Railroad Track Guages

February 11, 2020

The U.S. Standard railroad gauge also called Stephenson¬†gauge¬†after George Stephenson (distance from the inside of one rail to the inside of the other rail) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why is that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England and English expatriates designed the U.S. Railroads.

The English build them like that Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the per-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

And why did they use that gauge? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing. (Take the tires off your car and the rims of your wheels will fit perfectly on a standard gauge railroad track).

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Because that’s how far apart the ruts in the road were.So, who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long-distance roads in Europe (including England) for their legions (circa 400 BC). Those roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome , they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore, the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

So why were roman chariot wheels spaced 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart? Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses.

And here is a bit of irony:

If you happen to run across a photo of one of the space shuttles sitting on its launch pad, you will notice that there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs were made by Thiokol at its factory in Utah.

The engineers who designed the boosters would have preferred to make them a bit larger, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happened to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel which is only slightly wider than the railroad track. It was suggested that a different route be used to avoid the tunnel but local politicians insisted the train pass through their congressional district.

The railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.

So, a major space shuttle design feature of what was arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s derriere.

In other words, bureaucracies live forever (and apparently so do horses asses).

Some would disagree with this explanation however, if not true, it should be.