China has a large railway network, though extension of that network to Tibet is recent. The gauge used is 1,435 mm, standard gauge. In a question paper for an IR (Indian Railway) examination, I found a multiple choice question. Which gauge did Mr W. Simms, the Consulting Engineer to Government of India, recommend for Indian railways? (a) 1,435 mm, adopted in England; (b) 1,800 mm as per Indian conditions; (c) 1,676 mm as a compromise gauge; or (d) 1,000 mm as a standard gauge? I have lifted the language straight from the question paper and one can quibble. For instance, the 1,435 mm standard gauge adoption in England was progressive. In 1845, there was a Royal Commission on Railway Gauges, leading to an act for regulating railway gauges in 1846. Hence, 1,435 mm in England and by the same piece of legislation, 1,600 mm in Ireland. Over a period of time, everything moved to standard gauge in England. For India, there was no Royal Commission. Instead, there was Mr Simms and the examiners expect you to tick (c), broad gauge. The gentleman in question wasn’t W. Simms, he was F. W. Simms, Frederick Walter Simms (1803-64). Around 1845, Mr Simms was appointed Consulting Engineer to the Government of India. In “The Calcutta Review” of 1847, I found a reference to a project report he prepared on the Diamond Harbour Dock and Railway Company.
Initial agreements with EIRC (East Indian Railway Company) and GIPR (Great Indian Peninsula Company) opted for standard gauge. But Lord Dalhousie preferred 1,829 mm. Why? In discussions, you will find a reference to the following sentence. “The continued action of violent winds, and the influence of the vertical sun”, as if this lead to adoption of a gauge broader than standard. That’s not true. This sentence is from the Minutes of the Court of Directors of the East India Company on May 7, 1845. The minutes speak about difficulties of constructing railways in India – rains, inundation, violent winds, vertical sun, insects, vermin, spontaneous vegetation, unprotected tracts, lack of competent engineers. They say nothing about gauge choice. Broader than broad gauge was being experimented with in England. Railways developed in India almost in parallel with developments in England. Had they developed two decades later, Lord Dalhousie might have taken cognizance of the Royal Commission and chosen standard gauge. As matters stood, he opted for 1,829 mm. I have no idea why he preferred this. This wasn’t something widely-experimented with in England. Perhaps he was influenced by the USA (New York and Erie Railroad).
Thus, there was 1,435 mm and there was Dalhousie’s 1,829 mm. Because of the Simms recommendation, India settled for 1,676 mm, almost mid-point of the two. This is a very unusual gauge. Why did Simms opt for 1,676 mm? Again, perhaps railways should have developed two decades later in India. Scotland had 1,676 tracks. However, after standardisation of gauge there, post 1848, these switched to standard gauge. Meanwhile, India was stuck with 1,676 mm, a gauge that exists in India (after Project Uni-gauge, almost the entire network is this), the western parts of Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Argentina and the southern parts of Chile. Whether we like it or not, the entire world has moved towards 1,435 mm. Perhaps areas in the former Soviet Union and under former Soviet influence are the only exception. There, we have 1,524 mm. There is a myth that Imperial Russia chose 1,524 mm to prevent invasion from the West. Indeed, the Warsaw-Vienna Railway of 1845 had 1,435 mm. A few years later, the famous Moscow-Saint Petersburg Railway choose 1,524 mm. Stated simply, 1,524 mm offered more space inside rolling stock than 1,435 mm (the Dalhousie reason for a wider gauge), but was cheaper to construct than 1,829 mm. Under the Soviet regime, gauge was standardised at 1,520 mm, not 1,524 mm.
Crossing the line: The Chinese network now has a Qinghai-Tibet Railway, connecting Beijing with Lhasa
As one builds railway networks that cross countries and integrate them, one confronts this gauge problem. Since China wants to integrate its railway networks with Mongolia, Mongolia doesn’t know what to do about switching (or not switching) from 1,520 mm to 1,435 mm. There is 1,520 mm throughout Central Asia. The Chinese network now has a Qinghai-Tibet Railway, connecting Beijing with Lhasa. It has moved beyond Lhasa, because the line has now been extended up to Shigatse and following an agreement with Nepal is headed towards Zhangmu on the Nepal-China border. The distance from Zhangmu to Kathmandu is just above 120 km, not that far. Earlier, I said 1,676 mm is used in Nepal. That’s historical and historically, Nepal’s railway links have meant links with India. Recently, when the Nepalese PM visited India, there was an agreement about a Raxaul-Kathmandu link, in addition to Jayanagar-Janakpur (extended up to Bardibas), Jogbani-Biratnagar, New Jalpaiguri-Kakarbhitta, Nautanwa-Bhairahawa and Nepalgunj Road-Nepalgunj. Some of these have been pending for a while. These will naturally have 1,676 mm gauge. Notice Nepal has been planning an East-West railway project and there are detailed project reports for some segments already. For some of these segments, the consultant is a Chinese firm. (It’s a bit too early to talk about financing.) If not all the way to Kathmandu, the Shigatse line will extend to some parts of Nepal (Kerung). There is every possibility that towards the north and from east to west, Nepal will have 1,435 mm and towards the south, it will have 1,676 mm. Dual gauges are messy.
The author is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.
Views are personal