Blog: Electrification Infrastructure


There is an interesting story, published in various places on the Internet, about the ‘standard’ track gauge for US railways.  (Standard gauge is the most widely used railway track gauge across the world, with approximately 55% of the railway lines in the world using it.)…

“The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches.  That is an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that is the way they built them in England, and Irish & English expatriates built the US railroads. Why did the English build them like that?  Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that is the gauge they used. Why did “they” use that gauge then?  Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used the same wheel spacing.  Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing?  Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts. So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.  And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels.  Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they all had the same wheel spacing.  The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse’s ass came up with it, you may be exactly right.  This is because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war-horses.  Now, the twist to the story…

There is an interesting extension to the story about railroad gauges and horses’ behinds. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main tank.  These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. “Thiokol” makes the SRBs at their factory at Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horse’s behinds.  So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.”

You can find many analyses of this particular urban myth out on the web – for example, one by fact-checking site Snopes https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/horses-pass/.  But the details don’t matter too much.  The important point is that infrastructure standards can stick.  This means that some key decisions can have far-reaching implications for the uptake and development of technology.

I think we are fast approaching a tipping point, when the future of electrification infrastructure for road freight systems is likely to be decided.  The right decision will lead us on a low weight, low energy, low carbon path.  The wrong decision will lead to the opposite.  This may not be a decision that we want to leave to market forces alone.

There is more to come on this topic… watch this space!

David Cebon
9/3/2018