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Railroad Gauges and Standardization
May 31, 2007 4:28 AM   Subscribe

The Days They Changed the Gauge. Early in the development of railroads in the American South, the builders departed from the standard 4' 8 1/2" gauge and built their railroads with the rails 5 feet apart. As part of a trend of increased government standardization, between May 30 and June 1 1886, workers moved over 11,000 miles of track 3 inches to the new standard gauge of 4' 9". [more inside]
posted by marxchivist (29 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the first linked article:

Differing in some specifics between the various roads, plans were worked out in minute detail for reducing the width between rails, and between the wheels, by 3 inches.

Only one rail would be moved in on the day of the change, so inside spikes were hammered into place at the new gauge width well in advance of the change, leaving only the need for a few blows of the sledgehammer once the rail was placed. As May 31 drew near, some spikes were pulled from the rail that was to be moved in order to reduce as much as possible the time required to release the rail from its old position.


Of course, they had to change the distance between the wheels on the rolling stock too.

And I know you all know the story of how the standard gauge came to be all because of a horse's ass.
posted by marxchivist at 4:28 AM on May 31, 2007


This is sort of like the Great Renaming. It's kind of a quaint concept that you could just shut an entire major networked system for a flag day where everything is converted over, but it was still workable in 1987.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:40 AM on May 31, 2007


I for one am very impressed. I look forward to IP v6 being implemented that smoothly, and over just 72 hours.
posted by imperium at 5:09 AM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Of course, they had to change the distance between the wheels on the rolling stock too.

Reminds me of the different rail gauge between France and Spain. Spanish fear of a French invasion by rail in the 19th century led to Spain choosing a different gauge. I don't know if it is still that way, but when I was traveling by rail from Paris to Barcelona some years ago, they stopped at the border, lifted up the train and pulled out the wheels.

Sorry for the derail.
posted by three blind mice at 5:55 AM on May 31, 2007 [9 favorites]


Finally, in the early morning hours of May 31, the concentrated work began. Men worked in crews of various sizes charged with various goats

Ah yes, the underrated goats. A meat supply on four legs to feed this herculean effort.
posted by zek at 6:09 AM on May 31, 2007


Makes me think of the Swedish Road Switch to the right.
posted by octothorpe at 6:23 AM on May 31, 2007


The varying gauges were a problem for the South during the Civil War. Snopes page on the origin of the gauge.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:31 AM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Makes me think of the Swedish Road Switch to the right.

Trucks the first day, cars the second....
posted by three blind mice at 6:31 AM on May 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


octothorpe - as an aside, do you happen to know why in the article they refer to others as "clinging to the left", as if driving on the right was somehow progress?
Am I missing something about how one side of the road is inherently better to drive on?
posted by Tbola at 6:32 AM on May 31, 2007


An alternative to changing all the tracks is to use variable-gauge axles on trains that cross borders.

Makes me think of the Swedish Road Switch to the right.

Which makes me think of the trailers crossing the border in Salmer fra kj√łkkenet.

I suppose it would be 'clinging to the left' if all your neighbors drove on the right and built their cars accordingly and learned to drive that way, but you stuck to the left. Neither side is inherently better, but the best side (economically, practically) to be on probably is the more popular side.
posted by pracowity at 6:39 AM on May 31, 2007


Mostly unrelated, but communist machine guns use a 51 caliber bullet, that way they can use ours but we can't use theirs. Similarly I thought I was losing it when I couldn't screw a light bulb into a lamp purchased in England, and it turned out to need a 26 millimeter screw base on the bulb, not the American standard of 27 millimeters. I guess that's so they can use the bulbs they capture from us, and the ones we capture will have our soldiers fumbling and struggling around the lamps making easy targets.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:52 AM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


No wait that means they can capture our lamps.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:54 AM on May 31, 2007


Before federation, the Australian states considered themselves very separate entities. Hence each state has a different gauge.

Traveling from Queensland to NSW to Victoria to South Australia one had to not only put up with the atrocious service, but had to detrain at each border. Fortunately, only the atrocious service remains.
posted by mattoxic at 7:11 AM on May 31, 2007


Am I missing something about how one side of the road is inherently better to drive on?

When you are a tiny country and your largest domestic manufacturers (Volvo, Saab, and Scania) rely on exports to countries that drive on the right, it is foolish to cling to the left at home.
posted by three blind mice at 7:20 AM on May 31, 2007


Actually, the swedes fazed it in over 40 years; the last holdout came out of the cold a few months ago.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:27 AM on May 31, 2007


Different gauges to prevent invasion were also used between Canada and the US, and between Germany and Russia. Had the Russian and German ones been the same size, the early days of WW1 could have been quite different.
posted by Chuckles McLaughy du Haha, the depressed clown at 8:27 AM on May 31, 2007


Three blind mice, the iberian gauge still exists on the majority of the network, but the highspeed AVE train network is standard so that future connections to France can be made. I think special trains exists nowadays were the wheeldistance can be changed on the fly, I'll try to dig.
posted by Catfry at 8:45 AM on May 31, 2007


Ah yes, here is a little animation and explanation of the variable gauge system invented by the spanish. From that page, it almost seems to me like the train not even have to stop for the change to happen.
posted by Catfry at 8:52 AM on May 31, 2007


Sorry ,click on 'variable gauge axles' in the menu to the left in that link.
posted by Catfry at 8:54 AM on May 31, 2007


What's a train?
posted by lazymonster at 9:10 AM on May 31, 2007


That's a good question lazymonster, traditionally trains were wheeled vehicles that ran along steel rails. In recent times though the definition is less definite due to many people insisting on calling the maglevs for trains also. Those do not run along anything but rather they float on a magnetic field. So as you can see a new definition of trains has to be invented, or, alternatively, those who call maglevs for trains must be punished apropriately. I suggest flogging.
posted by Catfry at 9:29 AM on May 31, 2007


Am I missing something about how one side of the road is inherently better to drive on?


I think you're missing the fact that building predominantly left-side steering cars while still driving on the left makes for some difficult visibility in certain situations.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:57 AM on May 31, 2007


Who is John Gault? heh

cool links.
posted by Eekacat at 10:49 AM on May 31, 2007


According to "Railroad Gauges and Spatial Interation," (interesting article):
The Russian adoption of a 5 foot gauge, in contrast to the 4 foot 8 1/2 inch gauge customary in Western Europe, has been widely but incorrectly viewed as a military measure. The first railroad in Russia was built to a 6 foot gauge and was opened in 1837. At about the same time the Warsaw (then in the Russian Empire) to Vienna Railway was built with a gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. The first major railroad in Russia, however, was the line from St. Petersburg to Moscow. To advise on various matters concerning the construction of this line, the Russians brought in the American civil engineer George Washington Whistler, father of the painter James McNeill Whistler and husband of "Whistler's Mother." The problem of the proper gauge for the new railroad, whether it should be 6 feet or 4 feet 8 1/2 inches, was presented to Whistler, who recommended a gauge at least as wide as 4 feet 8 1/2 inches but felt that 6 feet was unnecessarily wide. Since the line would not be connected to any other, he pointed out, the gauge might just as well be 5 feet, a width which he apparently felt was more satisfying than the awkward 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. If military considerations had been paramount, the gauge more reasonable would have been narrower than the European gauge rather than wider. An invading army can readily narrow a wide gauge simply by moving over a single rail, but to widen a narrow-gauge track and provide clearance through tunnels and over bridges is an altogether more difficult matter.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:00 AM on May 31, 2007


Newfoundland still had narrow-gauge tracks when I was a kid. They may still, for all I know -- not a lot of pressure to change if you're an island.
posted by tangerine at 11:47 AM on May 31, 2007


Newfoundland still had narrow-gauge tracks when I was a kid. They may still, for all I know -- not a lot of pressure to change if you're an island.

Newfoundland no longer has a railroad.
posted by afiler at 12:42 PM on May 31, 2007


I'd like to chip and muddy the waters with the interesting history of I K Brunel's technologically superior but ultimately unsuccessful seven foot gauge..
posted by Lionel d'Lion at 3:37 PM on May 31, 2007


I remember the day I converted from O to HO.

Seriously, I'm trying to imagine the man-hours necessary for this task, even with the preparation that was done in advance. One source suggests that railroads had commonly solved the problem of gauge by installing a third rail, which makes sense versus changing out the trucks or using hoists or cargo transfer. You could do this in both directions, too -- extend the range of 5' gauge trains by adding one on the outside, or allow 4'-8½" trains to enter the South by adding one on the inside. (It would be murder on the points, though ...)

That would have severely reduced the mileage that needed to actually be converted over those two days.

The other aspect that comes to mind with a fast conversion is how often it meant the newly-shrunk track had misalignments, or loose spikes, or whatnot. There were probably an increased number of derailments in the first weeks. (But the third rail was probably chiefly on the main lines where most of the traffic was.)

But again, organizing this task must have been something else even for a modest-sized railroad. Not only do you need laborers, you need surveyors and inspectors and you need to do test runs for safety.

Say it takes 10 men to unspike, move, and respike a standard 39' rail (half the spikes were done the day before). Figure 15 minutes per rail. That's 4 rails an hour, or about 34 hours (340 man-hours) per mile. Thus, 3.7 million man-hours to do 11,000 miles. Divide by 48 (two days) and you get about 75,000 men.
posted by dhartung at 10:52 PM on May 31, 2007


Seriously, I'm trying to imagine the man-hours necessary for this task

Yeah, that's what got me fascinated with this in the first place, I'm going to dig around in some print sources today and see what I can find.
posted by marxchivist at 12:56 AM on June 1, 2007


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