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Dennis Cassinelli: The history of railroad design

For many years, before I retired, I worked as a construction engineer and inspector, so I know more than a little about construction of roads and highways. If you read on you will learn some amazing things about railroad history that you may have never contemplated before. The V&T and all the other American Standard Gauge railroads were built using the U.S. Standard Railroad Gauge (distance between the rails) which is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. You may ask why was that particular gauge used? Except for a few narrow gauge railroads such as the Carson and Colorado, and a few other logging and short-line trains, Standard Gauge was used.

We do know that this was the spacing between rails used in England and it was English expatriates who built the first railroads in this country. Why then, did the British build their railroads with the 4 foot, 8.5 inch spacing? If we trace this even further back in history, we find that before railroads were developed, there were roads and highways constructed that followed old wagon trails. 

For hundreds of years before the railroads were built, wagons were the main means for transporting freight and passengers. Conestoga wagons, buckboards and stage coaches all had about the same 4 feet, 8.5 inches spacing between the wheels and this was the spacing between the ruts they left in the soil. Since the British Isles were occupied in ancient times by the Romans, the chariots used by the Roman Imperial armies used the same spacing. Any wagon or other vehicle with a wheel spacing other than the standard 4’, 8.5” had difficulty staying within the wheel ruts left by all the other vehicles.

All the old horse or mule-drawn vehicles were designed to be drawn by a team of two or more animals. It just happens that when two average sized horses, oxen or mules are hitched together side by side in a team, the width between their tracks is the width of a horse’s rear end, including all the harnesses, or 4’, 8.5”. Therefore, the width between railroad tracks is determined by the south end of a team of north bound horse.

Horse drawn Roman war chariots made the first wheel ruts in the British Isles and the spacing remained the same through the horse and buggy days and even into the advent of automobiles and the railroads. As a construction inspector, I sometimes questioned a specification for some phase of work under my control. I have often asked myself, “What horse’s a** designed this project?” Now I know how important horses’ backsides have been in the development of transportation engineering as we know it today.

The Space Shuttle program has come to an end. Even this program was subject to the constraints of the US Standard Railroad Gauge. A space shuttle sitting on its launch pad had two big rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These were solid rocket boosters or SRB’s. The engineers who designed the space shuttle wanted the SRB’s to be fatter, but they had to be shipped by railroad from the factory to the launch site. This train had to pass through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRB’s had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is wider than the railroad track, but the total width is controlled by the width of two horses asses, pulling side by side.

So now, we know that a major design feature of the space shuttle, arguably being the most advanced transportation system ever devised was determined more than 2,000 years ago by the width of two horses a****s. Come to think of it, I am thoroughly convinced that this explains many of the decisions made today by our own Federal Government officials.

This article is by Dayton Author and Historian, Dennis Cassinelli. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. Just click on “order books.”