It came to pass in the days of Gustav Adolphus, messengers came forth from another time, and the people all did clamor, “Our children are starving and we are cold.”

And behold, the messengers did create Granges and Factories, and plenty from there came forth. And the people again did cry out, “The bounty does not come forth from the messengers to feed our children.”

Wherefore, the messengers were sent to create roads of iron. And thereafter, rails did span the land, and there was abundance for all.

Maybe this is how European historians will record it hundreds of years after our time frame. It will appear that the up-timers waved their magical wands, and the railroads were created. These abilities would be terrific, but the reality of creating a working railroad from scratch is much different.

Construction of a railroad, especially a railroad where almost all the work is done by hand, is an enormous undertaking. Such construction may be one of the largest projects that the down-time population has ever seen. The construction of the mighty Roman roads and cities, or the great cathedrals of Europe come close in the amount of manpower and effort required. Of all works that people create, railroads are among the largest.

Even a short line railroad typically includes a right-of-way, or path, that is some fifty feet wide and many hundreds of miles in length. The facilities required include stations, track maintenance facilities, the actual track, and large numbers of vehicles that are used to transport people and commodities over the route. The crews that build these railroads are really large. In the late 1800s the crew that built the transcontinental railroad from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco was composed of over twenty thousand men. Construction required a little over five years, even with such large crews. The record for the amount of track laid in one day was only ten miles. Food, shelter, sanitation, and supply were major concerns.

While we will use the railroads constructed in North America as our source, we will primarily talk about the new timeline. Constructing a railroad falls into roughly ten major areas of concern, or tasks. These responsibilities will be divided over three crews.

In order of process, these tasks are: setting the standards, obtaining the right-of-way, financing, surveying the route, creating the road bed, laying down the ties, setting the rails, attaching the rails to the ties, ballasting the track, and all of the support services needed to keep everybody working.

The three crews actually involved in the construction are the survey crew, the grading crew, and the track-laying crew.

The first couple of the tasks mentioned have either been covered elsewhere, or are too complicated to go into for this article. The tasks of setting the standards and route selection have been covered by Iver P Cooper and Carsten Edelberger in Grantville Gazette, Volume Seven. In these articles, careful attention has been paid to just exactly what we need as standards, and where we need to build the railroads.

Obtaining the right-of-way has also been covered. We should note that in the 1632 universe, railroads are very new ideas. Nobles and landowners, farmers and local residents, city dwellers and itinerant workers will all be alternately frightened, concerned, fascinated, or misinformed on the real value of railroad. So before anything is done on building, securing the land to build on will be paramount.

Land ownership in Germany is a confusing issue, and obtaining the permanent right to base a facility on each little piece of land will be an enormous undertaking. So if you have a whole battery of lawyers that are currently in mothballs, negotiating right-of-way will soak up their services just fine, for quite a long period of time. Indeed, serious intervention by high levels of the government will probably be needed in order to obtain these rights-of-way.

Financing is another area that is mostly outside of the purview of this article, and will only be mentioned in passing. As with any large projects, financing the railroad will consume numbers of lawyers, governmental officials, private officials, and time. In the early days of railroads, most railroads were privately owned and built, but almost all of them had some form of government assistance. This assistance could be anything from the government granting tracts of land on which to build to direct financial assistance or even a substantial amount of money earmarked by the government so that the railroads would be built in their area. Something that you can absolutely depend on is that the financing of railroads will provide unusual opportunities for fraud, corruption and just downright weirdness. All these are inherent with such a large project with so many people involved.

The Survey Crew

Let’s start with the survey. Surveying a right-of-way is the first step that people in general will see. A team, sometimes before the right-of-way is selected, sometimes after it is selected, goes out along the proposed route of the railway and defines precisely where the track will go. The surveyors are responsible for making sure that the track is level and that curves and inclines are as gradual as possible.

The surveyors are also responsible for making the railroad as inexpensive as possible. That means, if at all possible, you go around hills rather than through them. They also have to ensure that the railway will not be flooded out in the spring or completely blocked by winter snows or avalanches. Tunnels and cuts cost a lot of money. Bridges also add significantly to the final cost, but one should remember that in many cases, a bridge over a low spot or valley is still cheaper than a cut or a tunnel.

The surveyors need to take into consideration the general slope and lie of the land, predict where water flows in the spring rains, determine water flow and strength of rivers and streams, make a determination whether a short tunnel is more financially advantageous than a long loop of track around the hillside or mountain, and plan a route so future improvements can increase the profitability of the line. The surveyors and the job they do can make or break the future of a railroad. A mistake by your surveyor can take, literally, hundreds of years to correct.

This crew is not normally very large. Any number from one to twenty people is normal. Initial surveys are usually made by one or two people on horseback checking the proposed route. Detailed surveys, or the survey that will define precisely where the track is laid, are usually performed by a crew of eight to twenty, and involves the use of surveying instruments and extensive recordkeeping. The instrumentation, at a bare minimum will include compasses, maps, surveyors transits, surveying polls, measuring chains, very detailed ledgers and record books.

For our purposes we will set a surveying crew of eight, along with their equipment. A light wagon will be required for transport. Also, they will need either camping gear or sufficient funding to room and board with the locals in the area as they survey the right-of-way. The right-of-way survey must be exactly marked and recorded in the ledgers so that the construction road crew will know exactly where the road bed must be placed.

The Road Grading Crew

The next task, grading the road bed, is the first area we encounter very large numbers, often larger than any other task. In the early days of railroad construction in the new timeline, the crews will be small- to medium-sized. Instead of the thousands that were involved in the project in our timeline, we will probably have a crew that numbers in mere hundreds. The minimum crew and equipment should include scraper operators and their mule-driven scrapers, pick and shovel men, carpenters, blacksmiths, wagon masters, bridge builders, rock drillers, explosive experts, a portable saw mill, administrators and crew bosses, cooks and helpers, and a group to oversee and supervise field sanitation and behavior within the camp. And, of course, all the people will have their own equipment that will need to be transported from place to place as the railroad progresses.

By far the largest in number will be the manual laborers. A great deal of the earth will have to be moved. Scrapers and well-trained operators can do the finishing touches, but sometimes it just comes down to the man with the shovel.

The actual construction of the road involves removing the topsoil and putting in a solid base of ballast. Ballast is material that is firm and solid and does not have a tendency to move around. It also provides the road with excellent drainage. The roadbed should have the ability to let water pass through it, yet still firmly hold any materials in place so as to keep the track from moving around. Good ballast is usually made of broken stone, or gravel. Ballast can also be divided into a lower layer of large ballast, and an upper layer of finer, crushed ballast. The ballasted roadbed must be leveled and smooth, especially anywhere there is a stream or water is likely to run off during a rainstorm. The planning of the railway must include some form of drainage culverts or areas where the water can pass through.

Culverts can be made out of boxes that resemble large wooden tunnels. The larger culverts and bridges will be much more efficiently constructed out of wood, especially in the early years of the railway. Bridges will require a large amount of lumber. Supply officials can either provide their carpenters and bridge builders with lumber from local villages, or buy the rights to the timber and cut their own supply.

Sometimes there will be large obstacles that are too expensive to go around. Then the railroad must plan on cutting a tunnel. For this, you’ll need stone drillers or miners, the explosives and experts that can handle the task with care, and the proper excavation site. Much of the excavated stone from tunnels and cuts can be transported and used as ballast and fill, or for constructing permanent buildings along the right of way.

There is a large amount of civil engineering involved in setting the roadway. Fortunately, we have examples of modern styles of road bed within the Grantville area. Many railroad hobbyists keep libraries about railroad subjects so that their models are as much like reality as possible. It is entirely possible that one or two books on the civil engineering aspects of creating a railroad came through the ring of fire.

To support this large crew, we have cooks, sanitation workers, administration people, and general roustabout workers. Some of the unskilled jobs, of course, can be done by the general laborers. But much of the work will involve specialization. All supplies for the grading crew will likely have to come in by wagon. Because of the large size of the crew, local housing in the form of tents will be preferred. Even in the seventeenth century, man-hours can be expensive. The company will want as much work for their money as they can get, so travel times to and from distant living areas would be discouraged.

So how big is this crew? My guess is that there will be six to eight scrapers and their operators, a sawmill crew, around thirty carpenters, three or four smiths, two to three hundred general laborers, ten to twelve wagons and their crews, two or three cooks and a staff of seven or eight scullery helpers, a camp captain and his assistant, and probably twenty people involved in field sanitation and other cleanup. Some of the tasks, such as sanitation or simplified cooking chores, can be performed by the general laborers on rotation from their normal duties. However, this still gives us a work crew that is between two hundred fifty and four hundred people. The size of the work crew will probably fluctuate wildly until the companies building railroads get a good feel for the job. Sometimes it is difficult to predict how many people they need in order to keep the roadbed ahead of the track laying group.

The Track Laying Crews

These individuals are divided up into several different teams. First, the tie-setters. This crew is responsible for bringing the treated wooden ties to front of the project, and aligning them down a previously prepared ballasted road bed. Getting the ties to the worksite will involve several wagons, cart drivers and supervisors, along with the unskilled labor for heavy lifting. Loading crews at the supply storage area in the camp will load large numbers of railroad ties on the wagons. These wagons will then hurry forward to the tie-laying crews, where the ties are thrown off the wagons as they roll along the side of the ballasted road. The actual tie-laying crew will grab ties, usually with two men to each tie. These men take the tie, set it on the roadbed, and align it to a survey chain held by two more members of the crew. By aligning one end of the ties to the survey chain, the course of the railroad can be kept in accord with the surveyed route. The tie crew will also include at least one surveyor whose job it is to keep the actual road aligned with the previous survey.

Once the ties are on the ground and aligned, the rails will need to be put in place. This is accomplished by the rail crew. Rails are loaded on the carts at the supply-side of the camp. These carts ride on railroad wheels and run on the track that has been previously laid. The carts are pulled forward to the end of the rails, usually by horses, where each rail crew awaits the cart. When the cart arrives the first man of each rail crew grabs the end of the rail and starts to pull. Whenever three or four more feet are free, another crew member grabs the rail.

The rails are carried forward and set on the ties at the end of the previously positioned rails on each side of the cart. After the rail is positioned on the ground, the rail crew returns for a new rail. When the rail cart is empty, it is flipped off the track to allow the next rail cart to proceed forward. Depending on the size of the crew, as many as four rail carts will be in use at any given time.

The rail next to the aligned end of the ties will be positioned an exact distance from the end of the ties. The previously aligned ties ensure that the rail is straight, nonetheless a surveyor in transit will normally be involved to make sure that the rails are indeed laid properly.

This is not like a model railroad, where the pieces come already curved. When the surveyor indicates that the road goes into a curve, one end of the rail is spiked down, and a sufficient number of laborers grab the other end and pull it into position along the curve, holding it while it is spiked down.

Once the first rail is in position, temporary spikes are laid to keep it there, then the gauge men, a crew of two men who hold a steel bar gauge, are employed to indicate the exact distance between the first and second rail. The second rail is put into position, and the fish plate and bolt up crew use pre-drilled steel bars to bolt the rails together.

The spike teams are a large body of men whose job is to firmly attach the rails to the ties. While there are many possible choices of method, during the early days our railroad is likely to use a large version of a nail, a spike, to hold the rail down to the wood. The team putting spikes in the wood will usually be made up of a spike holder—who holds a spike in position—and the spike driver—who drives a spike home with a hammer or maul. This will usually involve three or four strikes.

Depending on the needs of the construction, there will be areas where only some of the ties are spiked. In areas with curves, or those in which heavy traffic is expected, every tie will be spiked to the rail. After the rail is spiked down, the final ballast crew completes the work. This crew has wagons, usually flatbeds with stake sides. They proceed down both sides of the track, shoveling the ballast off onto the rails. The wagons stay on the side so that the supply wagons providing spikes and rails to the front of the worksite can get past them.

The ballast is usually broken, egg-sized gravel. Once it is on the track, a group of men with flat plates on poles tamp the gravel between and around the ends of the ties. This provides a solid matrix to hold the ties in place, and allows any water that falls on the track to drain away. In our timeline, these workers have an interesting name. They are called Gandydancers, because the primary manufacturer of the tamping tool was a company called Gandy. As is true with any work, the laborers using the tampers learned to operate them in the most efficient manner possible. This came to resemble a dance, creating the term Gandydancer.

Behind all of this is a large support crew of cooks, supply clerks, loaders and unloaders, administrators, sanitation workers, and even a small watch force to maintain order. All of these people have specific responsibilities, and are active at the campsite.

How many people make up this crew? First we should consider the loaders and unloaders. These are the people at the supply area who load the various wagons with the supplies needed at the forward edge of the worksite. They also unload any supply trains or wagons that come into the camp. Depending on the equipment they have, they should number between forty and seventy individuals.

The tie setting crew needs to have enough people so that they can get the ties down fast and stay out of everybody else’s way. At two men to a tie, with the ability to set a tie every thirty seconds or so, we would need around fifty tie setters, at least two chain teams, and a supervising surveyor. This should amount to somewhere around fifty-five people.

The number of people on a rail team depends on the weight of the rail. The heavier the rail, the more people you need to move it into place. 1890s rail average was fifty to seventy pounds per yard. They were generally about the same length as the shipping car, or thirty-five to forty feet long. This gives us a rail weight of around five to seven hundred pounds per rail. Rails of this size would probably need nine or ten men per rail to move them, especially if they’re moving rails all the live long day. You need a crew for each side of the cart. In fact, you probably need at least three teams for each side of the cart. This gives us a team for carrying rails of about sixty individuals. Fish plate, nuts and bolts, gauging, and surveying personnel should add another forty people to the rail positioning crew.

The spike team, or the crew of individuals that spike the rails down to the ties will operate in pairs and we will probably need four crews for each rail being spiked, allowing for two rails being spiked at a time on each side of the road. This will give us sixteen crews or about thirty-two people.

Ballast crews will include the wagon teams, laborers with shovels, and the tamping crew. Allowing for four wagons and a large crew of laborers, we come to about one hundred twenty-five men moving gravel.

Then we come to the people who make sure everybody else has what they need to work. Cooks, clerks, and administrators all have an important part in keeping the camp operating. These personnel should add another twenty-five or thirty individuals.

The total comes to around four hundred people. Certainly any given part of the crew could be expanded, especially at times when the work has to go faster. A crew of four hundred should be able to put between one and three miles of rail in place per day.

Here we have almost a thousand people, all working together to create a whole new form of transport in Central Europe. Before we leap into this kind of project, there are many things we have to plan for. Where are they living? How much do they eat? How much does it cost to pay them? How long will they be in any one place? And what will be the effect beyond the local communities?

New skills will be needed in our new timeline. Chief among these skills are those having to do with roadway construction. Scrapers, bridge builders, and the infrastructure required to keep the road intact through inclement weather are not yet common. However, the Roman roads left over from the old Empire have established a tradition that high quality roads are both possible and desirable.

On the supply side, we need to consider the sheer quantity of stuff that goes into building a railroad. Aside from several hundred tons of roadbed ballast, a mile of track will require some 3,200 cross ties, 264 forty foot rails, 6,400 spikes and several hundred pounds of fish plates and bolts to tie everything together. Altogether, three hundred or more tons of supplies need to be moved for every single mile of track laid. This does not include food, shelter, shops, or any of the other equipment necessary for such a large number of people to live together in one spot. In addition to track materials, the railroad construction crew will need to be supplied with food and clean water on a daily basis.

Using two pounds of food per person per day as an average, a four-hundred-man crew will consume close to six tons of food a week, much of which must be transported to the end of the track. This means wagons, wagons beyond everything else needed for the construction crews.

This is probably also the time to mention payroll. The workers building the railroad are going to have to be paid. They could be paid in something exotic like working off fines and commitments to the government, or they could be working for shares of stock in a railroad, but most likely workers will be paid in money of some sort.

Just for argument’s sake I’m going to set the pay of a skilled laborer as one guilder per day, plus room and board. From the railroad company’s point of view this means, for the thousand or so workers installing the railroad, you’ll have to pay on the close order of twenty-five thousand guilders each four-week period.

Of course, with workers getting paid that much money, you will have what was called “Hell on wheels” in North America. The phrase refers to the wagon train of grifters, merchants, gamblers, bars, and ladies of easy virtue that followed behind every single railroad construction company in 1800s North America. This situation will create the need for some sort of security officers from either the local government or the railroad to maintain order.

The amount of track currently in existence in Grantville can be used to set the standards for all other railroads. This pre-existing track is probably the most significant reason that standard gauge in the new timeline will be the same as standard gauge in the old timeline. That is to say, significant amounts of equipment already exist in the standard gauge so new equipment will probably be built to match.

The first track-laying railroad crews will probably be fairly small. These very first crews will probably consist of eight or ten men. As the full scope of the work becomes more and more apparent, the size of the crew will increase rapidly. And, as mentioned previously, crew sizes will vary wildly until the people building railroads begin to understand the true scope of the project.

As the crews increase in size, the amount of equipment and infrastructure will also increase. Housing the really large number of men involved will be one of the first things to be dealt with. Early in the railroad-building era most crews will be housed in a manner similar to the large mercenary armies that have been rampaging through the countryside. It will already be apparent that housing hundreds, even thousands, of men in the villages along the route of the railroad will be impractical. Gathering the men up before the day’s work and scattering them back to their housing at the end of the day, and finding new housing as a rail-head moves forward uses tremendous amounts of time that could be more profitably used in putting track on the ground.

Large tent compounds will probably be the preferred method of housing this large group of workers. Supporting this large housing compound will be necessary sanitary facilities and kitchen equipment and personnel needed to feed the large group of workers.

It should also be noted that some railroad companies in our timeline did not maintain large cooking compounds and equipment, but distributed a week of rations to each crew of 10 or 15 men and had them do their own cooking. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. When a crew does its own cooking and housing, it uses up time that the railroad corporation would rather have spent on construction. Also, it creates the need for baggage wagons for the equipment all the individual workers need as living supplies. Having a kitchen crew allows centralized production of food and good, consistent control over what is consumed, but it comes with the requirement of additional personnel and equipment.

Another consideration is where to hire all of these workers. With the agriculturally-based economy prevalent in our new timeline, there will not normally be a large group of people able to just pull up stakes and move on. At least they will not be available from the farming villages or the industrial centers currently in existence. There is, however, a fairly large group available whose current employment is winding down. These are the mercenary regiments that have been fighting in the Thirty Years’ War.

It is entirely possible that some mercenary regiments may see the future of declining combat in Europe and decide to switch over to being railroad construction companies. This would provide the work crews with organization and cohesiveness that will be sorely needed when they are trying to do something so new. Further the opportunity to earn “cold hard cash” will be almost irresistible to certain segments of the general population. This opportunity to work will draw large numbers of individuals out of the general population.

The organization of companies to build railroads will spin off many other industries. Suppliers that make ties, rails, and ballast will need to be created, shipping companies will need to be organized, and supply groups will need to be formed in order to provide the thousand and one things needed to build a railroad. Companies will come into existence to build locomotives, railcars, communications equipment, and signaling equipment. All of these things will be absolutely required for the new railroad to work properly.

These new concerns will tend to create railroad companies that have little or no contact with up-timers. As a matter of fact, a railroad construction crew may never see any up-timers at all. The Grantville connection will be almost all about training, or teaching the skills needed to the construction workers.

Another Grantville connection will probably be in labor organization. Unlike our timeline, the new construction companies will have the example of a large well-organized union. They get this both from the United Mine Workers and the Grange. This is very different from the railroad construction companies of our past. In North America, during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, construction workers were extremely undisciplined and ill-mannered. This was so much the case that the Union Pacific Railroad hired military leadership to impose control. Even with this, fights, murders, extortion, and criminal activity were all common in the large masses of men building the railroad across the continent. Hopefully, railroad construction may not be so disorderly in the 1632 universe.

One last item may be of interest. While not directly related to putting the steel on the ground, the financial aspect of such large corporations may be relevant. Whenever there is a large amount of money under the control of a fairly diverse group of people, corruption and illegal activities are often present. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that graft, thefts, substandard materials, fraud, and confidence schemes will abound. Many corporations will want to abuse labor for as much as they can get. Many labor organizations will want more than their work is worth. The opportunity for open conflict will be very large.

Railroad construction requires large numbers of highly organized workers. Construction speed will vary from no miles in a day to around ten miles in a day. As the various political organizations in the new timeline see the advantages of rail transportation, many miles of railroad will be constructed.

In our timeline, the railroad construction phase has not yet ended. Even now many new miles of track are being laid. Likewise, in the new timeline, railroad construction may well be a fairly permanent condition. Railroad construction will start out slow and will accelerate as more and more industrial capacity becomes available.


*[EA] “Railroads,” Encyclopedia Americana

*[EB11] Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. (1911), [EB11/R] “Railways,” [EB11/B] “Boiler,” [EB11/SE] “Steam Engine;” see also “Rolling Mills,” “Brake,” “Traction,” “Coal,” “Fuel,” etc.

*Ellis, Pictorial Encyclopedia of Railways

Clarke, et al., The American Railway: Its Construction, Development, Management and Appliances (1972)(reprint of 1897 edition)

[NOCK/RE] Nock, Encyclopedia of Railroads (1977).