A Tale of Gauge (or, How Wide is a Railroad?)

A Tale of Gauge (or, How Wide is a Railroad?)

Related by John Moody in “The Railroad Builders” a story is told of a conversation between New York Central Railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt and a minor competitor…. The owner of the small railroad suggested trading free passes with The Commodore, who replied,

“Why, my dear sir,” exclaimed the Commodore, “my railroad is more than three hundred miles long, while yours is only seventeen miles.”
“That may all be so,” replied the other, “but my railroad is just as wide as yours.”

Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, travelers made the 2000-mile trek on foot, carrying their belongings in a wagon. A digital simulation of this voyage, the computer game “Oregon Trail” has a lot of places where the player can “meet their maker.” One of them is the Kansas River crossing near Topeka. The well-heeled sojourner will pay for the ferry ($5 as I remember), while the hardy will caulk their wagons against encroaching water and float them across. The latter is a dangerous play on what was, at the time, a most dangerous journey. For the modern traveler recreating the voyage, the river crossing will be much more manageable, given the fine bridge available on U.S. Highway 75 just west of town. Moving through the high plains of Nebraska and Wyoming, the latter-day pilgrim will also find the trail still visible, and still very much as it was in those bygone days. Even after 150 years, a line of parallel ruts marks the path of those who came (long) before. Called “wagon swales”, these ruts have been forged by the iron tyres of countless wagons, packing the fertile soil into a hard pan that even the tenacious grasses of the prairie are helpless to penetrate. As the ruts developed over the years, they not only served to mark the trail, but also made a smoother track for the wagons that followed. It was this need for a “smoother track” that drove the development of the railroads, both on the European continent and here in the “colonies.” The abysmal condition of what roads did exist meant commerce between towns would be slow at best, and vagaries of weather could bring it to a halt. Construction of a tracked road provided the smoother track and helped minimize the effects of bad weather.

Before the development of the steam powered locomotive changed the face of commerce, goods were moved over long distances by water-borne transport. The wagon or tram ways, precursors of the modern railroads, needed only the capacity to enable movement within a community, to nearby communities, and of course, to the docks where a barge or ship waited to do the “heavy hauling.”

The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries led to an avalanche of new manufacturing processes, including the rolling of steel. This process was quickly turned to the production of steel rails for tram ways. At the same time, as the steam engine became smaller and more powerful, it was adapted to power the wagons on the tram ways. The technology matured and ever heavier loads could be carried at ever higher speeds, making the railroad a truly viable solution for long distance travel….

Except for one small detail…


The distance between the rails of a railroad is called “gauge”. It is measured from the inside of the head of one rail to the inside of the head of the other rail. For most of its history, the development of rail ways had been a local affair. There was ample interchange of ideas, but the engineering decisions were made by the local builders, with no thought given to standardization. After all, the rail roads were miles apart, and any long-distance shipping was done by waterways, not wagonways. As a result, the gauge of different railroads was not always the same.

The first railroads in the were built to a bewildering variety of gauges, each of which worked well in isolation. The fledgeling industry asserted itself as a long-distance transportation mode and it became necessary to transfer loads from one railroad to another. If the gauge was different, this meant unloading one rail car and loading the freight on another… not an efficient system! Other solutions varied from the sublime to the ridiculous; a third rail set between the other two gave two different gauges, wheels were made able to be moved inward on the axles to a different gauge, even steam-powered machines to lift an entire car off its trucks (the wheelsets the railcar rides on are called “trucks”) and set it on another set of different gauged trucks! As one contemprary writer quipped;

“not a prominent point could be found … without its ‘hoist’ and acres of extra trucks.”

The best solution, of course, is to make the gauge the same for all railroads. This certainly had its advantages, and for the most part, everyone could agree on which gauge to use… THE ONE I’M USING!!!  Reluctant and recalcitrant railroad regauging led to conflict in many places. These disagreements, called “gauge wars”, ran the gamut from heated town council meetings, to lawsuits, to open fighting. In a series of events in Erie, Pa., there was even a faction arguing against standardizing at all!! Local labor was employed to unload and load train cargo, and local restaurants and hotels grew flush on the dollars of passengers laying-over while the cargo was transferred. Such a revenue stream made finding a permanent solution to the gauge problem less enticing.

By the middle of the 19th century, the U.S. Railroad industry was running on as many as twenty different gauges of track, with no fewer than five gauges covering the lions share of the miles. In England, the railroads had standardized on a gauge set at 4′-8 1/2” (1435mm) by Order of Parliament in 1846. This was the spacing favored by George Stephenson for the 1826 Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and had been used in about three-fourths of the track mileage in England. Correspondingly, this gauge was used on many railroads in the northeast U.S., as those builders had used equipment purchased from England and built to that gauge. By the 1850s, the problem was widespread enough to generate serious action toward standardization.

The “last straw” would be the Civil War. Break of gauge slowed shipments of men and materiel to areas of need, and the decision was made to standardize gauges nationwide. With Pacific Railway Act of 1863, the federal land grant transcontinental railroad offered impetus for standardization, mandating a 4′ 8-1/2” gauge for that long-legged stretch. By 1886, all major U.S. Railroads had changed to what had become “standard gauge.”

In the southern U.S., this national push for standardization led to one of the most amazing construction feats in the history of travel. Over two incredible days in May, 1886, 11,500 miles of track was changed from 5′ gauge to the standard gauge. Planning and preparation for this changeover had been ongoing since early February, when the officers of the railroads affected met in Atlanta. A date was chosen and a general plan of action formulated. The “standard” gauge in this case was not the U.S. Standard of 4′-8 1/2”, however. The Pennsylvania Railroad had adopted a gauge of 4′-9”, which proved to work adequately in interchange with rolling stock designed for 4′-8 1/2”. A number of Southern railroads had interchange requirements with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and as a consequence, the Convention adopted this target width for the regauging endeavor. In the weeks leading up to the changeover date, materials were distributed to maintenance shops throughout the south. Only one rail would be moved, and since the gauge was being narrowed, the ties which were in place could be used. The inside spikes were driven into each crosstie in preparation for the change, and outside spikes and rail fastening hardware were placed nearby. Then, beginning on 30 May, 1886 the change was made. In approximately 36 hours, the entirety of the southern U.S. 5′ gauge trackage was regauged to 4′-9”. The change did not affect only track, though. A huge number of locomotives and railcars needed to be changed as well. These were refitted with wheels spaced for the new gauge in the months leading up to the changeover date. The wind was in the wire regarding the U.S. Standard gauge, and most rolling stock was fitted to work optimally on a 4′-8 1/2” gauge. The formation of the Southern Railway Company in 1884 put the final “spike” into mis-matched gauges and in the course of normal maintenance, all Southern Railway track was changed to 4′-8 1/2” gauge.

There are still several railroads using “other” gauges, however. Some railroads in the U.S., mostly in mountainous regions, use a “narrow gauge” instead of the U.S. Standard, and Maine has many miles of 2′ gauge track. The reasons for choosing the narrow gauge vary, in many cases it was to cut construction costs. In the mountainous west, the choice was made by the terrain rather than by the architects. On the steep granite mountainsides, clearing a “shelf” for track was arduous, expensive and dangerous. The less rock to be moved, the better. Narrow gauge was the obvious choice for these railroads, and many of them are still in operation. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is one of the most famous tourist railroads in existence. A survivor of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, the Durango was originally opened in 1882 as an extension from Antonito, Colorado to serve the gold, silver, tin and other ore mines around Silverton, Colorado. It now operates a breathtaking 45 miles of track between it’s two eponymous towns.

Other fine narrow gauge rides include the Cumbres and Toltec Senic Railroad in Colorado and New Mexico and the White Pass and Yukon Route in Alaska and Canada.

There are still places on the Shiny Irons where break-of-gauge exists, mostly at international borders. The gauge problem is usually approached in the Old Way, either the passengers change trains, the train cars are re-trucked, or the wheels of the train cars are moved to the new gauge. For a crossing from France to Spain, an innovative automated regauging station was developed. The passenger rail industry in western Europe is very modern and very proud of its high speed service. All of the available solutions required a train to stop for regauging, which was not acceptable. The automated system slows the train to 20kmh,

and as the wheels pass through guide rails, the wheels are physically moved inboard or outboard on their axles and locked in place. This allows the train to keep moving…

And moving is how we keep the rails shiny!!

Play A Train Song

Canadian balladeer Gordon Lightfoot sings about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in maple-leaf country, “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”

from his 1967 album “The Way I Feel”

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