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Folklore: Railroad tracks

16 Oct 99 - 02:39 AM (#124528)
Subject: Railroad tracks
From: bseed(charleskratz)

This is some of the more delightful BS I've run across in a long time. I received this from Walter Alvarez, who plays piano with the Once-Born (Poodle Players). He's also author of T. Rex and the Crater of Doom, a terrific book about the extinction of the dinosaurs, and an all around great guy. His wife, Milly--another great person out of Lynchburg, Virginia, and with the lovely accent of her home--also sings with us. Okay, that's the music connection. Here's the BS, or in this case, horse poop.

Barriers to Innovation (or How Specs* Live Forever)

[*specifications, in this case]

The US Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

Why did the English people build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used. Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that's the spacing of the old wheel ruts.

So who built these old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original questions. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derived from the original specification for an Imperial Roman army war chariot.

Specs and Bureaucracies live forever. So, the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you may be exactly right. Because the Imperial Roman chariots were made to be just wide enough to accommodate the back-ends of two war horses.

Why do YOU do the things you do?

Plus: There's an interesting extension of the story about railroad gauge and horses' behinds. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at a factory in Utah.

The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line to the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than a railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So a major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined by the width of a horse's backside!

More precisely, two horses backsides. And those horses' asses have been controlling how we build roads and railroads for 2000 years!

Walter Alvarez Department of Geology and Geophysics University of California Berkeley, CA 94720-4767


16 Oct 99 - 02:58 AM (#124530)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: katlaughing

That's great, Bseed! My great-grandfather engineered the grading of the RR tracks through Glenwood Canyon, in Colorado, where this would have to go through. I have some wonderful, very old pictures of him and his big freight wagon with some humungous horses. Also, my great-uncle engineered the Moffat (RR) Tunnel in Colorado.

I've printed this off to send to my dad. He will really enjoy it. Besides growing up with both of them around, his grandad and dad had the first threshing service on the Western Slope of Colorado, more big horses involved in that. When dad grew older, he joined the operation.

Thanks for sharing this!


16 Oct 99 - 04:33 AM (#124541)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: wildlone

you may think that all our roads were built by rome, from what i see of them they seem to have been built by drunken villagers staggering from place to place.
sorry about last nights chat Kat cut off could not get back in.
wildlone with not so many bruises now arm still in plaster

16 Oct 99 - 08:57 AM (#124555)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: catspaw49

Seed I just love it man!!! Just plain love it.

Thanks to all!!!!!!!!!

16 Oct 99 - 10:17 AM (#124566)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: katlaughing

I know what you mean WL. IN New England the roads mostly are narrow and windy; cow trails? Out here we have a main thoroughfare called CY Avenue, pronounced See-Why, after an old ranch brand. It literally was a cow trail which angles off in a weird, illogical way, unless, I guess, you were a cow looking for pasture!

No prob on the chat. I figured you couldn't get in or post, one of the other. Jon was worried you may have thoguht him rude; same thing happened to him. What's this about your arm being plaster? Did you break it or are you speaking figuratively about the chat?

16 Oct 99 - 10:48 AM (#124571)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Banjer

We do many things without really thinking of the real reason behind them....Reminds me of cute little story...Yes many things remind me of stories....

This little girl was watching her mother prepare a roast for dinner. Before placing the roast into the pan, the mother cut off a small chunk from the end of the roast. The little girl remarked that mother did this each time she prepared a roast. The little girl asked her mother why she did that. Mother thought for a while and said she did it because that's the way her mother always did it and if she wnated to know more ask her grandmother. The next time she went to her grandmom's house the first question was why did she cut the end off the roast. Her reply?

Because she only had a small pan and the damn things never would fit!!

16 Oct 99 - 11:27 AM (#124584)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Neil Lowe

....the fruitful results of finely-tuned and deliberate research. Thanks, BSeed.

Regards, Neil

16 Oct 99 - 12:14 PM (#124602)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: sophocleese

Thanks BSeed that's fascinating. In Russian the word for railroad station is vauxhall. Why? Because when the russians wanted to build a railroad station engineers went to Endgland to study them. They liked Vauxhall station in London so all railraod stations were called Vauxhall. I picked that little tidbit up the one year that I tried to study Russian.

13 Jan 01 - 10:43 AM (#373926)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Noreen

Refresh- because I just found it and it deserves it!


13 Jan 01 - 01:24 PM (#373984)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Keith A of Hertford

If your railroads were built by British expats., do your trains run on the left like ours do, and why is it taking you so long to realise that this is the logical side for all traffic ?

13 Jan 01 - 01:32 PM (#373986)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks

Wonderful, fascinating, funny stuff. But I have this vision of Tris Patterson, note from teacher in hand, explaining to his mother why he told the class that only a horse's ass could design a train.

13 Jan 01 - 01:53 PM (#373998)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: CamiSu


I once got into real trouble after telling the nephew of the new super on the building site that "because we've always done it that way" was stupid!!! Of course that super was never going to like me, as he didn't like female carpenters on principle!


13 Jan 01 - 01:58 PM (#374000)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Micca

To pick up wildlones comment
Before the ronmans came to Rye or out to Severn strode
The Rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road
A reeling road, a rolling road, That rambled round the shire
........ and for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire....
but I did bash their baggonets because them came arrayed
to straighten out the crooked road and English drunkard made

13 Jan 01 - 02:08 PM (#374004)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Snuffy

Wildlone is on the right track about how roads were made:

Before the Romans came to Rye Or out to Severn strode, The rolling English drunkard Made the rolling English road.

Start of The Rolling English Road by G K Chesterton (1874-1936)

13 Jan 01 - 02:20 PM (#374007)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks

Look down at the keyboard of your computer. The arrangement of letters makes no logical sense, and is not ergonomically efficient. This is the so-called "QWERTY" keyboard, and it was designed to remedy a problem in the mid-1800s with the first typewriters: commonly used letters hit close together tended to jam the strikers, and so these letters were separated on the keyboard. Even though much more efficient and logical designs have been introduced, the QWERTY persists because millions of users are familiar with it.

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel, uses this story as an example of the way in which a society may selectively reject a technical advance if the incentives for change are insufficient.

13 Jan 01 - 02:24 PM (#374008)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Chocolate Pi

Usual caveat with such things: don't believe everything you read on the internet, etc., etc. Over a thousand copies of this article, usually anonymous and archived under someone's joke category, turn up in a perfunctory search. Alt.folklore.urban has discussed it a number of times.

Keith A., at least on the Boston trolley lines, the driver is on the left side of the car, and the trains go up the middle of the street.

Chocolate Pi

13 Jan 01 - 05:23 PM (#374075)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Sourdough

Chocolate Pi:

Thanks for researching that. I wa about to check WOoden SPoon to see if that was a true story. I had read it a nuber of years ago and it jumped to mind when I saw the title of this thread.

THe Vauxhall story reminded me of Whistler's father.I've read in a couple of places that he was a rairoad engineer (designer not driver) and is the designer of The Whistler, a once common version of the steam whistle.

If I remember right, railroads used the Ford Model A or perhaps the Model T to move their crews around on the railroad lines because their vehicle track, the length of the axles, fit on the standard American gauge railroad track and, fitted with railroad car wheels, they could use it to replace a handcar. (Today the crews have it a lot easier. THey have trucks they can drive from the road onto the tracks, lower their railroad wheels into place on the rails and scoot off to the job site.)

I really wish the story about the road design were true. I hate it when something that fits into my preconceptions turns out to be incorrect.


13 Jan 01 - 05:42 PM (#374089)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks

I read recently that American railroad gauges were not standardized until the period after the Civil War. During the war, troops and supplies moving by rail often had to employ different cars for each leg of the journey due to gauge differences.

13 Jan 01 - 09:22 PM (#374177)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: raredance

In "A Treasury of Railroad Folklore" (1953) Botkin and Harlow discuss the gauge issue in the USA (they call it "gage") in some detail over 6 pages of text. It is true that the first railroads in Massachusetts were built at 4' 8 1/2" because they bought their equipment from the Stephensons of England. Botkin and Harlow say, "The legend that this was the exact width of the Roman Imperial chariot wheel-tread will probably persist to the end of time, like that other belief that General Forrest said, "Git thar fustest with the mostest.""

The Mohawk & Hudson made its gage 4'9" , 1/2" wider than the MA lines. The Delaware & Hudson came up from Pennsylvania with 2 "standard gages", one at 6' and the other at 4'3". In Baltimore, Peter Cooper built his B & O locomotive "Tom thumb at 4' 6". IN Pennsylvania at the time there were lines of , 3', 3'8", 4'3", 4'9", 4'9 1/4", 4' 9 1/2". 4' 9 3/4". The New Brunswick & Canada that crossed Maine from Quebec to NB was 3'6". In 1879 that dimension was standardized for what became the Canadian Pacific. The Hecla & Torch Lake in the copper country of Michigan was built at 4' 1". Another CAnadian line that ran from Montreal to Portland, Maine was 5' 6". That line was a forerunner of the Canadian National RR. It was even suggested the British favored having a different gage in Canada from the US, to make it harder to invade. The state of Maine was a mess with all these gages, including the 4' 8 1/2" on lines connecting to Boston. 4' 10" was favored in upper New Jersey and spread to Ohio where the legislature once passed a law declaring that the legal gage for all railroads in that state, but it was pretty much ignored. In the northeast as the significance of interconnecting rail transport became apparent the 4' 8 1/2" began to predominate. The Pennsylvania RR used 4' 9" for a number of years before changing. You could run standard stock on 4' 9" although it was a "little loose" and some accidents happened.

In the South 5' became the standard, except for the 5' 6" in Louisiana and a few 3 footers around. Up north the major rebel was the Erie who ran 6' gage through the curves of the upper Delaware River and to Lake Erie. They then struck out for Cincinatti. The Erie also convinced the the Ohio & Mississippi to put in 6' so in 1857 there was a 6' line from New York all the way to St. Louis. Some of the wide gage roads even laid a third track on some of their lines to accomodate interconnection with the smaller "standard" gages.

When the Union Pacific was being planned, President Lincoln was asked to set the gage. The few RR in California at the time were 5', same as in the South. Lincoln chose that, but raised a firestorm of protest from the northeastern railroads about the expense of changing. Congress then overruled the President. In 1871 there were 23 different gages in the USA ranging from 3' to 6'. By the mid 1880's there were 25 as a number of 2' lines sprang up in Maine and an Oregon logging company built an 8' one. Cincinatti alone had half a dozen gages. For economy reasons quite a few miles of bed had been built at 3'. The Cotton Belt RR and the Denver & Rio Grande both started out as narrow gage lines.

After the Civil War it became apparent that the southern lines would have to change to what had gradually become the standard 4' 8 1/2". 13,000 miles of main line, 1800 locomotives and some 40,000 cars had to be converted, so there was no big rush to get going. The Illinois Central was the first. After the last broad gage train passed on the evening of Aug 1, 1881, a big crew proceeded by torchlight to change the road bed. By noon the next day the 600 miles of track south of Cairo Illinois had been changed. A few other followed suit and the final big change cam on the weekend of May 29, 1886. the largest line in the south the L & N had over 8700 men ready to go early Sunday morning. ONe shop reportedly changed 19 locomotives, 18 passenger cars, 11 cabooses, 1710 freight cars and some other equipment between sunup and sundown. It appears that political and business clout were major factors in deciding which gage ultimately became the uniform standard.

Check out Botkin and Harlow's account for lots more interesting details.

rich r

13 Jan 01 - 09:34 PM (#374179)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Matt_R

Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?

13 Jan 01 - 10:57 PM (#374196)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Troll

When the Trans-Mongolian RR reaches the border with China, there is a wait of two or three hours while the bogies (wheels and axels) are changed on the cars. The Trans-Mongolian was built by the Russians up to the border and the Chinese deliberately chose a different guage so the Russians could not use the Chinese rail system to move supplies if they invaded.
No one seems to know why they don't just move the passengers and freight to another train.


14 Jan 01 - 05:29 AM (#374272)
Subject: RE: BS: Railroad tracks
From: Snuffy

There was a similar "Battle of the Gauges" in Britain, with most of the early lines built to 4'8-1/2". But I K Brunel's Great Western Railway was built to 7'0-1/4" (Where did the quarter inch come from?).

As the system gradually became linked, Parliament decided (mid 1840's I think) that all future railways should be standard gauge. The GWR gradually fitted SG rails inside the BG ones, so that both gauges could use the same track, but it was not until 1892 that the last Broad Gauge trains left Paddington

Wassail! V