Railway Gauges in Ontario

This page suggested by, and with input from, David O'Reilly.

History of the Railway Gauge

Much has been written, but in summary, the best speculation is that what became the “standard” or “Stephenson” gauge of 4 ft 8½ inches (1,435 mm) was adopted from early Northumberland UK horse tramways that transported “coals to Newcastle”. George Stephenson (1781-1848), a self-taught civil and mechanical engineer who did his apprenticeship around the Northumberland collieries, is widely acknowledged as being “the father” of the railways, although he may be more accurately described as the enabler who made steam locomotion a practical reality.

No one knows how the Northumberland tramways came to adopt the 4 ft 8½ inch gauge, although it may be a practical result of a wagon width determined more or less by the breadth of a wagon harness hitched to a well-built pit pony. As George Stephenson, partnering with his son Robert (1803-1859), went into the locomotive manufacturing business as Robert Stephenson & Co., this gauge was adopted for production. As there was an immediate robust export business to all parts of the world (often accompanied by British engineering expertise), the “off the assembly line” product was shipped to that gauge, with its consequent general adoption by the purchaser. 

This not did however result in the immediate global adoption of the “Standard” gauge – far from it, even today only just over 50 per cent of world railway mileage is on the standard gauge (Wikipedia). The rest is more or less divided into a 5 ft something or a 3 ft something gauge group.

This pattern started to emerge very soon after the advent of the railways. The extremes at either end of the gauge spectrum were Isambard Kingdom Brunel's 7 ft ¼ inch (2,140 mm) gauge of the UK Great Western (God’s Wonderful) Railway that was phased out by 1892, and the 2 ft gauge railways such as appeared in Maine USA, and with the Wales UK quarry railways. There was also the US 6 ft (1,829 mm) Erie Railroad, until its conversion to the standard gauge in 1880.

The underlying pros and cons of a narrower gauge versus a broader gauge are that with a narrower gauge, the advantages are lower costs of land acquisition and construction; and with a broader gauge, higher speeds, better stability and of course larger load capacity. The disadvantages are of course inversely applicable – lower speeds, bumpier rides and limited load capacity for the narrower gauges; and higher costs of land acquisition, construction and maintenance for the broader gauges.

A median standard gauge balances these pros and cons, and in the absence of other considerations – such as a narrower gauge for mountainous terrain – makes it a more economically-balanced consideration. In some cases non-standard gauges were chosen for political, commercial or strategic reasons, the last being to impede rather than to promote the smooth and economic flow of people and goods. Each “break in gauge” poses a barrier, operationally and economically.

Basic Gauge Description Terminology

Standard Gauge – also referred to as the “Stephenson” gauge, ranging from 4’8” to 4’9”, but most usually 4’8½”.

The Broad or Provincial Gauge – specifically the 5’6” gauge required in the Province of Canada in 1851 for eligibility for the government loan interest guarantee.

Broad gauge(s) – any gauge wider than the Standard or Stephenson Gauge.

Narrow gauge(s) – any gauge narrower than the Standard or Stephenson Gauge.


  1. Somewhat confusingly, in Canada the original Provincial or Broad Gauge railways commonly referred to the Standard Gauge as the "Narrow Gauge", not to be confused with the usual definition of "narrow gauge".
  2. The commonly understood measurement of the gauge is the distance between the inner edges of the two rails.

The Rise and Fall (1851 to 1872) of the Broad Gauge in the Province of Canada

Railway development trailed behind that in the UK because of political and financial uncertainties, but some early railways such as the Champlain & St. Lawrence and the Montreal & Lachine Railroads were being built to the Standard Gauge, but railway development remained minimal in the 1830s and 40s until the passing of the Railway Guarantee Act in 1849. That Act guaranteed the loan interest on the construction of railways not less than 75 miles in length. This beneficial legislation triggered Canada's railway building boom.

In 1851 the Province of Canada enacted further, inter alia, to create a Board of Railway Commissioners, one of whose duties was to administer the 1849 loan interest guarantee. Unfortunately the Board followed the recommendation of the Standing Select Committee On Railroad and Telegraph Lines that to obtain the loan interest guarantee benefit, any railway had to build to the 5ft 6in gauge, which came to be known as the "Provincial" or "Broad" Gauge. According to S.S. Worthen, in his treatise Referred to the Committee, this decision was 9-1 in favour of the 5ft 6in gauge, despite the fact that in committee, the 4ft 8½in gauge was supported by 6 of the 10 members.

This treatise suggests that the decision may have been influenced by the fact that the construction of the Atlantic-St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence-Atlantic Railroads (Portland Me to Montreal, and the precursor component railways of what was to become the GTR in 1852) was already underway on the 5ft 6in gauge - these two lines being the starting point for the Grand Trunk's bold plan to create a transportation artery into the mid-USA. G.R. Stevens in Canadian National Railways - Sixty Years of Trial and Error supports this conclusion, and also pointed out that Portland's mercantile interests espoused the 5' 6" gauge to exclude competition to its traffic to Boston through the selection of a gauge other than the Standard Gauge. A.W. Currie, in his seminal work The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, also fingers the influence of Portland's mercantile interests as the reason for the GTR's acquiescence to the Provincial Gauge.

With that as backdrop, the GTR (or St. Lawrence & Atlantic RR as it was then) obviously had a real conflict of interest in the committee recommendation  leading to the Board of Railway Commissioners' requirement that the 5'6" gauge be a condition for obtaining the loan interest guarantee, not only because the GTR was already wedded to the Provincial Gauge for its own reasons, but also because it thus put itself effortlessly at the top of the list for receiving the prospective benefits of the Provincial Gauge requirement.

In summary, this short-sighted (and arguably corrupt) committee recommendation proved to have enormous long-term adverse repercussions and consequences for railway development in Canada in general. It was an immediate imposition on railways in Canada seeking to interconnect with U.S. roads, as the U.S. railways bordering on southwestern Ontario (with the notable exception of the Erie Railroad with its 6ft gauge that was not converted to Standard Gauge until 1880) had already adopted the 4ft 8½in gauge, which was rapidly becoming universal in Europe and in the northern United States. During the 1860s, the increasing competitive pressure on the Great Western and the Grand Trunk Railways to interchange with the Standard Gauge American roads proved to be the reason for the Provincial Gauge’s eventual demise, when those two roads started to secure amendments to their charters to remove the gauge clauses around 1870. As a consequence, all of the other Canadian roads that had been obliged to opt for the Provincial Gauge in order to interchange with the GWR and the GTR, were obliged to follow suit.

All early Canadian railways that had initially adopted any gauge other than the Standard "Stephenson" Gauge, which included all of the railways that had adopted the Provincial Gauge as a result of the Guarantee Act, were faced with the major financial consequences of having to re-gauge to the Standard Gauge, or simply went out of independent existence. In all cases (except for the Cobourg & Peterborough Railroad, which became defunct for other reasons) the necessity of conversion led (other than for the Grand Trunk Railway itself) to their absorption into larger railway systems by the end of the 19th century.

In the 1870s any new roads were being built to the Standard Gauge (with the exception of two Ontario 3ft 6in narrow-gauge lines), but by then the crippling damage to the emerging Canadian railway system had been done.

US Border-to-Border Transshipment across Upper Canada

An emerging business opportunity for railways operating in southwestern Ontario was the realization by US commerce of the faster shipping between New York and Michigan States to be had by taking advantage of the shorter distance through Canada between Niagara Falls/Buffalo and Port Huron/Detroit. This border-to-border traffic demand was initially satisfied by means of unloading from the US railroad cars onto Provincial Gauge cars and vice-versa at the other end, an obviously expensive, time-consuming and cumbersome solution.

The Great Western Railway (GWR)

The GWR had been reconstituted from its original 1834 London & Gore Railroad charter for the express purpose of providing the border-to-border traffic link sought by adjacent US roads in New York and Michigan States. The US railroads bordering on southwestern Ontario had already adopted the 4ft 8½in Standard Gauge (with the notable exception of the Erie Railroad with a 6ft gauge that was not converted to the Standard Gauge until 1880).

The GWR was undoubtedly the most severely-affected road by the Provincial Gauge. It eventually met the transshipment challenge as of 1867 with the capital-cost-intensive laying of a third (inside) rail along its main line to accommodate direct through movement of US Standard Gauge cars.

Ironically, that proved to be the tipping point for the Provincial Gauge’s nearing demise. The GWR started to convert to the Standard Gauge in 1870. The enormous cost of the laying of the third rail and the eventual conversion from the Provincial to the Standard Gauge were major contributing causes to the GWR’s failure in 1882.

The Grand Trunk Railway (GTR)  and the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway (B&LH)

The GTR on the other hand was traversing southwestern Ontario as an international road from Portland, Maine across what was then Upper Canada to Chicago, Illinois, and its route lay via Toronto, Stratford and Point Edward (Sarnia) across to Port Huron in Michigan. What the GTR lacked was a connection to pick up this lucrative border-to-border traffic at the New York State end. Enter the B&LH.

The B&LH began its existence as an intended portage railway (promoted by Buffalo commercial interests) between Lake Huron at Goderich and Lake Erie at Fort Erie/Buffalo. It was first chartered as the Brantford & Buffalo Joint Stock Railroad Company in 1851. Built to the Provincial Gauge, it was opened from Fort Erie to Brantford at the end of 1853 as the Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich Railway (BB&G), and to a junction with the Great Western at Paris in 1854. (On the US side, there was a rail link between Black Rock and Buffalo, with a ferry across the Niagara River.)

At that point the BB&G was out of money, and the debts continued to pile up in 1855. The Canada Company then intervened, as the railway’s prospective failure would have an adverse effect on the development of the Huron Tract. So in 1856 the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway (B&LH), with backbone UK financial support, was incorporated to take over the BB&G. The railway was completed to Stratford in 1856, and despite the financial crash of 1857, to its ultimate destination at Goderich in 1858.

By 1861, the road needed a substantial capital infusion for much-needed improvements in order to stay in business, and was also considering acquisition of the Hamilton & Port Dover Railway, to give it access to Lake Ontario and to an intermediate harbour on Lake Erie. This proposal fell through, presumably because the B&LH was by then close to bankruptcy. It offered to lease itself to the Great Western Railway, but this proposal was rejected unanimously by the Great Western's London, England board of directors.

So it was that the B&LH came into the orbit of the other major competitor in southwestern Ontario, the Grand Trunk Railway. To offer competition to the Great Western, the GTR developed a plan to cut into the profits to be made from that traffic with an inside Standard Gauge rail to its Provincial Gauge track. This would expedite this traffic with the through movement of US railroad Standard Gauge cars rather than by means of the expensive unloading and reloading at each end. The GTR's contribution was to be between Stratford and Sarnia. In alliance with the B&LH, the route would become complete with the corresponding third rail between Fort Erie and Stratford.

Unfortunately, although this plan was also very much to the benefit of the B&LH, it could not come up with the capital, and thus in 1864 entered into a joint management agreement with the Grand Trunk to bring the plan about. Even then, the B&LH could not pull its financial weight, and after some infighting, bickering and acrimony, in accordance with an agreement ratified in 1870, the Grand Trunk acquired the B&LH under a perpetual lease [i.e., outright] effective July 1, 1869. The issue of the laying of a third Standard Gauge rail (which never came about for the B&LH and the GTR) contributed to the early demise (1864) of the Buffalo & Lake Huron as an independent road because of its need to ally itself with a senior partner on account of its chronic financial distress.

Thus the Grand Trunk, which was also in continual financial turmoil, settled for a less-than-successful solution with movable (telescopic) axles, and then with interchangeable bogie trucks (two-axle wheel assemblies). Those substitute solutions lasted until the sections between Fort Erie and Stratford, and between Stratford and Sarnia, were converted to the Standard Gauge in 1872* ; as part of the GTR’s general conversion of its entire system from the Provincial to the Standard Gauge in those years**. The enormous cost of all this reverberated as a contributing factor to the eventual failure of the GTR in the early 20th century.
*The GTR line between London, St. Mary's and Stratford was briefly dual gauge  to allow Provincial Gauge locomotives to be moved to Stratford for conversion or scrapping.
**The section of the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway between Stratford and Goderich was converted to the Standard Gauge in 1873)

Two other major pioneer railways on the Broad Gauge in Upper Canada:

The Northern Railway of Canada

The NRC was first incorporated in 1849 as the Toronto, Simcoe & Lake Huron Union Railroad, and was renamed the next year as the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Union Railroad. The road was built to the Provincial Gauge and opened to Machell's Corners (now Aurora) on May 16, 1853, and Allandale by late 1853. At that time the location of the northern terminus had not yet been decided upon, but was subsequently confirmed in early 1853 by a survey expedition to a place to be subsequently named Collingwood. In 1858 the road was formally reconstituted as the Northern Railway of Canada. It subsequently reached North Bay and became part of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1889.

Finances remained tight despite the general prosperity of the road. The Northern Railway of Canada, for whom the Grand Trunk was a major interchange railway, did not begin conversion until 1879, and did not complete it until 1881. Conversion was forced on the Northern by necessity on account of its merger with the Standard Gauge Hamilton & North Western (see below). The reason for the delay was undoubtedly the financial necessity of postponing the cost of conversion for as long as possible, combined with the fact that the railways interchanging with the Grand Trunk Railway in Toronto were not as pressured competitively as the trans-Ontario roads competing for American transshipment business.

The Midland Railway of Canada

The genesis of the eventual Midland Railway was the Provincial Gauge Port Hope, Lindsay & Beaverton Railway (PHL&B). It was originally chartered in 1846 as the Peterborough & Port Hope Railway (P&PH), but re-incorporated in 1854 as the PHL&B with a new focus on Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. Construction reached Lindsay in late 1857, and terminated there for the time being. The PHL&B became the Midland Railway of Canada in 1869 to reflect its amended goal to reach Georgian Bay. Still on the Provincial Gauge, the railway reached Beaverton in 1871, and Port Hope’s expanded ambitions were consummated with extension to Orillia in 1873, Waubashene in 1875 and on to the lucrative grain traffic at Midland in 1879. It changed to the Standard Gauge in 1874.

George Stephenson

George Stephenson

Robert Stephenson in 1856

Robert Stephenson in 1856

Isambard Kingdom Brunel FRS in 1857, beside the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern. Robert Howlett photograph

Isambard Kingdom Brunel FRS in 1857, beside the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern. Robert Howlett photograph

Northern Railway of Canada on the Provincial Gauge. Toronto station and freight shed. 1860s. Toronto Public Library, J. Ross Robertson Collection

Northern Railway of Canada on the Provincial Gauge. Toronto station and freight shed. 1860s. Toronto Public Library, J. Ross Robertson Collection

The first station at Collingwood on the Provincial gauge Northern Railway of Canada. Archives of Ontario

The first station at Collingwood on the Provincial gauge Northern Railway of Canada. Archives of Ontario

Looking south at Collingwood on the Provincial Gauge Northern Railway of Canada. 1860s. Engine house and freight shed. National Archives Canada PA 138976

Looking south at Collingwood on the Provincial Gauge Northern Railway of Canada. 1860s. Engine house and freight shed. National Archives Canada PA 138976

Ontario Simcoe & Huron Union RR (Northern Railway of Canada) engine # 1 "Lady Elgin", built by the Portland Co. (Maine USA). CNR Photo Archives

Ontario Simcoe & Huron Union RR (Northern Railway of Canada) engine # 1 "Lady Elgin", built by the Portland Co. (Maine USA). CNR Photo Archives

Ontario Simcoe & Huron Union RR (Northern Railway of Canada) engine # 2 "Toronto", built by the Good Foundry, Toronto. CNR Photo Archives

Ontario Simcoe & Huron Union RR (Northern Railway of Canada) engine # 2 "Toronto", built by the Good Foundry, Toronto. CNR Photo Archives