Flatcars, The First Freight Train Car

Flatcars, the very type of railroad car which the entire railroad industry is founded upon. Indeed, it sounds rather outlandish but it basically is very much the truth. The flatcar was the original freight car used by railroads and it actually even predates common-carrier railroads themselves by first being used in the mid-1820s to haul large stones in New England. Today the “off-spring” of the standard flatcar include all types from well cars and centerbeam flats to spine cars and depressed-center flats. For example, a new type of use for the flatcar occurred during the piggyback revolution that began in the 1950s, which was a service of transporting large numbers of truck trailers by freight train.

A Santa Fe flatcar loaded with what appears to be new milk truck-trailers sits in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 10, 1964.

The definition of the flatcar is rather self-explanatory, a basic railroad freight car design consisting of a flat, horizontal surface usually equipped with standard two two-axle trucks to transport any type of cargo, which can withstand the open elements of Mother Nature during its journey to its destination. The basic flatcar can haul anything from farm equipment and containers to industrial parts and even rails. The flexibility of the car makes it highly desirable by railroads as any kind of redundancy that can be achieved is certainly what they are after!

It’s sort of hard to give a history of the flatcar as their basic shape and design has changed little since it was first developed in the 19th century. While the car does allow for railroads to haul many types of differing loads, the exposure of goods to the weather (especially those products which could not handle outdoor exposure for long periods of time) is ultimately what resulted in new freight car development, such as boxcars. The most significant change to the flatcar has been its increased length, the addition of standard two-axle trucks (which occurred around the middle of the 19th century), and the various types now available to haul specific loads. Cars now come equipped with optional loading gear such as chains, straps, or temporary slats which help to hold differing goods in place during transport.

A type of heavy-haul depressed-center flatcar, a Siemens Schnabel Car, is seen here in Kannapolis, North Carolina on an overcast August 31, 2006. These cars are meant for extremely heavy loads noted by their extra set of trucks and very low center of gravity.

Aside from the standard flatcar there is the centerbeam flat. This car is just that, it contains a center beam on the car and tall bulkheads on each end. Usually coming equipped with standard two-axle trucks the car is typically used to haul paper, lumber, or some other type of bulky construction material, such as insulation. Similar to the centerbeam flat is the bulkhead flatcar, which lacks the center beam but includes end bulkheads to haul heavy loads while not allowing them to shift horizontally (lumber or wood products are also an example of what these cars sometimes carry).

Another type of flatcar, while a bit more “advanced,” are today’s well 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. While the car has been embraced by the railroads for the efficiencies it allows, it is actually nothing more than a glorified flat car. The well car was also just another step in the evolution of COFC service (said "Cof-cee"), or Container On Flat Car.

As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s the TOFC service, also known as “piggyback” service, began to gain momentum with many Class I railroads using the service in one form or another and building hubs and centers to load and unload trailers. Railroads began blocking entire trains of trailers and they were usually given top priority over the particular route they operated and known as “hotshots.” Names like TrailerJet, Apollo, Razorback, Thunderhawk, and Flexi-Van services began popping up on many railroads. Today, instead of using traditional flatcars to haul truck trailers, which would take a lot of time to load, 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 and to also quickly load and unload them.

One final type of flatcar includes the depressed-center flat, which is still used today to haul extremely heavy or tall loads. The car’s very low center of gravity coupled with its extra two axles, giving it six in total, allows it the ability to haul these types of loads. Usually you can find the car carrying some type of heavy or bulky industrial equipment. Today flatcars are becoming increasingly used, especially in regards to container shipments, carried by well cars, which continue to grow in volume yearly. Keep on the lookout and on almost any mixed freight train you can spot some type of flatcar in transit, from the utilitarian common flat to a coil car, which transports loads of rolled steel.

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.

For more reading about flatcars 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 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.

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