The short lifespan of the narrow-gauge railway began during the golden age of rail, in the first half of the 19th century. Cheaper to lay and better at penetrating rugged terrains than broader rails, tracks measuring between 24 and 30 inches wide became a common feature on lines leading to remote mining pits and lumber mills.
But that was before the rail barons got involved.
As early as the 1870s in the US, competing railroads recognized the need for a standardized gauge that would help create a national rail network and eliminate the logistical hassle of loading and unloading cargo at every new junction.
At the end of World War I, the narrow-gauge system fell into steep decline, and by the 1940s, only a handful of such railroads remained.
Although it's still possible in parts of Asia and Africa to find trains operating on rails narrower than the 56.5-inch international standard, few compare with the extra-small, 29.5-inch gauge used by La Trochita. (See story at right.)
And where similarly tiny rails do exist, like on the fabled Durango & Silverton in Colorado or the Talyllyn in Wales, you usually find only a watered-down tourist-train service.
Indeed, the only sure-fire place where narrow-gauge rails function regularly is the kiddie ride at your local amusement park!
Still, despite their limited utility today, narrow-gauge railroads retain a special allure to train enthusiasts the world over.
The beautiful mountainous settings in which they were often built and the historic value of their obsolete machinery, offer something that no heavy hauler ever will.
It just goes to prove that the wheel of progress is no match for the test of time.
For more information and excellent links to more than 100 narrow-gauge railroad sites, try the Narrow Gauge Railway Society on the Web at www.ngrs.demon.co.uk.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor