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This may be an urban myth, but it’s good anyway...


The US standard railroad gauge – that’s the distance between rails – is 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches. Why such an odd number? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and American railroads were built by British expatriates – that is, people who used to live in Britain.

Well, why did the English use that particular gauge? Because the people who built the pre-railroad tramways used that gauge.

They in turn were locked into that gauge because the people who built tramways used the same standards and tools they had used for building wagons, which were on a gauge of 4 ft, 8-1/2 inches.

Why were wagons to that scale? Because with any other size, the wheels did not match the old wheel ruts on the roads.

So who built these old rutted roads?

The first long distance highways in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since. The ruts were first made by Roman war chariots. Four feet, 8-1/2 inches was the width a chariot needed to be to accommodate the two rear ends of war horses.

Maybe “that’s the way it’s always been” isn’t the good reason some people believe it is. (Clark Cothern, “Leadership”, Winter 1998)

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