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The pros and cons of narrow-gauge railways

Gleis-Weichen in einsamer, bewaldeter Landschaft.
Gauge widths of less than 1435 mm are considered narrow, though around two thirds of the world's rail networks are regular-gauge (1435 mm).  © weenee / Fotolia

The narrow-gauge railway proves its worth

As the name suggests, the narrow-gauge railway is essentially distinguished by a smaller gauge width of just 750 mm. This gives it a number of advantages over railways with normal gauges (1435 mm).

The narrower gauge enables tighter curves to be taken, especially in valleys and in generally difficult terrain. It is also shorter than normal railways, thus requiring less space at train stations. The small number of rails and switches associated with narrow-gauge railways also makes them much easier to operate than normal trains.

The material savings of course also enable lower investment costs and construction costs; signals and aerial lines are largely done away with, and elaborate automatic switches and block modes are rarely used. The smaller track bed and rails mean further savings in construction costs.

Schmalspurbahn schlängeln sich eine Siedlung.
Narrow-gauge railways weren't just used in the mining regions of the Ore Mountains. The Döllnitzbahn owes its use to the mining of kaolin in the flat surrounds around Leipzig.  © dpa

Rather not take the smaller train?

Despite its many advantages, the narrow-gauge railway does have one key disadvantage: When transporting goods, the cargo needs to be reloaded at transhipment stations for onward transportation by regular-gauge trains.

To solve this problem, processes were developed enabling entire freight cars to be transported via narrow gauge on carrier trucks or roll cars. The narrow-gauge railways are also less smooth than normal railways, meaning jolts and vibrations are felt more intensely.

As such, narrow-gauge railways are primarily used in places which minimise the effect of the disadvantages, such as mountain railways or trams. They were often also used in small, maze-like towns and narrower valleys, where their special features give them a clear advantage over normal railways.

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