Normal vs wide gauge: not just the width, a different philosophy 23/11/22

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The EU is currently assessing the possibility of extending the normal gauge of the European railway network to Ukraine and Moldova, as part of its effort to better integrate the countries in the European transport area. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. The track gauge of the countries is not only different in width, it is a different philosophy, argues Oleksandr Zavgorodnii, Chairman of the Expert Council at the All-Ukrainian Center for Transport Infrastructure Reforms.


Last month, the European Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB) launched a pre- feasibility study to assess how to better connect the Ukrainian and Moldovan railway networks with the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). The gauge extension is only one part of the assessment, but receives a lot of interest from the industry. The two countries currently have a broad gauge railway network, which is 1520 mm wide. In most European countries, the tracks are 1435 mm wide.

Different principles

“Railway infrastructure with a 1435mm-wide and 1520mm-wide gauge are built according to different basic principles”, explains Zavgorodnii. “For the transportation of the same volume of cargo, more wagons and locomotives will be needed if the European gauge is used.” This is not only a challenge for Ukrainian Railways, but, even more so, for the many private railway companies in the country, he continues. “They are clearly not ready to move to another infrastructure.”

Nevertheless, a European gauge railway track in certain areas could be needed, such as near terminals close to the border, Zavgorodnii acknowledges. The same applies to terminals on the other side of the border, where wide gauge could facilitate efficiency. But, he says, projects that are being considered and discussed will only make sense when building a combined track of both 1435 and 1520 mm. This could be done by laying a parallel track. It is advisable to implement the project only when a compatible or second track is built.”

Not just the gauge

Indeed, a lot of details regarding infrastructure solutions will be determined during subsequent phases of the project development, says the European Investment Bank. “This applies to issues of specific project parameters relating to line length, location, extent of EU gauge and integration within the existing network.”

Thus, the gauge extension is not the only possibility assessed. “The broad objectives of the prefeasibility study are to develop and assess operational alternatives and associated requirements: infrastructure (gauge, siding requirements, power supply system, signalling, multimodal and transhipment terminals, logistic centres, etc.), rolling stock, maintenance requirements, customs operations, passport controls and other inspections”, the EIB clarifies.

Resilience to exceptional events

The subsequent infrastructure investments will ultimately contribute to integration of Ukraine and Moldova in the European transport area by improving connectivity with the EU and increasing the capacity of the new export corridors. The EU wants to see the transport system more resilient to exceptional events, such as the current blockade of Ukrainian ports.

The study is carried out by the EIB technical advisory service JASPERS, which should have its first findings ready by May 2023.


Author: Majorie van Leijen