Saturday, February 10, 2018

TRAINS by E. Ayers

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.


  1. Fascinating...and we think such facts and figures just happen...when the process was somewhat slow but sure to keep those trains on the tracks.
    So trains...and especially the tracks...became one of the best transportation vehicles to date.
    And today...doesn't everyone love a train? But it makes you wonder why today, with so much technology and precision, why we witness far too many train wrecks. Somebody is not minding the store. Thanks, E..very good post!

    1. Yikes, my comments have vanished!

      Most accidents are caused by people who don't pay attention to the signs. Do not try to beat the train across the tracks. The odds are you can't! And if it says not to cross with a truck, don't figure your truck's underside isn't going to get hung up on the tracks. Trains cannot stop on a dime. They don't "play" nicely. They are bigger and stronger The odds are you will lose.

      They are still one of the most efficient and safest modes of transportation.

  2. Well E., I never thought about train tracks and the different gauges that could really ruin your day if the train you were on ran onto the wrong gauge track. And I never even gave that a thought until now.

    Okay, I can't help it, I had to chuckle a little when I read the part about the Yankees destroying southern rail tracks and forgetting about the movement of agricultural goods the would need for themselves. But of course, it did make a huge difference in the outcome of the Civil War since trains moved troops and ya kinda need soldiers at the right place and at the right time to win a battle.

    Every time I hear about the Union Pacific Railroad I cannot help but think of the TV series "Hell on Wheels." Now I can add to that memory the fact that it was the first standardized rail.

    In Charlotte, NC, we do have a "light rail" that carries passengers in and out of the city from outlying areas. They are adding to it so it will end up something like a Medicine Wheel with the four directions.

    Sadly, I have never been on a train ride, but I want to some day. My sister suggested we take a rail trip from Charlotte, NC to our home town in Bloomsburg, PA.

    I remember watching with wonder and excitement the train display at Sears in the toy department around Christmas. They toy department was like an enchanted place when I was a kid.

    This was such an interesting post, E. You must have really done some research on it. All good things to you.

  3. Actually I stumbled onto the gauge aspect of the rails, but like so many things, I wind up wandering down the bunny trails because it's fascinating. Once I sink my teeth into something I tend not to let go until I've filled that mental compartment and I'm happy. I think it's a hazard while researching, yet most of us do it. I guess it's that childhood interest in trains that has never left me.

    Friends took the Amtrak up the east coast and then went west. They hated the trip from Tidewater VA to some place up north to the point they almost canceled their tickets. But once they were beyond Chicago... They were on one of the scenic trains at Amtrak has to offer, the food was delicious, the accommodations were so much nicer on that train, the big "glass" cars that allowed them to look out were fabulous, There seemed to be a tour guide that often came over the speaker saying if you look to your left you'll see a herd of whatever, the yellow flowers that are blooming are.... My friend said beware because the chocolate layer cake is about 12 layers of awesomeness.

    Sarah, you would have loved my uncle's train display. Everything in it was wooden including the "brick" buildings that were carved to look like brick. Each one was hand made with super precision and very carefully painted. It was huge and he had at least 5 trains, metal, that he could run on it simultaneously and several that he didn't run for whatever reason. He had engines that blew smoke, a little town and the countryside, mountains for the trains to climb, tunnels, bridges, etc. I loved it! Even my dad got a kick out of it. (Maybe I was my dad's excuse to visit so that he could play with the trains, too!)

  4. Interesting. I've never given gauge a thought, especially about the stability about the tracks. I'm with you. Driving on train tracks would unnerve me.

    1. It's a little like sharing the road with a bike path. The road is wide enough. It's the thought that makes it weird, although there is a section in this metropolis where the train is in the median and that's for the large container trains coming out of a major port. But on the other side of this metropolis there's a lightweight high-speed passenger train the runs beside a major road although you don't feel like you are sharing space with it because it's far enough away.


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