The Distance between the Rails
By Paulo Coelho
For The Bali Times
Once when I was waiting for my Polish editor at a railroad station and had absolutely nothing to do, I tried to imagine what the distance was between the rails. I decided to ask one of the station workers:
“They are 143.5 centimetres apart.”
I found the answer very strange and absurd. The logical figure would be 150 centimetres, or some other round number, clear and easy for builders and workers to remember.
“And why?” I insisted on asking the station employee.
“Because the wheels of the wagons have that measurement.”
“But don’t you think that the wheels of the wagons are like that because of the distance between the rails?”
“Things are like that because they’re like that.”
Without knowing it, part of one of my books (The Zahir) was being generated right there: to what extent are things the way they are because they are? I decided to look for an answer, but without any hope of finding one. To my surprise, I found over 2,000 pages dedicated to the matter. One of the most interesting – and symbolic – explanations is as follows:
Long ago, when they built the first train wagons, they used the same tools used to build carriages. Why did the carriages have that distance between the wheels? Because the old roads were made for that measure.
Who decided that the roads should be made with that measure? And so we return to a very distant past: those great road builders, the Romans, decided that.
What’s the reason? War chariots were driven by two horses – and when we put side by side the animals of the race that they used in those days, the space they occupy is 143.5 cm.
And so, the distance between the rails used by the most modern high-speed trains was determined by the Romans. When the immigrants went to the United States to build railroads, they did not ask if it would not be better to change the width, and continued to use the same standard. This even affected the building of the space buses: American engineers felt that the fuel tanks should be wider, but they were built in Utah and had to be transported by train to the Space Center in Florida, and the tunnels could not accommodate anything different. Conclusion: they had to be resigned to what the Romans had decided to be the ideal measure.
I also discovered that to complicate everybody’s life even more, neighbouring countries use different gauges, so a train has to stop at the border, change all its cargo to another train (although France uses 1.43 m, Spain has a gauge of 1.67 m). My grandfather, who was an engineer with the Central Railroad of Brazil, told us that the same happened in Brazil. I went to check this on the internet and he was right: we have four different measurements: the French, the Spanish, 25,000 kilometres with a 1-meter gauge (I did not understand!) and some kilometres with 0.76 cm distance between the rails.
And what does all this have to do with life? Everything. At a given moment in history, someone came along and said: you have to behave like this. It does not matter whether this was in the remote past – we do know that the Romans determined the size of the roads and nobody decided to do anything different. Many things in our life need changing, but we lack the courage.
Until we gain that courage, we will just have to go on smiling in the photos, swearing eternal love, believing that the university is everyone’s goal, changing the clothes in our wardrobe every season, and having this incredible difficulty in making the train of our life travel in places where values are measured differently.
© Translated by James Mulholland
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