Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Transport: Eight Gauges

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have to question to attitude of the urban legend debunking site because of their treatment of the relation of the width of the horse's ass to the space shuttle. They categorize the urban legend surrounding that relationship as "false," yet immediately in the text they admit that "isn't exactly false," that the Roman chariot width was based on compatibility with horses, that the dimensions of later transportation forms including the railroad were derived from roads used by Roman chariots, and that space shuttle designers did take into account transportation limitations, including the use of railroads, as part of their supply chain. So, while I agree with them that it is clear that the relationship is "trivial" and "unremarkable," calling it false is nearly as misleading as calling it true, especially since most people don't bother to read their well-developed explanation.

The question of gauge, or the distance between the two rails of a railroad that lies at the heart of that urban legend, is a pretty interesting thing to contemplate. It's a real triumph of standardization that such a thing as "standard" gauge exists in the railroad world, no matter how closely it actually follows from the width of a horse's rear end. What's really made it happen is the need to interchange equipment--pointed out in the Snopes essay surrounding the US civil war--to serve wider markets, and the sale of equipment worldwide, pointed out by Snopes as a 19th century matter between the US and England, but much more powerful in the post-World War II era of globalization when second-hand equipment can end up anywhere, whether it's NightStar equipment from Europe ending up in Canada or used American diesels ending up in Australia (and vice versa). A good portion of the world's railroads really does use "standard" or "Stephenson" gauge--4 feet, 8.5 inches, or 1435 mm between the rails--Wikipedia estimates it at 60%.

Gauge has been on my mind since I recently realized that I had experience with an odd gauge without even realizing it. The Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire uses 4 foot, 8 inch gauge for obscure reasons; 1422 mm instead of the 1435 mm standard. I managed to ride that line in 2003 without noticing that it wasn't standard gauge. But, considering that it doesn't interchange its equipment with anyone else, it's not surprising that its odd gauge has survived.

This led to the question of just how many different gauges have I actually experienced? (This doesn't count transit systems, miniature railroads and non-historical tourist operations like Disneyland.) I've been working on the log of all my miles on railroads in my lifetime, so this actually wasn't that hard figure out. The answer turns out to be eight. Those are:

(1) 4 foot 8.5 inches/1435 mm: Standard gauge experienced on many railroads in North America, Britain, Europe, and Australia
(2) 4 foot 8 inches/1422 mm: Mount Washington Cog Railway (US)
(3) 3 foot 6 inches/1067 mm: Zig Zag Railway (Australia), Huntsville and Lake of Bays (Canada)
(4) 3 foot 3.37 inches/1000 mm: 6 different railways in Switzerland and Austria
(5) 3 foot/914 mm: Roaring Camp & Big Trees, Durango & Silverton, Sumpter Valley, and Yosemite Mountain and Sugar Pine (all US)
(6) 2 foot 7.5 inches/800 mm: Wengernalpbahn, and Pilatusbahn (both Switzerland)
(7) 2 foot 5.9 inches/760 mm: Zillertalbahn (Austria)
(8) 2 foot/610 mm: Maine Narrow Gauge and Edaville (both US)

That may seem like a lot, but I have never experienced any of the major "broad" gauges wider than standard gauge--the 5 foot 6 inch used in India (remember, BART doesn't count), the 1668 mm used in Spain and Portugal, the 5 foot 3 inch used in Ireland, Brazil, and Australian Victoria, and the 5 foot used in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

I guess I don't go where horses used to have larger posteriors.

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