Ancient Corinth to Canada; India to San Francisco

What binds together the history of Ancient Corinth in the middle of Greece, to Canada, then on to India (with some spilling over into Argentina, Chile, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) and ends up in San Francisco, California?

Five Feet, Six Inches.

Why 5′ 6″ and not some other size? Well, because those folks all chose to “go large” while most of the world chose to go the width of two slightly smaller horses butts. At least, that’s the story I’ve heard about why most of the world has ‘cart ruts’ that are about 4′ 8″ wide (with some variation a couple of inches each side, but not much).

Ancient cart and chariot makers were ‘not so dumb’. The wider you make the cart, the more axle you need. More materials. More leverage (so more chance to break it) so a thicker axle too. The end point is that you kind of want to keep the axle to just about the minimum width for the job at hand. For most things, that was having two horses, side by side, pulling; (and often two people, shoulder to shoulder, driving and riding or driving and shooting arrows / tossing spears). So hitch up two horses and the outside of ‘butt to butt’ is about 4 feet 9 inches, give or take a pony vs an Amish Draft Horse… Make things wider, it takes more material and the horses may try to go where the cart can’t follow. Make it narrower, it tends to flip over and doesn’t carry as much.

But it goes beyond that…

Many of the old roads were made of stone, and solid wheels on a stone slab don’t have a lot of grip, especially on hills and corners, or worst, corners on a hill… So the ancients, not liking spills and accidents any more than we do, got the bright idea to cut ruts in the stone. (Yes, many of those ‘worn rutted roads’ were really ‘cut that way’ when installed). This further pushes toward some kind of ‘standard’ as you don’t want YOUR cart to have one wheel in the rut/guide and the other wandering off somewhere.

Road rutting was common in early roads, even with stone pavements. The initial impetus for the ruts probably came from the grooves made by sleds and slide cars dragged over the surfaces of ancient trackways. Since early carts had no steering and no brakes, negotiating hills and curves was dangerous, and cutting ruts into the stone helped them negotiate the hazardous parts of the roads.

Neolithic wheeled carts found in Europe had gauges varying from 1.30 to 1.75 m (4 ft 3 in to 5 ft 9 in). By the Bronze age, wheel gauges appeared to have stabilized between 1.40 to 1.45 m (4 ft 7 in to 4 ft 9 in) which was attributed to a tradition in ancient technology which was perpetuated throughout European history. The ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks constructed roads with artificial wheelruts cut in rock spaced the wheelspan of an ordinary carriage. Such ancient stone rutways connected major cities with sacred sites, such as Athens to Eleusis, Sparta to Ayklia, or Elis to Olympia. The gauge of these stone grooves was 1.38 to 1.44 m (4 ft 6 in to 4 ft 9 in). The largest number of preserved stone trackways, over 150, are found on Malta.

And that is why most rail roads today are Standard Gauge of 4′ 8.5″ (Yes, even you folks using that strange millimeter thing where it’s a nice round 1435 mm ;-)

There are a bunch of other gauges too. Portugal and Spain each chose a round number of feet, so are a bit wider, but they had two slightly different ideas what the foot was, so ended up not quite the same. Recently, in a wonderful exploit of the error band, they have converged on one “Iberian Guage” by each moving a few millimeters toward the other. This lets all their old gear run on both their old and new track and lets them inter-operate. Just not with the rest of the world… 1668 mm for the compromise. 1672 for 6 Castilian feet and 1664 for 5 Portuguese feet. Those two were close enough to allow interoperability, but now we have the compromise gauge in the middle. So now Spain has started adding “standard gauge” track as it is trying to get more ability to inter-operate with France… Oh Well, who needs to be consistent…

So what does any of this have to do with Corinth and India? Well, that Iberian Gauge is an example of a Broad Guage. One that is wider than the “Standard Gauge”. (I think it’s a bit cheeky of folks to define it as ‘Standard’, since about 1/2 the rail miles in the world are not ‘Standard’, but hey, that’s a bunch of horses asses for you…)

But what about 5 1/2 feet?

We’d seen in an earlier posting that the Greek Foot is indistinguishable from the British Foot (within the error bars of the ancient samples we’ve found and a few thousand years of wear…) and the Minoan Foot too. It is basically unchanged for at least 3000 years, and possibly much longer. (And a very interesting multiple of the perimeter of the Earth at the equator….) So I’m not particularly surprised when I see some measure that’s the same size in both units.

At any rate, there is a particular “Broad Gauge” that has been around quite a while.

When The Empire (British, that is) was standardizing gauges, for reasons only they could possibly explain, they chose different standards for different places. England has had some fair quantity of narrow gauge rail (it is much cheaper to build for low usage lines, and works better for tight turns in mountains, so you see it in Switzerland, Bolivia, places like that too); but also the UK had some very large Broad Gauge lines. Plus some of the Roman Horse sized… which became Standard Gauge. However… Ireland got its own special “Irish Gauge” of 5’3″ while for substantially inexplicable reasons, 5 1/2 feet was chosen for Canada. That’s 1676 mm for the Imperial Impaired ;-) That was then called the “Provincial Gauge” and became the standard for British Colonies.

Sidebar On Tech

There may be technical reasons why a larger gauge was chosen. The wider the gauge, the more stable the stance. That means faster trains that can carry taller loads and not fall over. So you can make large heavy fast trains. Useful for hauling all those resources out of all those dominated colonies… Narrow gauges are good where you have tight turns and light traffic; where you just can’t justify the expense to build a full sized line. BUT, if you have a load of cheap colonists, and LOTS of dirt cheap colonial lumber (all those ties take a lot of wood, the wider the gauge, the much more the linear feet of larger ties) then it’s not as expensive to make the wider gauge.

For reasons like those, the early trains of the US West were narrow gauge. Not a lot of trees in Nebraska to make ties. Winding passages through the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Only later were these replaced with “standard gauge”… and that ties back to Canada.

See, as things developed (and both the USA and Canada told Europe to forget about that whole ‘colony’ thing…) we traded with each other more. And that meant the need to inter-operate our trains. Which had both of us standardizing on Standard Gauge. In the case of Canada by going more narrow. In the case of the US West, by widening things out. (The Confederacy had been a Broad Gauge too, but after The War Between The States – there was nothing civil about it…- it was converted to Yankee Standard Gauge ‘right quick’…) Oddly, they had been 5 feet, or 1524 mm. Which just happens to be the same as the Russian Gauge under the Czars. (Later the USSR changed this to 1520 mm that works just fine with 5 foot stock, so who knows why they changed it. At any rate, they had lots of cheap labor and trees, so liked the wider gauge). Wide gauge is reputed to work better in places with high winds, too. So I can only suppose that Russia and the US Hurricane belt had similar winds (or both liked larger horses…)

At any rate, you can see how gauge is a hybrid decision that depends on the desired speed of the track, the size of cargo and total traffic, and also depends on some relative costs and the size of your horses behinds (sometimes the ones in office and government mandating “standards” that seem to always end up being different standards…and keep changing.) Oh, and also on: if the guy laying out your rail plan is Scottish or not…

Back At India

So now it makes sense that when we look at India they have almost no “Standard Gauge” but a lot of 5 1/2 foot gauge. Lots of cheap labor. Lots of trees (back then). Lots of volume of ‘stuff’ to cart away to The Empire.

In India, the Governor-General James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 10th Earl of Dalhousie, being Scottish, determined that a wider gauge than standard gauge was more suitable for larger firebox and stability in high winds and long steep gradients, and chose a wide gauge already familiar in Scotland.

In the late 20th century, India adopted Project Unigauge. Gauge conversion towards Indian gauge is underway, replacing several narrow gauges and meter gauges.

One can only wonder if The Confederacy had access to Scottish Engineers too…

(They also had a lot of narrow gauge for places with uninteresting things to the Empire, like people who wanted to move around or ship goods to places other than The Empire…. but recently India has decided to dump those narrow gauges and standardize on the 5 1/2 foot gauge that is now called the Indian Gauge. And while that sounds like a ruler designed to measure Indians, it isn’t.

While I mourn a bit for all the really neat old antique steam engines that will now finally be obsoleted by this process of “unigauge” conversion (many, perhaps most, of the surviving neat old steam engines are or perhaps were in India) the end result will be a big improvement in service for those folks living in towns and regions the British found less interesting for hauling away resources… And, in some degree of recognition that it DOES make sense to leave the narrow gauge in place in locations with winding mountain roads, some are being left ‘as is’. The alternative is a whole lot of new grading, bridging, tunneling, and general expense and disruption to accommodate larger trains that don’t turn as well.

Oddly, in a bit of curiously Indian behaviour, a couple of new transit projects have installed “Standard Gauge” even though it is completely non-standard in India and against the Project Unigauge plan. I guess some local politics and thumb in the eye behaviours are universal in all governments…

Oh, and as a side note on Canada: While most of it is now “Standard Gauge”, in keeping with folks never letting standards get in the way of doing whatever they damn well please (especially with Government Money) some lines in Canada are there own unique gauge:

Today, all Canadian freight railways are standard-gauge, with only the Toronto Transit Commission operating the Toronto streetcar system and three of the Toronto subway lines on its own unique gauge of 4 ft 10 7⁄8 in (1,495 mm).

The good news is that the old 5 1/2 gauge was fairly easy to convert to 'Standard Gauge' as mostly you just need to move one rail closer to the other and change the trucks under the cars. Oh, and make sure the new positioning of the cars on the rails doesn't have them whack into anything like stations and tunnels. In those places you have to move both rails over, so you get a bit of a wiggle in the track at some point where the 'move one' and 'move two' have to be aligned… MUCH easier than converting narrow where you need wider ties…

What About Corinth and S.F.?

Well, from the ‘every thing old is new again’ department…

But first: I have no idea why Argentina and Chile have 5 1/2 gauge rail. I suppose I ought to look into it and find out: Was it a bit of British Rule for a key moment in history? ( I don’t think so, but stranger things… and the Brits are in the Falklands)… Or was it a Scottish Engineer? Or perhaps they felt they had a lot of wind too (or just a lot of cheap labor and easy to cut trees…) But for some odd reason, they are “Indian Gauge” and not “Standard Gauge” while many of their more mountainous neighbors have “meter gauge” or the 3 1/2 foot “Cape Gauge” found in South Africa and many other parts of the old Empire… where one presumes trees and labor were more dear…) But just realize, there’s a loose end there.

Meanwhile back at Corinth…

Seems they had this problem in Ancient Greece. LOTS of coastline. One large part is ALMOST an island, but connected to the mainland via a small strip of land about 5 miles wide. You either get to sail a very long way around the whole place, or do a very short portage over the narrow low isthmus. Didn’t take the clever Greeks long to figure out that shorter and faster was better. So they made a very special road and hauled boats back and forth over the land. The first “intermodal transport” I figure. Now the history folks say that, since they had ruts in the road, it was the first sort of a ‘rail road’. If so, I’d assert this also makes it the first “Intermodal Rail” too.

Some of these ancient stone rutways were very ambitious. Around 600 BC the citizens of ancient Corinth constructed the Diolkos, which some consider the world’s first railway, a hard porous limestone road with grooved tracks along which large wooden flatbed cars carrying ships and their cargo were pulled by slaves or draft animals. The grooves were at 1.67 m (5 ft 6 in) centres.

Yup. That “Indian Gauge” that was started as a gauge for the “Provinces” of the British Empire started life in Ancient Greece about 600 BC.

And who says standards keep changing…

The Diolkos (Δίολκος, from the Greek διά, dia “across” and ὁλκός, holkos “portage”) was a paved trackway near Corinth in Ancient Greece which enabled boats to be moved overland across the Isthmus of Corinth. The shortcut allowed ancient vessels to avoid the dangerous circumnavigation of the Peloponnese peninsula. The phrase “as fast as one from Corinth”, penned by the popular comic playwright Aristophanes, indicates that the trackway was regarded as common knowledge and had acquired a certain reputation for swiftness.

The main function of the Diolkos was the transfer of goods, although in times of war it also became a preferred means of speeding up naval campaigns. The 6 km (3.7 mi) to 8.5 km (5.3 mi) long roadway was a rudimentary form of railway, and operated from c. 600 BC until the middle of the 1st century AD. The scale on which the Diolkos combined the two principles of the railway and the overland transport of ships remained unique in antiquity.

Corinth is that little dot near that very skinny ‘wasp waist’ part in the middle:



Original and much larger map

In Conclusion

Other than some historical narrow gauge run as entertainment and a few legacy narrow gauge at industrial operations or remote mountains, the USA is pretty much “All Standard Gauge All The Time”. Yes, a few local trollies that will never have freight on them nor share rolling stock and routes are also various narrow gauges. Some are very famous like the Cable Cars of San Francisco that are built on the same 3 1/2 foot narrow gauge Cape Gauge as most of Japan and parts of Australia (among a lot of others – it looks like it was a popular gauge).

I must also say that I find it somewhat funny that THE largest rail systems in the world, accounting for by far the majority of all rail miles; are measured in very strange mm sizes as they are standardized on feet. The Russian / Soviet system on 5 feet. Japan and a load of other places on 3 1/2 feet. Most of the rest on either 4 feet 8.5 inches (that WAS 5 feet from outside to outside, but they changed the measure to ‘inside to inside’ for the flanged wheels on trains) or the 3 foot common in many mines and industrial yards. Along with all those 5 1/2 foot sizes from Ancient Greece to India. Yes, there is some “one meter gauge”, but much of Latin America is foot gauges rather than meter gauge and more of Europe is ‘standard gauge’ than meter gauge. There are dribs and drabs of other odd gauges like 750 mm or 900 mm and other odd sizes. But it is very clear that when it comes to rail, it’s still the foot derived standards that remain.

So you’d think that any new rail systems here would, if intended to be large cars, run on Standard Gauge… But no… In San Francisco we have The Bay Area Rapid Transit System, or BART train. They decided that there would NEVER be any sharing of track with any other rolling stock, and no desire to EVER move one of their cars on some other system. So they chose a wider gauge to get a more stable ride. They chose a 5 1/2 foot gauge.

Some things really do never change. An ancient Greek Engineer could lay his Greek Foot Ruler on those rails and measure an exact and familiar gauge to within a couple of mm. That, and it’s pretty clear that San Francisco is among those places with politicians willing to spend loads of money on incompatible public transport systems. Oh, and we have some of the largest horses asses around, too ;-)

Rail Gauges Of The World

Rail Gauges Of The World

Original Image

This is a very large map if you click on it. I could only find the 600 mm gauge ( 1 foot 11.6 inches) on an island in the Pacific… Brazil also has a lot of 1 m gauge likely as it is good in sugar fields and fairly inexpensive. Clearly “Standard Gauge” is only standard in some areas…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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19 Responses to Ancient Corinth to Canada; India to San Francisco

  1. There is an email running around for several years that the beginning of your write-up largely echoes, and the email simplifies the story to make it seem that this was a universal standard. It involves the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, and ties them to the ancient Roman chariots.

    But that email is just wrong, and as your more detailed history points out, the “standardizing” of rails is largely a survivor-artifact. It would be like claiming now that everyone developed to the PC standard in the mid-1970s, and that’s why the IBM PC is the common platform. You can only get there by ignoring the history and simply looking at one point of the result.

    Of course, you’d have a different view in ten more years on the electronics; the rail systems have more inertia.

    Some of the early attempts at British Rail have their own fascinating history. And it is very impressive indeed how much track was laid down in the US in the last half of the 1800s.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  2. PhilJourdan says:

    That was one of the issues with the old Soviet Block – guages. Most of the guages in the block were not the same as the Russian gauge, so they had to literally pick up cars and place them on new wheel basis.

    Great read! As I am a train aficionadodo, I loved the history lesson.

  3. P.G. Sharrow says:

    The story that I heard about the Soviet/Russian gauge, was that the Russians wanted a gauge that would allow their trains to run on European tracks but not the reverse. A war planning thing. The same planning was used in the concept of the AK47 that can shoot nato ammo but soviet ammunition would not work in a nato weapon. pg

  4. George says:

    The Erie Railroad, which ran from N.Y. to Chicago through the southern tier of New York State’s counties before crossing Ohio and Indiana, used six foot (72″) gauge for about 45 years. That is, from the time construction started, November 7, 1835 ( near the village of Deposit, NY, on the West Branch of the Delaware River, until it became standard gauge in 1881 (Rochester Union and Advertiser. Rochester, NY. Saturday, July 30, 1881;

  5. Chuckles says:

    Fascinating E.M., thank you muchly. 600mm was also used quite extensively in Namibia for their early tracks. At first I thought it was 610/2ft that had been corrupted by the infamous German Legal Metre they use there, but that would have gone the other way (wider, rather than narrower). As far as I can ascertain, it was more related to using German military rail and equipment, and laid by mil. engineers for the first line out of Swakopmund. this was preceded by the ill fated ‘Martin Luther’ traction engine, which is a wonderful story as well.

    South Africa had a LOT of 2 foot/610mm line all over the place, for sugar cane, mines, mountainous terrain etc etc. They still have the worlds longest stretch of 610 gauge -285km for the Apple Express from Port Elizabeth.
    The 3ft 6 gauge there was mainly for cost reasons, and because most of the ports there have fairly mountainous terrain immediately inland. Most of Southern Africa has that gauge, probably part of Cecil Rhodes great vision of a railway from Cape to Cairo.

    Australia is probably the biggest dogs-breakfast of the lot, with every gauge imaginable scattered all over the place, and gauge breaks (train changes) everywhere. I think a countrywide single gauge network was only completed in 2004 or so. probably a result of scattered and isolated communities around the ‘edges’ of the coast doing their own thing without any thought for the future?
    Fairly understandable I suppose, the had a lot of fun with timezones for a while as well :)

  6. Chris Morris says:

    One thing that many don’t pick up on is that the gap between the inside of the rails has to be bigger than the distance between the flanges of the wheels that run in them. It is 1/2″ for standard gauge. This is so steam trains can go round corners as the driving wheels aren’t on bogies. This minimum cornering radius set the number of driving wheels they could have. They went to large diameters for high horsepower engines but the wheelbase limits meant few successful engines had more than three sets of driving wheels (on the US trains, I think they had 4 but relatively small diameter) and often both the front and back non-driving wheels still had to be on bogies. Diesel electrics with motors on the axles solved many of these tight cornering issues.
    In New Zealand,we have narrow gauge because of the tight corners. Raurimu spiral would have been impossible on standard gauge and so would almost every other major line. Watch the old engines go round a tight corner will quickly show why the sleepers don’t last very long.

  7. John F. Hultquist says:

    The “break in gauge” problem in the USA was confronted in the mid-1880s. Makes for interesting history.

    “. . . over two remarkable days beginning on Monday, May 31, 1886. Over a period of 36 hours, tens of thousands of workers pulled the spikes from the west rail of all the broad gauge lines in the South, moved them 3 in (76 mm) east and spiked them back in place.”

  8. j ferguson says:

    I used to design railroad equipment maintenance facilities. I worked on one such project for Irish Rail which was built in Drogheda, approximately midway between Dublin and Belfast. A story which I believe to be true circulated in the project team regarding a gauge conflict which was resolved in Drogheda early in the development of railroading.

    The river Boyne runs through Drogheda, in a deep valley. The cost and challenge of spanning the valley was put off to some time in the future when the first rails were put in, one set from Belfast to Drogheda and one set from Dublin to Drogheda; by two different rail companies – and in two different gauges. Since there was no rail bridge and no interconnection, this didn’t present a problem.

    I have no idea how the passengers were transferred across the Boyne but suspect there was another bridge.

    Came the new railroad bridge, resolution of the gauge conflict became imperative. The least expensive solution would have been to reduce the wider gauge to match the narrower which might have permitted reuse of the existing sleepers (ties). A more expensive solution would have been to replace the narrower gauge with new sleepers matching the wider gauge – and continue to use the existing wider gauge.

    A decision was required and not being forthcoming, the issue went to court. The judge selected a gauge which required all of the track from Belfast to Dublin to be replaced.

  9. j ferguson says:

    E.M. and all,
    The paperback edition of “A History of the American Locomotive” by John H. White is well worth its cost and certainly the time enjoying its technical treatment of the development of steam traction in the US.

    There may be a similar book for English locomotives which would be equally entrancing. There is a set of Broad Gauge Drivers outside the British National Railway Museum in York. Broad Gauge at the Great Western Railway was 7 feet 0 1/4 inch. The drivers are immense.

    White’s book like Suzuki’s “Romance of engines” is a must for anyone who can lose him/herself in machinery.

  10. j ferguson says:

    I should add, that my cost observation above ignores the cost of modification of rolling stock and traction.

  11. Pascvaks says:

    Back in the Good Ol’ Days when money really meant something, and the World was much BIGGER than it is today, and if you really wanted something well you kind’a had to do it yourself as there were no BIG Banks or Federal loans or grants –except for land (maybe)– things were very hellterskelter. After the Mexican American War, and –to be fair– the Civil War several years later, things like rail track guages took on much more importance (not to the owners or States, but to the “Big Daddy Feds” who thought there was something of value in going from point A to point B without changing trains and reloading equipment every 50 miles). And the reverse was also true, Little Countries didn’t want Big Bad Neighbors driving on their IronBahns whenever they felt like it. And some paranoid BIG countries got really inventive with guages and calibers too, as P.G. has already said. So the end result is what we have today. Life was so much simpler a hundred or two years ago. The way things are going, we may be wise to read up on ol’fashioned “Private Enterprise”, seems like the World Wide Economic Web is being “hacked” and it’s shredding and falling to pieces before our eyes. Bet we see a lot more of those point A to point B railroads again. Train Whistles! Ships Bells! Horse Manure! I think maybe the World is going to get a little larger real soon. (Besides, no one enjoys driving or flying anymore anyway;-)

  12. P.G. Sharrow says:

    Life may have been simpler 100 to 200 years ago but NOT better. I no longer fly or drive, way too many government people believe they should be in control. As to horse manure, I shoveled a lot of manure and worked or ridden a number of horses because I had to. I’d rather walk!. pg

  13. E.M.Smith says:

    @J Ferguson:


    That looks like a GREAT example of how both law and politics arrive at the “exactly wrong” technical solution as a ‘compromise’ or as one that is ‘fair to both’ via being equally bad to both. Do you have a link to documentation of it?

    @P.G. Sharrow:

    I’m not interested in the shoveling bit either…

    I’d be much more inclined to feed wood chips to a steam car…

    To quote someone’s Dad from a farm: “Stink? Son, that is the smell of money!”… Maybe if you own the farm, but not to me…

  14. j ferguson says:

    E.M. Story was an “urban legend” at Irish Rail, but I’ll look. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but it is possible that neither gauge was 1435 and that other lines in Ireland by then were and the judge simply “standardized” the Dublin-Belfast line.

    Another tale of Irish judicial innovation from just before the time i spent in Dublin involved a gas station. The station had been built in the twenties and was an elegant example of an Art Deco-like style employed at the time by that company. And the only survivor of that era.

    It was subject to a Preservation Order which meant it couldn’t be torn down or modified without approval of local planning board.

    It came to be an obstruction to the plans of a developer who could better use the property he had assembled if it wasn’t there. So the developer did what other developers before him had done in similar circumstances. He knocked it down and carted off the remains very early on a Sunday morning.

    Gears turned, and the matter came to court. Ireland has serious sanctions for this sort of contempt and the developer was given his choice of a few years in jail or replacing the station.

    The station had been decorated with Venetian glass tile and really had warranted preservation. The remains were unrecoverable.

    I understand that the developer commissioned the fabrication of new Venetian Glass tile to complete his reconstruction.

    I don’t know why I never went to have a look at it during the wonderful (except March) 18 months I spent in Dublin, but i was wrapped up in the Drogheda project.

    As an aside, re: steam airplanes: there was one.

  15. j ferguson says:

    urban legend a bit off, but here is the Wiki on the Dublin -Belfast link:

  16. E.M.Smith says:

    @J Ferguson:

    That plane is an interesting one. Props IN THE MIDDLE of the wings!

    I’ve seen in front, and behind the wings. But in the MIDDLE?!

    At least the Doble powered steam airplane has film of it flying… but that one is odd to watch…

  17. DocMartyn says:

    P.G. Sharrow
    The same planning was used in the concept of the AK47 that can shoot nato ammo but soviet ammunition would not work in a nato weapon”

    During the Napoleonic wars the British Brown Bess Muskets used a nominal 0.71 inch (18 mm) ball, but in practice a slightly undersized one was used as fouling reduced velocity rather quickly.
    The French used the Charleville muskets which were 17.5mm (69 caliber).
    The British could shoot captured French ammunition, but the French could not shoot British ammunition.
    It is rather interesting to read Speer in the “1000 year Reich”, where he hated the inability of German trains to run on the Soviet railways.

  18. E.M.Smith says:

    has an interesting bit of W.W.II railroad history.

    It looks to me more like the gauge break in Russia was to prevent other folks from using their rails (and they could not work on other rails).

    After the fall of Poland, the DR’s primary responsibilities were to ensure the fulfillment of the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in August of 1939. As may be recalled, in return for Soviet “neutrality” during the German campaign against Poland, the Soviet Union was obliged to deliver large quantities of goods (primarily foodstuffs and raw materials) to Germany. Because Germany and Poland used standard gauge rail lines (1435mm) and the Soviets continued to use the Czarist era’s wide gauge lines (1528mm) – Germany was obliged to construct two special gauge conversion yards on the German-Soviet border. One such yard was built in Malaszevica (Brest-Litovsk) and the other in Przemsyl. 66% of the required Soviet deliveries were trans-shipped through these two rail yards. Naturally, these two rail yards also became key rail centers once Germany began with Barbarossa.

    So you’ve got 93 mm of difference. That’s about 3 2/3 inches. Too wide for a German train to run on Russian tracks (or any other standard gauge train) and the Russian wheels would not fit inside standard gauge rails. (Though I’m pondering if you could just turn the wheels around with the flanges on the outside and have them work ;-) Nah, not wide enough…

    My ponder had been more about the ‘few mm’ shift from the Czarist era gauge (here stated as 1528, stated as 1524 in the wiki, but unlikely they really measured it to the mm…) to the 1520 gauge. 4 mm? Maybe 8? Not enough change to matter as near as I can tell. Perhaps just to make the engines sit a bit better on the rails if they were made over ‘loose’ in the first place? It just seems strange. Heck, I could even see someone just saying “last digit no matter, drop.” Measuring as 152 cm kind of makes sense to me…

    At any rate, that link is a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in logistics and warfare. Looks like the Gauge Break was a significant benefit to Russia, as was their generally decrepit rail system. They were used to dealing with the crap and Germany was not ;-)

    It also does make me kind of wonder if the US Civil War had been a bit different, if we and Canada might have settled on a broad gauge instead and thus have had North America matching the Czars (if we went with the Confederate gauge as the middle of ‘standard’ vs ‘Provincial’)

    Ah, well, such is life. Wonder it one could make “shoe rims” to fit over existing wheels and extend them by an inch or two to fit ‘standard’ trains onto Russian gauge? Probably hard to keep on, given the stresses… Might be easier to make ‘rail adapters’ to move the rail edge in an inch or two on each side. Something to slap in place in time of war / emergency pending the time when the rail could be moved over to standard…

    Think I’ll go stare at that gauge map with the issue of military strategic gauge breaks in mind. Makes me wonder why Finland has not swapped over to ‘standard gauge’… Wonder if they do a lot of trade with Russia…

  19. E.M.Smith says:

    Well, from odd questions come interesting answers. I’d wondered about an alternative history where the gauge of the Confederacy ‘won out’ and just why was Russian Gauge the same? Seems The Czar got it from the USA:

    In the 19th century, Imperial Russia chose a gauge broader than standard gauge. It is widely believed that the choice was made for military reasons, to prevent potential invaders from using the Russian rail system. Others[who?] point out that no clear standard had emerged by 1842.

    Engineer Pavel Melnikov hired George Washington Whistler, a prominent American railroad engineer (and father of the artist James McNeill Whistler), to be a consultant on the building of Russia’s first major railroad, the Moscow – Saint Petersburg line. The selection of 1,500 mm (4 ft 11 1⁄16 in) gauge was recommended by German and Austrian engineers but not adopted: it was not the same as the 1,524 mm (5 ft) gauge in common use in the southern United States at the time.

    George Washington Whistler was invited as a foreign expert to assist in railroad construction. He was a proponent of a wider gauge and his efforts helped in lobbying the new standard
    . It is quite likely that an “invasion” argument (alleging that it is easier to adapt trains to narrow gauge than to broad gauge) was used in lobbying the project since military was closely supervising the construction; however, it is highly unlikely that such an argument was made by Melnikov during the actual selection process. Nazi Germany suffered such problems with their supply lines during World War II as a result of the break-of-gauge, but also because bridges had been destroyed.

    And what does the Wiki say about Whistler?

    George Washington Whistler (Fort Wayne, Indiana, May 19, 1800 – April 7, 1849 in Saint Petersburg, Russia) was a prominent American railroad engineer in the first half of the 19th century.

    George was born at the military outpost of Fort Wayne which his father, John Whistler, had helped build. His mother was Anna Bishop, daughter of Sir Edward Bishop of Great Britain.

    He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1819 and served as a Civil Engineer in the United States Army Corps of Engineers and retired as a Major in 1833.
    In 1842 Whistler was employed by Engineer Melnikov as a Consultant on the building of Russia’s first major railroad, the Moscow-Saint Petersburg Railway. Whistler is said to have designed two bridges on this railway similar to the Canton Viaduct but this has never been confirmed. A scale model bridge of similar design to the Canton Viaduct is on display at the Oktyabrsky Railroad Museum in St. Petersburg. For his efforts he was awarded the Order of St. Anna from Tsar Nicholas I . While working on this project, he contracted cholera and died in St. Petersburg two years before the line was completed. He is credited with selecting the five-foot rail gauge still used in Russia and neighboring countries.

    Thus we have our answer… “Standard Gauge” was not a standard. The 5 foot gauge was seen as the future. A West Point graduate US Army Major from the USA set the Russian Standard.

    Now if only the Damn Yankees had had the good sense to use the Confederate 5 foot gauge as a standard we’d have one gauge from the tip of Florida through Canada (as they gauged to match us, so it would have been a similar if smaller regauge) and across all of Russia to Finland. At that point, it’s most likely that the Iberian Gauge on one side and US/Russian Gauge on the other, Europe would have gone ‘broad gauge’…

    Ah well, so it goes.

    points out that the ability to change gauge has been worked out. Not with rim shoes, but with sliding axles:

    One common one is to build cars to the smaller of the two systems’ loading gauges with bogies that are easily removed and replaced, with a bogie exchange at an interchange location on the border. This takes a few minutes per car, but is quicker than transshipment. A more modern and sophisticated method is to have multigauge bogies whose wheels can be moved inward and outward. Normally they are locked in place, but special equipment at the border unlocks the wheels and pushes them inward or outward to the new gauge, relocking the wheels when done. This can be done as the train moves slowly over special equipment.

    When transhipping from one gauge to another, chances are that the quantity of rolling stock on each gauge is unbalanced, leading to more idle rolling stock on one gauge than other.

    In some cases, breaks of gauge are avoided by installing dual gauge track, either permanently or as part of a changeover process to a single gauge.

    There is more at:

    For through-operation, a train must be equipped with special trucks holding variable gauge wheelsets containing a variable gauge axle. The gauge is altered by driving the train through a gauge changer or gauge changing facility. As the train passes through the gauge changer, the wheels are unlocked, moved closer together, or further apart, and are then re-locked. Installed variable gauge systems exist within the internal network of Spain, and are installed on international links between Spain/France (Spanish train), Sweden/Finland (Swedish train), Poland/Lithuania (Polish train) and Poland/Ukraine (Polish train).

    Several alternatives exist, including transferring freight, replacing individual wheels and axles, truck exchange, transporter flatcars or the simple transshipment of freight or passengers.

    Alternative names include Gauge Adjustable Wheelsets (GAW), Automatic Track Gauge Changeover System (ATGCS/TGCS), Rolling Stock Re-Gauging System (RSRS), Rail Gauge Adjustment System (RGAS), Shifting wheelset, Variable Gauge Rolling Truck, track gauge change and track change wheelset.

    So it looks like a reasonably well understood and already solved problem. But with at least 7 different types, one now has to wonder about incompatible adjustable wheels and adjustment stations… Can an ATGCS car run through an RSRS or RGAS adjusting track section? The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from ;-)

    Down in the long list of where breaks of gauge happen in the world (in the gauge break wiki), there is this one line:

    The 1520 Strategic Partnership seeks to harmonise the gauges of Europe-Asia. [18]

    “harmonise” is an interesting word. Not necessarily to make them the same, but somehow get them integrated? That it is named with the Russian Guage is intriguing. Perhaps The South Shall Rise Again! ;-)

    They have a web site that makes it look like the initial interest is in the Caucasus and the area north of Iran / Afghanistan… Gee, wonder if they would be ‘cranky’ about us being in the area?

    They also have these notes about “Gauge Outreach” that tend to indicate a bit more extension of Russian Gauge into the rest of Europe, but also an extension of Standard Gauge into some FSU locations that might want a bit closer connection to the west…

    Gauge outreach

    The opposite of a gauge orphan is a line of one gauge which reaches into the territory composed mainly of another gauge. Examples include five broad gauge lines of Victoria which crossed the border into otherwise standard gauge New South Wales. Similarly the standard gauge line from Albury to Melbourne in 1962 which eliminated most transshipment at Albury, especially the need for passengers to change trains in the middle of the night. A Russian broad gauge line reaches out from Ukraine into Slovakia to carry minerals; another broad gauge line reaches also from Ukraine into Poland to carry heavy iron ore and steel products without the need for transshipment as would be the case if there were a break of gauge at the border. In 2008, it was proposed to extend the Slovak line to Vienna.[28] From 1994, the Rail Baltic proposal emerged to build a 728km North-South line to link European standard gauge railways from Poland to Kaunas, Lithuania, via Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia. [29] The gauge outreach from Kalgoorlie to Perth, Western Australia partly replaced the original narrow gauge line, and partly rebuilt that line with better curves and gradients as double track dual gauge.

    In 2010, a proposal surfaced to build a broad gauge line from an iron ore mine at Kaunisvaara in Sweden (whose rail network is otherwise standard gauge) to Finland which has a broad gauge network

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