Off the Rails

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Strange but true-ish

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A Man's Gotta Do ...

The 15.20 Express was coasting peacefully toward its destination, then suddenly lurched from the tracks, ran through the fields nearby for over a mile, then rejoined the track.

The passengers were horrified. Thirty two of them frantically called their loved ones, using the miracle of mobile telephony. Twenty three of these called the Police.

At the next station, the driver was taken from the train and questioned.

He explained that there was a man standing on the tracks and he had not moved from there even after several toots of the horn, and flashing the lights.

The Police Inspector shook his head in disbelief: "Are you crazy? For one person you put the lives of so many passengers at risk. You should have run over that person!".

"Exactly", said the driver "That's what I thought, but this idiot suddenly ran off the track, into the field".

Testing to Destruction

It seems the US Federal Aviation Administration has a unique device for testing the strength of windshields on airplanes. The device is a gun that launches a dead chicken at a plane's windshield at approximately the speed the plane flies. The theory is that if the windshield doesn't crack from the carcass impact, it hopefully will survive a real collision with a bird during flight.

British Rail were very interested in this and wanted to test a windshield on a brand new high speed train. They borrowed the FAA's chicken launcher, loaded the chicken and fired. The ballistic chicken shattered the windshield, went through the engineer's chair, broke an instrument panel and embedded itself in the back wall of the engine cab. Further tests brought the same result. The engineers were stunned and asked the FAA to recheck the test to see if everything had been done correctly.

The FAA reviewed the test thoroughly and had one recommendation: "T"Thaw thechicken."

Rail Gauge

The Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet 8½ inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

Why did the English people build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did tramway builders use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that's the spacing of the old wheel ruts.

So who built these old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts? The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots.

And the chariot width? The wheels had to be far enough apart for the horse to be able to gallop without slipping in the ruts made by other vehicles ... so the standard railroad gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches, perpetuated by two thousand years of bureaucracy, can truly to be said to have been designed by a horse's ass.

[attributed to Professor Tom O’Hare, University of Texas at Austin]

Railway gauge may have been dictated by the needs of Hollywood; standard gauge matches the distance between neck and ankle of a standard issue Damsel in Distress

Rail Myths
Casey Jones
New Technology