Rail gauge in Australia

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Track gauge
By transport mode
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Graphic list of track gauges

  Fifteen inch 381 mm (15 in)

  Two foot,
600 mm
597 mm
600 mm
603 mm
610 mm
(1 ft 11 12 in)
(1 ft 11 58 in)
(1 ft 11 34 in)
(2 ft)
  750 mm,
Two foot six inch,
800 mm
750 mm
760 mm
762 mm
800 mm
(2 ft 5 12 in)
(2 ft 5 1516 in)
(2 ft 6 in)
(2 ft 7 12 in)
  Swedish three foot,
900 mm,
Three foot
891 mm
900 mm
914 mm
(2 ft11 332 in)
(2 ft 11 716)
(3 ft)
  Metre 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in)
  Three foot six inch,
Cape, CAP, Kyōki
1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)
  Four foot six inch 1,372 mm (4 ft 6 in)

  Standard 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)

Five foot
1,520 mm
1,524 mm
(4 ft 11 2732 in)
(5 ft)
  Irish 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in)
  Iberian 1,668 mm (5 ft 5 2132 in)
  Indian 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in)
  Six foot 1,829 mm (6 ft)
  Brunel 2,140 mm (7 ft 14 in)
Change of gauge
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World map, rail gauge by region
Dual gauge tracks in Wallaroo, South Australia. The outer rail on the right is for Broad Gauge (5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm)), the inner rail is for standard gauge. The corridor was dual gauged by Australian National in the early 1980s. This is a low speed line.

Rail gauges in Australia display significant variations, which has presented an extremely difficult problem for rail transport on the Australian continent for over a hundred and fifty years.

Significant variations occur, where no one state has had uniform gauge throughout the state. South Australia has had 3 gauges operating for most of its rail history.

Track gauges and route kilometres[edit]

Triple gauge used in the station yards at Gladstone & Peterborough in South Australia

The most common railway gauges in Australia are Broad, Standard and Narrow gauges. The narrower 2 ft (610 mm) gauge is found on shorter lines, particularly sugarcane tramways in Queensland.

Main gauges:

Other gauges:

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2002)

Of the networks constructed by the various government railways, there have been a variety of rail gauges:

  • Cane tramways, mainly in Queensland are 2 ft (610 mm), but these carry very little through traffic so that the break-of-gauge is not a problem.
  • Victoria had four short 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) lines for general traffic
  • Private timber tramways used a variety of gauges
  • Private, isolated and heavy duty iron ore mining railways all use the standard gauge of 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm)
  • Temporary lines at construction sites, such as the 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge railways used for the development of the national capital at Canberra between 1913 and 1927, including the original Parliament House and 2 ft (610 mm) construction line to Burrinjuck Dam


Pre-construction uniformity[edit]

In 1845, a South Australian newspaper reported the appointment of gauge commission in UK, and desirability of a uniform gauge.[1]

As a result of the Royal Commission in Britain the Gauge Act was passed in 1846 which prescribed the use of 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) in England, Scotland and Wales (with the exception of the Great Western Railway) and 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) in Ireland.

In 1846, a South Australian newspaper discusses the break of gauge problem in the UK, especially for defence.[2][3]

In 1846, a New South Wales newspaper discussed the same problem.[4]

In 1847, South Australia adopts the 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) gauge as law.[5]

In 1848 NSW Governor Charles Fitzroy was advised by Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, Earl Grey, that one uniform gauge should be adopted in Australia, this being the English standard 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) gauge. The recommendation was adopted by the then three colonies.[6][7][8] Grey notes in his letter that South Australia has already adopted this gauge.[9]

At this stage Victoria and Queensland were still part of New South Wales. The overland telegraph communication with London was yet to be built.

Origins of the gauge muddle[edit]

At that time the private Sydney Railway Company had begun planning its railway line to Parramatta. The chief engineer of the company was Irish-born Francis Webb Sheilds. After his appointment in 1849 Shields initially stated a preference for 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm)[10] but in 1850 he persuaded the company, which in turn asked the NSW legislature, to change to the Irish standard gauge of 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm). This decision was endorsed by the NSW Governor, and Colonial Secretary Earl Grey in London agreed in 1851.[11][12]

However, Sheilds and his three subordinates resigned in December 1850 when the company cut their salaries for financial reasons. After the interim appointment of Henry Mais, in July 1852 the company selected a new Scottish engineer, James Wallace, who preferred the English standard gauge. The Government was persuaded to make the change back to 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) and in January 1853 they advised the company that the act requiring 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) would be repealed.

In February 1853 the other colonies (Victoria having separated from New South Wales in 1851) were sent a memorandum advising them of the pending change and recommended they likewise adopt 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm).[13] In Victoria the memorandum was distributed to three railway companies and their responses were sought, with two replying and only one showing a distinct preference for 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm). However the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company asked for a determination from the government as it had prepared plans for both gauges and was due to send an order for locomotives and rolling stock to England by boat at the start of April. In reply at the end of March the companies were told the colonial Victorian government preferred 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) and the order was subsequently placed. In July the same year the government of Victoria advised New South Wales that they would use the broader gauge and later appealed to the British government to force a reversal of New South Wales' decision.[14] Subsequently the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company opened the first railway in Australia in 1854, a 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) ("broad gauge") line, and South Australia used the 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge on its first steam-hauled railway in 1856.

Despite a request by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to reconsider this alteration, the NSW Governor William Denison gave the go-ahead in 1855, with the 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) Sydney to Parramatta railway opening in September 1855.[15][16]

Concerns over the gauge difference began to be raised almost immediately. At a Select Committee called in Victoria in September 1853, a representative of the railway company which had not replied to Latrobe earlier reported a preference for 5 ft 3in, but when asked if Victoria should follow NSW he answered: "We must, I conclude of necessity, do so".[17] In 1857, the NSW railway engineer John Whitton suggested that the short railway then operating in New South Wales be altered from 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) gauge to 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) to conform with Victoria, but despite being supported by the NSW Railway Administration, he was ignored.[18] At that time there were only 21 miles (37 km) of track, 4 engines and assorted cars and wagons on the railway but, by 1889, New South Wales under engineer Whitton had built almost 1,950 miles (3,500 km) of standard gauge line.[15]

Extension of the gauge muddle[edit]

The 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) "narrow" gauge was introduced to Australia in 1865, when Queensland opened its first railway from Ipswich to Grandchester. The gauge was chosen on the supposition that it would be constructed more cheaply, faster and on tighter curves than the wider gauges.[19] This was the first narrow gauge main line in the world. South Australia also adopted this gauge in 1870 with its lines to Port Wakefield, Hoyleton, towards Broken Hill and to Oodnadatta on the expectation that these would never connect to the broad gauge.[20] Western Australia adopted it in 1879 with its lines from Geraldton to Northampton.[15]

Tasmania opened its first railway from Launceston to Deloraine in 1871 using 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge, but converted to 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge in 1888.[15]

Towards a network[edit]

Until the 1880s the gauge issue was not a major problem, as there were no connections between the separate systems. The focus of railway traffic was movement from the hinterland to the ports and cities on the coast so governments were not concerned about the future need for either inter-city passenger or freight services.[18] It was not until 1883 when the broad and standard gauge lines from Melbourne and Sydney met at Albury, and in 1888 narrow and standard gauge from Brisbane and Sydney met at Wallangarra.[21] The issue of rail gauge was mentioned in an 1889 military defence report authored by English army officer Major General James Bevan Edwards, who said that the full benefit of the railways would not be attained until a uniform gauge was established. It needs to be remembered, however, that until federation the benefits of a uniform gauge were not immediately apparent, as passengers would have to pass through customs and immigration at the intercolonial border, meaning that all goods would have to be removed for customs inspection. It was only with federation, and free trade between the states, that the impediment of different gauges became apparent.

By the time of Federation, standard gauge was used in only NSW, but was favoured for further work. Work on gauge conversion was assisted by section 51 (xxxiii) of the Constitution of Australia, which made specific provisions for the Commonwealth Parliament to make laws with respect to railway acquisition and construction. An agreement was made with the South Australian and Western Australian governments for the Trans-Australian Railway from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie, with work started in 1911 and completed in 1917.[21]

In 1921 a royal commission into rail gauge was delivered, recommending gauge conversion of large areas of the country. It stated "that the gauge of 4-ft. 8.5-in. be adopted as the standard for Australia; that no mechanical, third rail, or other device would meet the situation, and that uniformity could be secured by one means only, viz., by conversion of the gauges other than 4-ft. 8.5-in."[22] Following the royal commission, agreements were made for a standard gauge line from Kyogle to South Brisbane (completed in 1930) and from Port Augusta to Port Pirie in 1937.[21]

By World War II there were 12 break of gauge locations, with upwards of 1,600 service personnel and many more civilians employed to transfer 1.8 million tons of freight during the period. The breaks of gauge (BG=Broad gauge, NG=Narrow gauge, SG=Standard gauge) were at:[21]

  • Kalgoorlie—SG, NG
  • Port Augusta—SG, NG
  • Port Pirie—SG, NG, BG
  • Gladstone (SA)—NG, BG
  • Terowie—NG, BG
  • Wolseley—NG, BG
  • Mount Gambier—NG, BG
  • Broken Hill—SG, NG
  • Tocumwal—SG, BG
  • Oaklands—SG, BG
  • Albury—SG, BG
  • Wallangarra—NG, SG
  • South Brisbane—NG, SG
  • Clapham (Brisbane) post-1930 for SG, NG.
  • Hamley Bridge had ceased to be a break of gauge in the 1920s, NG, BG.
  • Roma Street (Brisbane) SG extended to NG station for passenger use only.
  • Acacia Ridge—SG, NG—was developed as a break-of-gauge in the 1970s to relieve overcrowding at Clapham.
  • Fishermans Island (Sea Port) developed in 1980s, NG, SG
  • Bromelton—SG, NG—is being developed in 2010 to relieve overcrowding at Acacia Ridge.

Break-of-gauge devices[edit]

In 1922, 273 inventions to solve the break-of-gauge had been rejected, and none adopted.[23]

In 1933, as many as 140 devices were proposed by inventors to solve the break-of-gauge problem, none of which were adopted.[24]

Even dual gauge with a third rail for combining Irish gauge and standard gauge was rejected as too reckless, as the gap between these gauges of 6.5 in (170 mm) was too small.[25] Dual gauge combining Irish gauge and narrow gauge where the gap was 21 in (530 mm) was also rejected.[26]

Opposition to Third Rail[edit]

While Prime Minister Billy Hughes had expressed support for the idea of a third rail solving the break of gauge difficulty, the predominant opinion of senior officers of the railways was to oppose it.[27]

Clapp Report[edit]

Details of the Clapp report for the Commonwealth Land Transport Board
thin lines – 3' 6"
dotted lines – 4' 8.5"
dashed thick lines – new 4' 8.5"
thick lines – 5' 3"

After the wartime experience, a report into the Standardisation of Australia's rail gauges was completed by former Victorian Railways Chief Commissioner Sir Harold Winthrop Clapp for the Commonwealth Land Transport Board in March 1945. It included three main proposals:[21]

  • Gauge standardisation from Fremantle and Perth to Kalgoorlie, all of South Australian and Victorian broad gauge lines, all of the South Australian south east and Peterborough division narrow gauge lines, and acquisition and conversion of the Silverton Tramway. Costed at 44.318 million pounds.
  • New standard gauge "strategic and developmental railway" from Bourke, New South Wales to Townsville, Queensland and Dajarra (near Mount Isa) with new branch lines from Bourke via Barringun, Cunnamulla, Charleville, Blackall to Longreach. Existing narrow gauge lines Queensland would also be gauge converted, including Longreach – Linton – Hughenden – Townsville Dajarra and associated branches. The overall cost was 21.565 million pounds.

The report wrote that if only main trunk lines were converted, it would introduce a multitude of break of gauge terminals and result in greatly increased costs. It also recommended abandoning part of the existing Perth – Kalgoorlie narrow gauge line, and build a flatter and straighter route using 3rd rail dual gauge, as modernisation was just as important as standardisation.[28]

South Australia was unhappy with the report, as the link to the Northern Territory would not run though its state. Western Australia and Queensland both saw no advantage in the report, as they already had a common gauge in their states, and only one main break of gauge. NSW entered into the agreement to advance gauge standardisation in Victoria and South Australia, but did not ratify it.[28]

Gauge conversion did continue, with the South Australian Railways south east division from Wolseley to Mount Gambier and associated branches converted to broad gauge in the 1950s, on the understanding it would again to standard gauge at a later date. Standard gauge lines were also built, with the line between Stirling North and Maree opened in July 1957.[28]

Wentworth Committee[edit]

In 1956 a Government Members Rail Standardisation Committee was established, chaired by William Wentworth, MP.[29] It found that while there was still considerable doubt as to the justification for large scale gauge conversion, there was no doubt that work on some main trunk lines was long overdue. Both the committee and the Liberal party then in power strongly supported three standardisation projects at a cost of 41.5 million pounds ($83 million):

  • Wodonga to Melbourne (priority 1)
  • Broken Hill to Adelaide via Port Pirie (priority 2—built 3rd)
  • Kalgoorlie to Perth and Fremantle (priority 3—built 2nd)

The Commonwealth, NSW and Victorian governments were first to start work, with the first goods train to Melbourne operating in January 1962 and the first through passenger train in April 1962. Over the next 12 months net freight tonnage was up 32.5% and to 1973 there was an average increase of 8.6%.[29]

The work in Western Australia was done in conjunction with a new iron ore mine at Koolyanobbing and an accompanying steel mill at Kwinana. A new dual gauge line was built through the Avon Valley from Midland to Northam on 1 in 200 grades instead of 1 in 40;[18] and a new line was built from Southern Cross to Kalgoorlie though Koolyanobbing.[29] Officially opened in August 1969, Kalgoolie – Perth freight train times were reduced from 31 hours to 13 hours, and passenger trains from 14 hours to 8 hours.

In South Australia work on Port Pirie to Broken Hill did not start until 1963. The narrow gauge lines from Gladstone and Peterborough were not converted, with triple gauge yards provided. Standard gauge access to Adelaide was not provided.[29] From Cockburn to Broken Hill a new railway was built on an improved alignment, avoiding the private Silverton Tramway route.[30] The completion of this link enabled the first Indian Pacific to run across the nation in March 1970 from Sydney to Perth.

Whitlam Government[edit]

A new line between Tarcoola and Alice Springs was given the go ahead by the Whitlam Government in 1974. Built to replace the narrow gauge Central Australia Railway the 831 kilometre long line was completed by 1980, see Adelaide-Darwin Railway.[18]

Work on standard gauge access to Adelaide started in 1982, with conversion of the broad gauge south of Red Hill, a new line north of there to Crystal Brook where it met the standard gauge line from Port Pirie to Broken Hill. Freight trains began using the line in 1983 with passenger trains following the next year. With benefits exceeding the cost by 2.8 times over 25 years, the Australian National Railways Commission was able to obtain a loan for the funding of the work.[30]

One Nation project[edit]

The One Nation project was carried out under the Keating Government from 1991 to 1996. The Melbourne-Adelaide railway line was converted to standard gauge in 1995,[31] at a cost of $167 million.[32] A few broad gauge lines such as the one to Portland in Victoria and to Pinnaroo and Loxton respectively in South Australia were also converted. The remaining isolated broad gauge and narrow gauge lines were closed.[33] A standard gauge/dual gauge link was also opened to the Port of Brisbane in 1997.[32]

Recent projects[edit]

Dual gauge (broad and standard) track work in Victoria.

Gauge conversion of 2000 kilometres of track in Victoria was announced by the State Government in May 2001 but did not proceed due to the difficulty of achieving any agreement with then track manager, Freight Australia.[31] In 2008 the conversion of the North East line in Victoria was announced, covering 200 kilometres (120 mi) of track between Seymour and Albury to provide double track along the section.[34] In the same year standard gauge access was provided to the Port of Geelong, 13 years after the conversion to standard gauge of the Western standard gauge line between Melbourne and Adelaide, which runs through the northern suburbs of Geelong.[35]

The Oaklands branch line has been converted to standard gauge as part of the project to standardise the North East line, to prevent that branch becoming isolated.

To allow the creation of a new multimodal centre at Bromelton, Queensland, the Acacia Ridge to Bromelton section is being converted to dual gauge.


Since the Australian Overland Telegraph Line and cable communications with England did not open until 1872, communications regarding gauge between 1847 and 1871 had to be carried out by much slower sea transport.


  1. ^ "THE PROPOSED RAILROAD.". The South Australian (Adelaide: National Library of Australia). 12 December 1845. p. 3. Retrieved 6 November 2014. 
  2. ^ "ARMY AND NAVY.". South Australian Register (Adelaide: National Library of Australia). 24 June 1846. p. 4. Retrieved 25 October 2014. 
  3. ^ "The South Australian Rergister. ADELAIDE : SATURDAY, AUGUST 8, 1846.". South Australian Register (Adelaide: National Library of Australia). 8 August 1846. p. 2. Retrieved 25 October 2014. 
  4. ^ "COURT OF COMMON COUNCIL.". The Sydney Morning Herald (National Library of Australia). 21 August 1846. p. 3. Retrieved 25 October 2014. 
  5. ^ "PROCEEDINGS OF THE LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL.". The South Australian (Adelaide: National Library of Australia). 8 October 1847. p. 3. Retrieved 8 January 2013. 
  6. ^ "BREAK OF GAUGE.". The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848-1954) (Melbourne: National Library of Australia). 8 April 1911. p. 6. Retrieved 30 November 2010. 
  7. ^ "MAITLAND MERCURY.". The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW: National Library of Australia). 20 June 1849. p. 2. Retrieved 6 November 2014. 
  8. ^ "LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL.". South Australian Register (Adelaide: National Library of Australia). 20 February 1850. p. 3. Retrieved 27 August 2011.  4' 8.5" Gauge in Adelaide]
  9. ^ "COLONIAL RAILWAYS.". The Sydney Morning Herald (National Library of Australia). 15 June 1849. p. 3. Retrieved 19 October 2013. 
  10. ^ Mills (2006), p.99
  11. ^ Laird, p 185
  12. ^ By the end of 1851 within the British Empire five regions had preferred rail gauges: England, Scotland and Wales with 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm), Ireland and Australia with 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) and India and the Province of Canada with 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm). Canada would convert to standard gauge in the 1870s.
  13. ^ Mills (2006), p.91-111
  14. ^ Mills (2006), p.125-129
  15. ^ a b c d Laird, p 186
  16. ^ Harrigan, Leo J. (1962). Victorian Railways to ‘62. Melbourne: Victorian Railways Public Relations and Betterment Board. 
  17. ^ Mills(2006), p.127
  18. ^ a b c d "The Conversion to Standard Gauge". Technology in Australia 1788–1988. www.austehc.unimelb.edu.au. p. page 380. Retrieved 2008-07-20. 
  19. ^ Pollard, Neville (February 2014). "Australian's Uniform Gauge Debacle, Part 1". Australian Railway History 65 (916): 4. 
  20. ^ Evans, John (April 2014). "The Uniform Gauge Question: A South Australian Perspective". Australian Railway History 65 (918): 5. 
  21. ^ a b c d e Laird, p 187
  22. ^ "Standardisation of Railway Gauges". Year Book Australia, 1967. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 1967-01-25. Retrieved 2008-02-08. 
  23. ^ "BREAK OF GAUGE.". The Daily News (Perth: National Library of Australia). 12 January 1922. p. 2 Edition: THIRD EDITION. Retrieved 26 October 2013. 
  24. ^ "BREAK OF GAUGE.". The Brisbane Courier (Qld.: National Library of Australia). 14 August 1933. p. 15. Retrieved 27 August 2011. 
  25. ^ "GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY.". The Argus (Melbourne: National Library of Australia). 11 March 1926. p. 7. Retrieved 26 August 2011. 
  26. ^ "STANDARD GAUGE PLANI POSTPONED.". The Argus (Melbourne: National Library of Australia). 17 February 1941. p. 5. Retrieved 26 August 2011. 
  27. ^ "UNIFORM GAUGE.". The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times (Tas.: National Library of Australia). 1 June 1916. p. 3. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  28. ^ a b c Laird, p 188
  29. ^ a b c d Laird, p 189
  30. ^ a b Laird, p 190
  31. ^ a b John Hearsch (1 February 2007). "Victoria's Regional Railway Past, Present and Potential" (PDF). RTSA Regional Rail Symposium, Wagga Wagga. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-08-30. Retrieved 2008-02-08. 
  32. ^ a b Laird, p 191
  33. ^ Evans, John (April 2014). "The Uniform Gauge Question: A South Australian Perspective". Australian Railway History 65 (918): pp.3–10. 
  34. ^ "$500m rail link upgrade for Victoria". news.ninemsn.com.au. Retrieved 2008-05-30. 
  35. ^ "Corio Independent Goods Line Guide". Rail Geelong. www.railgeelong.com. Retrieved 2008-10-14. 

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