‘Area 1520’ – not about aliens or UFOs

With Easter approaching, thoughts turn to the holiday. One of our frequent contributors, John Frewen-Lord, has written an article about travel, or rather about a means of travel, which may help to get us in the mood, and which, moreover, deals with a topic not previously visited by Metric Views.

Many people have heard of Area 51 at Roswell, in the state of New Mexico, USA. It is purportedly the home of captured aliens and an unusually large concentration of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. Here, we consider another area identified by a number, this time in Russia and its satellite states and formally known as Area 1520. It derives its name, not from any secret activities it might be engaging in involving visitors from another galaxy, but from the rather more mundane fact that the track gauge used for its railways – the distance between the inside faces of the rails – is 1520 mm.

Area 1520 is an organisation that exists to advance the use of this gauge throughout the world (and is already making inroads into Western Europe in certain places), and today includes 17 countries, all formerly USSR satellites, including the Ukraine and Baltic countries such as Latvia and Estonia. The total route distance in Area 1520 is somewhere in the region of 227 000 km and is the second longest in the world after 1435 mm Standard gauge.

Russia’s railway gauge started out as 1524 mm, or exactly 5 ft 0 in – very much an Imperial measurement in what today is a very metric country. However, in May 1970, the USSR (as it then was) adjusted it to 1520 mm, in order, it is said, to simplify calculations (this was before the days of cheap electronic calculators). Almost all of the other countries using this Russian gauge followed suit (except Finland, nominally neutral and not part of ‘Area 1520’, remained with 1524 mm). The 4 mm gauge difference is really not an issue as regards the ability of trains to travel on either gauge, and in fact a 280-km/h train, neatly splitting the difference with a wheel gauge of 1522 mm, runs between Helsinki and St Petersburg.

To understand the reasons for Russia to be using Imperial measurements (before it adopted the metric system in 1924, two years after the creation of the USSR), we have to go back to when Russia was ruled by Peter the Great. In the 18th century, Peter had a great interest in measurement – unlike our recent Prime Ministers! He re-aligned Russia’s measurement system in accordance with that in existence in Britain at the time, including creating the diuym, or inch and the fut, or foot.

When imperial Russia wanted to build its first railways, in 1842, P. Melnikov, Russia’s first railway engineer and Minister of Communications, knew it needed outside help, as the country had lagged far behind the rapidly industrialising countries of Western Europe and America. Melnikov had already visited the USA, and had met up with pre-eminent American railway engineer, George Washington Whistler.

Melnikov then enlisted the services of Whistler, who as a result visited Russia. Also enlisted to help (perhaps to test Whistler’s knowledge?) were German and Austrian railway experts.

The European experts recommended the use of 1500 mm gauge. While this is a nice round number, there appeared to be no compelling reason to use it. There was no other instance of a 1500 mm gauge railway anywhere else in the world. It varied very little (just 65 mm) from the 1435 mm Stephenson gauge that was already coming into widespread use in Europe in the 1840s. So there must have been another reason behind the use of a different, and indeed a unique, gauge.

Legend has it that Russia wanted to make sure that no aggressor could run their trains over its tracks should it be invaded. This may possibly be true (and certainly Russia was invaded more than once in later years, so such a threat deserved consideration). But was the foreign invasion fear at that time actually real, or just one of those historical ‘urban myths’?

However it was Whistler, not the European experts, who Melnikov eventually listened to. And Whistler had already been building railways in the USA to the 5 ft 0 in (1524 mm) gauge, a gauge that he insisted was superior to the narrower gauges used on other railways in the USA at that time. It was therefore quite natural that Melnikov, in taking Whistler’s advice, should also build Russia’s railways to the same gauge – 5 futdiuym.

The first proper railway in Russia was built under Melnikov’s direction, starting in 1842, between Moscow and St Petersburg, and used the expertise of Whistler. In 1850, an ‘Arrangement Committee’ formed to oversee the construction of this railway decreed the use of 1524 mm gauge, not only for this railway but for all subsequent railway construction in Russia.

By 1855, some 900 km of 1524 mm gauge railways had been completed, a figure that was to jump to 23 000 km by 1880. Further lines linking key ports and towns continued to be built in the closing years of the 19th century, but it was the building of the 1524 mm gauge Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Vladivostok, finally completed in 1916 and stretching a distance of over 9000 km, that finally connected east and west Russia.

A original line of this Railway, opened in 1901, actually runs through China, and provides a more direct route to Vladivostok than the line to the north built later entirely in Russian territory. The original line also has a branch to Port Arthur (now called Lushunkou District) which was leased to Russia by China from 1898 to 1905 to provide access to an ice-free port. The lines in China were constructed to the Russian gauge, but were later converted to Standard gauge. It is therefore now necessary for through traffic on this route to exchange railway wagon bogies at the borders between Russia and China.

The Russian Revolution in 1917, followed by civil war in 1918, led to the creation of what became known as the USSR in 1922. During those intervening five years, Russia invaded and occupied satellite states around its periphery such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which is why all these satellite nations followed Russian practice in terms of the gauge of their railways (and indeed most of the other railway standards involved).

Russia did briefly experience a short time when part of its railways was converted to 1435 mm gauge. The invading Germans, during World War II, had converted around 700 km from the Polish border to Smolensk to Standard gauge (which, because of the small gauge difference, involved not adding an additional rail but removing and replacing one rail – a time-consuming operation which contributed to the Germans’ defeat in the Battle of Moscow). Once World War II had ended, this line and some associated freight yards were quickly converted back to Russian gauge, where they have remained since.

Today, Russia has about 85 000 km of main-line railways, down from a total of over 140 000 km when it was part of the USSR. A new 300 km/h high speed line between Moscow and St Petersburg will, unlike high speed lines in other countries, which are built to 1435 mm Standard gauge even when their ‘legacy’ networks use another gauge (such as Spain and Japan), be built to 1520 mm gauge – Area 1520 has huge influence still.

But it is not only main lines in Russia and CIS countries that use the 1520 mm gauge. The Moscow underground is of course famous for the beauty and grandeur of its stations. Over three times as long as that in St Petersburg, Moscow’s metro comprises over 300 km of route distance with twelve lines, almost all underground. One of the most intensely used systems in the world, it too, and like that in St Petersburg, uses the main-line standard of 1520 mm gauge.

The first railways in what is now the western part of Ukraine were built when this region was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even while the eastern part was under the control of the Russian Empire. Ukraine’s history is complex and chaotic, the country undergoing sometimes violent tensions throughout the 19th century between Russian influences in the eastern half and the Austrian influences in the west (a situation that has just moved to today’s headlines with Russia’s invasion of the Crimea). While the Ukraine’s railways had been built to a mix of Standard and Russian gauges up to this point, Russia’s (and subsequently Area 1520’s) influence decreed that all of Ukraine’s railways would henceforth be to Russian gauge.

Two countries in Area 1520 represent what may be significant chinks in Area 1520’s pursuit of spreading its gauge far and wide. Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have begun to embrace 1435 mm Standard gauge railways within their borders. It’s not hard to see why. Both countries are on the more direct routes between China in the east and Europe in the west – and can thereby profit handsomely from the trans-Asian traffic (especially container traffic) that originates in China, and travels overland to markets throughout Europe. Overland shipment is often preferred, as it can cut as much as two weeks off the total transit time.

As both China and Western Europe, including Britain but not Ireland, use 1435 mm Standard gauge, the use of such a gauge in Afghanistan particularly (the gap in 1435 mm rails between China and Iran through Afghanistan is not huge) makes perfect sense, saving all the trouble of either changing bogies on freight wagons, or using large cranes to offload containers from one train to another, at each break of gauge. (The alternate, and more northerly, route through Kazakhstan would involve considerable more construction of Standard gauge track through Area 1520 territory, which is less likely to happen.)

Many may have heard of what was known (and still is known) as the Great Silk Road. Historically it connects Beijing with Europe, over which trade caravans regularly plied carrying silks (hence its name) and other valuable products to merchants in the great European cities. The Great Silk Road may soon have a successor in the form of the Iron Silk Road. This network will ultimately comprise around 81 000 km of interlinked lines, most (but by no means all) to 1435 mm Standard gauge, and will enable the seamless shipment of freight (particularly containers) between the east (China, South-East Asia) and the west. It will represent a huge threat in Area 1520’s ambitions.

Area 1520 may indeed find itself with real competition.

(Editorial comment.
Readers who wish to pursue this subject further may be interested in:
“Tracking the gauges. The story of the World’s railway gauges. Yesterday and today. Part 4 – ‘Area 1520.'” by Michael Frewston, available from Amazon as an e-book.)

8 thoughts on “‘Area 1520’ – not about aliens or UFOs”

  1. There is a famous cartoon of 1846 entitled “Break of gauge at Gloucester”. It draws attention to the chaos that occurred where standard gauge met broad gauge.

    The final sections of main line broad gauge in Britain were removed in 1892, and we have, in this island, largely forgotten the problems resulting from a change in track gauge. John’s article is a reminder that such problems remain elsewhere in the world and that these problems occur at the point where the gauge changes. Within Area 1520, the gauge is not a problem. It only becomes one at the boundary.

    Just like measurement systems.

    Our DfT has been in denial of this for forty years. It tells us that it has no problem with the continuing use of imperial measurement on road traffic signs. Boundary problems? Those are for someone else to solve:

    1. The need to include miles in the school curriculum. “Teachers can sort that out”.
    2. Fuel sold in litres, consumption in mpg. “Motorists know how much it costs to fill their tank”.
    3. OS Landranger maps scaled at 1:50 000, but 63 360 inches in a mile. “What’s the problem?”
    4. A mixture of units in the Highway Code. “Motoring schools don’t seem to mind”.
    5. Roads constructed in metric, signed in imperial. “The civil engineers can cope”.
    6. Foreign drivers in the UK. “They need to learn our system”.
    7. British motorists abroad. “You need to learn their system”.
    And so on.

    So why are we not building HS2 to the superior 1520 mm gauge or even to Brunel’s 7 ft broad gauge?


  2. @Wilfred:

    You make some very interesting and valid points, which highlight the trend in governments today (compared with times past), in that no-one wants to make a decision that is seen to be unpopular (unless there is money in it for the government, in which case the decision can get made pretty fast). Instead, ‘kick the can down the road’ for someone else to deal with.

    In regards to your last comment, I am assuming it was made in jest. The Gauge Act of 1846 made all new railway construction a mandatory 1435 mm (‘four feet, eight inches and one half inch’ to use the wording in the Act), but it did have an escape clause which enabled Brunel to construct and run his broad gauge trains at his 7 ft 0-1/4 inch gauge, until the last track disappeared in 1892, as you say (although in reality his broad gauge trains had all but stopped running long before then).

    As for the broader gauges being superior, in what way? 150 years ago, maybe. But not today. A Standard gauge French TGV holds the world speed record of 575 km/h – and all but destroyed the trackbed in the process. The Chinese run the fastest trains in regular service, again on Standard gauge, at a maximum of 400 km/h, and using ballastless track. While the website for Area 1520 indeed includes much old Soviet-style propaganda on the superiority of the 1520 mm gauge, in fact it is nothing of the sort.

    Finally, if anyone really wants to see the problems breaks of gauge cause in terms of running a country’s railway system, just look at Australia. Mostly (but far from completely) resolved today, 100 years ago, a traveller from Brisbane to Perth endured six changes of train, five due to breaks of gauge at State boundaries (and even within States in some cases). An absolute nightmare. A classic example of how the lack of measurement standardisation causes problems for generations to come. Something that UK governments seem unable to comprehend.


  3. John, you wrote of the varying railway gauges found in Australia 100 years ago:
    “A classic example of how the lack of measurement standardisation causes problems for generations to come. Something that UK governments seem unable to comprehend.”

    That doesn’t make any sense. The Australians *had* measurement standardisation back then, they used the standard imperial system exclusively. Or are you saying that if they had used the metric system, they would’t have chosen to use different gauges in different places?

    And if there is something that UK governments have been unable to comprehend, it certainly isn’t measurement standardisation. It is the UK standard railway gauge that is used in most of the world. And it was British engineer Joseph Whitworth who, back in the mid 19th century, devised the world’s first national screw thread standard. Indeed the UK standardised measurement for much of the developed world. The British Standards Institution, founded in 1901, was the world’s first national standards body. The British certainly comprehend measurement standards, whether they be defined in imperial units as they were originally, or in metric units as they are today for most national standards. Out track record on measurement standards is indeed impeccable (no pun intended!).


  4. @CharlieP:

    Charlie, yes you are correct in what you say. What I was getting at however (and which obviously didn’t come over as such), is that, when it comes to measurements, there invariably has to be some sort of government decree or legislation in order to bring logic and order to one of the most fundamental elements of human existence. We saw it first in Magna Carta (“There shall be one measure…”) In terms of railways, it was the Gauge Act of 1846 that did it for the UK (as well as Ireland, albeit to a different gauge). Other countries did much the same – even America, that bastion of individualism, legislated the use of, initially 1524 mm, then amended to Standard, gauge for the trans-continental Union Pacific Railway, signed into law by President Lincoln himself, such was the importance of establishing a uniform standard. A similar thing happened in Canada with the trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway, legislated at Standard gauge by Sir John A Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. No such thing happened in Australia, which is why Australia’s railways were (and to a degree still are) a mess when it comes to railway gauges.

    What we see today in the UK is a government content, even making it formal policy, to use two standards (metric here, imperial there), and thinking that such a policy has no adverse consequences. That was the point I was trying to make.


  5. John, I still cannot see the point you want to make. Can you give us a specific example from current UK practice where the mix of unit types is analogous to, and gives similar problems to, the Australian mix of railway gauges.


  6. Joanna Lumley’s Trans Siberian Adventure (ITV, Sundays 21:00) last night took us from Hong Kong to Mongolia via Beijing with break of gauge at the China-Mongolia border. There were pictures of the exchange of bogies and a comment from Lumley about the amount of work involved. That said, bureaucracy seemed to be the cause of most of the delay at the border.


  7. @derekp

    The worst thing about the article is that all of the measurements in the article not only include Imperial as well as metric, they put Imperial first and metric only afterwards in parentheses.

    Is the BBC going backwards? This is simply dreadful. And keeping those Imperial road signs only continues to keep the UK stagnating in the muddle, I’m afraid. The one good thing about Brexit for metrication might be that Scotland and Northern Ireland might end up converting road signs and finally get to being essentially all metric at last. (We’ll see, eh?)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: