It’s an interesting throwback to historical colonial days that the entire North American railway network is arguably built on the same railway gauge as the UK.
I say ‘interesting’, but you’d be forgiven for thinking, ‘WTF?’
Of all the railway gauges, in all the world, America had to walk into ours. 4’8½’’. It’s not even a nice round number. Or even metric. And why 4’8½’’ instead of 6’6’’ or 4’6’’? As I wrapped my lower jaw around the 3rd pint of beer (seemingly the cause of my uncharacteristic fascination with railway philosophy), the business to business marketing colleague I was trying to convince to part with a substantial social media budget for next year educated me on the finer points of optimized, load-bearing calculations in the world of railway engineering. Which I was immensely grateful for. As you can imagine.
But even after the considerable exertion of understanding fulcrums and leverage to explain why 4’8½’’ might have been selected as the width of choice for all discerning railway lines, he then said, “but that’s not the reason the Yanks use our gauge.” Oooh. Deeper and deeperer.
The subject of the 4th pint was the extent of British colonial settlement in the US and the developing country’s reliance on the expertise of imported British engineering talent. They used UK railway gauges because they used UK engineers.
That still didn’t explain why 4’8½’’. “No,” he said, “that’s because it goes further back than that – to the Roman occupation of Britain.” Holy shit, I thought. We’re going for the Holy Grail. I waited with barely concealed anticipation while he continued. “Many of our railway lines are repurposed old Roman roads – long and straight roads directly linking two settlement points. The roads were built to fit Roman chariots. So the grooves left by the chariot tracks were used as the measure for the railway tracks which would follow the same path – 4’8½’’ precisely.”
I still wasn’t happy. “It doesn’t explain why 4’8½’’ was the measure,” I said. He drained his pint and with a theatrical clunk of glass on wood and said, “It was the width of the two horses required to pull the chariot.” We had arrived.
My prospective client used the railway gauge example to illustrate what he called, ‘The 5 Whys of Business’. If you’re looking for an answer in business, keep asking ‘why?’ five times and you’ll usually find the answer.
“So,” he said, “we got onto this because you were going to tell me why I should use you for brand services. There are a lot of B2B marketing agencies claiming to provide those services. Why should we do it your way?”
“Let me save us all some time here,” I replied. “You do it our way because we’re the fucking Romans.”
Veni. Vidi. Vici.