loading gauge defines the maximum height and width for railway vehicles and their loads to ensure safe passage through bridges, tunnels and other structures. [wikipedia]

Way back when, in the earliest days of railway in Britain, George Stephenson (of Rocket fame) decided to set his tracks 4 ft 8½ in apart, pretty much the same as wheels on Bronze Age chariots and the Roman ones which came next. It seemed a reasonable ‘Golidlocks’ compromise: not too narrow, nor too wide. Soon after, Isambard Kingdom Brunel plumped for 7 ft 0¼ in to allow for bigger and faster trains on his line. Whatever the merits of bigger and faster, it was soon clear how mightily annoying for everyone this mismatch would be if it went on too long, so Isambard reverted to using George’s chosen dimensions, and everyone’s trains could roll on everyone else’s tracks.

Europe (mostly) went for this ‘standard gauge’ too. When at last the Channel Tunnel was drilled through, a train could depart from John O’Groats, travel the full length of mainland Britain to Kent, burrow under the Channel, emerge in France and then cross continental Europe to the far flung Orient. And back again. Well, actually, not quite. That same UK train could make the return journey, but a continental European train would not experience much joy once it reached Britain, since a crucial bit of standardisation had not made it across the Channel unscathed. Europe had decided to go for wider trains. The gap between rails, the gauge, was the same, but the gap between pairs of rails, was bigger. Their trains were to have more elbow room, a bigger loading gauge. A European train would be scraping the sides through British tunnels, and locking wings with oncoming trains.

Neither side of the Channel was likely to budge on this, and there things seemed set to stay until the changing politics and economics of Europe shifted significantly in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, and Britain suddenly found itself obliged to accept European trains on its tracks. And quickly.

There was no time allocated to first upgrade the entire British rail network. Widening all the tunnels would take a long time, as would inserting a few feet of extra clearance between all the pairs of tracks. And yet, and yet, delay was not an option. The Federation demanded that progress be made and be seen to be made. So, how best to tackle this?

The answer, at least for the first phase of the rail integration project, was passing places. For the busy commuter routes with no tunnels, the stations were modified to accommodate the wider Euro trains, and every 2 miles the tracks had a section re-laid, bulging out sideways to allow two oncoming European trains to pass safely. Phase one was carried out quickly, in railway terms, with teams working shifts round the clock for months to get the modifications in.

As the building work thundered on, with a very unBritishly high rate of progress, safety experts argued till they were blue in the face about how to run the wide trains, making best use of the passing places. It was reckoned unlikely that the trains could be made to run to a tight enough timetable that they would meet only at passing places. Psychiatric evaluations of the drivers indicated that it was not safe to leave the decision of who had right of way wholly in their hands. Eventually, a consensus formed around a combination of principles from economics, psychology, and biology.

As two trains approached a passing place from opposite directions, the passengers themselves, collectively, would decide who had right of way. Initially, just those with Oyster cards would partake, but eventually all ticketed passengers would be able to vote for their train, swiping their card on the readers installed by each block of seats. The total votes of the train would be displayed on a big board mounted on the front, visible to the oncoming train. The higher total had priority, much like the size and point count of antlers on rutting stags being a visible manifestation of their likelihood of winning a joust, thus (mostly) avoiding the need to actually have the joust. On paper this worked, but the visibility (or lack thereof on some curved routes) of the vote totals was an issue. In many locations, even at slow speeds, the drivers were not able to read and compare the totals early enough to react safely. So, a broadcast system was cooked up that meant all drivers could see the direction, location, speed, and most importantly, the vote total, of every train along their route. This allowed them to more efficiently pace the trains along the route, throttling back to let a higher vote train pass through ahead of them without needing to come to a full stop themselves.

For the early adopters, principally the London commuting routes, this arrangement worked. The busiest trains were usually all heading in the same direction, depending on the time of day, and it was accepted as natural justice that those trains would have the highest vote totals, and thus the right of way through the passing places.

The first significant trouble with the simple voting model, however, flared up on the Glasgow/Edinburgh line. Here, commuting traffic went both ways at peak times, and the trains clashed with equal vote totals surprisingly often. Drivers were calling ‘foul’ and demanding recounts, refusing to give way. In some cases, it got down to adjudicated sessions of Rock Paper Scissors between opposing drivers, their passengers gathered round, shouting encouragement or imprecations. Commuting throughput fell, putting the Euro rail integration project in peril. If this could not be settled internally, by the railways, the matter would be escalated to the Federation, and decisions would be made rapidly and arbitrarily without a great deal of regard for the niceties of situation, most likely leaving no-one particularly satisfied.

How to break this deadlock? A question to this effect, posted in desperation on Quora, a web site which even then still attracted a reasonable caliber of questions and answers, provoked a flurry of debate that lasted less than an hour before the obvious solution was voted up. Passengers should participate as if they were in a Penny Auction. They could each pay a fee to incrementally increase the weight of their own vote, and thus increase their train’s total vote, as the train was travelling. The ‘prize’ was their train had priority through the next passing place. But where should these extra fees go? Charity? The Federation? Lottery prizes? Were the fees transferable? Refundable? Did they apply solely to that one journey?

After a great deal of computer modelling and focus group research, all the extra fees thus collected should feed into the rail network as extra revenue, but should remain associated with the individual passengers who had paid them, allowing them to bring to bear their extra fees to the vote total of whatever train they happened to be on, much like AA breakdown cover applies to the person and not the car.  The fees were refundable, but only with a pretty hefty admin fee. After a few kinks were ironed out, the system began to function well. Other heavily bi-directional commuting routes such as Liverpool/Manchester, and Leeds/Bradford, were able to adopt the penny auction vote system from the start, as their routes were subsequently converted.

Economists (not to mention sociologists and psychologists) could not believe their luck.

Passengers started self-organising. The must-have gear for the seasoned commuter was a smartphone app which broadcast the holder’s extra fee rating (which was distinct from the cost of the ticket - first class counted for the same one vote as standard class). Analyses were published in real time, again available to any smartphone, of which commuting trains were accumulating the biggest and most consistent totals of extra fees. Passengers adjusted their commute times accordingly, either to wield their own extra fees to greatest effect with other ‘strafers’, as they became known, to speed into work, or to avoid embarrassment and sit with other ‘noofies’, and accept a slower journey.

As ever, certain quick witted individuals spotted opportunities to make a quick penny, and offered their services as coxes to regular strafer groups on congested routes. Winkling extra fees out of unwilling passengers for the greater good of the entire train become a marketable skill. Books were written, courses offered. The competition for the position of train cox was fierce since there was good money to be made. As a passenger, the cox did not have access to the train intercom, so this restricted their influence pretty much to the one carriage. Coxes naturally coalesced into teams, then guilds. Guilds took over certain stations and in many cases entire routes, making it difficult for any unaffiliated coxes. There were many techniques deployed to ensure a guild’s team of coxes retained control of a train for the entire route, even through enemy territory.

At first, cox payments were cash in hand. Such was the amount of money quite clearly flowing into the grey economy, the tax office stepped in and insisted an above-board tax payment system be put in place. With the advent of the fully open ticket and exchangeable fees, it became possible for strafers to pay coxes their fees with a direct ticket-to-ticket transfer. The cox could keep the fees, tax free, in their ticket, and thus be a valued contributor to the overall train total, or cash in all or part of the extra fees, taxed (both by the railway’s admin fees and the income tax), for living expenses. In addition to risking the wrath of the Guilds, noofie coxes were often derided by strafers as parasites.

The transferable fees meant train tickets could become valuable items in their own right, regardless of whether the ticket was still valid. Holders of significant extra fee totals were feted with inducements to relocate by various communities looking to boost their local station’s train performances.

Flash mobbing adapted to the new possibilities effortlessly. Mobs of noofies would flood-fill a regular strafer train, drastically lowering its vote total, adding many very annoying minutes to its journey time. Aka a noofie bomb. Similarly, mobs of strafers would pack  a noofie train and deliver the surprised passengers to their destinations much earlier than expected. The greatest comedic effect was to be had by targeting a lone passenger in a carriage, filling the carriage with noofie coxes who would spend the entire journey entreating the one passenger to fork out for extra the fees to (a) pay the coxes and (b) speed up the train.

Cheating was rampant, at least in the early days. The first generation transferable fee cards were wide open to abuse. Initially the manipulation was subtle, but very soon it was distinctly unsubtle, with some tickets achieving extra fee totals that exceeded the national debt. Even some drivers were eventually caught manipulating their train’s total votes. This brought the railways the closest they ever got to imposing a capital punishment on their staff. The threat was enough, and the drivers voted unanimously to remove themselves and their role from any possibility of conflict of interest over extra fees, priority at passing places, etc, and agreed that their pay was to be based solely on train safety and efficiency of enacting the consequences of the competing votes totals at passing places.

There was a continual act/re-act cycle between the fackers and the railways. Experts from the top MMORPGs such as Second Life and World of Warcraft were brought in to provide advice on handling the fast-changing virtual economy which had opened up. Offshore companies formed to marshal the wholesale transfer of vast totals of extra fees from train to train. This was only reined in by imposing a swingeing transfer tax on any fee total greater than the cost of the ticket but, even with that restriction, it was still worth transferring the smaller amounts around, especially if a significant proportion of a busy train’s passengers could be convinced to join the scheme. Wifi hotspots were set up along all the routes by the feevasion schemes to enable swift transfer of financial information, and as a side effect solved the in-journey wifi problem for passengers that the railways had been unable to sort out on their own.

Once the main tunnel-free commuting routes were converted, attention moved to the routes with tunnels. This took several years. During this time it had been planned that some of the tunnel-free routes would be widened along their entire lengths, removing the need for specific passing places. Such was the outcry in defence of the passing places, with many powerful lobbies stepping in to make their voices heard, that the Federation felt it pragmatic to allow the railways to accede to popular demand. This semblance of democracy, this listening to the people, when strictly speaking it could have imposed its will regardless, was good PR. It helped generate sufficient goodwill that the decree to switch to right hand traffic on the roads was accepted with barely a murmur.

The merging of currencies was laughably simple. Once the Euro and the pound sterling reached parity a few times within the same year, the currencies were quietly tied and the words pound and euro become synonymous. No-one noticed.

Beer was still sold in pints. It no longer mattered in the grand scheme of things.