Today we are going to discuss train tracks.

What could be more exciting? But as I’m the one writing this, and you are reading it on Horse Network, you might have already guessed that this has something to do with horses.

Train tracks

As some of you already know, train tracks are the width they are because of horses. One of my adoring fans brought this detail to my attention, which I’m rather pleased about because until I started my research this was something I knew nothing about.

Initially, I asked the internet how wide train tracks were and was promptly given the range of 13–14 feet. It’s unclear to me, even now, what question was answered, but I knew it wasn’t mine. The keyword I needed to unlock the world of railroads was gauge and once I put that into the search bar my life simplified. 

There are three typical gauges of railway tracks: broad, standard and narrow. I think those are all fairly self-explanatory. But I will note that 60 percent of the world, which includes Britain, North America and a fair swath of Western Europe, uses standard, and the arbitrary measurement of this gauge is 4 feet 8.5 inches. Though some countries, such as Australia, like to have a finger in every pie.

Why 4 feet, 8.5 inches?

The gauge of standard train tracks is attributed to the pre-railroad tramway tracks, as the people that built the tramways used the same spacing as the wheels on carriages. The wheel spacing on carriages was used because there were already reams of wheel-rutted roads kindly built and left by the Romans and their chariots. And trying to breach those ruts with the then-modern carriages would have wreaked havoc on said carriages, so it was easier to conform, as is often the way.

Before Julius Caesar busied himself with crossing the Rubicon, he mandated that all chariots and carts must be built to the same wheel/axel specification to prevent the cartways from turning into a rutted mess. Caesar’s mandated wheel spacing, as proven by Walton W. Evans, an engineer from the 1800s, was indeed 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

And while I understand a cart is not a horse, I also understand that a horse is used to pull a cart, which is why we can thank horses for our train tracks. Well, the dimensions thereof.

The war chariots back in Caesar’s day were pulled by two horses, or so I’ve read, therefore it stands to reason that they were built to best suit the pulling power of the horses and apparently the magic wheel spacing was 4 feet, 8.5 inches.


Who do we thank? Julius Caesar and his chariot engineers or horses for demanding very specific wheel placement?

I say horses.