Narrow-gauge railways

My title is perhaps misleading. The main railway discussed below was standard gauge (four feet, eight-and-a-half inches), and another to which I will refer is actually two-and-three-eighths inches wider. Under cross-examination I will have to admit a cynical ploy to lure narrow-gauge railway enthusiasts in the search engines. Shameless; but these are desperate times. And I have seen even more brazen attention-grabbing devices on the Internet.

George Stephenson, who did not design the first steam locomotive (that was the Cornishman, Richard Trevithick), did build the Liverpool and Manchester, which when it opened in 1830 was the world’s first inter-city railway. I believe he is credited with establishing the standard gauge, through his many pioneering works in this genre; and that he was also on record expressing a regret. If he’d had it all to do again, he would have added an extra couple of inches to the space between the insides of the rails. There was a “sweet point” that he had slightly underestimated.

Thousands of lives might have been saved on unnecessary derailments of the fast steam trains, from a slightly wider gauge and the moderation of the railbed curves that would have necessitated. Ah well. One engineer copies another, and most of the world’s railways are now “1435mm,” as most of the world puts it. (That is, Stephenson rounded by one-tenth of a millimetre.)

The ancient Romans, too, had a standard gauge for their cart ruts, within half an inch of this later railway gauge. Their carts were pulled by men and horses, like the early hoppers in the collieries of north England, which may help explain the coincidence. The early mining engineers were, for the most part, not classically educated, so we may doubt they consulted the archaeologists.

Now, I was courting controversy with my remark above, about the derailment slaughter — which is, after all, so modest compared with the slaughter on our unrailed, asphalt roads. Gentle reader will appreciate it is not only the breadth of the rails, but the solidity of their construction, and the speed at which the train is travelling, that determine the point at which “liberation” occurs. Cross-winds may also come into it, the carrying capacity of bridges, and too, whether or not a Saracen has planted some explosives. (As we were reminded recently by some Canadian arrests. It seemed a pointless terrorist exercise, however, as our VIA trains so often go off the tracks of their own accord.)


It is true, all my claims to be a Luddite must now be dissolving before gentle reader’s eyes. I love railways. Every normal boy loves railways, and my own propendment to normality began with a maternal grandfather I never met. I would have, had he lived a few years longer, but that was not to be. Oliver Holmes was an engineer (i.e. train driver) on the old “S&L” — the Sydney and Louisburg Railway (“Louisbourg” misspelt, to flout the French who founded it). The company carried a few passengers and a lot of coal around “formerly industrial” Cape Breton, until as recently as 1968. Counting branches, it had more than a hundred miles of track, a considerable yard at Glace Bay, port connexions at each end, and arteries into the heart of the grand steel mills at Sydney (also now defunct).

Best of all, with coal so plentiful locally, the S&L used steam engines exclusively almost to the end. “Environmental” diesels were only brought in when the government took it over, as part of a larger scheme to turn industrial Cape Breton into a permanent welfare colony of the Liberal Party. (Gentle reader should ignore this malevolent aside.)

My father, for whom anything to do with my mother was holy, left me a substantial file on the S&L, and more generally on my grandfather’s railway career. Thus, I could go on, for ten thousand words at least. I have information here on all the locomotives, from the 1890s forward. And more: the wooden hoppers, the steel hoppers, the air-braked steel hoppers, the wooden and steel box cars, the steel gondolas, the Koppel dump cars, the flat cars, the cranes and derrick cars, the passenger cars, the “hobo cars” (for the pit workers), the tank cars, the baggage cars, the snow plows, and ah! … the sublime cabooses. (All built locally.)

In earlier life grandpa had also driven passenger trains between Halifax and Sydney. This became a matter of significance on his deathbed, in 1945. Gentle reader will now gird himself for an item of family lore.

My mother was then a young nurse at Halifax. Old Oliver knew he was dying, in the hospital at New Waterford (since defunct), in the moments when he was in his wits; but there was some question how long he would take. His wife, Annie, and his elder daughter, Mildred, would sit with him, and by the account of the latter (died 1989), he was something to see when out of them (his wits). He would pronounce on various matters, “like an Old Testament Prophet.” In his delirium one day he suddenly demanded that his younger daughter, Florrie (my mother), be summoned from Halifax. A trunk call was placed, to her ward matron, and up came my mama on the day’s last train.

My Aunt Mildred, church organist and oecumenical saint, whose every word could be absolutely trusted, stayed by her father’s bedside that evening. Grandpa remained awake and extremely alert. In the course of the evening, he became the train that was carrying his little girl. He would take her home. He could remember the whole route, every signal and station, every cutting and bridge — the whole ten hours. He could count off the times by the minute and the half-minute, following the clock exactly.

She was in the swish of Antigonish.

She was on the ferry to Port Hawkesbury.

She was skirting the shore of the Bras d’Or.

She was by Sydney Mines! She was at North Sydney! And finally, she was pulling into Sydney Station.

“She’ll take a cab, she’ll be right over.” And to the minute, she walked in the door.

Mama: still dressed in her nurse’s uniform, and cap, and cape. She’d run from the ward to catch that train, packing nothing. They embraced, and old Oliver, looking strangely well and almost youthful, said, “You girls go home now, get some rest. We’ll talk tomorrow. Florrie’s had a long journey. Tell your mother I’m well, I need some rest, too.”

It seems almost redundant to add that he died that night.


We have trolleys still, in Toronto. For decades the bureaucrats have been trying to get rid of them, and replace them with “environmental” buses, but praise the Lord, He has always put something in their way. I mentioned gauge earlier, and I wanted to explain what makes the city so special. It is the unique gauge of our trolley tracks: four feet, ten and seven-eighths. Our new, articulated, “environmental” streetcars — high-tech and incredibly expensive, compared even to the last round of million-dollar cars — had to be specially adapted to this gauge. It was selected in the nineteenth century by the city fathers, and for good reason: so that no other train in Canada, or on the planet for that matter, could ride on our rails. They were prissy, these fine old Orangemen: they didn’t want freight trains shunting downtown, the way they then did in Hamilton and elsewhere, with their steam and coal-dust billowing everywhere. They wanted electric, “environmental” streetcars. The Greater Parkdale Area has been under the tyranny of the do-goods for a long time.


Only fast trains require wide gauges. At the Stephenson breadth, we once had steam trains doing 125 miles per hour on the stretches. I notice from the Beeb that a new species of inter-city train is now arriving in Britain. The latest models are from Hitachi in Japan: they are “environmental” to a fault, and pulsatingly high-tech, and unbelievably expensive. They will “cut travel times substantially” to Paddington on the western lines, and King’s Cross on the eastern — by whole minutes! I laughed when I read their top speed on the stretches: 125 miles per hour. The ad men say they will be much more comfortable than the trains they are replacing; then let slip that the carriages (of the same length as the carriages they replace) will fit “18 percent more seats.” (Progressive people demand to be lied to.)

My point was going to be that the world hasn’t changed. We could, for a tiny fraction of the price, still build narrow-gauge trains, that are low-tech and travel rather slowly — ascending and descending and bending and turning with short carriages this way and that — following the lay of the land. All our early trains through the Rockies were narrow-gauge; my father also left me files on trains that still climb through the world’s mountain ranges, on tracks little more than a yard wide. Except the odd avalanche or mud slide, they are quite safe. This is because their engineers know better than to race them.

I have been aboard several narrow-gauge trains, on three continents. Every one of these rides was memorable, for the opportunity it gave to drink in the passing landscape, while making new friends; stopping here and there for an hour or two, at some remote inn for a meal.

For getting there will always be a portion of eternity — surely every faithful Christian pilgrim will know the joy in that. And how much more joyful life could be, if we could overcome our speed addiction.