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What is a standard gauge railroad?

Discover the debate behind the standard gauge railroad.

Inventor George Stephenson fought for what became the standard gauge railroad. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Inventor George Stephenson fought for what became the standard gauge railroad.

The first successful railroads in England used steam locomotives built by George Stephenson (1781-1848) to operate on tracks with a gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches (1.41 meters), probably because that was the wheel spacing common on the wagons and tramways of the time.

Stephenson, a self-taught inventor and engineer, had developed in 1814 the steam-blast engine that made steam locomotives practical. His railroad rival, Isambard K. Brunel (1806-1859), laid out the line for the Great Western Railway at 7 feet 0.25 inches (2.14 meters), and the famous "Battle of the gauges" began.

A commission appointed by the British Parliament decided in favor of Stephenson's narrower gauge, and the Gauge Act of 1846 prohibited using other gauges. This width eventually became accepted by the rest of the world. The distance is measured between the inner sides of the heads of the two rails of the track at a distance of 5/8 inch (1.58 centimeters) below the top of the rails.

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