The history of railroad design

It was November 12, 1869 that the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Locomotive LYON first chugged across the Crown Point Trestle to signal the beginning of the fabulous history of the country’s most famous short line railroad. Completion of the railroad through the incredibly rough terrain between Virginia City and Carson City was truly an engineering marvel for its time. For those of you who think you know everything about railroad construction, I have a few important historical facts I want you to consider.

For many years, I’ve 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 you may have never contemplated before. The V & T and all the other American Standard Gauge railroads were built using the US 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 his 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 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’, 8.5” 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 Imperial Roman 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.

We still have not answered the question of why a spacing of 4’, 8.5” was selected to be the standard for chariots, wagons and even railroad trains. The answer to this question is amazingly simple if you apply a little common sense and some old fashioned logic. All the old horse-drawn vehicles were designed to be drawn by a team of two or more animals. It just happens 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 the tracks of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad and all other standard gauge railroads is determined by the width of the south end of a 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. Being a construction inspector, I’ve sometimes questioned a specification for some phase of the work under my control. I’ve often asked myself, “What horse’s ass designed this project?” Now I know how important horses’ asses have been in the development of Transportation Engineering as we know it today.

The Space Shuttle program recently came 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 the solid rocket boosters or SRBs. The engineers who designed the space shuttle wanted the SRBs to be fatter, but they had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. This train had to pass through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is wider than the railroad track, but the total width of the tunnel is controlled by the width of two horses asses, pulling side by side.

So now we know a major design feature of the space shuttle, arguably being the most advanced transportation system ever devised, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of two horses’ asses. Come to think of it, I’m thoroughly convinced this explains many of the decisions being made today by our own federal government.

This article is by Dayton Author and Historian, Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted at . or on his blog at All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50% discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage.


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