Tracking a Curious Fact

Were a traveler in Australia to take a rail journey across the southern part of the continent and 'round the eastern coast, he would proceed on train tracks of, on various portions of the trip, three different sizes. On the 1,600 miles between Perth and Adelaide, the distance between the tracks' two rails (the railway's "gauge") is 4 feet 8½ inches, the "standard gauge." Adelaide to Melbourne has broader tracks-5 feet 3 inches. Along the hilly eastern coast from Melbourne to Sydney and then on to Brisbane, the train again travels on standard-gauge track. But then from Brisbane to Cairns, the train traveler finds himself traversing narrower track, with a gauge measuring 3 feet 6 inches.

Trains, however, can travel only along track whose gauge matches the spacing of the train's wheels. So wherever rail lines with different gauges are to connect, passengers and cargo must be transferred from one train to another. In Australia, as this hypothetical rail journey illustrates, this can happen several times over the course of a trip.

Evidently, Australian railroads manage to get along this way, however inefficiently; and the hodgepodge of different rail gauges in my native country would be a matter of rail trivia were it not for the interesting contrast with the United States. As I discovered upon moving here, nearly all train tracks in the United States have the same rail gauge. And therein lies an interesting tale about the public sector versus the private.

The United States and Australia are similar in some respects. The contiguous 48 states of the United States have an almost identical land area to Australia-3 million square miles. Australia's population of 15 million, while obviously much smaller than that of the United States (230 million), is highly dispersed, creating a substantial demand for transportation, and Australia has always been a large producer of bulk commodities suited to rail transport, such as wool, meat, coal, metal ores, and automobiles. Yet the development of railroad transportation in Australia has long been hampered by different rail gauges.

The railroads in Australia's two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, respectively have gauges of 4 feet 8½ inches and 5 feet 3 inches. The two states largest in area, Queensland and West Australia, were developed with 3-foot-6-inch-gauge rail lines. So was the island state of Tasmania. South Australia's northern lines were also built with a gauge of 3 feet 6 inches, as part of a scheme to link up with a cheap 3-foot-6-inch-gauge system in the Northern Territory; but its southern lines were built as border spillovers from Victoria's system, whose gauge is 5 feet 3 inches.

Early in this century, though, Australia's federal government got involved with the nation's rail systems and chose 4 feet 8½ inches as the "standard gauge" for the transcontinental link across the Nullarbor Plain. That introduced a further complication, because a long 4-foot-8½ inch stretch was interposed between a 3-foot-6-inch West Australian system and the mixed 3-foot-6 inch and 5-foot-3-inch South Australian systems. As of the 1930s, when railways reached their peak of importance worldwide, there were the following numbers of gauge changes in the lines connecting various Australian state capitals: Sydney-Melboume, one; Sydney-Adelaide, one; Sydney-Perth, three; Adelaide-Perth, two; Brisbane-Sydney, none; Melboume-Brisbane, one.

In Australia, railroads traditionally have been government built. First they were built by the various colonial governments, then, after the federation of 1901, by the successor state governments. The railroads were designed as part of a spoils system of politics, without regard to economic viability. Part of the railway pork barrel was the focusing of the new state systems on the principal state port- Sydney in the case of New South Wales, Melbourne in Victoria, and so on. Only well into this century, with the development of nationally oriented manufacturing industries, did the need for interconnections between the incompatible state systems become powerfully evident.

The different systems got different gauges for odd historical reasons. New South Wales, demographically Australia's most English colony, simply followed the English standard gauge of 4 feet 8 ½ inches. Victoria, more Irish in make-up, had an Irish engineer in charge of its railways at the start, and he preferred the Irish 5-foot-3-inch broad gauge. The outer states picked the narrow 3-foot-6-inch gauge, because they thought it was cheaper to build.

Australia has never got its railways out of that historical mess. Federal politicians in the post-World War II period have repeatedly run for office with the promise to standardize the gauge of the country's railways. And billions of the taxpayers' dollars have been spent on standardization schemes. At last by the 1980s, after some 35 years of various standardization works, there are no breaks of rail gauge on the main trunk lines connecting the five mainland state capitals. There is now 4-foot-8½-inch-gauge track connecting Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, and Brisbane and Sydney and Melbourne. The rail gauge between Melbourne and Adelaide remains, as always, 5 feet 3 inches. But none of the state railway systems as such has been standardized. With the exception of the intercapital routes, the systems are as diverse as ever.

Having in mind this Australian background, I was interested to examine the parallels in the United States. The standard US railroad histories have scant reference to rail gauges and standardization. It has not been a contentious issue in this country, because here, standardization was completed a century ago.

In the library of the Association of American Railroads, however, there are a number of old booklets, lectures, and magazine articles that go into the detail of how standardization occurred under the private ownership that has always prevailed in the American railroads. The American episode of rail-gauge standardization shows what private ownership and the free market can achieve, as compared to the political process, which is dominant when-as in Australia-government owns the rails.

A 1942 book, This Fascinating Railroad Business by Robert S. Henry, outlines how, in the first half of the 19th century, the United States had even more different rail gauges than Australia. The earliest American railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, adopted the 4-foot-8½ -inch "Stephenson gauge" (named after engineer George Stephenson, who built the world's first proper railroad, the Stockton and Darlington in England, with this size gauge). Railroads in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts followed suit and used the Stephenson gauge, too. So did some of New York's railroads, notably the Hudson River and the New Haven railroads.

But New York was the progenitor of a variety of other gauges. The famous Erie Railroad was built with a 6-foot gauge. So was the adjacent Atlantic and Great Western, running across Pennsylvania and Ohio to Cincinnati. And the third 5-foot-gauge line, the Ohio and Mississippi, took the broad line on out to St. Louis.

New York also spawned a 4-foot-9-inch-gauge line, the Mohawk and Hudson. The Camden and Amboy line of New Jersey had a 4-foot-10-inch gauge, as did the delightfully named Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad. This gauge was based on the gauge of locomotives made at the Rodgers Locomotive Works in Paterson, New Jersey. There was also a 5-foot-4-inch-gauge railroad in New Jersey-the Sandusky, Marsfield, and Newark Railroad.

A strong personality as chief engineer often guaranteed a railroad a new gauge, it seems. The forceful engineer Horatio Allen, who designed the Mobile and Ohio line, went for a 5-foot gauge, which became a standard in the South and remained so even after the Civil War.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement