October 04, 2005

Our Nat Comments

Natalie Solent has been kind enough to comment in her blog my previous post on resilience and disaster, drawing parallels between the gauge-standardization issues in British railroading and the Internet. There is an interesting story to the British railway-gauge issue, although since I can't recall its source it should be treated as apochryphal. Apparently I.K. Brunel, architect of the broad-gague Great Western Railway, had been working toward a precursor of the freight-containerization system so as to reduce the need for railway-gauge standardization. A Parliamentary committee looking into the matter decided to schedule a visit to the Great Western yards to watch the system in operation. Brunel's competitors supposedly made sure the yard crews were treated to copious amounts of gin as an eye-opener that morning, with the result that the operations were reduced to total chaos, and the committee decided the system would never work.

I don't know whether the story is true or not, but it wouldn't be out of line with 19th Century competitive practices. It does show the hazards of trying to answer important questions by referring them to a committee of decision-makers for the One Right Answer.

Posted by Jim Bennett at October 4, 2005 04:50 PM

Here's the permalink to the Solent post in question.

Posted by: Rand Simberg at October 5, 2005 10:05 AM

A side not on gauges: Russia built its railroads using a nonstandard gauge, I believe with the specific intent of making things hard for potential invaders. It worked. When the Germans attacked, their transfer points became huge logistical bottlenecks.

Posted by: David Foster at October 6, 2005 07:40 PM

The Russian gauges are something to do with the width of carts. Makes crossing borders seriously interesting.

Posted by: Helen at October 6, 2005 07:45 PM

Crossing the border at umm, Brest Litovsk? Is indeed seriously interesting. A huge bottlneck to trade nowadays.

Posted by: Tim Worstall at October 7, 2005 06:26 AM

None of the railroad gauges current or extinct have anything to do with cart tracks (or Roman military specifications, a rather funny post that goes around the 'Net on a Martian cycle notwithstanding).

The Russians discovered that their different gauge worked to their disadvantage when it came time to cross the Bug heading for Berlin. (And the Estonian railroad system is considering some regauging so their tracks are compatible with the rest of the Wisconsin Central Worldwide...)

Posted by: Stephen Karlson at October 10, 2005 10:16 PM