Holten: Trains, trains and automobiles

Do you know how wide train tracks are? They are 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches. Do you know why? Because when trains were invented that was the distance between wheels on a wagon. And the people who built tramways back then used the same jigs and tools tha...

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Do you know how wide train tracks are? They are 4 feet, 8½ inches. Do you know why? Because when trains were invented that was the distance between wheels on a wagon. And the people who built tramways back then used the same jigs and tools that they used to build wagons, thus the distance.
When I was in high school, I used to drive a black 1947 Chevy two-door coupe. It had belonged to my grandmother’s brother, my great uncle, who passed away and left it parked for years under a shade tree, waiting to be resurrected. And I was just the guy to do it.
To anyone else, it might have been considered an old clunker. To me, it was as good as a Lincoln, a Porsche and better than a Maserati.
Oddly enough, its wheelbase was 4 feet, 8 ½ inches, which was perfect for railroad track. So, as boys will do, we used it to, among other things, “ride the rails.”
Now, one of the key features in that “black beast” was a throttle lever positioned on the dashboard, which, one might say, was an early version of what we now refer to as “cruise control.”
You could pull the throttle lever out and cruise from my little hometown, which was located a stone’s throw from the Canadian and Montana borders, to Bainville, Billings or Boliva if you wanted.
Instead, we’d put the black coupe up on railroad tracks, pull out the throttle lever, cruise down the tracks and then, while it was sailing along, we’d climb out the windows and sit on the hood and fenders, sunning ourselves and leaving no one, (not man or beast), behind the steering wheel. (When my mother reads this, even now, she’s going to kill me).
Stupid as it was, and with the wind blowing through our hair, we enjoyed the scenery and the sense of freedom and accomplish that it gave us. Until one time when, inevitably, we encountered a railroad work crew coming our way in one of those little work cars they used to ride the rails in secured to the tracks and coming hard.
Naturally, we climbed through the windows back into the car and raced towards the railroad crossing that was situated between them and us, making it there just before them and speeding down a gravel road with dust billowing behind us and them frantically waving their fists at us.
Were that to happen today, there’d probably be some law that says we’d have to spend 25 years in jail and pay $2 zillion in penalties. But not then. Back then, it was just teenage boys having a good time.
So you’re probably asking yourself, “How it was that we could ride the rails with no one behind the steering wheel, because, after all, wouldn’t the black beast fall off the tracks?”
Well, I’m no engineer but the fact is, even without letting any air out of the tires, those front wheels somehow magically followed the rails and, in fact, the last thing you wanted to do was to touch the steering wheel while the coupe was moving. Thus, it was either natural physics or my mom’s daily prayers that were responsible for getting us to wherever it was we were going or both.
Now, riding the rails by car was certainly interesting. But there are other interesting facts about the rail system that you might not know. For example:

  • 40 percent of the world’s freight cargo is transported via trains. 
  • The total area of contact between train wheels and rail itself is a little larger than one silver dollar.
  • The longest train station is in England and it’s a little over six football fields long.
  • Grand Central Station in New York has 44 passenger platforms.
  • World War I and World War II would never have become as big as they did without the help of the railway.
  • The U.S. embraced four time zones only after trains enabled fast travel across the continent.
  • And, in America, we currently have less than 170,000 miles of railways, but in 1916 we had more than 254,000.

That, somehow, reminds me of a quote by singer and songwriter Paul Simon who said, “There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.” And another quote by basketball superstar Charles Barkley who once said, “Sometimes that light at the end of the tunnel is a train.”
In other words, (the moral of this story is), have fun but be careful.

Holten is the editor of The Drill and the executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Email him at and call him at 701-456-1208.

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