Two Old Codgers

How the World strikes us

If you were a reader of the Beano or Dandy you might have come across this riddle: “What is a twack?” The answer, usually given on the back page “A thing that twains wun on”


This leads us on to the main question “Why is the standard width of a railway track 4ft 8½ inches?”. Here’s the story (more or less).

Horse drawn carts and carriages had wheels which were about 4ft 8½ inches apart. This was based on the ruts found on ancient stone paved Roman roads caused by iron bound wheels on horse drawn vehicles and chariots.

This width was to accommodate the width of the two horses each side of the single shaft.

The carriages on early steam trains were built by the people who built horse drawn carriages and carts. Does that make sense? Apparently it’s nonsense but it’s a good story.

The only serious answer I can find is from America (Where else?) which says:
Everyone seems to agree that this odd track size originated in England from George Stephenson who used the 4 feet 8-1/2 inch track gauge when building the first public rail line, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, in 1830.

Some historians maintain that the rails were originally laid 5 feet apart on top of wagon wheel ruts, but because the early edge rails were 1.75 inches across the top and early trains ran on the inside edges, Stephenson had to subtract 3-1/2 inches for the railroad car wheel spacing making them 4 feet 8-1/2 inches.

As railroad track technology improved so that the train wheels ran on top of the tracks, the tracks were moved closer to fit the rail car widths. Still others maintain that Mr. Stephenson originally designed the track gauge to measure 4 feet 8 inches, but during construction, he added in an extra half inch to allow for a little more leeway between rails and wheel flanges.


Shame really, I rather like the idea that width is related to a horses a..!

Hoses A

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