Tracking a Curious Fact

How US rails got their track together


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-Melbourne, one; Sydney-Adelaide, one; Sydney-Perth, three; Adelaide-Perth, two; Brisbane-Sydney, none; Melbourne-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 8½ 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.

During the Civil War, as the battle lines between Blue and Gray ebbed and flowed, railroad tracks, being vital supply arteries for the armies, were tom up and relaid. The 5-foot Louisville and Nashville Railroad, for example, was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. Perhaps the speed with which rebuilding was accomplished made railroad operators realize, in later decades, that gauges could be redone. During the Civil War, the lack of a uniform gauge certainly was seen as a major barrier to efficient transportation.

With the building of the transcontinental railroad, in the 1860s, there was another battle of the gauges. J.P. Kirkwood, chief engineer of the Pacific Railroad (predecessor of Southern Pacific), chose a 5-foot-6-inch gauge, and 283 miles of the transcontinental line were built eastward from California with this size track. Eastern standards prevailed, however, and when the construction began in earnest, Central Pacific's 4-foot-8½-inch gauge was used.

The most detailed account of actual rail-gauge standardization that the Association of American Railroads could find was a 1928 lecture by Charles Frederick Carter, entitled "Vagaries of Railroad Evolution: The Riddle of the Gauge." Carter was a publicity agent of the New York Central Railroad and his lecture was given to the New York City Athletic Association on January 23, 1928.

Though the new use of railroads to carry supplies and troops north and south during the Civil War highlighted the potential benefits of standardization, the decisive first moves were not made until 1871. According to Carter, standardization of gauges was started by the directors of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad when, on January 28, 1871, they voted to convert their 6-foot system to a gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches. The directors ordered new rolling stock and planned the sale of their 6-foot-gauge locomotives and cars. Setting the pattern for all subsequent standardizations, they canceled Sunday trains. At dawn on Sunday, July 23, 1871, gangs began pulling spikes. They moved each rail of the 6-foot-wide track inward, respiking the rails to the 4-foot-8½-inch "standard" gauge. By 11 a.m. that day, 400 miles were done, and it was proven that standardization was easily achieved.

The other roads along the route between New York and St. Louis quickly followed the example of the Ohio and Mississippi. Most important of these was the Erie. Also narrowing their gauge to 4 feet 8½ inches in the 1870s were Canada's Lackawanna and the Grand Trunk lines. In the words of Charles Carter, "The owners of broad gauge, finding themselves hopelessly handicapped by their inability to interchange traffic with the majority of lines…began to bring their rails together."

The bulk of American gauge standardization seems to have occurred in two waves—the northeast lines in the 1870s and the southern lines in the 1880s. According to Henry, by 1880 most of the odd wide gauges in the northeast were gone and 4 feet 8½ inches was universal there. The southern roads held firm to their 5-foot gauge until the mid-1880s. Carter reported in his 1928 lecture that most of the South's track was narrowed to 4 feet 8½ inches in three weeks, between May 12 and June 2, 1886. Twelve thousand miles of 5-foot track in the South, Carter said, was standardized with no traffic disruption longer than 24 hours. Armies of men moved from one railroad to another, tearing up and relaying 1,800 miles of track, including all its sidings, loops, and mainlines—the whole railroad. With an allocation of 4 men per mile of mainline track and 5 men per mile in terminal yards (where they had to deal with switches), a total of 8,763 men were employed to execute this impressive feat.

There is a conflict in the accounts as to when the pioneer southern railroad, the Mobile and Ohio, standardized its gauge. Henry dates it as May 21, 1886. Carter dates it as July 9, 1885. In any case, both agree the system was regauged from 5 feet to 4 feet 8½ inches in exactly 12 hours. According to Carter, 500 miles were converted during 12 hours on a Sunday, with the cancellation of only one train. As described by him, two gangs of men worked out from one another. A gang of four men pulled spikes to free the rail. Another drove down stubs. Three men "threw," or levered over, the rail the required 3½ inches. Another 12 men, working in pairs, respiked the rails to the new width. According to the accounts, there was intense rivalry between the gangs to accomplish the greatest mileage of track most quickly. One gang is said to have set the record—five miles of track in 5 hours 30 minutes. The cost of conversion was recorded as $27.99 per mile.

Standardization of the broad gauges to 4 feet 8½ inches was the relatively simple matter of moving inward one or (in the case of 6-foot track) both of the rails, utilizing the existing bed of gravel and wooden ties (the crosspieces to which the rails are affixed with spikes). But standardization of narrow-gauge track to 4 feet 8½ inches is more difficult: the wooden ties usually are not long enough, so the whole roadbed needs to be rebuilt. Furthermore, narrow-gauge lines are often built with curves that are sharper than standard-gauge trains can handle and often with weight limits too low for standard-gauge trains. It is not clear from the historical accounts how narrower-gauge railroads were rebuilt to the 4-foot-8½-inch standard. Though the process is likely to have been more gradual, it was, as with the rebuilt tracks of the southern broad-gauge lines, also a matter of commercial decisions by private operators.

In the 1870s there was a proliferation of narrow-gauge railroads. The Denver and Rio Grande was built with a 3-foot gauge, as was the El Paso–Mexico City line. According to Carter, who fervently disapproved of these small trains, "Denver became the center for narrow gauge propaganda."

Stewart Holbrook, in his 1947 The Story of American Railroads, reports that in 1876 there were 81 narrow-gauge lines in operation in 26 states. They ranged in gauge between 2 feet and 3 feet 6 inches. The attraction of narrow-gauge lines were their lower start-up costs. It was easier to raise the money to start up such lines, but, according to Holbrook, they did not make money. Many, however, seemed to struggle on somehow until the 1930s. By 1942, Holbrook says, there were only 1,400 miles of narrow-gauge railroad (most in Colorado), compared to well over 200,000 miles of standard 4-foot-8½-inch-gauge line.

By the 1890s, new narrow-gauge lines seem to have ceased being built, because they were uncompetitive with the standard-gauge lines. By 1890, the American system, despite the lack of any formal apparatus for imposing standardization, was substantially standardized. In the words of railroad historian Henry, this was achieved "not as the result of legislation but of business adjustment, compromise and cooperation among the many hundreds of private companies which built and operate the American network of rails." He concluded with the observation: "Of all the great continents, only North America has succeeded in standardizing the gauge of substantially all its railroads."

(As an interesting footnote to this discussion, it was the railroads that were responsible for implementing Standard Time in the United States. Before 1883, there was no such thing as the Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific zones that now divide the continent into areas of uniform time. Back then, people set their clocks according to "sun time," based on the sun's movement across the sky, or they followed the time standard of one of the railroads that served their community. Congress was unable to untangle the profusion of local times through any legislation, so the railroads took matters into their own hands. On November 18, 1883, every US railroad adopted Standard Time, with the four designated time zones. And American communities quickly followed suit.)

In the present era, there are demands for government involvement in telecommunications and electronics, in behalf of standardization. But the failure of Australia, and of other nations where railways are under government control, to standardize their rail gauges early and easily—as in the United States—provides a powerful historical case against such government planning. Because it would seem intuitively more likely that standardization would be achieved by central governmental intervention, however, there is a danger that these demands will be taken at their face value.

The history of the war of the rail gauges suggests that the best standard may be reached—and reached most cheaply—if left to the free play of market forces and the pursuit of private profit by competitive commercial operators.

Contributing Editor Peter Samuel is special Washington correspondent for the Murdoch newspaper conglomerate.