The International Steam Pages

Thirty-Six Inches Apart

Robert Hall writes - see also his appendix on Guatemala and El Salvador and Colombia.

The title of this piece, being a “homage” to the book by S.M. Moir, about South Africa’s sub-standard 610mm gauge lines, titled “Twenty-Four Inches Apart”.

A rumination on the gauge of three (British / Imperial) feet – 914mm in metric terms. A familiar gauge to many British railway enthusiasts, with its having been prominent in the British Isles, especially in the more westerly parts thereof. For many, a likeable gauge – as with the only slightly wider metre gauge, able to partake of a wide range of looks / images, from “highly-light light railway”, to “heavy-duty lengthy main trunk line”. Anything below about 914mm gauge is at some risk of falling into the “teeny-weeny / quasi-miniature” bracket, a scene which does not appeal to all enthusiasts.

It would seem a little surprising that the 3ft / 914mm gauge was not more widespread worldwide, than it in fact came to be -- especially for minor local lines. Possibly the global metric / Imperial measurements rivalry, was in play here: metre gauge -- only a little wider -- came as things worked out, to have a much bigger role (including in countries not vowed to the metric system) than 3ft / 914mm. Alternative-history scenarios are easy to see, with 914mm getting wider use therein, and metre gauge less so...

The “three-foot” is largely reckoned – as one would expect – to be of British origin, with the first lines to that gauge mostly seen to have originated in the British Isles, some two-thirds of the way through the nineteenth century. In the British Isles and elsewhere in the world, the gauge featured in industrial / agricultural use, to a certain – not enormous – extent; as per my usual practice, I shall stick here to common-carrier railways, as my preferred personal “thing”, and refrain from involvement with the “industrial” scene. Also, will follow my usual habit, and use henceforth the metric (914mm) designation for the gauge – although its highest degree of activity was in non-metric lands.

The first 914mm gauge public lines in the British Isles opened in the 1870s; others continued to do so there, over about the next three decades. The gauge has strong associations with Ireland, where it established itself as the national sub-standard gauge. At peak, there were several hundred kilometres of public 914mm systems and lines in Ireland; largely concentrated at the far northern, and far south-western, extremities of the island. 914mm was also adopted as the “standard” gauge for the Isle of Man, not far away – on which there ran at maximum extent, some 100km of lines in one form or another, on this gauge. 914mm was used additionally, for a very small handful of public lines in England.

The 914mm gauge showed up minimally on common-carrier lines, elsewhere in the Old World. With British firms involved in their inauguration and development, the railways of the Spanish island of Mallorca came to be of 914mm gauge – a dense system, but within a small compass. One other public railway in Spain (the country of, renownedly, a multitude of gauges) was instituted on the 914mm gauge: the Ferrocarril de Bidasoa, from Irún by the French border on the Biscay coast, up into the Pyrenees. This line was 914mm gauge from opening in 1889, until 1916; when it was converted to metre gauge, and remained so until abandonment forty years later. I tend toward bigotry as regards what count as “real” railways: for my money, of the lines told of in the preceding paragraphs there remain only the sections still operational on the Isle of Man – about half of the at-peak kilometrage there – and the electric line from Palma to Sollér in Mallorca, plus its connecting harbour tram route – totalling 32km. Ireland has a few short “preserved” stretches of one-time 914mm gauge routes, reinstated on that gauge -- sometimes with surviving motive power from “when it was real” – decades after abandonment and demolition. I will just say: good wishes to those who enjoy that scene, but it is not mine.

914mm gauge would likely have been one of the world’s rarest for public lines, save for one factor: that of railway entrepreneurs in the USA, latching onto it in a big way. It is interesting – even if of doubtful profit – to muse on how this came to be. It was, for sure, part of and linked with with the “gauge wars” of the last third of the nineteenth century, concerning lines to serve the world’s more rugged and less settled-and-developed regions. All revolved around the general issue of “narrow gauge: cheaper to build and more flexible”, versus “wider-gauge: more solid, higher capacity, and the more route length standardised on wide gauge from the first, the less costly and exasperating break-of-gauge messing-around”. For this saga in much of the world, the narrow-gauge contender was 1067mm (3 feet 6 inches); the United States, however, made next to no use of 1067mm, and eagerly took 914mm to its heart.

One might speculate on “how come?”. An imaginable Irish connection? – much migration from Ireland to the USA – but the whole 914mm business started off in the British Isles and the US, at about the same time – beginning of the 1870s. Perhaps, part of the general love-hate relationship which has obtained between Britain and her empire, and the US, for the past two centuries-plus – the “hate “ element more in evidence some 150 years ago. Canada had begun making some use of 1067mm gauge for lesser lines; could the US reaction have been, “we’ll fix on a different sub-standard gauge from that lot, goddammit !” And / or maybe other factors obtained / it might have been completely random.

A certain amount of long-distance, planned-to-be-trunk-line, trackage in the more rugged parts of the USA, was inaugurated on the 914mm gauge, with it being understood that altering to 1435mm was planned for as soon as that would be found possible. Some branch and “feeder” lines were also built on 914mm, without particular intention of subsequent widening.

The USA’s biggest single 914mm gauge concentration was always in the Rocky Mountains area in the adjoining states of Colorado and New Mexico. The complex and turbulent history – beginning around 1870 – of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, serving this area; began with this undertaking originally laying most of its lines on the 914mm gauge, in the interests of coping with railways through arduous, mountainous terrain. Over the decades, the majority of the D&RGW’s routes were progressively converted to 1435mm gauge; a sizeable and interconnected minority thereof, however – linking in with other concerns which used the 914mm gauge -- lasted enduringly on 914mm, for very long after sub-standard-gauge main lines elsewhere in the USA, had been widened. A couple of remnants thereof remain active as 914mm gauge preserved lines, to this day.

Concerning late survival of 914mm gauge railways in the Western Hemisphere: it is worth emphasising that this decidedly-narrow gauge, does not necessarily mean trains of an “Isle of Man” or “Cavan & Leitrim” aspect. The limiting-and-allowing thing on this scene, for motive power and hauled stock, is loading gauge, not width between the rails: other parts of the world than Britain, have and have had far more generous loading gauges, than the long-standing British standard for same. A 1960s article in a British railway journal, describing the Denver & Rio Grande Western’s narrow-gauge division as it was at that time, made a throw-away mention of that system’s then most numerous 2-8-2 class, as being slightly larger than a British Railways 9F...

The heart of the 914mm gauge complex in the Rockies, was an approximate square on a north-south axis, bounded by a narrow-gauge route along each side – the four sides being, very roughly, each of 150km-plus length – with other, offshoot routes. Ownership of the complex was shared by three railway undertakings. The largest share went to the narrow-gauge division of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The independent Rio Grande Southern Railroad formed the western side of the abovementioned square. North-east of the square, a 914mm gauge portion of the Colorado and Southern Railroad (from early on, a subsidiary of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad) ran south-eastward from Colorado’s state capital Denver, to Leadville and a considerable way beyond. For a while early on, there was physical connection between the C & S’s 914mm lines, and those of the D&RGW; but this situation ceased with the abandonment in 1910, of a section across a high mountain pass. (The story of railways in the USA bears many general resemblances to that of railways in the rest of the world; but assorted events and phases would appear to have often come about earlier in the States, than elsewhere.) The D&RGW 914mm gauge system also featured a long line running southward to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The great majority of 914mm gauge trackage in this part of the Rockies – through much highly spectacular scenery -- remained in place and in use, until abandonment of the Colorado & Southern’s lines in the late 1930s (a short section stayed in use for freight, until conversion to standard gauge a few years later). Over the following twenty years, much of the rest of the Rocky Mountains’ 914mm gauge system progressively withered away. The Rio Grande Southern Railroad was abandoned in 1951 (a bad year for minor railways worldwide) – a little while earlier, it had played a part in World War II by hauling out uranium-production material, found in the area, for the Manhattan Project. By the late 1950s there remained only the route forming the southern side of the “square” – criss-crossing the Colorado / New Mexico border and running from Alamosa / Antonito to Durango, plus a couple of branches at the Durango end, the whole making something approaching 300 route kilometres. Though freight-only after the early ‘50s, except for tourist passenger trains on the highly scenic 73km Durango – Silverton branch; rather amazingly, this final part of the D&RGW narrow gauge remained in commercial use until the late 1960s – and always effectively 100% steam-worked (there was one 914mm gauge diesel loco, allegedly disliked by the operating staff) -- nearly a decade after the end of regular steam operation on the USA’s principal rail undertakings.

Steam tourist operations continue (now under different successors to the D&RGW) between Durango and Silverton; and Antonito and Chama, this the eastern end of the erstwhile southern route of the “square”. Both lines are of impressive length by the standards of the preservation scene. Otherwise, the Rocky Mountains narrow-gauge network is effectively no more. A short (about 5km), highly scenic section of the Colorado & Southern’s system, abandoned in the late 1930s, has been relaid and reopened by preservationists in recent decades, as the Georgetown Loop Railroad. This, and a couple of other minor 914mm gauge preservation venues in the area, are admittedly not things which bring joy to this author; but tastes differ...

Most of the Colorado / New Mexico 914mm gauge bloc survived long enough to last into the era of the wide-ranging, camera-bearing railway enthusiast. This included the final years of the late-1930s-closed Colorado & Southern narrow gauge – of which there exist some wonderful photographs. Something of a “trade-mark” of these C & S lines, was the locomotives’ peculiar front-end arrangement: an interestingly individual variation on the spark-arrester chimney, called colloquially a “bear-trap”, which incorporated a wide pipe running down from the chimney along one side of the smokebox, to lead part of the exhaust down onto the track, there to disperse. At least one of the system’s locomotives, thus fitted, survives in preservation.

In other parts of the USA, isolated 914mm lines long survived here and there, but they were fairly few in number. The East Broad Top 914mm gauge railway in Pennsylvania, chiefly a coal-hauler but offering common-carrier facilities, lasted long enough – to 1956 -- for a short segment of it to be rescued for several decades of preservation. This undertaking has recently fallen on difficult times, but there is hope that these may pass and that the line may resume regular operation. The Southern Pacific Railroad retained one 914mm section, from Keeler to Laws in the Death Valley area of California (a remnant of a system which once ran much further), until 1960.

An interesting 914mm outlier a little way north-west of the Colorado / New Mexico complex, was the Uintah Railroad, 120km long, chiefly for mineral haulage but also a common carrier. In the 1920s, the Uintah bought two imposing Mallet type 2-6-6-2Ts. On closure of the line in 1939 – diminishing traffic, and road competition – these two locos were sold on to the 130km Sumpter Valley Railroad in Oregon, which was chiefly for the haulage of timber, but a common carrier too. Not quite a decade onward, the Sumpter Valley closed; the Mallets were then bought by the International Railways of Central America, whose system served Guatemala and El Salvador – primarily, for work on this system’s steeply-graded section which climbed from Escuintla north-eastward to Guatemala City. (Several more-conventional Sumpter Valley Railroad steam locos went on to further service in Peru – see below.)

The Mallets worked in Guatemala for a decade-plus; visiting enthusiasts observed them out of service, but still physically whole, in the mid-1960s. I gather that there were hopes of at least one being acquired for preservation back in the States, but assorted difficulties caused this project to come to naught. It would seem that Guatemala and Salvador’s 914mm gauge railways did quite well in the matter of cast-offs from the more developed parts of the “Amerisphere”. Shortly after the all-but-abandonment in 1948 of the 914mm gauge Oahu Railway in Hawaii, four of its steam locos plus a considerable quantity of freight wagons, and rail, were sold to the independent Ferrocarril de El Salvador (a separate concern from the IRCA); and, it is gathered, did yeoman service there. A short section of the Sumpter Valley Railroad has in recent times been “revived” preservation-wise. This author regards such doings as necrophilia, and pointless; and recoils accordingly – but as often said on the Internet, YMMV.

North America’s (and presumably, the world’s) northernmost 914mm gauge – and the only incidence of the gauge for a public line ever, in Canada – has been, what is conventionally called the White Pass and Yukon Route (this title doing away with the transatlantic “Railway / Railroad” controversy !). This international line – always isolated from any other railway -- was inaugurated in the wake of the Gold Rush to the Klondike, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, at the end of the nineteenth century – hoping to ease access to the goldfields. 178km in total, from the sea at Skagway in Alaska’s south-eastern “panhandle”, northward to the Yukon capital Whitehorse; very roughly, a fifth of the distance in US Alaska, the rest in Canada.

The line throve or at least coped, though often in obscurity, for the following most-of-a-century. It experienced a spell of heroism during World War II, when Japan’s threat to the most north-westerly parts of the USA made Canada / Alaska communication, of prime importance, including the construction of the new “ALCAN” highway, passing through Whitehorse. The WP&YR was taken over “for the duration” by the US Army, and reinforced by the bringing in of assorted 914mm gauge steam locos, either requisitioned from other lines of the gauge in the “Lower 48”, or new machines built for the War Department – plus sundry 914mm rolling stock.

After the war, things quietened down, but the railway continued modestly to prosper – with for very many years, a standard daily mixed train in each direction Skagway -- Whitehorse throughout, with other special workings as required. Dieselisation commenced from the late 1950s, last regular steam workings in 1964. Freight traffic came increasingly to depend on the lead /zinc mine at Faro, on the route, opened in 1969. Tourist traffic was boosted by the start of cruise ships’ touring the coast of Alaska, including their calling at Skagway -- the railway’s southernmost 35-odd kilometres, climbing about 1000 metres from sea-level to approximately the Alaska / Canada border, are, providentially, its most scenic stretch. Cruise-ship specials can thus run to, approximately, the border and back again, within a manageable number of hours.

The WP&YR took a savage “hit” in 1982, with the closure of the Faro mine. Services continued to run until late September that year; then all workings of any kind were suspended, ostensibly for the winter. In fact, nothing ran again until 1988, when a summer-season tourist service commenced, between Skagway and the White Pass border point. Routine for this working was, preserved Baldwin 2-8-2 no. 73 hauled the train from Skagway’s wharfside station, to the railway workshops at the edge of the town; diesel loco taking over, thence. This essential service pattern has continued for a very good number of years, with some workings running a little way north of the border to Fraser or Bennett Lake. This southern end of the line seemingly has thriven, and thrives, on tourism; most of all with special trains serving cruise ships. At the time of writing, perceivedly two steam locos are serviceable – 73, and 2-8-0 no. 69 – more envisagedly, en route from elsewhere. It appears that nowadays, trains are either steam throughout or diesel throughout – more often the latter, but “whatever it is, goes all the way”.

It seems generally understood that the WP&YR’s track remains in situ throughout, save for the last couple of kilometres into Whitehorse town centre. Hope and speculations are entertained, and legal / ownership / economic possibility matters debated, about tourist train services being reinstated for whatever distance north of Bennett Lake; and some specials have been run --particularly southward of Carcross, 69km south of Whitehorse. (It is gathered that whilst the whole area’s scenery is magnificent, the closest-in-to-the-line most-spectacular stuff, is in its most southerly reaches.) At all events – one takes it, the globe’s northernmost 914mm gauge railway...

914mm “made it big” for public – and industrial – lines in the Americas far south of the United States; and also, as touched on above, in the Hawaiian islands (in the US sphere of influence before formal takeover in 1898 – railways were inaugurated there under US enterprise, before that date). With the big impact which the USA has always had on her neighbour to the south, Mexico, ever since the latter achieved independence early in the 19th century (sometimes a bigger impact than the Mexicans would wish for); it would seem inevitable that Mexico’s chosen sub-standard gauge would be 914mm.

At the genesis in the 1880s, of railways in Mexico, early lines were mostly built to the 914mm gauge – including the main line from Mexico City to the US border at Laredo. It was largely understood (as in the USA, but here even more so) that the choice of narrow gauge was an initial response to the country’s harsh terrain and low level of development: conversion in time to the northern American standard 1435mm gauge was, at least for principal lines, envisaged from the start – and this was what happened. Thus Mexico’s 914mm kilometrage, initially great, basically dwindled over about a century, to vanishing-point – largely because of conversion to 1435mm, sometimes because of closure. (Mexico also once had some public lines of sub-914mm gauge.) The author regretfully lacks detailed knowledge regarding the Mexican narrow gauge – save for in respect of very recent times -- and has to go on general “impressions received”. Picture thus got, is that as at about fifty years ago, the Mexican National Railways still had a fair amount of 914mm gauge in action – including routes on that width still running, passenger and freight, into Mexico City’s designated narrow-gauge San Lázaro station, from locations south-east of the capital; but that that situation would not last much longer.

A long-term Mexican 914mm gauge stronghold was the peninsula of Yucatán, at the country’s far eastern end. Settled long before the “taming” of the hundreds of kilometres of territory to the west, Yucatán developed an isolated rail system based on its capital, Mérida – said system not linked to the rest of the National Railways’ network, until after World War II. The Yucatán lines comprised a little 1435mm gauge, and much 914mm gauge, running far out to outlying communities. I recall seeing a splendid photograph, dating by inference from the 1950s: evening rush-hour at the mixed-gauge Mérida station, showing an ancient 4-4-0 on a 1435mm train for either the nearby port of Progreso, or Campeche to the south; and three or four 914mm gauge trains, headed by steam locos of at least slightly more modern aspect, awaiting departure for various destinations in the hinterland. This glorious scene lingered on – though with diminishing splendour – for a long time. In the mid-1980s, passenger services on both gauges (long-dieselised, of course) still ran from Mérida in various directions – with two 914mm gauge routes still taking part, though not for much longer -- these narrow-gauge lines were abandoned in 1990. Fifteen years later, there were no more regular passenger workings of any kind serving Mérida. (Three Baldwin locos formerly in service on the Yucatán 914mm system – two 4-6-0s and a 4-4-0 – are now running, greatly transformed in appearance, on the 914mm gauge line at the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom in Florida.)

Re most accurate impression received: the National Railways’ last 914mm section was that from Oriental to Teziutlán, near Veracruz on the Gulf coast. This line lost its passenger service in March 1993, apparently “amid public protestation”. Later reports implied that freight traffic on the line, continued. I have not heard any categoric statement since, of this line’s having been completely abandoned... Despite Mexico’s great wish to attract tourists, I am aware of no current Mexican endeavour to run tourist-targeting trains on any physically surviving 914mm gauge line.

In the beyond-Mexico small countries of Central America, the 914mm gauge took a high profile – no doubt via at-however-many-removes, US influence. This applied most especially in Guatemala and El Salvador; in which grew up an IMO wondrous interconnected 914mm gauge system, worthy of an article of its own – duly to be done, separate from the rest of this piece on the “three-foot”.

Beyond Guatemala and El Salvador, Central America’s railway scene became “non-continuous” -- despite frequent hopes and projects, from the 19th century on, to make things otherwise, and to have through rail connection from Canada to Panama or beyond. (There were reports as recently as 2006, of a new ambitious scheme of this kind being proposed.) South and east of El Salvador, there have been no meaningful rail links between nations – not until far south in South America.

Honduras – “next east” in Central America – has had at peak, some 800km of railways, focused essentially on ports on the country’s Caribbean coast: in part 914mm, in part 1067mm, gauge. The Honduran railways have always been closely linked to the fruit industry; but a considerable proportion of the total – on both gauges – has offered common-carrier service, including passenger. Where railways are concerned, Honduras would appear not to be one of the world’s better-chronicled nations; the author has been unable to find more than vague indications as to which sections were / are on which of the two gauges. It would seem – although the matter is far from fully clear – that among the areas where the 914mm gauge has obtained, are those around the towns of La Ceiba and Tela. As has been all but universal in this general part of the globe, Honduras’s railways have been in decline in recent years; there are signs that some small degree of rail action there may still be happening at the time of posting.

Nicaragua and Costa Rica were always solidly 1067mm territory. The republic of Panama has had some, isolated, 914mm common-carrier lines, the most substantial of same centred on the town of David, in the far west of the country. Information is meagre; but indications are seen, that all are now abandoned. The Panama Railroad, crossing the Isthmus and closely paralleling the Canal – between 1903 and 1979, within a small sliver of US territory – has always been wide-gauge: 1524mm, and latterly 1435mm.

Cuba, always overwhelmingly 1435mm gauge for public railways, has also featured a few short public 914mm gauge lines, their fortunes were closely tied to the sugar mills in the areas they served and indeed when they closed, their locomotives were absorbed into Minas (Sugar Ministry) stock and allocated to one of the similarly gauged mills (of which there appear to have been about 50 at various times) and hence were seen working by many visitors to the island, albeit not in their original role. The FC de Placetas-Caibarien in the central north of the island (Villa Clara Province) was completed in 1880 as a direct alternative to the roundabout standard gauge route between the two towns. In due course, standard and narrow gauge companies merged, eventually being absorbed into the Cuban Central Railways which in turn became part of the United Railways of Havana (FCUH - Ferrocarriles Unidos de la Habana). The railway lasted long enough for GE diesels to be bought for the line in 1959 and it survived the revolution that year. After 1969, it seems it faded away quite rapidly, the exact date it ceased to be a common carrier is uncertain, it could have been as early as 1970 or as late as 1977, although parts survived longer for sugar haulage. By contrast, in Las Tunas province, the extensive (615km) Chaparra railroad was essentially a sugar operation that offered some public services. It connected with the Cuba Railroad at Sabanaso. Over the years, steam was replaced by diesel and public services were known to have survived into the 1950s. After that the history appears uncertain and by the late 1980s, no narrow gauge lines survived in the area. At its eastern extremity, the Chaparra Railroad connected, at Velasco in Holguin Province, with a branch of the FC de Gibara y Holguin. Opened throughout by 1894, it was eventually absorbed into the larger Chaparra system by the 1920s and was abandoned before the 1959 revolution.

Continuing generally southward: the world’s largest nation ever with a railway system all on 914mm gauge, came to be Colombia. This will be a subject of a separate article in due course.

A couple of other nations in the more northerly reaches of the South American continent, have featured 914mm gauge public railways. Colombia’s eastern neighbour Venezuela was never much of a public-railways country. What little common-carrier trackage existed, was chiefly around the capital Caracas; and was on the 1067mm gauge, with one exception. This was the Ferrocarril de La Guaira a Caracas. Venezuela’s capital is, as the local crow-equivalent flies, 11km from sea-level on the Caribbean at La Guaira, but 1000 metres-odd above same. A 914mm railway was built, connecting the two; it opened in 1883 with steam haulage, and was converted to overhead electric traction (locos hauling coaches, plus a few single-unit electric railcars) in 1928. To overcome the distance / height differential between the capital and the coast town, and to do so solely adhesion-wise, the line was laid out on an extremely twisty and sinuous course: “beeline” 11km, but the rail kilometrage was 37km. One feels that the Californian standard-gauge line which styled itself for publicity purposes, “the world’s crookedest railroad”, should in all decency have yielded its claim to the La Guaira – Caracas. The Venezuelan railway must have afforded a breathtaking ride. It proved to be another victim of the “black year of 1951” – suffered great damage from a violent coastal storm in that year, and with the country’s then government being highly road-minded, no assistance for repairs was forthcoming. See for more information.

The countries in the northern half of South America essentially have “disconnected” railways -- internationally, and in some cases within the individual nations. This is the situation in Peru: two isolated main-line systems from the coast up into the mountains, both 1435mm gauge, but with 914mm gauge offshoots; and assorted narrow-gauge one-time isolated / independent common-carrier lines. Peru had a round half-dozen of the latter on 914mm gauge, which disappeared over about a fifteen-year period from 1960 onward. One of these, based on Chimbote – on the coast, some 400km north of Lima – bought from the Sumpter Valley Railroad in Oregon, in that line’s last years in the late 1940s, four Baldwin steam locos: three 2-8-2s and a 4-6-0. The last-mentioned machine survived the closure of the Chimbote line, and went to the Cuzco narrow gauge, described below.

The abovementioned 914mm offshoots of 1435mm systems have, one way or another, stood the test of time better. The 1435mm undertakings concerned, both running from the coast up into the Andes mountains – the Central of Peru starting from Lima, and the Southern of Peru in, appropriately, the south of the country – have each had at their “top ends”, a connecting 914mm line; the narrow gauge routes setting off basically in such directions as seemingly to look for ultimate linking-up with each other. The Central’s 914mm “offspring”: the Ferrocarril Huancayo a Huancavelica, running 128km basically south-east from the end of the 1435mm gauge line at Huancayo, through fine Andean scenery. The “H-H” (travelled on and described in the palmy days of the 1950s, by C.S. Small, the enviable “man who got everywhere”) was a magnet for railway enthusiasts throughout the 1970s, with its remaining all-steam long after the end of regular steam operation on the connecting standard-gauge Central system. Dieselisation took place approximately 1979 – 1983; one 2-8-0 remained in working order, as reserve power and charterable for specials, until the late 1980s. The H-H suffered troublous times around the turn of the century, with declining patronage and motive power shortages; but managed to survive, and underwent a renaissance involving gauge conversion to 1435mm – a process which took several years, but culminated in reopening on standard gauge in October 2010. One hopes that the line – though no longer on its uncommon narrow gauge – may thus enjoy an assured future.

The Huancayo – Huancavelica’s southerly 914mm “twin”, is the Ferrocarril Cuzco – Santa Ana – running north-westward out of the historic and Inca-associated city of Cuzco, “top-end” terminus of the 1435mm gauge Southern Railway of Peru. The CSA can be seen to be in a good position as tourist-bait: running dramatically through superb mountain scenery (more so even, than the H-H), and giving access to the extensive and fascinating Inca ruins at Macchu Picchu. This railway’s ultimate extent – including a couple of branches -- reckoned about 125km; though assorted violence on the part of Nature in fairly recent times, has done some curtailing of its outerly reaches, and changing of the final railhead for the ruins.

The CSA had the attraction of genuine steam working, up to a relatively late date (certainly outlasting same, on the standard-gauge Southern system); though overall, succumbing to dieselisation a little earlier than the H-H. In steam’s last years on the CSA, modern 2-8-2s performed most of what steam action there was; though 4-6-0 no. 100, ex-Chimbote ex-Sumpter Valley, often served as Cuzco station pilot well into the 1970s.

The CSA seems to have everything that could ideally be wished for narrow-gauge railways, re inspiring affection and attracting mass-patronage. Great scenery; a destination which attracts “normal” tourists in great numbers (and the railway is actually the most expeditious way of getting there); and colourful rail antics. The latter, long involved the line’s exiting Cuzco via street running, and then climbing out of the town by multiple zig-zags, before taking an uphill but basically straightforward course north-westwards. The street-and-zig-zags factor – though fun for railway amateurs and people entertained by exotic transport quirks – has long been seen as a time-consuming detriment as regards efficient getting from A to B (or C to MP), and local authority has sought ways of eliminating it, with many plans (seemingly so far, not executed) for building a totally new route out of the city for the line, eliminating the obstacles concerned. In recent times, a liberal policy has seemingly been followed as regards permission and franchises for rail use, with different and competing operators being allowed use of the rail line. Some of such, have been opting for taking patrons by road between Cuzco and Poroy – not far out of the city, but above the end of the railway’s zig-zags – and conveying them by rail between Poroy and the ruins. There are some indications that at the time of writing, all rail workings over the difficult section out of the city, are suspended, and all rail services pro tem terminating at Poroy.

At all events, the CSA is now Peru’s last operational 914mm gauge public railway; and runs multiple well-used workings, all-diesel (loco-hauled / railmotors), for tourists eager to “do” Macchu Pichu. No doubt some few of those, appreciate the rarity in the world of the gauge over which they are travelling...

After the “told-of-as-above”, there has been – IMO astoundingly -- almost no incidence of 914mm gauge public railways anywhere else in the world. As mentioned in my “A Garland of Islands – Africa 1”, the short-lived and short-distance public line on Zanzibar was 914mm gauge (contracted for and built by a US firm) – and by the unsparing standards which I apply in this matter, “that was it” for Africa, Asia, and Australasia. There have been some, though not many, 914mm industrial / agricultural lines in those reaches of the globe; there are suggestions that Japan may have had a couple of possible contenders, but the scene there for the gauge would appear very much to have been “industrial and / or urban trams with various motive power”. With the worldwide on the whole highly eclectic approach to railway gauges; I simply find it surprising that this particular, attractive, one should have – outside of areas where US influence was strong – got almost nowhere. As is often observed, it’s a funny old world.

Internet Sources - these are historic as opposed to covering tourist operation.

Photography and Text

Yucatan, Mexico - - link dead by July 2020.

Colorado & Southern - plenty of images available through Google Images Search


Pathe films newsreel from 1960 about the narrow gauge trains of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad -

Around the Narrow Gauge Circle, D&RGW steam -

D&RGW steam narrow gauge - Alamosa to Chama - 1962-63 - Part 1 - Other parts include (2), (3) and (4).

Twilight of the Rio Grande Narrow Gauge -

Switchin Along The Rio Grande Narrow Gauge -

Uintah Railway -

Old Colorado & Southern and Engine No. 9

A film on the construction of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s has a couple of minutes of WP&Y action around 17.45 minutes in -

Narrow gauge trains in Action, Mexico and Guatemala, 1967-1969 -

The CSA featured in the BBC's 1980s Great Railway Journeys of the World series, this one featuring Miles Kingston -


Narrow Gauge Railways of Cuba, Christopher Walker, Trackside Publications, 2009

For Mexico, there is little to better Gerald Best's 'Central American Holiday', published in 1960 by the Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Inc of California. It's 'scarce' or worse, there's not one listed on Abe Books as this is typed. Expect to pay at least GBP 20 + shipping. In addition to these two countries it covers Mexico, (both 3ft and standard gauge), it's naturally (steam) locomotive orientated but has masses of general information.

Rob Dickinson