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:
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 ;-)
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…