(In Motion, No. 12, November 1989)
«What if?»… It’s a very common speculation. What if Cleopatra’s nose had been an inch longer, would Mark Anthony have fallen for her and changed the history of the Roman empire? As applied to railways, the «what if» is often «What if Brunel’s 7ft gauge had become standard?». Well, what if? Even now railways are not limited in speed by their track gauge and they have always been faster than the road competition. Nor would it bring price advantages, a 500 seat train cannot compete on price with a 50 seat coach, why should a broad gauge train be able to do better? Why this unthinking love of bigness?
No, a more interesting «what if?» is the opposite one. «What if a track gauge of 2ft had become standard?» This might very easily have happened: mine railways are often about 2ft gauge and George Stephenson was employed by mine owners to carry their coals to the ships. It would have been very natural simply to extend the mine gauge to the quays.
What would the results have been? Trains would be short and speeds would be low, they would be driven on sight like trams, with road-like rules of priority at junctions. The lines would be much steeper and have much more severe bends, and therefore be much cheaper to build, and therefore achieve much wider coverage. All factories and most farms (which take in and send out surprisingly large tonnages of material) would be rail connected: this would give a much better service, a consignement of reasonable size would make up a train load and could be taken straight to its destination rather than filling just one standard gauge waggon which would be subjected to days of shunting delays before it reached its destination. The railways would still have completely outclassed the road and canal competition, in fact they would have beaten standard gauge railways – look how frightened the main line railways were of the Ffestiniog Railway!
Of course there would be technical development, some of it in the same direction as main line railways, continuous brakes for example, and some of it in different directions. Automatic signalling and control might come much earlier. It was a very wealthy man who could afford his own standard gauge train, but many could afford a narrow gauge train. As petrol and electric power became available more and more people would be able to have one of their own, so instead of us becoming a road-based society we might have become a rail-based society. It would be different in so many ways. It is hard to imagine just what all the differences might have been. A fascinating vision of what might have been – and might yet be?