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How a standard rut gauge created a standard rail gauge

Some MapPorn:

This is a map of the world’s different railway gauges.

Fun fact, if fact it be. In the schmoozing after a talk I attended earlier in the week, someone told me that Britain’s four foot eight-and-a-half inch gauge is the result of how far apart horse-drawn carriages had their wheels, in the pre-railways north-east of England, that being where the railways in Britain got started. The point being that such carriages also had a standard gauge. Their wheels dug ruts in the un-tarred roads of those times, so if your carriage had a different “gauge”, it couldn’t travel in those ruts, and thus couldn’t travel at all. These ruts were rails before rails. And that regular distance apart transferred itself to the newly emerging railways.

I haven’t checked this. I didn’t want to bother with any facts that might destroy my story, until I’d told my story. But as of now: feel free to destroy away.

Another question: Will the railway gauges of the world ever change? By which I mean get somewhat less numerous. Say: As a result of some sort of new intercontinental high speed rail system being developed. I seem to recall reading that in Spain, the new high speed trains are the same gauge as those in France (and thus also Britain) and different from the regular Spanish gauge. Or would a some futuristic global high speed system will just add yet another standard? (Will Brunel’s preferred seven foot gauge for the old Great Western line rise from the dead and conquer the world? Guess: No.)

Cue the commentariat who will, I predict, change the subject to the QWERTY keyboard, and then disagree about how that happened, and about how keyboards will be in two hundred years time.

18 comments to How a standard rut gauge created a standard rail gauge

  • llamas

    The wheel rut and horse’s ass stories are pure garbage. Just a quick visit to a suitable museum – the Weald and Downland Museum near Chichester is one such – will show that carts and carriages had all sorts of wheelbases and there is no standard.

    I know the reason for the 4′ 8 1/2″ gauge. If you’re not very careful, I’ll explain it.



  • My QWERTY keyboard is 18″ wide and I see no reason why this shouldn’t be the global standard.

    4′ 8-1/2″ is the distance 2 horses asses stand from one another when trying to beat each other with their canes on the floor of the legislature. No?

  • Mr Ed

    One of the quirks of travelling to Spain by train many years back was to have your couchette car with you in it raised in a shed in Hendaye of an early morning for a change of bogies (IIRC that’s the term) so that it could run on Spanish tracks. A neighbour of mine did this run in the 1970s, but was wholly unaware of the process or the need for it and woke up rather startled mid-way through the swap with the wagon 10 feet up in the air in a shed. Spanish trains then were particularly good at going slowly back then. Isn’t there some goods training that runs from China to London once a month or so? I’m told so presumably it changes wheels in the former USSR and again on leaving that accursed, groaning area. I assume that Chinese bogies are quarantined now.

    Trains are about as adaptable in certain dimensions of movement as Daleks, they really need to come up with something a bit more flexible so that a stuck train doesn’t mess up a whole line. It’s the inertia of the sunken costs that probably keeps them going.

  • HKW

    Japan has at least two gauges – standard for the shinkansen but most mileage is cape gauge.

  • The UK had numbers of broader-gauge lines in the early days of rail. In 1846, we standardised on narrow gauge in the island of Great Britain but on broader (5’3″) gauge in Ireland. IIUC, both Northern and Southern Ireland still use this broader gauge.

    The US likewise was not all narrow-gauge at first. During the civil war, the Confederacy’s ability to operate its lines was hindered by differences of gauge between the various states. The Union benefitted from having some extensive interconnectable narrow-gauge networks. It could be said that narrow-gauge was one of the victors of the war.

    After building one 6′ gauge line (inspired by Brunel’s 7′ gauge) and one standard 4’8 1/2″ gauge in their first two railways, Russia built their third line in 5′ gauge in 1843, advised by a US railway consultant they hired, and later standardised on this. Contrary to legend, this was not done for military purposes. However it had an effect in 1941. It was easier for the invading Germans to relay rails in a narrower gauge onto existing sleepers than it was in 1944 for the Russians to convert railways to broader-gauge, but the need to relay tracks (and meanwhile tranship to such 5′ railway engines as they had captured) contributed to the incessant supply crises that unfolded behind the nazis’ rapidly-advancing armies during the 1941 campaign. (Hitler lost WWII because of Russia’s mid-Victorian decision to use 5′ gauge – discuss. 🙂 )

  • Plamus

    Niall Kilmartin: German logistics in WW2 was a disaster in general, not just because of delays to relay track. To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply walk into Russia. The Luftwaffe also distinguished themselves during the battle for Stalingrad (and, I am sure, elsewhere) – the bit about the black pepper and the condoms is one of my favorites.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Will track gauges ever change?


    You’d do if for interoperability – the ability of one train to travel on someone else’s tracks. The problem, is that it is not just a question of track gauge. There is also loading gauge, car length, signalling systems, safety systems, electrical supply and even platform height.

    [Loading gauge is the size of the train (height and width). Britain and France, for instance, may have the same track gauge but the difference in loading guage means that French trains cannot run on British railways, with the exception of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.]

    But why would you want a train to travel on someone else’s tracks? Long-distance train travel doesn’t make a lot of sense. If we are talking passengers then air is faster and cheaper. If we are talking freight then ships are cheaper.

  • Chester Draws

    In the past having a different gauge was often a defensive advantage. The German advance into Russia was impeded, both times, by the Russians’ different gauge.

    Standardisation isn’t always to your benefit.

    If we are talking freight then ships are cheaper.

    The cars made in Slovakia are railed out, as it is far the best method. Shipping from Bratislava is not optimal. Shipping out the wheat of Alberta would be an interesting method, to say the least.

    Even even if cheaper to send something from Brussels to Milan by sea might be cheaper, it’s also considerably slower. Which is why trucks do that run, and similar ones, in massive numbers if rail isn’t suitable.

  • Dalben

    If your tracks are near the border of another country with different gauge tracks and you want to send trains in on the same gauge.

    But yes the areas of similar gauge are mostly pretty large and probably not much motivation to switch for crossing borders when it would then make you different from your previous zone.
    Also some of those borders aren’t the most friendly. India might want to standardize with China or vice versa or Russia and with the EU, but even if they felt it was overall economically worth it (and it probably wouldn’t be, or at least there would be a really long time to pay it off) there would be political and arguably strategic reasons not to do it.

    Maybe Ukraine might switch as part of orienting itself more towards the west, but that would be a huge expense and also politically risky. But that’s my guess as the most likely one to change. And then I would see it as likely many years or even decades from now after their relationship with Russia is more stable and they have a lot more trade with western Europe than Russia and can afford the resources to do it – which aren things that are not assured of happening.

  • A fun fact about Japan. While the majority of the railways are 3’6″ gauge there are significant exceptions. First all the Shinkansen tracks are 4′ 8.5″ for stability/speed reasons – a 3’6 gauge shinkansen would not be ale to hit 200+km/h speeds without derailing. But they aren’t the only ones, a number of private railways that are standard gauge (such as the Keisei/Asakusa/Keikyu railway between Narita airport and Haneda Airport/Yokohama).

    There are even a few places where trains of both gaugues run on the same tracks – the Yamagata Shinkansen in most of Yamagata for example shares the same track as the regular non shinkansen JR trains

  • Rob

    If you increase the width of the guage, not only do you need new trains but wider tunnels (for tunnels holding multiple lines), ditto bridges, changes to stations (moving of platforms), adjustment of power cables by a short distance (probably – not sure). Quite a cost for little reward.

  • Bruce

    Not sure why your map shows Australia as being uniformly “standard’ gauge.

    New South Wales is standard (4 Ft 8 1/2 in.), Queensland is 3ft 6, Victoria is Irish Broad Gauge 5ft 3”, Western Australia operates 3ft. 6 and Standard gauge, South Australia has all three, but now mostly standard gauge. What’s left of the Tasmanian system is 3 ft 6. The Northern Territory was originally 3ft 6 but they ripped that up a while ago. Subsequently, the Standard Gauge “Ghan” line extended from Adelaide to Darwin. Gryff Rhys Jones did a little series on the “Ghan” a while back.

    Interesting bit of US rail trivia: A lot of the rail network in the old Confederacy was in five foot gauge, like Russia. As the Union punched southwards, they literally tore up the tracks as per the old song by “The Band” et al, and replaced it with standard gauge track-work. HOWEVER, this was not a done deal at the end of hostilities. Lincoln’s “Funeral” carriage was fitted with odd wheels that were supposed to be able to work on either gauge.

    Somewhere here is an article in an old US model rail magazine on the Funeral Coach and its unusual undercarriage.

    Most of Japan is 3ft 6. Only the Shinkansens are Standard gauge.

  • Surellin

    Cool. Now do why some people drive on the wrong side of the road.

  • the other rob

    @ Surellin: Napoleon. Next question?

  • Barracoder

    I was always under the impression that Britain’s four feet, 8 1/2 inches gauge was a direct descendant of Julius Caesar’s edict, as that was the width of Roman chariot axles.

  • llamas

    Barracoder wrote:

    “I was always under the impression that Britain’s four feet, 8 1/2 inches gauge was a direct descendant of Julius Caesar’s edict, as that was the width of Roman chariot axles.”

    But the Romans hardly-ever used chariots for military purposes, certainly not by the time that England was occupied, so their roads and the ruts in them are very-unlikely to have anything to do with Roman chariots. The great users of chariots in the UK during the Roman occupation(s) were the resisting tribes.

    The boring fact is that wheel tracks for all kinds of vehicles in the range of 4 feet to 6 feet are very common because this is a range of sizes that is the common result of a whole group of compromises in designing and making wheeled vehicles. The fact that the wheel track of one type of vehicle is similar to the wheel track of a completely different type of vehicle does not imply any meaningful correlation.

    Standard railway gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches was originally 4 feet 8 inches. Stephenson, who was a very accomplished engineer but also a shrewd businessman, developed his original gauge
    for his very first viable locomotives. His compromise was between load-carrying capacity and allowable shear in solid wrought-iron axles vs curve radius (= cost of land) vs acceptable rail wear due to differential friction. His result was based on his appreciation of the landscape of Northern England, where he lived and worked. When the Great Western railway was constructed, with its generally-straighter routes across flatter landscape, this compromise could be adjusted to allow for a wider gauge, which is why the GWR had a 7 foot gauge. Railways in hillier country requiring tighter curves meant a narrower gauge works better.

    By 1840, the UK was the world’s premier manufacturer of everything to do with railways, not just locomotives and rolling stock but also all of the infrastructure – rails, points, signals and all the associated gubbins, all of it designed around the standard gauge. Not-surprisingly, this became the standard throughout the Empire, but also in many other places that did not have the capability of building their own steam locomotives. Even though the UK was only 5-10 years ahead of the US in the development of steam locomotives, the first viable locomotives in the US were all Stephenson’s products, imported from the UK, and this is the route by which Stephenson’s gauge became the dominant standard in the US. By the time the US caught up with the UK in this area (much sooner in the North than in the South), the standard was already set.



  • Paul Marks

    I think that, of the gauges in wide usage, the Indian Gauge (five feet six inches) is best – but I do not expect Britain to adopt it. It would be too expensive to convert the railway system.

    “Standard gauge” was cheaper and faster to build – that is why it became popular. “India Gauge” (and even more – IKB’s Broad Gauge) allows wider train carriages – but is more expensive to build.

  • Meistersinger

    The Spanish have come up with an ingenious system for changing gauge “on the fly”. Search for “Talgo” on YouTube.