Friday, 16 October 2009

Skinny horses, the Romans and my MP

sent me a letter yesterday. My local Federal Member wants my view on rail freight movements through the Adelaide Hills.
Thankyou Andrew. I feel flattered. I know what made you ask. It was a letter about passenger services.
We both know that rail services in South Australia are an oddity. When the founding fathers set the system up they could not agree with the interstate founding fathers on the gauge which should be used. We ended up being different. We had narrow gauge. The other states that mattered had wide gauge. It meant all sorts of problems and adjustments at the borders. This went on for years. It delayed trains. There were technical problems as things were adjusted on each trip.
Eventually there was a solution of sorts. One line was altered so that the freight trains could pass straight through. The other line was turned into a single track working for the local passenger trains. There have been problems with this ever since. The authorities claimed it was necessary to cut out some stations. The trains now merely pass by these platforms. There is, I am told,no technical reason for them not to stop at these points but the decision was made on length of journey grounds. The timetable was altered. There are less trains. Delays are frequent because they did not put in sufficient 'passing loops'. (There are two and there should be at least three.)
They wanted to close the line altogether - until they realised it meant political annihilation. Recently they redeveloped it but they retained the old gauge because that is what the rest of the metropolitan rail system works on.
Now what, you ask, do skinny horses and Romans have to do with railway lines? It is simple. The gauge of 4' 8 1/2" was decided by the builders of pre-railway trams. They used the same measurements they used to build carts and horse drawn coaches. Those measurements were decided by the width of the ruts in the Roman roads built in Britain. The width of the Roman roads was determined by the width of the war chariots. They were designed to be the width of two horses. If the builders of carts and coaches had tried to change the width they would have broken the wheels on too many vehicles. So we got what became the standard gauge.
The problem here was that they used skinny horses.

5 comments:

Rachel Fenton said...

Ha, ha! "Skinny horses", the phrase, "and all for the want of a [well fed] horse" springs to mind. I've just spent the last two hours reading about the railway lines in NZ, lot of mention of things measured in "chains" - I have no idea where that measurement came from or how long a "chain" is! I wonder if a chain is as long as the width of a skinny horse?

catdownunder said...

I know it has something to do with land surveying and, I think, a man called Gunter. His measuring device came about via other standard British measurements - and they came about through Roman influence. We can blame the Romans for a lot!

virtualquilter said...

A chain is the length of a cricket pitch, which is 22 yards .............. thank you, Britannica!

But that's not what I was going to comment on .......... Your member of Parliament was pretty close .......... at least he asked you to comment on railway services!
Judy B

catdownunder said...

Well, yes I did know that! :-) What I was wondering too was where "chain" came from...it is well before theodolites of course!
Now why it should be 22 yards has something to do with rods, poles and perches...the last sounds like something for birds! I think I quit at that point!!!!

Rachel Fenton said...

Thank you!