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Standard Gauge

Parallels can be found between nineteenth century British colonial railway planning and twenty-first century technical communication standards adoption.

By Tony Self

My grandmother on my father's side worked as a stationmistress for Queensland Government Railways, in the Australian state of Queensland. She got that job after my grandfather, who also worked for Queensland Railways, died. My mother's side of the family is also dotted with Queensland Railways workers. My uncle worked for Queensland Railways. My late brother also worked for Queensland Railways. My father, brought up in Queensland Railways houses around the state, was an enthusiastic reteller of proud family stories of Queensland Railways and its amazing achievements. He could quote the maximum incline angle of rail in Queensland. He bought a cheap car so that he and four of us children in secondary school could drive to Toombul railway station, instead of having to catch the bus 400 metres away from our house. He could recall the year when diesel electric replaced steam.

And he knew the railway gauge in every state of Australia, and what overseas countries had the same gauges. Queensland had "narrow gauge": 3 feet 6 inches between tracks. The same as South Africa. The Australian state of New South Wales (NSW), which borders Queensland, had "standard gauge" (4 feet 8½ inches); ironically, the only one of Australia's six states to have standard gauge. Victoria and South Australia had "broad gauge" (5 feet 3 inches), and this gauge was also used by some Victorian branch lines which ran into New South Wales. For a time, Victoria also ran a 2 feet 6 inches gauge, called "Victorian Railways Narrow Gauge", in some hilly areas where broad gauge was too expensive to lay.

This schmozzle started in 1847, before the independent colonies of the Australia continent became states in a federated nation in 1901. It was in 1847 that the first railway lines (in South Australia) were built. It started well, with a decision by the British Government's Secretary of State for the Colonies that all colonies should adopt standard gauge.

By this stage, you should be wondering what this obscure historical anecdote is doing in a technical communication magazine. The reason is that this article is about the importance of standards, and how standard adoption by an industry can go horribly wrong with enormous, long term financial consequences.

A private company building a railway line in New South Wales lobbied for the standard to be changed to broad gauge. Broad gauge became the new standard in 1854. A year later, the chief rail track engineer in New South Wales was replaced, and the new chief convinced the New South Wales government to unilaterally change the NSW "standard" back to standard gauge. And the same pattern continued until there was no standard left.

You may be awestruck at the stupidity of these decisions, but in context, having a standard made little difference. Australia is a big continent, and the mooted railway lines were short, and were contained well within the colony. There were no plans for railway lines to cross borders, so as long all lines within a colony used the same gauge, there would be no problem.

And there's one of the interesting things about standards. Standards are not only for the present, but for the future. The colonial railway builders could not imagine that lines would one day cross borders. They did not imagine that having common rolling stock would results in economy-of-scale savings. And they certainly did not foresee the enormous cost of "unscrambling the omelette" when time and circumstance would dictate that a common, standard would be required.

There are many standards in technical communication, and their adoption is haphazard and parochial, to put it kindly. ISO/IEC 82079 is a standard an international standard for technical communication, covering all types of product, software and service related instructions for use. A LinkedIn group for technical communicators to discuss this standard and its adoption was started in September 2011. It has one member. ISO/IEC 26514 provides requirements for the design and development of software user documentation arouses very little discussion in online forums or at technical communication conferences, and has no LinkedIn group. This standard replaced ISO/IEC 18019, which was published in 2004.

The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, OASIS, approved the DITA standard in 2005, and although its adoption is growing, it is still nowhere near widespread in technical communication. Are technical communicators generally reluctant to adopt standards? It is undeniable that technical communicators love some standards, such as spelling and grammar, and argue strongly for the benefits of such language standards and conventions. But it seems to me that beyond language standards, we collectively show the same attitudes of the late 19th century colonial railway engineers.

One of the benefits of a standard, be it a railway standard or a technical communication standard, is "interchange". For railway lines, interchange means being able to move from one part of a rail network to any other part of a network. In 2013, modern Australia still does not have this interchange. Freight travelling between some points has to be unloaded from one set of rolling stock and reloaded onto another. Passengers travelling down the east coast from Cairns to Sydney have to change trains in Brisbane. In 2013, technical communication doesn't have this interchange. A component supplier provides supporting documents to a customer in one format, whereupon they are manually converted to the customer's format. Information on a Web site has to be copied and pasted into a proposal document. An article submitted for publication in a technical communication magazine is written to one standard, and then re-cast into a different standard.

Globalisation has made interchange in the broadest sense more important in every industry. Money is transferred according to a standard. Customs documents are completed according to a standard. Electronic passenger information is exchanged according to a standard. Every electrical device has to be manufactured to a standard. But in technical communication? Certainly, some machine documentation has to conform to standards, but in other areas, notably software documentation (which ISO/IEC 26514 addresses), is broadly non-standard.

The consequences of the Australian railway gauge decisions are still being felt, and paid for, 130 years later. Interstate tracks are slowly being changed to standard gauge, often by duplicating tracks. The development of railways in Australia has been stifled; in such a big country, there is still no high speed rail. Blame for the decisions of the late 1800s is often sheeted to "politics". Rivalries between companies and colonies and even individuals, power struggles, and deep-seated prejudices were the cause. A common defence of these decisions was that our circumstances are different to others. We have to be non-standard because our requirements are special. These same arguments are used by some technical communicators to avoid adoption of standards, and as an excuse to implement a "custom solution". I think that as a profession we need to move beyond the politics of standards, and work together in a standard way.

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    Originally published...

    An edited version of this article was originally published in tcworld magazine, October 2013.