Railroad boxcars are perhaps not only the best-recognized freight car to operate of all time but also one of the most identifiable symbols of the railroad industry itself. Overall, the car dated back to the earliest years of the industry when railroads realized that some freight and ladding needed at least a little protection from outside elements and Mother Nature. However, after the turn of the 20th century the car truly became an industry icon as it was through the 1960s the boxcar was used to haul about any and every type of non-bulk traffic (like coal, aggregates, chemicals, etc.). However, as time went on railroads began to realize that, predominantly through shippers' complaints, more specialized cars were needed to haul particular types of freight which led to the development of the well car, autorack, refrigerator car, and others. Boxcars, however, still have their uses today especially in carrying bulky items like autoparts.
For the first years of the railroad industry freight was hauled on simple flatcars or early gondolas, which were essentially flatcars with short sides to keep the lading from rolling or falling off in transit (or in the case of bulk materials, to keep them confined). The early 1930s is when the true boxcar came to life (originally known as “house” cars), with one of its founders the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad (a very early subsidiary of the New York Central). By the latter part of that decade this new style of car was beginning to catch on across the rest of the industry as its versatility and value began to be realized.
From this point on the boxcar only grew in size whereby at the end of the 19th century it was capable of 40-50 tons and the standard 40-foot car of the 20th became as common in a train's consist as the caboose. What made boxcars great, at least in the eyes of the railroads, was, their ability to haul about anything! Railroads thrive on redundancy to maximize efficiency which was the reason they loved the boxcar so much (if it was not for shippers who requested many different specialized cars for their needs, railroads would have been happy to haul everything in boxcars). For instance, for many years the car carried everything from automobiles and paper to car parts and fresh produce, literally almost anything that would practically fit into the car’s empty, open spaces.
The car's development continued to improve over the years such as switching from basic wood construction with steel outside-bracing to all-steel designs (which were much stronger and capable of hauling heavier loads), even within the same size specifications (40 feet, a standard size employed by the American Association of Railroads, although the initial standardizations came about from the United States Railroad Association during WWI). By the 1980s the 40-foot boxcar gave way to the 50-footer, which further improved redundancies by allowing for even more space within a given car, which today remains the common boxcar size.
Although the boxcars of today no longer carry such varying amounts of cargo as they once did they remain an important freight car to the railroads. And, while there are standard designs, these were not the only styles to ride the rails. During the 1960s the 89-foot “Hi-Cube” car was produced to carry large amounts of auto parts (which continues to see use today), although because of its length and the fact that it rode on the traditional four axles (two trucks) it was meant to carry parts that were very large or awkward sizes and did not carry significant weight.
Lastly, other boxcar designs include custom cars built by railroads such as the Baltimore & Ohio, known as the “Wagon Top” (because of the fact that its outside bracing resembled a covered wagon) and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Round Roof” design. The PRR’s car was meant to increase inside height dimensions for increased efficiencies whereas the B&O’s design came mostly out of the road’s ever evolving means of ways to save money wherever and whenever possible. The B&O’s design proved highly successful in both terms of providing it a reliable car to transport goods as well as saving money by having its shop forces build the cars.
For more reading about boxcars consider the book, Freight Train Cars, from Mike Schafer, one of the leading authors covering all corners of the railroad industry (from its history to present day operations). The book gives an excellent general history and overview on all of the common railroad freight car types and if you are interested in learning more about them, or you are simply looking to better understanding their history and development you should very much enjoy Mr. Schafer’s book. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.