Break of railway gauge proposed

The UK Department for Transport is proposing that a break in railway gauge should be introduced at the UK-French border. Britain’s main line railways will adopt the Irish track gauge of 1600 mm (5’– 3”).

Following controversy earlier this year relating to the eventual adoption by British railways of a computerised signalling system originally developed on the Continent, it has been decided that standardisation and adoption of European practice on our national railways has gone too far.

An official report seen by Metric Views proposes that the UK should change from the standard railway gauge of 1435 mm (4’-8 ½”). Consideration has been given to adopting Brunel’s broad gauge of 2140 mm (7’-0 ¼”), but because this had been eliminated from the national rail network in the nineteenth century in favour of standard gauge, it was thought it might look foolish to reinstate it. Also, as all broad gauge locomotives were scrapped in the 1890’s, motive power might initially be a problem. And finally, Brunel’s father was French! Instead, ministers opted for the Irish gauge so that all UK national railways will eventually have the same track gauge. Ministers were concerned that, as this involved an element of standardisation, they might be accused of following the orders of EU bureaucrats, but after careful consideration believed the risk of this happening was low.

This gauge is also used in the State of Victoria, Australia, and a number of MPs have suggested it should be called ‘Victorian’, which also describes the Palace where they meet and might be popular with the public.

The Chief Executive of Eurotunnel has pointed out that, as the break of gauge will occur at the UK-French border in the middle of the English Channel, it will be necessary to enlarge the tunnels at that point to enable railway carriages and wagons to be switched from standard to Irish gauge bogies and to change motive power. It is estimated this operation will take less than one hour.

A spokesman for a train drivers’ union said he welcomed the proposal. He said “The break in journey will enable our members to get used to the idea that they are leaving one country and entering another with different standards.”

The UK Department of Transport said “To meet EU regulations, the new gauge will be described as 1600 mm, not 5’-3” and certainly not ‘Irish’.”

For a related article see: ERTMS, Mail on Sunday, 25 January 2015

12 thoughts on “Break of railway gauge proposed”

  1. It sounds pretty daft to me. Isn’t it just a case of bringing about a change in gauge just to be different? Why introduce a break of gauge where none exists? This harebrained idea should be knocked on the head!


  2. Quite right too! But I don’t think it should be to the 1600 mm ‘Victorian’ gauge, though that would certainly fit in with the era that our measuring standards have finally reached. I think it should be to the Russian 1520 mm gauge. Russia has long been trying to spread this gauge far beyond its borders. What a wonderful way to help it to expand its 1520 mm gauge empire! I’m sure that, with recent Russian activities in the Ukraine, the EU would more than welcome this move. Well done our Department for Transport – ahead of the game as always.


  3. I don’t think they have thought this through properly. I have been on a train myself that has had to change bogies and, while your carriage is suspended in mid-air, swinging slightly, you can feel quite sea-sick. I thought the whole point of going through the Channel Tunnel was to avoid sea-sickness. It would be much cheaper and simpler to de-train all passengers coming from the Continent and de-cant them into the service tunnel between the running tunnels, run the continental-bogie train back to the Continent and then to bring in the new Irish-bogie train from Folkestone to collect the passengers. I am sure they would enjoy the break from their train journey and, who knows, perhaps some refreshment vendors could ply their wares to keep them happy and busy while they wait for their onward connection. Vice versa for travellers the other way. This will of course also create jobs. Sounds like a win-win to me!


  4. I agree with John Frewen-Lord. Considering we appear to be heading for an exit from the EU we should connect our railways to the Russians instead of the French.


  5. @Jake:

    This would be a great idea – the Americans tried it in 1853 at Erie, PA, where there were two breaks of gauge, resulting in lots of business, especially for pie and peanut vendors. When the Erie and North Eastern Railroad tried to convert the gap from the Erie broad gauge to the gauge used either side of Erie, obviating the need for a stop, a full scale war broke out, which of course would never happen between France and the UK.

    Unfortunately, today technology has usurped the need for a stop. Variable gauge bogies and wheelsets are in use in dual-gauge Spain, dual-gauge Switzerland and between Poland and Russia. Maybe those wanting a nice rest between France and Britain could go by boat?


  6. I trust this is the April Fool’s edition, but I fear the BWMA and some of your political parties will not realize and will “make it happen.” 🙂


  7. If this April joke was really carried out, the cost would be astronomical, involving tearing up all existing tracks in Britain and adapting all trains going through the Chunnel. And this would be done by the British Department of Transport, which resists British speed and distance metrication because of the cost involved!


  8. @Han Maenen
    Yes, that is exactly so.

    Here is the big joke though, if it is just a few million pounds we have to watch our pennies. However, if it is a multi-billion pound project that is fine and dandy, lots of millionaires get a reasonable pocketful. Cynical maybe, but it is hard to disprove.


  9. This is not a 1st of April joke; it just feels like one!
    I boarded the high speed train on my journey from London St Pancras International to Canterbury West in Kent. I asked a very knowledgeable ticket inspector if the train speeds were in km/h, “Oh yes sir” he said, I replied what about from Ashford station when the train branches left on its journey to Canterbury West? “That’s the point at which the digital display in the driver’s cab changes to mph” he replied.
    What a disappointment. I give up!
    (Editor. Please don’t)


  10. Speaking of railways, the latest UKMA newsletter mentions the new standard railway control system for all of the EU that (of course) only uses metric.

    I noted that one of the reasons given by some for opposing this move away from Imperial is that the UK is “not a metric country” as evidenced by the Imperial road signs.

    While this ignores the overwhelming real presence of metric in the life and economy of the UK, it also reminds us how important road signs are psychologically to the general public and the perception of how metric the UK is.

    I’m quite convinced that once road signs are converted, it will be essentially “game over” for the opponents of complete metrication. (This is why they resist it so fiercely.)


  11. @Ezra:

    “While this ignores the overwhelming real presence of metric in the life and economy of the UK, it also reminds us how important road signs are psychologically to the general public and the perception of how metric the UK is.”

    How so right. This is precisely the argument I was making when, much earlier within these MV pages, I made the point about a lost export contract for to Japan (by an engineer friend of mine), simply because when the Japanese client arrived in London to sign the contract (as well as check out my friend’s company), all he could see on the drive from Heathrow were imperial road signs. Not wishing to experience a metric-imperial mix-up (this was not long after the Mars Climate Observer fiasco), the contract went to a Canadian company in Vancouver. Ironically, UK engineering companies are, and were back then, probably more metric than Canadian ones, but the perception that the UK was still imperial overcame the reality.


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