How Decisions Are Made

US Standard Railroad Gauge

Ever wonder where those engineering specifications come from?

The US standard railroad gauge (the distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches -- an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used?

Because that's the way they built them in England, and Englishmen built the first US railroads, to which all later US railroads wanted to link.

Why did the English build them like that?

Because the first rail lines were built by the people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that is the gauge they used.

Why did they use that particular gauge then?

Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs, fixtures 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 the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts in the granite setts.

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 constantly swaying and tipping over during their rides and even destroying their wagon wheels.  Since all the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they all had virtually the same wheel spacing.

So the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived, ultimately, from the specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

As you should know by now, specifications and bureaucracies have a strong tendency to live forever, and, usually, a constituency built large enough to insist that they do.

The Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war-horses.

Cut to the present...

The Space Shuttle, sitting on its launch pad, has two booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank.  These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.  Thiokol makes the SRBs at its factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs wanted 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 one-half of that tunnel, the wall of which is just far enough away from the track for a standard train car, the size of which was determined over a century and a half ago to be not too much wider than the railroad track.  And the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So....  a major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was mostly determined two thousand years ago by a horse's ass.

Which is pretty much how most government decisions are made. 


"It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong." -- Dr. Thomas Sowell

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