Freight trains were always the most efficient way to transport large quantities of goods over long distances. The first railway was likely invented in England when wooden planks and rails were used to reduce friction when hauling heavy loads. The first freight trains were carts pulled by horses and used to transport stone and coal from quarries to nearby towns. Later improvements were the use of iron for the rails and flanged wheels to improve tracking. The major development that would eventually transform the transportation system in America was the steam engine. In 1787 the steam engine was first used to move a ship and within 50 years this innovation would be adapted to power a rail locomotive. The Baltimore and Ohio RR was the first operating American railroad and was soon followed by the opening of several other railway systems. The development of these early railroads was for passenger traffic-an approach that would prove to be unprofitable and result in the early abandonment of some of these lines. The greatest competitors of the early railroads were the canal boat companies and steamships which were the long-distance haulers of bulk freight. Eventually the steam railroads would prove to be much faster and more economical when it came to hauling freight and the American rail system expanded rapidly. On May 10, 1869 the Union Pacific and Central Pacific RRs met at Promontory Summit, Utah and created the Transcontinental Railroad linking the East with the West. This event created a landslide of new railway construction and opened the American West for massive population growth. It was now possible to ship goods by rail from east coast to west coast in as little as eight days, a considerable improvement over the six months journey by ship or wagon train. Just as it was for the real railroads, freight trains would provide the largest opportunity for variety in operations for the Model Railroader.
The major considerations for the freight train modeler are time period and locale. In the years following construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, locomotives and freight cars would undergo many technological and design improvements-some such as the Westinghouse Air Brake System would define those periods. The first horse-drawn freight cars were likely open carts and flats with fixed two wheel axles with little or no suspension which meant that a lot of shipments were damaged and lost.
Car loads became larger and heavier and led to the early invention of the four wheel truck which helped to distribute the weight and tracked better on the rails. Once steam engines appeared on the scene, many railroads began to develop special freight cars to meet the needs of their customers and the different types of products they carried. By the end of the nineteenth century as freight cars grew larger and larger new locomotives were designed and built to meet the ever-increasing requirements for more horsepower for freight trains.
BOXCAR ---One of the most recognized and versatile freight cars was developed early in the nineteenth century probably due to the need to provide protection from the elements for certain shippable items. The boxcar was used to carry almost everything from lumber and dry goods to passengers and livestock. Most of the early cars were short (average about 30 ft.) and constructed of wood. Many of these boxcars would be re-built and modernized with outside steel bracing. There were many variations in construction and lengths into the twentieth century when the basic design improved to all steel and a standard length of 40 ft. although special cars were built with double-doors and a length of 50 ft. The boxcar would remain the rock star of American freight trains until the mid-1960’s when more specialized cars would replace them.
STOCK CARS---Hauled all types of livestock from cattle to chickens. In the early years livestock was mostly shipped in boxcars with a few slits for ventilation. In the 1860’s, special wooden cars were built with slatted sides for more efficient cooling of the animals. This basic design would last into the middle of the twentieth century when shipping livestock by rail would begin to decline and eventually disappear almost entirely. One advantage of the slatted car design was the ability to cool the stock by hosing them down with water at stops along the travel route. Some stock cars were built with double decks and could transport different types of animals on each level. In the mid-1900’s, the cars would be constructed entirely from steel with improved interiors for feed and water.
FLATCARS---Even before railroads existed the flatcar was used to transport large stones from quarries and logs from lumber camps. The basic flat car is self-explanatory-a car with a flat surface used to transport any type of freight which does not need to be protected from the weather. A common site during WWII was a long freight train consisting entirely of flatcars loaded with Sherman Tanks. Over the years the flatcar would develop into various configurations with optional load-bearing aids such as chains, straps, and stakes for special cargo. Flatcars come in various lengths and several unique configurations-centerbeam, bulkhead, and piggyback- to mention a few. Modern variations of the flatcar used for container loads are likely one of the most common sights on today’s freight trains.
GONDOLAS---Like the flat, the gondola is one of the earliest and most versatile freight cars. An apt description of this car is the “garbage can” of freight trains that is used to carry anything without a lot of care about loading, storage, or handling. Because it has restrictive side panels it does not need restraining devices like the flat car and is often loaded with scrap metal, junk, garbage and any other type of material that does not require special handling. Most Gons will be dirty, dented with bulging sides, receiving little maintenance other than enough to keep them working properly. They are often mistaken for, and sometimes used as, coal hauling cars on freight trains but lack the slope bottom design of hopper cars. Even though the gondola gets little love, it is one of the most valuable utility haulers of any railroad and will likely last for many more years.
HOPPER CARS---Hoppers are used primarily to haul coal. They have been on the railroad scene from the beginning and are specifically designed with slope chute bottoms which can be opened to unload their cargo by gravity. In the early years of the nineteenth century, hoppers were constructed almost entirely of wood and were variable in size. By the beginning of the twentieth century, as the size and capacity of these cars increased, they were built with wooden sides reinforced with steel bracing. The USRA standardized on a capacity of 55 tons during WWI, a standard which would exist until the 1960’s when a capacity of 100 tons was adopted. A variation of the standard hopper is the COVERED HOPPER designed to haul cargo such as grain and dry cement or any other material which must be kept dry during shipment. Although some railroads modified their standard hoppers for this purpose, the real water-proof manufactured cars began to show up in the 1940’s. Prior to this time boxcars were used but had a real disadvantage in handling when loading and unloading required that these bulk materials be bagged or boxed. Another variation of the hopper is the smaller car called an ORE JIMMIY used to carry all types of ore.
TANK CARS---Tank cars are used to transport a wide variety of liquids and gasses. Prior to mid-1860, barrels of oil were carried on the decks of flat cars, an inefficient method that required considerable manpower for loading and unloading. An early improvement was the use of large 1700 gallon vats on flatcars mounted vertically which were used to carry crude oil. By 1870 wrought iron was used to construct new tank cars many of which were purchased by the oil companies. By 1900 the typical tank car had a capacity of 6,000 to 10,000 gallons and 1, 2, or 3 domes which covered separate compartments which could each hold a different commodity. During the WWII period hundreds of lengthy daily freight trains composed entirely of tank cars moved oil to the East and West coast for shipment overseas in support of the war. By the mid-1950s, the construction of pipelines and the ever-increasing use of tanker trucks began to severely reduce railroad tank car shipments. Today the railroads concentrate more on special tank car shipments such as chemicals, fertilizers and temperature sensitive products.
REFRIGERATOR (REEFER) CARS---Reefers are special refrigerated cars designed for the shipment of perishable commodities. In the 1850s boxcars with blocks of ice which were probably harvested from local lakes were the first experimental attempts to ship perishable goods on freight trains from farms to cities. In 1867 the first reefer with insulation, roof hatches, and air flow control was patented by J.B. Sutherland of Detroit, Mich. Meatpacking companies were the first to recognize the advantages of refrigerated cars and began to build their own. Packers such as Swift and Armor built 36 ft. yellow wooden reefers and constructed large icing platforms at strategic points in towns and cities with freight yards. Reefers required enormous amounts of ice to be replenished daily and this was usually accomplished at locations where locomotive and crew changes occurred. Wooden 40 ft. reefers were the standard until 1936 when the first all steel cars were built. Ice bunker refrigerator cars would continue until 1958 when the first mechanical reefers appeared. By 1971 the ice reefers would disappear from active service on U.S. railroads.
THE CABOOSE---The caboose has departed from the modern railroad scene but it was, and still is, for those who model pre-1980 freight trains, one of the favorite and most unique cars to have on a layout. Around 1840 the first caboose was probably a rough shack built on a flat car or a modified boxcar to provide space for the train’s conductor to do his paperwork. A few years later it was discovered that the view from the top of the car gave great visual coverage of the complete train as well as the track both front and rear and the caboose cupola was born. Although many railroads would create their own design, the red-colored, center cupola caboose was the most common type. In the early twentieth century, steel was used for caboose construction but the wooden versions were used until the 1970’s when these cars were banned. In the late 1930’s, the bay window design consisting of bays on each side of the car was introduced and became common on some railroads. The Extended Vision or Wide Vision Caboose was introduced in the 1960’s and was a combination of the cupola and bay window and considered by many to be the ultimate design. By the 1980’s the advancements in communication and other railroad technology made the requirement for a special car for the reduced crew personnel obsolete and the caboose was replaced on freight trains with End-Of-Train (EOT) or Flashing-Rear-End-Devices (FRED).
THE WELL CAR---In the 1950’s a number of railroads began to transport truck trailers on standard flatcars in a method known as Piggybacking-later to be dubbed TOFC or Trailer-On-Flatcar. This was the beginning of Intermodal Freight Transport-a system that used more than one type of transportation to deliver freight to its final destination. Trailers were loaded by backing them up a ramp to a platform and then onto the flatcar where they would be secured by chains. Steel deck plates could be positioned between cars to allow loading many trailers on a line of flats. Through the 1960’s and 70’s the “Piggyback” shipping service exploded with most railroads joining the rush by building special loading and unloading facilities where long trains entirely composed of TOFC’s were dispatched. In the late 70’s the development of a container for the shipment of cargo by sea was developed and proved to be much more efficient to load and unload from ships when they arrived in port. The containerized freight system was adopted by the railroads and led to the development of the Well Car-a special depressed center flat car with sides designed specifically to expedite the loading and unloading of the containers. The cars are built with six axles to handle extremely heavy loads and can carry two stacked containers.
THE AUTORACK---Since the invention of the automobile in the early twentieth century, the railroads have been the main carrier of automobiles. Flatcars and boxcars were used until the 1960’s when the first cars specifically designed to haul automobiles were introduced by TTX (Trailer Train Corporation). The first autoracks were lengthened open flatcars of two or three levels capable of holding up to 18 normal sized vehicles. The open cars presented a problem due to autos being damaged by objects, thrown or falling, while moving along the mainline or stored in freight yards. By the 1980’s the autorack car had grown to a length of 89 ft. and was completely enclosed and lockable. Amtrak’s auto-train service uses both autoracks and passenger cars to transport vacationers along with their automobiles between Virginia and Florida.
Almost every type of freight car has gone through some sort of change or improvement over the years. Boxcars, tank cars, hoppers, and flatcars have evolved and some come in special configurations for specific transportation jobs. For the railroad modeler, both the period and geographic location of your railroad will determine what type of locomotives and rolling stock will be used. Whether you are modeling a specific prototype or freelance the choice of the right equipment for freight trains will enhance the realism of your operations.Return from Freight Trains to Train Operation