Say gauge when talking about trains and I immediately think about those cute trains that people set up at Christmas. As a child, I become enamored with those displays. I had an uncle that often started the beginning of October to set up the display so that it would be ready by Dec. He kept it up through Jan and it took another two months to pack away. I used to beg my parents to go see that aunt and uncle as often as possible over the holidays and they lived several hours away in another state. I was hooked on what was once considered a child's toy.
I knew that those toy trains came in "gauges" and that meant size, but I didn't know that gauge referred to the size of the tracks, I thought it was the size of the little trains.
In the 1800's trains underwent some major changes. It had nothing to do with the way they looked or their engines, although during that time we made major strides in producing faster and more efficient engines. I'm talking about how they got from here to there - their tracks!
One of the things that started the changes was the fact that we "imported" people who built trains in England. I'll skip the fact that the original tracks were wood, then wood topped with strips of metal, and go right to the forged metal tracks.
How big did the tracks need to be and who decided such things? The men who came here from England were familiar with the train cars that were used in the mines. Four foot, eight and a half inches seemed to be the standard gauge for the mines, and to keep things seamless, the tracks that were built to move mined minerals were kept the same width to move those cars full of coal, etc directly to the cities. That was easier than moving the minerals by hand to the next train that would cart them away from the mines. It was as labor and time saving back then as it would be today. So why would anyone change that? There seems to be some ideas that those measurements matched the width of two horses' behinds or the ruts made by the old Roman carts. Seems that is an erroneous belief, but I don't think it's been totally proven fact or fiction.
|Today's Trains, CSX|
In America, the concept was to use many British locomotives, except they soon discovered it was cheaper and more efficient for us to build our own. The other thing that was happening in America, was that many trains were built to connect bodies of water, usually canals, which had been the primary way to move supplies from place to place. It didn't matter if the train tracks, or what is known as gauge, matched or not. Lots of rail companies existed, each with their own gauge, each serving a small area of land. They built what was needed for their area and what they were transporting.
Train gauges varied because nothing was standard and because the gauges made a difference in a variety of things. Even to this day there are differences depending on the train and how it is used. High-speed trains don't need as much track width. That means less real estate. But those super wide tracks, about 8 feet are still used in some parts of the world today. They can hold heavy loads, they are very stable, and the trains are much slower.
But back in the North America, trains tracks varied from 3 feet to 6 feet. Whenever a train encountered another company's rails that were a different size, the loads had to be transferred by hand. And during the Civil War there were over 20 rail companies, each with their own gauge in the United States.
It was the Baltimore & Ohio and the Boston & Albany RRs that used the 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches. These large companies serviced much of the northeast. Surprisingly the Pennsylvania RR used a 4 feet, 9inch track that was compatible. (That thought still scares me a little bit because I would think the train wouldn't be as stable.)
The Erie and the Lackawanna railroads were very important and ran on a 6 foot, 0 inch gauge. The Canadian railroads ran on a 5 foot, 6 inch rails mostly for military transport.
But the South tended to use broad gauges, because they were moving heavy agricultural products and related items. That five-foot track extended between Norfolk and Richmond, and onto Memphis and New Orleans, except it wasn't a full network because it wasn't totally connected.
Along came the Civil War and the North decided that by destroying the supply lines through the South, they could quickly end the war. They were correct. It had devastating consequences through the South and actually affected the North because the North was also dependent on those agricultural products. In a strange and convoluted way, the North actually did the South a favor because it forced the rebuilding of the tracts.
But it was when the war ended and the east needed the grain out of the Midwest that the need for standardization of the rail system became imperative. It was recommended that the rails should be 5 foot because that's what California was, but at the last minute, the decision was made to stick with the gauge of the most important railroads in the east. The decision was made to keep the tracks to 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches.
I'm willing to bet that one of those companies was padding a few senators' pockets. But no matter why or what gauge they used, Congress did something right by standardizing the rails across the USA. Canada followed suit in 1872-1873. By the time the South managed to get their new railroads built to the new standard and the old rails converted, it took a major push that ended on Memorial Day weekend in 1886 with a very big celebration. This standardization also paved the way for our transcontinental railroad. It is the same gauge that we use today.
But wait, times change! Have you ever driven on a city road and discovered you are sharing the road with a train? It's a little unnerving, or at least it was for me. I saw the tracks and I'm thinking trolley tracks. No. It's a train! Lightweight trains for moving people in and out of congested city areas are often using electrified trains with narrow tracks. It's less real estate used and it works. Of course for someone like me who is used to small town traffic and avoids the "big" city as much as possible, discovering that a train is riding beside you or coming "towards" you is enough to make me a little white-knuckled and send my heart into a sprint. Smaller gauge tracks with lightweight trains for passengers seem to be the way of the future. But for now, we are still moving products, minerals, raw material, and most people on tracks with a gauge of four feet, eight and one half inches just as we've done almost from the beginning of trains in America, because it's fast, efficient, and very economical.