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Transportation United States Technology

Marking 125 Years Since the Great Gauge Change 426

Posted by timothy
from the railly-good-effort dept.
Arnold Reinhold writes "This month ends with the 125th anniversary of one of the most remarkable achievements in technology history. Over two days beginning Monday, May 31, 1886, the railroad network in the southern United States was converted from a five-foot gauge to one compatible with the slightly narrower gauge used in the US North, now know as standard gauge. The shift was meticulously planned and executed. It required one side of every track to be moved three inches closer to the other. All wheel sets had to be adjusted as well. Some minor track and rolling stock was sensibly deferred until later, but by Wednesday the South's 11,500 mile rail network was back in business and able to exchange rail cars with the North. Other countries are still struggling with incompatible rail gauges. Australia still has three. Most of Europe runs on standard gauge, but Russia uses essentially the same five foot gauge as the old South and Spain and Portugal use an even broader gauge. India has a multi-year Project Unigauge, aimed at converting its narrow gauge lines to the subcontinent's five foot six inch standard."
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Marking 125 Years Since the Great Gauge Change

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  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @04:17PM (#36065636) Homepage
    In the second half of the 19th century the US took rail transit very seriously. The standardization of the gauge isn't the only example of this. The US also spent a large amount of effort building the transcontinental railroad. A major reason for the success of the United States in the 20th century was the massive investment in infrastructure in the end of the 19th. Unfortunately, the US hasn't done much in the way of large scale infrastructural improvement since the building of the highway system in the 1950s. Our electric grid is primitive and outdated and our fastest passenger trains like the Acela high speed rail on the East Coast are slower than regular trains in other places like Japan (the maximum speed of the Acela is less than the average speed for some of the Japanese trains). I'm deeply worried about what the next few years are going to be like.
    • by vlm (69642) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @04:30PM (#36065760)

      Our electric grid is primitive and outdated and our fastest passenger trains like the Acela high speed rail on the East Coast are slower than regular trains in other places like Japan

      Both have the same core problems...

      First, private monopoly large scale providers result in the inevitable property taxes levied on the routes, after all why not make the "outsiders" pay property taxes until they bleed... The owners can/might survive depreciation and interest costs of improved routes, but they'll never survive the prop taxes on improved routes. Its kind of like adding an extra 5% to the published interest rate in perpetuity, and taxes always and only go up making an unlimited liability for the private owners.

      NIMBY is the second problem, for better or worse we operate sorta kinda partially under the rule of law, and we certainly have plenty of hungry lawyers out to stop all progress.

    • by DigiShaman (671371) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @04:41PM (#36065844) Homepage

      I know I'm stating the obvious for many readers. But that's because post WW2, oil was cheap, and driving equated to the ultimate form of personal freedom. So much freedom in fact that the suburbs were created in that time period too. Of course, cheap energy wont last forever. I can't predict what will happen in the future with regards to transportation, but I can predict that the current status quo will not last.

      The problem wasn't our desire for freedom and independence with how we lived our lives. The problem was the instruments of energy we chose to achieve that without a clear vision or plan in mind to maintain it.

      • by Culture20 (968837) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @04:56PM (#36065960)

        driving equated to the ultimate form of personal freedom

        Still does. Try getting anywhere that's not in New York City, San Diego, or Chicago without a car, and you'll be spending a lot of time waiting or being herded where others want you to go. And you'd better plan in advance, because the bus isn't stopping at that quaint roadside diner you just saw.

        • by loshwomp (468955)

          Try getting anywhere in America that's not in New York City, San Diego, or Chicago without a car, and you'll be spending a lot of time waiting or being herded where others want you to go.

          There. Fixed that for ya. :)

        • by SuperQ (431) *

          Most of your quaint roadside diners were eliminated by the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. People stop are herded along the interstate and only stop long enough for gas, mcdonalds, and starbucks.

      • by dave87656 (1179347) on Monday May 09, 2011 @01:22AM (#36068932)

        I know I'm stating the obvious for many readers. But that's because post WW2, oil was cheap, and driving equated to the ultimate form of personal freedom. So much freedom in fact that the suburbs were created in that time period too. Of course, cheap energy wont last forever. I can't predict what will happen in the future with regards to transportation, but I can predict that the current status quo will not last.

        The problem wasn't our desire for freedom and independence with how we lived our lives. The problem was the instruments of energy we chose to achieve that without a clear vision or plan in mind to maintain it.

        The low-hanging fruit in this equation is freight. If we could move a large portion of the long-distance freight to Rail, it would (1) relieve the interstate system and (2) save a lot of oil, since rail miles per gallon per ton is about 435. An 18-wheeler can transport about 36 tons and gets something like 7 or 8 mpg, which is about 250 miles per gallon per ton. Of course, there are other factors, such as the fact that the train will probably have a slightly longer route and that you will still need local delivery, but the potential savings, financial and ecological, are high.

      • by RockDoctor (15477)

        But that's because post WW2, oil was cheap,

        [SNIP]

        Of course, cheap energy wont last forever.

        cheap energy didn't last forever.

        FTFY

        I am an oil geologist ; finding new reserves is getting harder, and un-explored or under-explored areas are getting fewer and further from market - which is my specialism, and why I work intercontinentally and inter-hemispherically.

        Actually ... you've just proposed a problem for me - is there a hemisphere on the Earth where I haven't worked, and if there is, what would it's

    • I'd like to know which country has an electric grid that makes the US grid look primitive. Japan still has the 50/60Hz split, the US grid has been 60Hz only since 1948 (albeit there are remnants of 25HZ systems for railway/electrochemical use). Haven't heard anything about Europe that makes it superior to the US. China might have an edge due to the newness of their infrastructure.
      • by sjbe (173966) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @05:10PM (#36066056)

        I'd like to know which country has an electric grid that makes the US grid look primitive.

        I don't think it's so much that the US grid is primitive compared to other countries. Rather it is primitive compared with the available technology and projected needs. The monitoring and control equipment on much of the grid remains rather primitive, the wire infrastructure is fragile (major outages every time a serious storm blows through), many areas still depend on sending a person out to read the meter for billing, there is a too much interdependence without adequate safeguards [wikipedia.org], local generation (solar, wind, etc) remains problematic in many places, generation sources are relatively dirty, usage controls are primitive, etc. Most of our infrastructure was built decades ago and (IMO) too little was allocated for ongoing upgrades nor were the increases in demand adequately planned for.

        The grid works but it's not nearly as robust, efficient or clean as it could be. That's the problem.

        • by hedwards (940851)

          That depends where you live. Around here the power is rarely out for more than a moment, and even those times are infrequent. And really the only reason we notice at all anymore is because we're more used to having devices like computers that can reveal a power outage over night.

          But in general, the power grid is what you make of it, if you're utility sucks, then you're going to get poor reliability. Around here we have a public utility which handles it and they by and large do a good job.

          • by Pieroxy (222434)

            In France, I have a server in my garage. I moved recently, so I got a downtime, but it is the norm to get more than a year of uptime between power outages. I've lived a bit in the SF bay area, and what I got there was very very far from that. Not counting rolling blackouts, we'd rarely get two month without an outage.

      • by Patch86 (1465427)

        Almost all major Western countries are suffering the same problem. Just because they're all equipped with the same primitive grid systems, it doesn't make it any less of a problem.

        The grids as they stand were mostly designed 60 years to a century ago, principally for powering a few factories and keeping the street lights on. They just aren't designed for handling the intermittent power generation from renewables like wind or solar, or dealing with the intense surges that come of quickly charging large batte

      • I have been hearing people complain about the stability of outlet voltage in CFL topics for as long as these bulbs exists. One comment said something like: "These CFL lights don't reach their long life in real world applications. Maybe with the perfect outlets in test labs but not with the varying voltage in real life."
        I have never seen the voltage on my outlets vary, except for an occasional complete fail (due to a tripped fuse or something). My CFL bulbs seem to have the expected lifetime. I live in the
    • by Animats (122034) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @08:17PM (#36067410) Homepage

      The US has a freight rail system that is the envy of Europe. [economist.com] (Europe is ahead in passenger rail, but that loses money.) Intermodal traffic (containers) is way up over the last decade, and profitable. There's new rail construction going on, and rails and locomotives have been upgraded in recent years.

      Modern large locomotives [getransportation.com] use what are essentially giant computer-controlled servomotors to drive the wheels, so that all the wheels on all the locomotives stay in sync and share the load equally, which means they can all be torqued up to just below where they start to slip. This means fewer locomotives per train, little or no wheel slip, and the ability to coordinate many locomotives spread throughout a train.

      Last year, Union Pacific ran a train 3.5 miles long [youtube.com] from Los Angeles to Denver. Average freight train length in the US is now 6500 feet and climbing. That replaces a lot of trucks. Since Los Angeles built a no-grade-crossing rail connection to the port there, far fewer trucks are moving to the port.

      Europe still has a lot of little 2-axle freight cars. Those disappeared from US trackage some time before World War Two, replaced by the standard big four-axle cars still used today. The bigger cars are also stronger, with a consistent minimum coupler strength, which means longer trains are possible.

      Mixing high speed passenger trains and freight on the same track cuts severely into freight capacity. Each passenger train uses up the track time of six freights.

      • by Blakey Rat (99501) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @10:16PM (#36068048)

        Ironically, one of the reasons passenger rail isn't taking off in the US is because it consistently gets bumped by freight rail.

        Our little Sounder commuter train from Seattle to Everett is constantly pre-empted for freight traffic-- usually mile-long trains hauling nothing but smelly garbage-- and its reliability is so bad, I finally just gave up and moved back to the bus. Considering the train runs 2/3rds empty every day, I'm not the only one.

      • by Jeff1946 (944062)

        Yep, it is truly impressive to see these trains. I play golf at a course next to the rail lines that head out from LA to Cajon Pass. The trains have 4 diesels in front and two in the rear and all working hard to make the grade that has begun.

    • the US government was not building rail lines. The majority of rail lines built in the 180s were done by private businesses, many without any grants or federal assistance. As such we have an abundance of rail still to this day for moving freight. As society improved roads became dominant because people valued their freedom, freedom to travel and where to live, all within their means.

      I don't understand why so many bemoan out passenger train service. There are only two profitable lines in the world and all th

  • "Standard Gauge is thin. Standard Gauge is beautiful. Standard Gauge goes anywhere and lasts all day. There’s not right way or wrong way. It’s crazy powerful. It’s magical. You already know how to use it. It’s 11,500 miles of track and counting. All the worlds” interchanges in your hands. It’s 4 ft. 9 in., standard. More rail than you could ride in a lifetime. It’s already a revolution and it’s only just begun."
  • Over two days beginning Monday, May 31, 1886, the railroad network in the southern United States was converted

    Isn't that something like 21 years after they lost "The War of Northern Aggression" known by Ken Burns and the yankees as "The Civil War"?

    Give me 21 years to pre-plan and pre-position supplies and workers and I can probably pull 11500 miles of CAT-5 in 2 days.

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @05:02PM (#36065994) Journal
      I suspect that one General Sherman's er... enthusiastic removal [wikipedia.org] of southern legacy hardware really helped speed up the transition. He did have a real air of resolve when it came to dealing with insurgents.
  • "This month ends with the -125th anniversary of one of the most remarkable achievements in the technology future. Over two days beginning Monday, May 31, 2136, the gui manager for the linux desktop was converted from the old-earth version one to one compatible with the slightly narrower one used in the space federation. The shift was meticulously planned and executed. It required one side of every gui to be moved three inches closer to the other. All font sets had to be adjusted as well. Some minor animatio

  • and that is the 7ft 0.25in of Brunel's GWR.
    anything else is just a sham.

  • Is it just me or is it a little amusing that the guy who was telling them that the 4 ft. 9 in. gauge wasn't necessarily a good idea was named John C. Gault?

    I wonder if Ayn Rand had any idea.

  • Now let's see this applied to the Japanese grid (60/50Hz split).
  • How did they do it? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hawguy (1600213) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @04:50PM (#36065914)

    How did they get the work done on time? How many people were involved?

    11,500 miles/track is around 32 million railroad spikes that have to be pulled and respiked in the new location. If it takes one person 20 seconds to pull a spike and rehammer it in, it would take a crew of 16,000 people working 16 hour shifts to do the work in 3 days. And this is only the guys that are doing the spiking, it ignores the thousands of others that would be involved in moving (and lengthening/shorting curved sections when necessary) the rails, altering the running stock gauge and handling the supply logistics for materials, food, water, housing, etc for these large teams. So maybe 20,000 - 25,000 workers were involved?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 08, 2011 @08:02PM (#36067288)

      Here's what's written in a history of the Illinois Central Railroad. Note that this re-gauging, On Friday, July 29, 1881, predates the one mentioned in the summary by several years.

      "Most railroads in Illinois conformed to the Illinois Central gauge of four feet eight and one-half inches, commonly known as the English, or standard, gauge. But in the South the gauge of nearly all railroads...was five feet.

      "Owing to the difference of three and one-half inches between the gauges at the Ohio River, sleeping cars, passenger cars, passenger coaches, baggage cars, and the freight cars employed in service from the completion of the rail route in 1873 were designed and fitted so that cars could be run over specially constructed dual gauge tracks at Cairo, jacked up and converted from standard to wide gauge, or vice versa, by removing one set of trucks and installing another on each trip.

      "In the spring of 1881, Clarke, having obtained authority to undertake the conversion, announced a plan which was without precedent in the history of American railroading -- a plan to change the gauge of the entire 550-mile line between East Cairo and New Orleans in the same day -- in fact, within a few hours! This was the first Southern railroad east of the Mississippi River and one of the first in the entire country to change from wide to standard gauge..." ...

      "To complete the herculean task, more than 3,000 men were distributed along the line. The work began as soon as it was light enough to see, and by 3 o'clock in the afternoon, every rail had been spiked into place in what the Railroad Gazette described as the 'the greatest feat ever accomplished in gauge changing!'

      "Describing the methods employed, the Gazette said:
      'The west rail was moved inward 3-1/2 inches. All the spikes on the inside of rails to be changed had already been drawn, except the spike in every fourth tie on the straight lines and every third tie on curves. Spikes for the new gauge were already driven in every fourth tie and third. All necessary spikes were distributed on the ends of the ties into which they were to be driven. Each section foreman was furnished with a narrow-gauge hand-car and a full set of tools." ...

      "Clarke's feat was hailed as a "truly wonderful achievement," and in 1884-1886 when other Southern railroads began to lay plans for converting their lines to standard gauge, the leaned heavily on his instructions and experience."

      Source:
      Main Line of Mid-America
      The Story of The Illinois Central Railroad
      Carlton J. Corliss
      Creative Age Press
      1950

  • by Dunbal (464142) * on Sunday May 08, 2011 @04:54PM (#36065948)
    The fact that the old Soviet trains ran on a non-standard gauge was a contributing factor to the survival of the Soviet Union from the German blitzkrieg. Germany was not able to immediately use the Soviet rail system to reinforce and supply its troops, and was faced with having to use a few captured locomotives while re-engineering the Soviet rail system to accommodate German trains. Because of this most of the supplies needed by the army had to be shipped by road, except there are a few months out of the year when Russian roads turned into rivers of mud...
  • by dargaud (518470) <slashdot2&gdargaud,net> on Sunday May 08, 2011 @05:11PM (#36066060) Homepage
    I have no idea if this is true, but I've always liked this story [wilk4.com] that's been going around the 'net for years...
  • by ascii (70907) <<ascii> <at> <microcore.dk>> on Sunday May 08, 2011 @05:14PM (#36066076) Homepage

    I took the trans mongolian railway from Moscow to Beijing about 10 years ago. One memorable experience is that near the border between Russia and Mongolia (or Mongolia and China i forget) they will change the bogie's on the entire train because the gauges differ in russia and china. The entire trainset is lifted up; the bogies moved out and new ones put in place. A very memorable experience.

  • by Two99Point80 (542678) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @08:06PM (#36067322) Homepage
    ...the link in the article now points to a blank page. Try this instead: http://southern.railfan.net/ties/1966/66-8.ZZZ/gauge.html [railfan.net]
  • by readin (838620) on Sunday May 08, 2011 @10:52PM (#36068238)
    If the American south could convert to standard US gauge in only two days, why us is it taking the rest of the world so long to convert to US standard measurements? It can't be that hard to ditch the 4 syllable metric system for the more efficent 1 to 2 syllable Imperial system.

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