Friday, November 04, 2005


I'm currently reading Parallel Lines by Ian Marchant, an enjoyably random examination of this country's railway system pitting the romance of our idealised view of its past against the grim reality of its present (while at once finding plenty of grimness in the reality of the past and at least a smidgeon of stubborn romance in the present). Anyway, I commend to you particularly this passage from page 180, explaining how the standard gauge for our railways came to be four feet, eight and a half inches:

The Newcastle [rail]roads were built in the seventeenth and eighteenth century to accommodate a wide range of wagons which were already in use. It was natural that the rails should be placed so far apart as to accommodate the average axle width of a seventeenth-century farm cart. The average width was about four feet, eight and a half inches. The wheels on carts were this far apart so that they could fit in the ruts of the ordinary late medieval and early modern roads. These roads had not been improved since they were built by the Romans. The wagons were running in very old grooves, grooves that had been cut by the Romans' chariots. The average size of Roman military horses' arses meant that the average distance between the chariot wheels was about four feet, eight and a half inches.

The train you are sitting on is following in the tracks of the Romans' chariots. We are intimately, and at all times, connected with our past, with life, with love, if we could just see it. If we could make the connections.

What a shame Brunel didn't get his way with the 7ft broad gauge! We'd now have more room to spread out, be able take our bicycles on trains and have wider buffet trolleys -- and fast trains!


A shame indeed: 7 foot broad gauge, the Betamax of the railway world.

Just started to read a library copy of this book on your recommendation - why hadn't I heard of it before? It's great. He's a local Newhaven boy, too. And the cover is by Jonny Hannah! Wonderful...


Glad you're enjoying it.

I'd guess that you hadn't heard of it because it was probably viewed as a book for trainspotters upon release and thus went largely unreviewed by the mainstream press. The copy I bought was from a remainder bookshop for a quid which suggests it didn't do as well as it deserved. A great shame.

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