Riding the Roman Rails…

Who decided the width of train tracks?

The figure shows a chariot with a gladiator

When you see railroad tracks, do you think of the Ancient Greeks or Romans? Do you think of Romans or Greeks jumping on railcars to get from Point A to Point B? Chances are this not what comes to mind. However, evidence shows that ancient Greeks and Romans developed the first “railroads” if one defines a railroad as a device that does not let the carriage come off the track. In ancient times, railways were ruts dug into stone roads that kept the wheels of carriages or carts from leaving the road.

Many people believe that the standard width of railroads in the U.S. and U.K. of 4 feet 8-1/2 inches was adopted from the wheel-width of Roman chariots. However, this is not true. Historians state that Romans did not use chariots in warfare or in long distance travel – only in ceremonies or in stadiums. This means that the Romans would not have had a standardized width for chariots.

Before the Civil War, many railroads had their own standard width and since railroads typically just went for part of the journey (from one town to another), if cargo had to travel over multiple railroads, it had to be unloaded and re-loaded as track width changed from railroad to railroad. This greatly slowed down trade routes and immensely affected the movement of troops and supplies during the Civil War. After the war, the 4 feet 8-1/2-inch railroad width was adopted by the U.S. Military Railroad organization, most likely because the majority of railroads had already been built on this width. [i]

But who picked such an odd width to begin with? The width was definitely used on some of the first railroads ever built in the U.K. It is possible archeological excavations in Pompeii and other ancient cities show many Roman vehicles were a standard gauge of 4 feet 9 inches – not far off from today’s standard of 4 feet 8-1/2 inches. English railway historian Charles E. Lee believes the standardization is imply based on the width of a horse as “anything less would have underutilized the horse, and anything greater would have put excessive strain on the animal.”[ii]


[i] Lowell, Steve. In Roman Chariots, Railroad Tracks, Milspecs and Urban Legends. Defense Standardization Program Journal, 2001. https://share.ansi.org/Shared%20Documents/News%20and%20Publications/Links%20Within%20Stories/Urban%20Legends.doc
[ii] https://www.trains.com/trn/train-basics/abcs-of-railroading/a-history-of-track-gauge/

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