Written by Paul D. Race for Big Indoor Trains™
Thirty-Inch RailroadingIn the early days of railroading, nobody cared if your railroad used the same track width as the next railroad over, since cars and trains were never switched between lines anyway. Big companies with enough money, time, and space to build wide smooth curves put their rails 4' 8.5" apart, a "standard gauge" measurement that may go all the way back to ancient Rome. But where there wasn't money, time, or space for huge curves and wide roadbeds, railroads were built with the rails closer together.
Narrow Gauge Railroading - Sure, the "narrow gauge" railroads couldn't handle the big engines and heavy cars of their big brothers, but they could be built for a fraction of the cost. And they were ideal for places where you literally couldn't fit a standard gauge railroad, and where small, unscheduled trains were more common than big scheduled freight and passenger trains.
In the United States, the most common narrow gauge was 36", although railroads were also built that had the rails 18", 24", 30", and 42" apart (plus other, less common variations too numerous to mention). The Denver and Rio Grand Western proved just how much you could do with 36" rails if you engineered carefully. They ran on 36" rails long after most other narrow gauge railroads had either gone out of business or converted to standard gauge. That's one reason many folks like modeling the D&RGW.
30-inch Railroading - But to truly go where no rails had gone before, some railroads cut even more corners, and built tracks with the rails 30" apart (or less). Coal mines, logging camps, rock quarries, lumber mills, steel mills, sugar plantations, and many other industries needed to get materials cheaply from point A to point B, and they didn't need any "frills" like 36"-inch wide track.
As the list below shows, only a handful of U.S. 30" railroads hauled commercial freight or passenger traffic. But just about every kind of industrial load was hauled on 30" railroads, throughout most of the country. And some of those railroads would also haul passengers or paid freight where there was a need.
Locomotives on 30" RailroadsBecause they couldn't handle big heavy engines, most 30" railroads used the smallest engines that would pull the load they needed. Two of the most popular were designs by H. K. Porter and Ephraim Shay. Both designs could be ordered in any gauge, so they also turned up on many other gauges of track, including 24", 36", 40", and standard gauge (56.5").
Cars on 30" RailroadsBecause most 30" railroads had specialized uses, most of them had custom cars. Ore cars, pulp wood cars, flat cars, gondolas, even passenger cars were built with the specific needs of this railroad in mind. One especially interesting kind of "car" was the "logging disconnect." These were actually two "trucks" (sets of four wheels) with couplers on the ends and a crossbar across the top for chaining the logs to. The "body" of the car was made up of logs chained to each truck. When the logs were delivered, the "disconnects" were simply coupled to each other for the return trip. A related construction, the "skeleton" car, was used when the logs were going to be cut to a predetermined length. It was also built of two trucks with crossbars, but the trucks were connected "permanently" with a single beam.
This "roll your own" approach to equipment makes 30" railroads especially fun to model. In fact, many modelers who designed something they thought was "outrageous" have later found a real narrow gauge railroad somewhere that actually used such a thing.
Construction on 30" RoadsQuick and inexpensive was the rule. Ties might be set in gravel, but that was far from universal - sometimes they were just laid on the soil and the builders hoped the ground would never be muddy enough to swallow the track rails and all. Instead of expensive grading, hastily-assembled timber supports might be used for even small dips in the terrain or to repair washouts. Where a retaining wall was critical, "cribbing" with timbers was far more common than the stone or block retaining walls of the "big guys." Rickety trestles were far more common than tunnels, which cost a lot to dig. In other words, if you like railroads with "folksey, rickety, home-grown" looks, 30" railroads offer all the character you could want.
In addition, 30" railroads served sugar plantations, coal towns, logging camps, mining towns, and many other small "communities" where economics often kept buildings and facilities small, dated, and (more often than not) in need of a paint job. In other words, not only did the 30" railroads have plenty of "character," so did their surroundings.
Modeling 30" RailroadsMost model railroaders interested in narrow gauge trains have modeled railroads like the D&RGW that ran on 36" rails. But there are more opportunities for modeling 30" railroads now than there have ever been.
One thing "fun" about modeling 30" railroads was that many pieces of equipment were special-order, custom-built, or home-made, so there were a thousand real-world variations on this stuff. If you make something up that seems reasonable for your 30" railroad, there's a good chance that someone in the real world has already built such a thing.
Another bonus is that modeling 30" railroads lets you use bigger accessories and more detail than you would ordinarily use running standard gauge trains on the same track.
Indoor Modeling - (Mostly On30) - In the 1990s, interest in modeling 30" railroads indoors boomed for a surprising reason: Department 56 Christmas Village houses had become popular, and people were looking for trains to go with their ceramic towns. Bachmann, one of the world's largest model train manufacturers, came up with the ideal solution: On30 trains. What does this name mean?
The use of O scale (1:48) also allows modelers to take advantage of a host of O scale buildings, figures, and accessories for their railroads.
Some folks have modeled 30" railroads in HO or S scale (HOn30 or Sn30 respectively), but those segments of the hobby are not growing nearly as fast as the On30 segment.
Outdoor Modeling - (Mostly Large Scale) - Most garden trains run on 45mm track (about 1 3/4"). The newest narrow gauge models tend to model 36" railroads in 1:20.3 scale. To model a 30" railroad on 45mm track, your models would have to be in about 16.9:1 scale, about 17% larger than 1:20.3 models (like the Bachmann Shay) and 20% larger than 1:22.5 models (like the LGB Mogul or Bachmann ten-wheeler).
On the other hand, boiler and driver sizes were almost unique to each 30" railroad, and most 30" railroads had cars that were narrower and shorter (lengthwise) than cars on 36" railroads. So you could "borrow" most 1:20.3 ore cars. You could give your other equipment a 30" look by going up. For example, using high-sided gondolas when possible, increasing the door heights by 17% or so if possible, putting slightly taller cabs and smokestacks on 1:20.3 locomotives, and so on. More information is provided in our article Small But Mighty - 30" Power
The "adjusted" locomotive looks like it has a dinky boiler and drivers, but that's perfectly appropriate for a 30" railroad.
Ironically, Bachmann's 1:20.3 outside frame Consolidation was actually based on a real 30" locomotive, the one at Alder Gulch, Montana. But judging by the photos (they haven't given me a locomotive to try out on my railroad), it is probably 1:20.3 scale and would still need the cab and smokestack to be a little taller to look quite right for 1:17.
Locations of 30" RailroadsThis list shows the 30" railroads that folks are pretty sure were really built and operated for some period of time. Many more never got off the drawing board, or were never taken seriously enough to keep a detailed record. I would guess that today, we probably only have records of about 20% of the 30" railroads that actually ran. But that's great news for the modeler, because, you can stage a Porter or Shay locomotive and a few small cars on any kind of "heavy" industry in pretty much any part of the country and have a pretty good chance of modeling something that really existed.
To see a much more detailed list of historical 30" railroads, visit the World-wide 30" Gauge Railways and Railroads page.
Commercial Traffic 30" Railroads We're Pretty Sure AboutVery few 30" railways were open for public transportation of people or goods (although some industrial railroads hauled passengers and commercial freight on an occasional basis). Commercial 30" railroads we're reasonably sure about included:
States with 30" Logging and Timber Processing Railroads
Mexican 30" Railroads - Several of the 30" railroads in Mexico hauled much of the same kinds of freight and passengers as the 36" railroads in the U.S. Those railroads needed bigger and faster locomotives than the Shays and Porters that dominated U.S. 30" railroads. But they had to make some interesting compromises to fit "conventional" locomotives onto 30" rails.
As an example, the Outside Frame 2-6-2 (Prairie-type) locomotive shown to the right fit a bigger-than-average boiler over 30" rails by having the frame outside of the drivers, not inside as was normal. The drivers' counterweights, however, were outside the frame, making the locomotive look like an eggbeater going down the tracks. It's no coincidence that the Outside Frame Consolidation shown above was also built for a Mexican railroad: Ferrocarril Mexicano. A photo of a Mexican-owned Outside Frame Mikado (2-8-2) is shown on Bruce Pryor's page "Narrow Gauge From Off the Beaten Path."
The moral of this story is that if you want to boldly go where no 30"-gauge modeler has gone before, the 30" railroads of Mexico offer a wealth of inspiration. Some fascinating descriptions and some very unusual photos, are available at the following link.
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