov. 12, 2008.

As a result of these and other conversions, in 2006, the longest MG section in India was Purna-Akola-Khandwa-Mhow-Ratlam-Ajmer-Jaipur-Rewari.

Other parts of this important link have been steadily converted over the years and in April 2020, along with a few small sections, only the difficult, heavily forested section between Akot and Amalkhurd remains to be converted.

There are many sections which were converted from BG to MG, and then back again to BG (Guntakal-Bellary, Haldibari-Raninagar, etc.) and if one probes the evolution of some lines, even more tortured multiple conversion histories may be found.

New MG Lines

Despite the Unigauge policy, there are some rare instances of new meter gauge lines or extensions having been constructed recently in the north-east, the most prominent being the Agartala-Dharmanagar line. Other examples: Dharmanagar - Kumarghat was built in 1986-1990, Silchar - Jiribam in 1990, Lala Bazar - Bhairabi in 1988-1991, Balipara - Bhalukpong in 1989-1990.

Narrow Gauge - 2'6" (762mm)

This gauge was adopted in various parts of the British Empire. There were considerable networks of these, for example in Gujarat around Vadodara (mostly from the old Baroda State Railway) and in MP (centred around Gondia on SECR.). (Gondia-Jabalpur Satpura NG railway lines were steadily closed starting in 2003 and converted to BG over the years.) The most well-known line is probably the Kalka-Shimla route which is still operational.

The rationale for the narrower gauges was economy in building the lines — they could be laid much faster than broad gauge lines and in more difficult terrain. It was envisioned that narrow gauge lines would act as feeder lines to the broad gauge and meter gauge lines, but many became important railway routes in their own right. Interestingly, there were even passenger coaches with sleeping accommodations on this gauge, used on the Jabalpur-Gondia, Jabalpur-Nagpur, and Latur-Kuruduwadi sections. The Indian 2'6" lines are notable in having a loading gauge only marginally smaller than that of the MG lines.

Narrow Gauge - 2' (610mm)

A few places in India have the even narrower 2-foot gauge: New Jalpaiguri - Darjeeling and Neral - Matheran. The branch lines around Gwalior of the erstwhile Scindia State Railway were another network but these lines have been steadily converted to broad gauge. Of this network, Gwalior - Shivpuri and Gwalior - Bhind are operational on the wider gauge. Gwalior - Sheopur Kalan has recently (03/2020) been closed and is awaiting conversion. (The Gwalior lines in the past also included the Ujjain–Agar line.) The Howrah-Amta and Howrah-Sheakhala NG lines were shut down a while back, and are now broad gauge.

In their heyday, the two narrow gauges together made up about 3700 route km of IR's network.

Interestingly, India has never used ‘rollbocken’ or transporter wagons to allow direct movement of freight from one gauge to another. Transshipment of freight from one gauge to another was always done by manually unloading and reloading the goods from one train to another. Two transporter wagons were supplied by Calthrop to the Barsi Light Railway but fell into disuse after just a few years. They were used at the Kuruduwadi workshops for many years afterwards. Apart from these, no transporter wagons are known to have been used in India.

Standard Gauge (4'8½" or 1435mm)

All metro systems in India are on standard gauge. The only exceptions being the entire Kolkata Metro and three lines (yellow, red and blue) on the Delhi Metro which run on broad gauge. The Calcutta tram lines are also standard gauge.

Heavy rail in this gauge was used during the construction of the Madras Harbour (3 standard gauge locos were procured by the Madras Port Trust). Standard gauge was also used for the original construction of the Bombay Docks (but this system, put in place in 1909, lasted only until 1954). Standard gauge was insisted upon by the contractors for the Bombay Docks project (Messrs. Price, Willis, and Co.), for the transportation of material from Elephanta Island and to the new dock works and basin dam. Eight standard gauge locos were procured for this, four used in Bombay City and four on Elephanta Island. Wagons included old North London Railway wagons (Bow Works).

A standard gauge heavy rail line existed for the the Salsette-Trombay Railway (also known as the Central Salsette Tramway), a project of the Bombay Improvement Trust and run by the GIPR. This was a line about 13km long, opened in 1928 (stations: Wadavali, Mahul Road, Kurla Jn., Agra Road, Kolovery, Kole-Kalyan, Sahar, Chakala, Andheri). It lasted only a few years. A couple of dozen standard gauge locos were used for these lines, most of which were returned to England later.

Other Indian Gauges

One of the early lines in Bengal (Nalhati–Azimganj, a 40km feeder section connecting to EIR, built in 1863 by the Indian Branch Railway Co.), was initially built to 4' gauge and then converted to BG.

A 3'6" (1067mm) gauge has been used in some places, including the industrial network used by the West Bokaro Collieries, Chirmir Collieries at Ballarpur, and for an Arakkonam – Kanchipuram (then spelled Arconum–Conjeverum) line built by the erstwhile Indian Tramways Company in 1865.

A 3' (914mm) gauge was used by the Tata Iron & Steel Co.

Bengal Coal, at Calcutta, had some 2'2" (660mm) tracks and 4 locomotives that ran on them in the 1880's.

In about 1910, Burocher collieries in Bengal had a 1'6" (457mm) gauge system, the only such in India.

An incredibly narrow 15" (381mm) gauge was used by the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Co. Kraus-Maffei supplied one locomotive for this gauge to TELCO in 1951, a 4-6-2 that was mysteriously classified a 'YP' (number 17655) and which ended up hauling a 15" gauge children's railway in New Delhi.

A 600mm gauge was in use in parts of the subcontinent (a small section in Rangoon, another in western Pakistan / Afghanistan, and in the Pakistan Forestry division of Changa-manga). It was never very widespread in India; examples include the private network used by Coal India's collieries near Nagpur, the works of the engineering firm Larsen and Toubro at Bombay, etc. Locos from Hunslet, Baldwin, etc. were used on this network from around 1910 or earlier, and some were in operation until the early 1970s. A 600mm gauge loco was also used during the Calcutta exhibition 1883 (??).

A 610mm gauge has been reported from 1957 for Telco's Jamshedpur facilities, but this may actually have been 600mm.

Mixed Gauge Tracks

Q. Do mixed-gauge tracks exist in India?

The only remaining mixed-gauge track can be found at Siliguri Jn, where the MG line to Bagdogara is gauntleted for a stretch with BG, though at present (11/2021), no commercial services operate on the MG.

Mixed-gauge tracks existed in several places in India. Mostly, they existed in areas where it was difficult to have multiple tracks (built-up areas, difficult terrain, bridges/tunnels) and where there was a strong need to have stock of different gauges reach the same place (i.e., near ports, inter-modal shipment points, etc.).

Dual-gauge BG/MG tracks existed between Ponmalai (Golden Rock) and Thiruverumbur (which has a BHEL plant) which allowed both BG and MG locos to reach the Golden Rock loco workshop (this ran parallel to the erstwhile Thanjavur MG line for a few km). Sarupsar-Suratgarh (21.5km) (NWR, Bikaner division) was another BG/MG dual-gauge section; the BG part connected Suratgarh with Anupgarh, while the MG part connected Suratgarh to Sriganganagar.

The Madras Port Trust Railway used to have a large dual-gauge operation in the late 1950's — all harbour tracks were dual-gauge BG/MG. The shunting locos had BG couplers as well as offset MG chopper (NCDA) couplers. BG wagons were held at the north (Royapuram) end of the yard and MG wagons at the south (Madras Beach) end. Until April 2001, mixed gauge BG/MG track ran between Korukkupet station yard (with an Indian Oil depot) to Chennai Beach, passing through Washermanpet and Royapuram. It was also electrified, making it perhaps the only such mixed gauge track under the wires.

Ahmedabad Jn. had some dual-gauge BG/MG tracks, with a couple of platforms that were used by both MG and BG trains. About 5km of track between Mysore station and the Ashokapuram railway workshops on the Mysore-Chamarajapuram line were of mixed gauge, to allow BG rolling stock to be sent to the workshops and for commercial MG services. (One or two platforms at Mysore had mixed gauge tracks.)

The Motibagh Workshop and Motibagh Yard at Nagpur had a bit of Mixed Gauge BG/NG track leading to the workshops to enable both BG/NG locos and rolling stock to reach the workshop.

A bridge over the Adjai river near Katwa had BG and NG (2'6") tracks running interlaced (not gauntleted, i.e., the NG tracks are not completely within the BG tracks; instead one rail of the NG track is inside the BG tracks and the other is outside.

Up till the 1970s, the Nagpur-Itwari section had NG track embedded within a BG track to allow both BG and NG traffic to move on the same section. And as late as the early 1990s, Mangalore station had a platform shared by MG and BG trains, with the MG track embedded within the BG track.

Other sections that used to be mixed-gauge: Managalore-Kankanadi (4.5km), Coimbatore - Coimbatore North (2.7km), Palghat - Palghat Town, (3.9km, BG/MG), Tambarapani Block Hut - Tirunelveli (1.4km), Salem - Salem Market (2.6km), Barauni - Bachwara (16.10 km), Brahmaputra bridge before Guwahati (all BG/MG dual gauge); the Mahananda river bridge between Siliguri Town and Siliguri Junction, and Bhandra Bridge No. 50 near Bhadravati in the Birur-Talguppa section (0.5km) for MG / 2'0 NG dual-gauge. MG track embedded within BG existed between Varanasi and Varanasi City when Aunrihar-Chhapra was a MG route; similar track work also existed between Panambur Port and Mangalore.

The Serai Sugar Works in Uttar Pradesh has mixed gauge track (MG and 2'6" NG), which was (still is??) used for a mixed gauge train: the locomotive Tweed, an 0-4-0 steam loco dating to 1873 (see the item on old steam locos) is an MG locomotive, but it hauled a rake of 2'6" NG freight wagons carrying sugarcane.

On the subject of mixed gauges, IR has only rarely had any rolling stock capable of running on more than one gauge. Some official saloons and some of the saloons used by royalty from the princely states did have provisions for being attached to wheelsets of different gauges. One such example is the Maharani's Saloon preserved at the Mysore Railway Museum which ran on both BG and MG.

Q. What is Project Unigauge?

Historically, India has had many different railway gauges in different sections, and some sections have changed gauges (sometimes several times back and forth) depending on perceived economic and operational requirements. However, maintaining multiple gauges leads to inefficiencies at transshipment points, etc., so starting in 1990, there was a steady push to convert all main routes and regional networks on IR to a single gauge, viz., broad gauge. This project has been labelled ‘Project Unigauge’.