Monday, July 19, 2010

Rail Politick, part 1

If you are a traveler, you would do well to think kindly of Julius Caesar and Qin Shi Huangdi as I did this morning over breakfast.

This may suggest to you that I am a man who is ill at ease dining alone, or one who indulges overmuch in praising imaginary phantoms. Yet these spectral monarchs came to mind unbidden, like palace incense on the wind. To begin my narrative with them is appropriate, for both men were consummate travelers as well as autocrats and did much during their reigns to improve the lot of future globetrotters. Thus, tribute is due for for some of their lesser-known accomplishments.

For instance, as I crunched my granola in the morning light (imagining for an instant the finch on my windowsill to be a stately Roman eagle), I reflected that there must be some sympathetic relationship between my ossified breakfast cereal and the superlative highways constructed in ancient Rome and Imperial China. Both the ancient Romans and the Imperial Qin are credited with standardizing the axle-widths of wheeled vehicles within their respective domains; thus, every single wagon in each empire left behind it identically sized ruts in the soil much like the regular furrows I dug amidst the contents of my breakfast bowl.

Such hungry metaphors aside, this was a grand accomplishment. A traveler could reasonably expect his trusty horse and wagon to comfortably traverse Imperial roads all the way from Rome to Gaul, or ply trade from the Yellow River to the Yangtze (whose waters swirl and gyre like the rising steam from my tea grown in Fujian province) without bouncing in and out of precarious crevasses left by the other passers-by with a narrower wagon frame. The multitudinous subjects of Rome and Qin China could travel effectively and at will throughout their great domains using equipment built to match the realm standard. On the other hand, foreigners found themselves at a disadvantage—non-native wagon axles were like square pegs in round holes, prone to jostling and breakage as they dipped in and out of the standard-width wagon ruts. Consequently, national boundaries began to be defined in part by transit infrastructure and the ease with which goods and ideas could be physically moved across them into cultures, nations, and linguistic zones.

It is worth noting that the standard Roman axle width from the 5th century BCE was between 55 and 58 inches wide, or about 1.45 meters. Such dimensions were well-suited, stable and effective for wheeled transportation, changing little over the millennia. As a result of this practicality, British railway engineers adopted a railway gauge of 56.5 inches (or 4 ft 8½ inches, to be precise) throughout Great Britain in the 19th century. Rail gauge is, of course, the inner distance between two parallel rails that from a navigable railroad, very similar indeed to our wagon ruts. This span in turn mandates locomotives and rolling stock (that is, train cars) of a certain size. The 56.5 inch “standard gauge” has since spread throughout most of Europe and North America, Australia and China as the default railway configuration. From an engineer’s perspective, it is an accidental hand-me-down, having less to do with dusty empires as opposed to Newtonian physics.

The standard gauge is less so than it would claim to be, of course. Nearly 40% of the world’s railways maintain gauges either wider or narrower than 56.5 inches, and not all adjacent countries have identical rail gauges. Should a passenger wish to cross such a border, they must first navigate a “break of gauge” either by changing trains or replacing the undercarriage on their rolling stock.

Indeed, such a thing is almost the true measure of passing from country to another as it forces a physical transition from one place to another; a calculated departure from all things near and familiar.

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