Width of Railroad Tracks
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The Width of Railroad Tracks is based on a History that Extends Back to Roman Chariots-Fiction!

 

 

 

bulletSummary of the eRumor
This story is a "We've always done it that way" tale.  It says that the standard distance between railroad rails in the U.S. is four-feet, eight-and-a-half inches.  Why?  Because that's what it was in England.  Why?  Because that's the gauge the tramways used before the railroads.  Why?  Because the tramways were built using the same tools as wagon-builders and that's how wide the wagon wheels were spaced.  Why?  Because the old roads in England had ruts that the wheels needed to accommodate.  Why?  Because the ruts were made by Imperial Roman chariots.
bulletThe Truth
There is no evidence that we could find that this is true. 
In an article on www.railway.org by D. Gabe Gabriel says this tale has existed since shortly after World War II but that history does not support the claims of the story.  The Roman ruts, according to Gabriel, were not for chariots but for narrow, hand-pulled carts.  Although there are many places where the ruts are visible, Gabriel questions that they played a role in English railroad standards 1400 years after the last Roman legions.  One of the claims of the eRumor is that the width of the ruts was affected by the need to make the chariot and it's wheels the same width as the combined rears of the horses pulling them.  Gabriel says there's a statue by Franzoni in the Vatican museum that is regarded as the most accurate known depiction of a Roman chariot.  The two horses are wider than the chariot and the chariot wheels behind them.

Where did the four-foot, eight-and-a-half-inch standard originate?  Gabriel says it was from a Englishman named George Stephenson.  Carts on rails had been used in mines in England for years, but the width of the rails varied from mine to mine since they didn't share tracks.  Stephenson was the one who started experimenting with putting a steam engine on the carts so there would be propulsion to pull them along.  He had worked with several mines with differing gauges and simply chose to make the rails for his project 4-foot, eight inches wide.  He later decided that adding another six inches made things easier.  He was later consulted for constructing some rails along a roadway and by the time broader plans for railroads in Great Britain were proposed, there were already 1200 miles of his rails so the "Stephenson gauge" became the standard.

Interestingly, the 4-foot, eight-and-a-half inch width has not always been the standard in the U.S.  According to the Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography, at the beginning of the Civil War, there were more than 20 different gauges ranging from 3 to 6 feet, although the 4-foot, eight-and-a-half inch was the most widely used.  During the war, any supplies transported by rail had to be transferred by hand whenever a car on one gauge encountered track of another gauge and more than 4,000 miles of new track was laid during the war to standardize the process.  Later, Congress decreed that the 4-foot, eight-and-a-half inch standard would be used for transcontinental railway.

updated 5/30/02
A real example of the eRumor as it has appeared on the Internet:

Does the statement, "We've always done it that
way" ring any bells... ?

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 English expatriates built the US Railroads.

Why did the English 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 have that particular
odd wheel spacing?

Well, if they tried to use any other spacing,
the wagon wheels would break on some of the old,
long distance roads in England, because that's
the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads?

Imperial Rome built the first long distance
roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The
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.

The United States standard railroad gauge of 4
feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original
specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.
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 war chariots were made
just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two
war horses. Now the twist to the story...

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its
launch pad, there are two big booster rockets
attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These
are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are
made by Thiokol at their factory at Utah. The
engineers who designed the SRBs would 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 from the factory happens to
run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had
to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly
wider than the railroad track, and the railroad
track, as you now know, is about as wide as two
horses' behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what
is arguably the world's most advanced transportation
system was determined over two thousand years ago by
the width of a horse's ass. ... and you thought
being a HORSE'S ASS wasn't important!

 

 


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