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History of the russian gauge

In railway terminology, ‘Russian gauge’ refers to railway track with a gauge between 1,520 mm and 1,524 mm. In a narrow sense as defined by Russian Railways it refers to 1,520 mm gauge.

The primary installed base of Russian gauge is across the states of the former Soviet Union (CIS states, Baltic states and Georgia), also Mongolia and Finland, representing about 225,000 km of track. The Russian gauge is the second most widely used gauge in the world - after 1,435 mm (standard gauge).

The selection process for the gauge was undertaken chiefly by Colonel Pavel Petrovich Melnikov (1804-1880). Probably, a combination of the following arguments was used:

  • easier construction of locomotives;

  • better stability;

  • easier use of horse carriages for railroad construction and maintenance (since the gauge was wider than standard road track);

  • defensive concerns.

In the 19th century, Imperial Russia chose a gauge broader than standard gauge. It is widely believed that the choice was made for military reasons, to prevent potential invaders from using the Russian rail system. Others point out that no clear standard had emerged by 1842. 1,524 mm was approved as the new standard on September 12, 1842.

Engineer Pavel Melnikov hired George Washington Whistler, a prominent American railroad engineer, to be a consultant on the building of Russia’s first major railroad, the Moscow-Saint Petersburg line. The selection of 1,500 mm gauge was recommended by German and Austrian engineers but not adopted: it was not the same as the 1,524 mm gauge in common use in the southern United States at the time.

George Washington Whistler was invited as a foreign expert to assist in railroad construction. He was a proponent of a wider gauge and his efforts helped in lobbying the new standard. It is quite likely that an ‘invasion’ argument was used in lobbying the project since military was closely supervising the construction; however, it is highly unlikely that such an argument was made by Melnikov during the actual selection process. Nazi Germany suffered such problems with their supply lines (= routes along which goods and equipment are transported to an army during a war) during World War II as a result of the break-of-gauge, but also because bridges had been destroyed.

Ex. 12. Translate the terms given in the box.

track gauge/rail gauge

fourth rail

gauge conversion


broad gauge



railway line

third rail

standard gauge

dual gauge

narrow gauge

Fill in the blanks with the words from the box and translate the sentences from English into Russian.

___ is the distance between the inner sides of the heads of the two load bearing ___ that make up a single ___. Sixty percent of the world's railways use a ___ of 1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in). Wider gauges are called ___; smaller gauges, ___. ___ refers to the meeting of different gauges. Some stretches of track are ___, with three or four rails, allowing trains of different gauges to share them. ___ can resolve break-of-gauge problems. An exception of a railway with no gauge is ___ where there is only one supporting rail. Some electrified railways use non load bearing ___ and occasionally a ___. These additional rails are positioned between or outside the “running rails” to feed and return electrical current; they do not define the rail gauge.


In railway practice:

Track gauge, the distance between the two rails forming a railroad track

Loading gauge, the maximum width and height of engines and loaded wagons, etc.

Structure gauge, the minimum size of bridges, tunnels, platforms, etc.

Axle load, the maximum weight of axles for a given track

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