Compatible Railroads

Railroads ushered in the industrial age around the world, but the economic breakthrough made possible by railroads almost didn’t happen.  The problem was that rail lines were created with different gauge tracks.  Generally, the separation between rails would vary from 4 feet to 5 feet.  When loads needed to be carried from one location on one railroad to another place on a different railroad, the load would have to be moved by hand from one railcar to the other one.  Obviously there needed to be a standard gauge for all railroads.

Since England had led the way in the use of railroads, a Royal Commission was established to standardize the gauge.  They chose the width proposed by George Stephenson.  His gauge was chosen because it had more rail lines than other railroads.

George Stephenson was the son of parents who could neither read nor write.  He was illiterate until he was 18 and was able to pay for his education.  His knowledge of steam-driven machinery allowed him to develop substantial railroad assets, even though he started life with virtually nothing.

The gauge width that was chosen was 1435 mm (4 ft and 8.5 inches).  The Royal Commission mandated that any new passenger-carrying railways would have to be built to this gauge.  Over time, the Stephenson Gauge became the accepted standard.

In the U.S., northern railroads also adopted this standard because trains were purchased from England.  Southern railroads, however, had a mix of gauges.  During the Civil War, the South was greatly hindered by its lack of standard gauges because it was very time-consuming to move supplies to where they were needed.

It seems hard to believe that the ability to move people and goods by rail around the world is the product of one man with limited education and who had virtually no means to start life.  That’s the beauty of beginnings.  They don’t depend on pedigree, biology, social standing, or any factor other than their creative abilities.

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“Observation more than books and experience more than persons, are the prime educators.”  Amos Alcott (educator)

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