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All vehicles on a rail network must have running gear that is compatible with the track gauge, and in the earliest days of railways the selection of a proposed railway's gauge was a key issue. As the dominant parameter determining interoperability, it is still frequently used as a descriptor of a route or network.
In some places there is a distinction between the nominal gauge and the actual gauge, due to divergence of track components from the nominal. Railway engineers use a device, like a
The earliest form of railway was a wooden wagonway, along which single wagons were manhandled, almost always in or from a mine or quarry. Initially the wagons were guided by human muscle power; subsequently by various mechanical methods. Timber rails wore rapidly: later, flat cast-iron plates were provided to limit the wear. In some localities, the plates were made L-shaped, with the vertical part of the L guiding the wheels; this is generally referred to as a "plateway". Flanged wheels eventually became universal, and the spacing between the rails had to be compatible with that of the wagon wheels.
As the guidance of the wagons was improved, short strings of wagons could be connected and pulled by teams of horses, and the track could be extended from the immediate vicinity of the mine or quarry, typically to a navigable waterway. The wagons were built to a consistent pattern and the track would be made to suit the needs of the horses and wagons: the gauge was more critical. The
The Penydarren Tramroad probably carried the first journey by a locomotive, in 1804, and it was successful for the locomotive, but unsuccessful for the track: the plates were not strong enough to carry its weight. A considerable progressive step was made when cast iron edge rails were first employed; these had the major axis of the rail section configured vertically, giving a much stronger section to resist bending forces, and this was further improved when fish-belly rails were introduced.
Edge rails required a close match between rail spacing and the configuration of the wheelsets, and the importance of the gauge was reinforced. Railways were still seen as local concerns: there was no appreciation of a future connection to other lines, and selection of the track gauge was still a pragmatic decision based on local requirements and prejudices, and probably determined by existing local designs of (road) vehicles.
Locomotives were being developed in the first decades of the 19th century; they took various forms, but
The Stockton and Darlington line was immensely successful, and when the
The Liverpool and Manchester was quickly followed by other trunk railways, with the
At the same time, other parts of Britain built railways to standard gauge, and British technology was exported to European countries and parts of North America, also using standard gauge. Britain polarised into two areas: those that used
The larger railway companies wished to expand geographically, and large areas were considered to be under their control. When a new independent line was proposed to open up an unconnected area, the gauge was crucial in determining the allegiance that the line would adopt: if it was broad gauge, it must be friendly to the Great Western railway; if narrow (standard) gauge, it must favour the other companies. The battle to persuade or coerce that choice became very intense, and became referred to as
As passenger and freight transport between the two areas became increasingly important, the difficulty of moving from one gauge to the other—the
As railways were built in other countries, the gauge selection was pragmatic: the track would have to fit the rolling stock. If locomotives were imported from elsewhere, especially in the early days, the track would be built to fit them. In some cases standard gauge was adopted, but many countries or companies chose a different gauge as their national gauge, either by governmental policy, or as a matter of individual choice. 
Narrow gauges were widely used in mountainous regions, as construction costs tended to be lower and they enabled the tighter turns that were often required.[
To keep the rail traffic compatible within a network, not only the track gauge needs to be the same, but also the