What determined the width of standard gauge railroads?

March 9, 2017 | Author: | Posted in Trains

The standard gauge railroad is four feet eight and one half inches wide, measured from the inside of one rail to the inside of the other. This width was determined largely by chance. When tramways were first built in the English coal districts their width was made to conform to the gauge of the common road wagons to be used on them. It happened that the gauge between the wheels of these wagons was about 4 feet 81/2 inches.

This width had been determined to some extent by the Roman chariot makers and road builders of two thousand years ago. Later when rails were laid for steam railroads the same gauge was adopted in many cases. In fact nearly all the early English railways were standard gauge. William Jessop is often credited with being the author of the standard gauge for steam railways. About 1800 he designed a track between Loughborough and Nanpantan in which the rails were 4 feet 81/2 inches apart, or five feet minus the width of the two rails.

Many years afterwards railway builders and operators differed widely on the most desirable width for the tracks. The dispute reached its zenith about 1833. George Stephenson threw the weight of his influence in favor of the standard gauge. He believed it was most economical in construction, not only as regards the engines and carriages, but more particularly of the railway¬†itself.”

The standard gauge was fixed by Parliament in 1840. The act was applicable to all railways in England and Scotland except the Great Western and certain branches, which had adopted a broad or 6-foot gauge. Not until 1874 did this railway conform to the almost universal practice by substituting standard gauge track.

In the United States as many as twenty-three different gauges of track were in use simultaneously on the railroads before the gauge was standardized by law. This bewildering difference in gauges created serious transportation problems in both the North and the South during the Civil War. It made continual unloading and reloading of freight necessary and made a continental system impossible. In some cases a third rail was laid to make possible the use of broad-gauge cars on narrow-gauge tracks. It was even seriously proposed to build cars with adjustable wheel widths. Standard gauge was required on all interstate railroads after 1863.

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