During the 1850s flatcars were being constructed partially of iron with lengths of 25 feet by 8 feet wide. They also featured side pockets whereby iron or wooden stakes could be placed to keep large, high-centered loads from shifting or falling off (such as logs or lumber). During the 20th century the car continued to grow reaching 40 to 50 feet in length and 10 feet wide. This became the standard until the post-World War II period when specialization and other factors led to the car's size growing to 85 feet or more allowing it to handle truck trailers. The trailer-on-flatcar, or TOFC, concept appeared at least as early as 1926 when the most unlikely of railroads began experimenting with the concept; the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee , a large interurban system which served its namesake cities. The North Shore Line was followed by the innovative Chicago Great Western in 1936, the first standard railroad to adopt TOFC in 1936.
Similarly, COFC, or container-on-flatcar service dates back to at least 1928 when the Pennsylvania Railroad tested the idea using specialized 40-foot flatcars which carried five containers. It was discontinued in 1950. As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s TOFC, also known
as "piggyback" (since the truck trailers "piggybacked" their trip on flatcars), began to gain momentum with many Class Is using the service in one form or another. Some truly embraced the idea and the PRR was again at the forefront with its TrucTrain service. Railroads began blocking entire TOFC trains and they were usually given top priority over their particular route, known as “hotshots.” Names like TrailerJet, Apollo, Razorback, Thunderhawk, and Flexi-Van began popping up on many lines. Today, instead of using traditional flatcars to haul truck trailers, a new type of car known as a spine-car was developed. Essentially a center beam on trucks the car is specially equipped to haul trailers as well as quickly load and unload them.
Aside from the standard flatcar there is the centerbeam flat. This car is just that containing a center beam with tall bulkheads on each end. Equipped with standard two-axle trucks the car is typically used to haul paper, lumber, drywall, or some other type of bulky construction material such as insulation. Similar to the centerbeam is the bulkhead flatcar, which lacks the center beam but includes end bulkheads to haul heavy loads and not allowing them to shift horizontally. Often, lumber, logs, or pulpwood will be handled on these cars. A new type of car are today’s well cars (also referred to as stack or intermodal cars) developed over the past twenty years to haul international containers in loads of one or two (typically two if railroad tunnel and bridge clearances will allow) from port to market and vice-versa.
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|A Burlington piggyback freight train with a waycar trailing (the CB&Q's term for a caboose) rolls through Eola, Illinois on September 13, 1965. Note the numerous commuter cars stored away in the background.|