Difference between standard and narrow gauge railroads


SP Standard Gauge Engine No. 3203 and Narrow Gauge Engine No. 18 at Owenyo in 1951 – OwensValleyHistory.com

The primary difference between standard gauge and narrow gauge railroads lies in the distance between the two rails, known as the gauge.

Standard Gauge

  1. Definition: Standard gauge is a rail gauge with a distance of 4 feet 8.5 inches (1,435 mm) between the inside edges of the rails.
  2. Prevalence: It is the most widely used rail gauge worldwide, found in approximately 60% of all railway lines.
  3. Advantages:
    • Interchangeability: Standard gauge allows for seamless interchange of rolling stock and locomotives across different regions and countries using the same gauge.
    • Stability and Speed: Standard gauge tracks provide a stable and smooth ride, making them suitable for high-speed trains.
    • Infrastructure: Standard gauge railways often have more extensive infrastructure and better connectivity due to their widespread use.

Narrow Gauge

  1. Definition: Narrow gauge railroads have a rail distance smaller than the standard gauge. Common narrow gauges include 3 feet 6 inches (1,067 mm), 3 feet (914 mm), and 2 feet (610 mm).
  2. Prevalence: Narrow gauge railroads are less common globally but are often used in specific regions, industries, or for particular purposes.
  3. Advantages:
    • Cost-Effective: Narrow-gauge railways are generally cheaper to construct and maintain, making them ideal for regions with challenging terrain or lower traffic volumes.
    • Tighter Curves: Narrow gauge tracks can handle tighter curves and steeper gradients, making them suitable for mountainous or rugged areas.
    • Flexibility: They are often used in industries such as mining, logging, or agriculture, where flexibility and lower costs are more critical than speed and capacity.


  • Standard Gauge: Used in most major rail networks, including passenger services, high-speed rail, and heavy freight operations.
  • Narrow Gauge: Found in specialized environments such as mountain railways, industrial railways, heritage railways, and some regional lines.


  • Standard Gauge: Most North American rail networks.
  • Narrow Gauge: The Carson Colorado Railroad (3 feet gauge)

In summary, while standard gauge railroads offer advantages in interoperability, stability, and infrastructure development, narrow gauge railroads provide cost-effective solutions and greater flexibility in challenging terrains or specialized applications.


The Carson and Colorado Railway: A Historical Overview


The Carson and Colorado Railway, initially incorporated on May 10, 1880, was a critical artery in the economic development of Nevada and Eastern California. Running approximately 300 miles from Mound House, Nevada, to Keeler, California, this narrow-gauge railway navigated some of the region’s most challenging terrains, including the formidable 7,100-foot-high Montgomery Pass.

Carson & Colorado at Mt. Montgomery Pass – 1882

Early Days and Expansion

Construction of the railway began swiftly after its incorporation, aiming to connect the isolated mining and agricultural communities along its route. Operations commenced on August 1, 1883, with the railway serving as a vital transport link for ore, goods, and passengers. The line initially facilitated the economic boom in mining areas, particularly with the discovery of silver and gold in Tonopah and Goldfield, Nevada.

Technical Specifications

The railway was built as a narrow gauge (3 feet or 914 mm), which was more economical and could handle the sharp curves and steep grades of the mountainous regions better than standard gauges. It used a variety of steam locomotives suitable for the narrow gauge and the challenging conditions of the route. These trains were crucial for transporting diverse freight, including timber, livestock, and minerals, and also provided passenger services essential for local populations’ mobility.

Strategic Reorganizations

In 1892, the railway was reorganized as the Carson and Colorado Railway. In 1900, it was sold to the Southern Pacific Company, marking a significant transition in its operations. This acquisition integrated the Carson and Colorado into a larger railway network, enhancing its operational capacity through better resources and management. The northern section from Mound House to Mina was converted to standard gauge in 1905, facilitating direct interchange with other lines and improving logistical efficiency.

Decline and Legacy

Despite its importance, the railway’s relevance waned with the rise of automobiles and improved road networks. The railway began phasing out operations, with parts of the line abandoned in the 1930s and 1940s. The last train ran on April 29, 1960, and the tracks were removed in January 1961.

Today, the legacy of the Carson and Colorado Railway is preserved in museums and historical sites along the former route. These sites celebrate its role in the development of the American West, particularly in how it supported remote communities and contributed to the region’s economic dynamism.

Community Impact

The presence of the railway significantly shaped communities like Mound House, Hawthorne, Bishop, and Laws. The railway not only supported local economies but also fostered their growth by connecting them to larger markets and other parts of the country. The connection at Mound House with the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was particularly crucial, enhancing the flow of goods and ores from Nevada’s mining districts to broader markets.

The Carson and Colorado Railway remains a topic of interest for historians and railway enthusiasts. It symbolizes the challenges and triumphs of maintaining railway service in one of America’s most rugged landscapes.

This article provides a comprehensive look at the historical and technical aspects of the Carson and Colorado Railway, illustrating its importance in the development and eventual decline of regional rail transport in the American West.



Chronology of Events

The 1785 Land Ordinance provided that all federal land would be surveyed into townships six miles square. Townships are subdivided into 36 one-mile-square sections. Sections can be further subdivided into quarter sections, quarter-quarter sections, or irregular government lots. Each township is identified with a township and range designation. Township designations indicate the location north or south of the baseline, and range designations indicate east or west of the Principal Meridian. A meridian is an imaginary line running north to south.

1861 Central Pacific Railroad is incorporated.

1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, a law that authorizes the federal government to give land grants and loans to aid construction of the Central Pacific Railroad as the Western part of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Union Pacific as the Eastern part.

1863 Central Pacific begins construction at Sacramento.

1864 The United States Congress passes the Pacific Railway Act of 1864, which doubles the land grant to 20 alternate sections per mile, with a 20 mile checkerboard corridor on each side of the right-of-way.

1865 The Southern Pacific Railroad Company is incorporated.

1865 Central Pacific Railroad establishes a Land Department in Sacramento. Benjamin B. Redding, former mayor of Sacramento, was chosen to lead to design and manage the new organization.

1866 The Pacific Railway Act is amended to allow a railroad to select lands outside of the land grant area in exchange for unavailable land grant land.

1866 The federal government gives Southern Pacific Railroad a land grant to complete the western section of the Atlantic & Pacific line through California via Mojave to Needles.

1867 First land patent is issued to the Central Pacific Railroad by the federal government.

1868 September 25: The Central Pacific Railway owners acquire control of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

1869 The California & Oregon Railroad receives a federal land grant to build a line northward from Davis to connect to the Oregon & California Railroad at the California and Oregon border.

1869 The Central Pacific Railroad begins operating the California & Oregon Railroad.

1869 The Golden Spike ceremony held at Promontory, Utah, marks the completion of the transcontinental railroad between Sacramento, California and Omaha, Nebraska.

1870 California & Oregon Railroad is consolidated with the Central Pacific Railroad, and becomes a branch line of the Central Pacific Railroad.

1871 The federal government gives the Southern Pacific Railroad land grants and loans, allowing it to build to meet the Texas & Pacific at Yuma, California and build from Los Angeles to Colton, California.

1875 The Southern Pacific Railroad opens a land agency in San Francisco. 1876 Jerome Madden, Benjamin Redding’s assistant, became the land agent for Southern Pacific.

1886 Southern Pacific Company assumes control of the Oregon & California Railroad.

1899 The Central Pacific Railroad is reorganized as the Central Pacific Railway in order to pay off its federal debt.

1912 The Southern Pacific Company transfers some of its remaining land assets to Southern Pacific Land Company.

1916 Oregon & California grant lands are returned to the Federal Government.

1927 Southern Pacific purchases the Oregon & California Railroad.

1984 The Southern Pacific Company merges with Santa Fe Industries, parent company of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, to form Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corporation (SPSF).

1985 The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) denies permission for the railroad operations to merge.

1986 Appeal of the ICC ruling fails.

1986 The renamed holding company, the Santa Fe Pacific Corporation, retains all of the non-rail interests of both companies except one. All of the Southern Pacific Railroad California real estate holdings are transferred to a new holding company, Catellus Development Corporation.

1996 The Southern Pacific Railroad is acquired by Union Pacific Railroad and its operations cease.

2005 Catellus Development Corporation is merged into ProLogis, another land development company based in San Francisco. ProLogis remains one of the largest real estate holders in California.

California State Railroad Museum Library and Archives

Intermodal Freight Transport


Barstow, California. Intermodal freight transport involves the transportation of cargo in an intermodal container or vehicle, using multiple modes of transportation (e.g., rail, ship, and truck) without any handling of the freight itself when changing modes. This system reduces cargo handling, improves security, reduces damage and loss, and allows freight to be transported faster.

Barstow is a significant hub in the intermodal network due to its strategic location along major freight rail lines and highways. It facilitates the transfer of goods between different transportation modes, playing a critical role in the logistics and distribution chain, especially between major ports and inland destinations across the United States.

The history of the Barstow Intermodal facility is closely tied to the development of transportation infrastructure in the Barstow area, which has long been a key junction point for major rail and road routes.

  1. Railway History: Barstow’s role as a transportation hub began with the railroad. The area became a key railway center in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (now part of the BNSF Railway). This established Barstow as a critical point in the transcontinental rail network, facilitating the movement of goods across the country.
  2. Intermodal Development: The concept of intermodal transport—moving goods in the same container or vehicle by multiple forms of transportation—gained popularity in the mid-20th century. Barstow’s strategic location made it a natural choice for developing intermodal facilities. The Barstow Intermodal facility allows for efficient transfer of containers between trains and trucks, optimizing the transport of goods to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and across the wider United States.
  3. Economic Impact: Over the years, the intermodal facility has played a significant role in the economic development of Barstow and the surrounding region. It has created jobs, spurred the growth of logistics and support industries, and contributed to the local economy by facilitating efficient and cost-effective transportation of goods.
  4. Expansion and Modernization: The facility has continuously expanded to accommodate the growing demand for intermodal transport. Technology, infrastructure, and equipment investments have enhanced its capacity and efficiency, allowing it to handle larger freight volumes and adapt to changing transportation needs.

The history of Barstow Intermodal reflects the broader trends in transportation and logistics, showcasing the evolution from rail-centric freight movement to integrated, multimodal transport systems that support the dynamic flow of goods in a globalized economy.

Barstow Railroad History

Barstow, California, has a rich history related to railroads. Here is an overview of the railroad history in Barstow:

Harvey House – Casa Del Desierto
  1. Early Railroad Development: Barstow’s history as a railroad town dates back to the late 19th century when the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) and the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) played significant roles in its development. The AT&SF arrived in Barstow in 1883, and the SP followed shortly after.
  2. Railroad Facilities: Barstow became a strategic location for both railroads due to its position as a junction point. It was a division point on the AT&SF line, meaning it had extensive locomotive maintenance and repair facilities. Additionally, it served as a crew change and refueling station.
  3. Harvey House: The historic Casa del Desierto, also known as the Harvey House, was a prominent feature of the Barstow railroad history. It was a luxurious hotel and restaurant built by the Fred Harvey Company in 1911 to serve passengers traveling on the AT&SF railway. The Harvey House has been beautifully restored and now houses a museum.
  4. Railroad Growth: Barstow continued growing as a railroad town over the years. It had a large rail yard, roundhouse, and various support facilities to handle the extensive railroad traffic passing through the area.
  5. Importance as a Railroad Junction: Barstow’s strategic location made it a crucial junction for freight and passenger trains. It was a hub for transferring goods and passengers between different rail lines, making it a bustling activity center.
  6. Modern Times: While the significance of railroads has declined in recent years, Barstow still maintains its historical ties to the railroad industry. The Barstow Rail Museum and the Harvey House Museum are popular attractions for visitors interested in learning about the town’s railroad history.

Barstow’s history as a railroad town is an integral part of its identity, and the legacy of the railroads can still be seen and appreciated in the town today.