The Mystery that is the Standard Gauge Railway – Paul Ogudah

Standard GaugeIf you have not heard about the standard gauge railway and you are a Kenyan, please try hug onto your TV and radio a little more. Well despite all the negative news about the tendering process that has engulfed Kenya’s desire not desire but Need to have a standard gauge railway, It is a good call and direction to pursue as it will totally revolutionize our transport system more so rail bringing it at par with the best of the world. The whole project is expected to cost Ksh 1.3T (327b from Mombasa to Nairobi a distance of 609km including locomotives). However the project has been riddled with corruption allegation, overpriced and ignoring procurement process. The first phase will be between Nairobi and Mombasa a distance of 609km will be built by China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) The project will cost Sh220 billion, but it was later increased to Sh327 billion to allow it source for locomotives and wagons as well. The estimated cost will be $2.9m per Km. The project will be done in 3years from 2014 to 2016.
We could be having a standard gauge railway right now were it not for India, Kenya utilizes the narrow gauge track gauge of 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 3⁄8 in) (metre gauge). The reason was that when the British started the railroad construction at the end of the nineteenth century they utilized material and workers from India. The Indian gauge and rolling stock was 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 3⁄8 in).
Now what is standard gauge, The standard gauge (also Stephenson gauge after George Stephenson, UIC (track) gauge, International gauge or normal gauge) is a widely used railway track gauge. Approximately 60% of lines in the world are this gauge (see the list of countries that use the standard gauge). Except for Russia and Finland, all high-speed lines are this gauge. The distance between the inside edges of the rails is usually called 1,435 mm but in the United States and Canada it is still called 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in. As railways developed and expanded one of the key issues was track gauge (the distance, or width, between the inner sides of the rails) to be used. The result was the adoption throughout a large part of the world of a “standard gauge” of 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in allowing inter-connectivity and inter-operability.
Rail_gauge_worldWorld map by railway gauges
Image adapted From
Standard gauge, in railway terminology, means a distance between the rails of 4 feet, 8 ½ inches or 1.435 metres. That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, & English expatriates built railways all around the world. Why did the English build them like that?
Railway gaugeTrack Gauge Image adapted From
Because the first railway lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railway tramways, and that’s the gauge they used. Why did they use that gauge in England, then?
Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. Okay! Why did their wagons use that odd wheel spacing?
Because, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads. Because that’s the spacing of the old wheel ruts. So who built these old rutted roads?
The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The Roman roads have been used ever since. And the ruts?
The original ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by the wheels of Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The standard railway gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman army war chariot.


Paul Ogudah; is a Young Associate of The Eastern Africa Policy Centre, he is currently undertaking an Masters of Arts in Planning at the University of Nairobi.

1. Origin of Standard Gauge
2.Standard gauge