In Britain the Great Western Railway, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, pioneered broad gauge from 1838 with a gauge of , and retained this gauge until 1892. A number of harbours also used railways of this gauge for construction and maintenance. These included Portland Harbour and Holyhead Breakwater, which sold a locomotive into industrial hands for working nearby sidings. As it was not connected to the national network, this broad gauge operation continued until 1913 when the locomotive wore out
While Parliament was initially prepared to authorise lines built to the broad gauge, it was eventually rejected by the Gauge Commission in favour of all railways being built to Standard Gauge for compatibility. Broad gauge lines were gradually converted to dual gauge or standard gauge from 1864, and finally the last of Brunel's broad gauge was converted in 1892.
Many countries have broad gauge railways. Ireland (see History of rail transport in Ireland) and some parts of Australia (see History of rail transport in Australia) and Brazil have a gauge of (but Luas, the Dublin light rail system, is built to standard gauge). Russia and the other former Soviet Republics use a (originally ) gauge while Finland continues to use the gauge inherited from Imperial Russia (the two standards are close enough to allow full interoperability between Finland and Russia).
In 1839, the Netherlands started its railway system with two broad gauge railways. The chosen gauge was after a visit of engineers in England. This was applied between 1839–1866 by the Hollandsche IJzeren Spoorweg-Maatschappij (HSM) for their Amsterdam-The Hague-Rotterdam line and between 1842–1855, firstly by the Dutch state, but soon by the Nederlandsche Rhijnspoorweg-Maatschappij for their Amsterdam-Utrecht-Arnhem line. But the neighboring countries Prussia and Belgium used already standard gauge so the two companies had to regauge their first lines. In 1855, NRS regauged its line and shortly after connected to the Prussian railways. The HSM followed in 1866. There are replicas of one broad gauge 2-2-2 locomotive (De Arend) and three carriages in the Dutch Railway Museum in Utrecht. These replicas were built for the 100th anniversary of the Dutch Railways in 1938–39.
The Baltic states have received funding from the European Union to build new lines with standard gauge. Portugal and the Spanish Renfe system use a gauge of (5 ft 5 in) called "Ancho Ibérico" (see Rail gauge). In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a gauge of is widespread. This is also used by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system of the San Francisco Bay Area. In Toronto, Canada the gauge for TTC subways and streetcars was chosen in 1861, years after the establishment of 'standard gauge' in Britain, but well before 'standard gauge' in the US and Canada. Toronto uses a unique gauge of , an "overgauge" originally stated to 'allow horse-drawn wagons to use the rails', but with the practical effect of precluding the use of standard gauge equipment in the street. In 1861, the Province was supplying subsidies only to broad 'provincial gauge' railways.
The value of interoperability was not obvious to the industry at first. The standardization movement was gradual, and over time the value of a proprietary gauge diminished, being replaced by the idea of collecting money for equipment used on somebody else's railroad lines.
Most non-standard broad gauges get in the way of interoperability of railway networks. On the GWR, the gauge was supposed to allow for high speed, but the company had difficulty with locomotive design in the early years (which threw away much of their advantage), and rapid advances in permanent way and suspension technology saw standard gauge speeds approach broad gauge speeds within a decade or two in any case. On the and gauges, the extra width allowed for bigger inside cylinders and greater power, a problem solvable by outside cylinders and higher steam pressure on standard gauge.
On BART, the wider gauge is supposed to prevent lightweight trains from being blown over by the wind.. Stability in monsoons was supposed to be a reason for the wider gauge in India. During the Super Outbreak standard gauge trains were blown over.
However broad gauge remained the most prevalent gauge across the Indian Subcontinent, reaching right across from Iran in to Pakistan to Burma and Kashmir to Sri Lanka. After Independence, the Pakistan Railways and Indian Railways adopted as the standard Indian Gauge, and began Project Unigauge to convert metre gauge and narrow gauge to broad gauge. Even the newest rail projects in India, such as the Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro use broad gauge. There was a move to use standard gauge for the Delhi Metro, but the decision was made to use broad gauge to maintain compatibility with the rest of the rail network in India. The new Bangalore Metro Lines will be on standard gauge and similarly Mumbai & Hyderabad Metro will also be on standard gauge. Few remaining standard gauge sections in Pakistan are being converted to broad gauge.
Russian gauge or CIS gauge is the second most widely used gauge in the world and spans the whole of the former CIS/Soviet Union bloc, including the Baltic states, Finland and Mongolia.
After considerable debate and planning, most of the southern rail network was converted from gauge to gauge, then the standard of the Pennsylvania Railroad, over two remarkable days beginning on Monday, May 31, 1886. Over a period of 36 hours, tens of thousands of workers pulled the spikes from the west rail of all the broad gauge lines in the South, moved them 3 inches (76 mm) east and spiked them back in place. The new gauge was close enough that standard gauge equipment could run on it without problem. By June, 1886, all major railroads in North America were using approximately the same gauge. The final conversion to true standard gauge took place gradually as track was maintained.
In the early days of rail transport in the United States, railroads tended to be built out of coastal cities into the hinterland, and systems did not connect. Each builder was free to choose its own gauge, although the availability of British-built locomotives encouraged some railroads to be built to standard gauge. As a general rule, southern railroads were built to one or another broad gauge, mostly , while northern railroads that were not standard-gauge tended to be narrow-gauge. When American railroads' track extended to the point that they began to interconnect, it became clear that a single nationwide gauge would be a good idea. In 1886, the southern railroads agreed to coordinate changing gauge on all their tracks over two days, beginning May 31, 1886. They chose a gauge that was then used by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Those tracks were gradually reduced the remaining half inch to standard gauge later. Now, the only broad-gauge rail systems in the United States are some city transit systems, notably BART.
In modern uses certain isolated occurrences of non-standard gauges can still be found, such as the and gauge tracks of the Philadelphia streetcars, the Philadelphia subway cars and the New Orleans streetcars. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area, chose gauge. The San Francisco cable cars use the cape gauge of .
These applications might use double track of the country's usual gauge to provide the necessary stability and axle load. These applications may also use much heavier than normal rails, the heaviest rails for actual trains being about 70 kg/m.