Railroad Gauges, Standardization of

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As railroads proliferated in the United States, rail companies guarded their areas of service by using various widths of road gauges (gauge is the distance between the inner sides of the heads of the two rails as measured 5/8 inch, or 16 millimeters, below the top of the rail heads). Companies would use their own rail gauge width to prevent competitors' cars from passing to their line. By 1840 there were more than three hundred American railroad companies in operation and their tracks varied in gauge from four feet 8.5 inches (1.4 meters) to six feet (1.8 meters).

The practice of employing different-sized gauges, sometimes called the "battle of the gauges," interrupted transportation. A similar situation had unfolded in England and in 1846 British Parliament decided to set the standard at four feet 8.5 inches (1.4 meters); the Gauge Act of 1846 abolished all other gauges. In the United States, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad (1869) forced the issue of rail standardization. Freight shipped long distances had to be unpacked from one rail car and packed to another at junctions where rail gauge variances required a train transfer. The high cost of handling combined with the practicality of the narrower gauge (it required less clearance on either side and allowed for sharper turns in tracks) encouraged American railroads to adopt the standard gauge of four feet 8.5 inches (1.4 meters). This made rail lines accessible to any car or locomotive. By 1886 most rail companies had worked out agreements to handle the "rolling stock" (cargo shipped long distances) of other companies.

See also: Transcontinental Railroad