Not-so-modern MTRC confesses imperial measures have become stuck in a rut

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 January, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 January, 1997, 12:00am

Imperial commander Galen Maximus Augustus marched smartly into the smoky premises of chief wheelwright Gaius Claudius. The room was empty, except for a servant boy sweeping shavings out of the back door.

'Where's Gaius, boy?' 'With the soothsayer. It's the IVth house down XIIIth Road.' Twelve minutes later, the Roman soldier was sitting with the rotund, pink-faced wheelwright and the old mystic, who was known as the Ancient Stutterer.

'Sorry to interrupt your audience, but I need to tell you some thoughts before I leave to see Caesar - may the Goddess protect his name - in Rome later this morning.' Gauis said nothing, but cocked his round head to one side to show he was paying attention.

Galen continued: 'We need to save more than a denarius or two in the transport division.

'I notice that most of our chariots need repairs every eight or nine months - except for that Maltese-style one you made for Caesar's 14th wife.' 'The tireless Drusilla,' said Gaius with a smirk.

'I want you to make all chariots that size. Then they'll all fit in the deepest wheel ruts, they'll be less shaking and rattling, and they should last longer.' 'I made it three olympic Cubits plus two fingers, to precisely accommodate the flanks of two war-horses.' 'Whatever.' 'Any other changes?' 'Yes. I want the step and doorway on the left. Procedure from now on is to drive only on the left - this will reduce the number of head-on collisions.' A strange clicking sound came from the corner of the room.

Commander Galen and wheelwright Gaius turned simultaneously.

The Ancient Stutterer was making a bizarre gargling noise.

Gaius realised the old man was laughing. 'You have some observation, master?' The soothsayer's eyes, just about visible in the shadows under the hood, were focused on the soldier. The old man spoke in low, rasping voice. 'G-G-Galen Maximus Augustus. The d-d-decisions you have made will have consequences far beyond your imaginings.' Galen, who was sceptical of soothsayers, couldn't prevent a scowl, although he held his tongue.

'Your s-s-s-soldiers will conquer much of Europe, and most will adopt your rules for transport, for centuries and millennia to come,' the old man said.

'Their chariots will also drive on the left. As the centuries pass, horse-less chariots, called 'trams' will be built, using the same measurements.

'Still later, the s-s-s-same measurements will be used in the land of the Angles and the Saxons to build a huge network of iron cars, called 'railways'.' Gaius nodded reverently at the old man.

'These will be used as models for similar transport systems all over the world, including a place called The New World, or America,' the soothsayer continued.

Galen shifted uncomfortably on his seat. 'Be that as it may, it is time for me to go.' The old man said: 'In t-t-t-two thousand years' time, on the other side of the world, there will be debate among drivers of horse-less chariots about whether you were right to make a proclamation about driving on the left.

'Also, there will be huge chariots, which can carry thousands of people flying along under the ground, faster than the fastest steed - and each chariot will have wheels exactly three cubits and two fingers apart.' Galen gave the curtest of bows to the two men and hurried out of the door.

The tale above is a dramatisation of how historians believe global standardisations in modern transport systems actually started.

It is the result of study inspired by many readers who wrote to me with fascinating history lessons on the topic: Jeff Berry, Nicole Burt, Norman Wingrove, Paul Holmes, Frank Faulkner, Fred Fredricks and others.

Yesterday at 9am, Your Humble Narrator telephoned the Mass Transit Railway Corp of Hong Kong, a company building one of the most hi-tech subway trains in the world, from Chek Lap Kok to Hong Kong island.

I asked the public relations officers to find out the gauge used by engineers laying down the tracks.

A young woman named Claudia called me back a few minutes later with the answer: 'The distance between the tracks is 1,432 millimetres.' I reached for the Encyclopedia Britannica and a calculator. One-point four-three-two metres is 561/2 inches.

To a Roman soldier, 1,432 mm is exactly three Olympic cubits plus two fingers - or the width of the flanks of two war horses, measured on a spring day in Italy, two millenia ago.