Gondolas, The "Do Anything" Railroad Freight Car

Perhaps more than any other railroad car-type, gondolas (also known as simply "gons"), a car related closely to the flatcar with its low ribbed sides, is the catchall car of the railroad industry. Often getting little respect this it is typically beaten to death but is loved for its multitude of uses. The history of this utilitarian car can be traced back to the earliest years of the industry itself. For many years the gondola remained basically the same in design and character. However, in the 20th century several specialized types were designed including a side-dump version, one which could carry large sheets of steel, and the most popular in today's industry the "Bathtub" gondola for use in hauling coal. In any event, this car appears very likely to remain an important tool within the industry for many years to come.

Chicago & Illinois Midland crane #X41 and gondola #X85 are tied up in the small yard at Springfield, Illinois between MOW jobs during August of 1965.

If you come across one riding along within a train do not be surprised to see its sides bowed outwards from all of the heavy loads dropped into it over the years. Likewise, gondolas are rarely ever maintained any more than they have to be, which usually means that as long as their bearings, truck assemblies, knuckle couplers, and air-hoses work properly little more is ever done with them (meaning they usually turn into rust buckets except for the reporting marks which must be visible). However, gons are also one of the most versatile of railroad cars, being used for everything from carrying junk and scrap metal to new rails, steel coils, and other commodities.

The gondola’s humble beginnings date back to essentially the beginning of our country’s railroads themselves around 1830, being first used on early tramways and railways to haul coal. Throughout the years the car, like all of its other companion types has grown longer, stronger and even specialized to more efficiently move differing kinds of material. Today the standard gondola, resembling a flatcar with low sides, generally measures somewhere in the range of 50 feet with a capacity of near 100 tons. For instance, today one can find all different kinds of gondola types. Some gons look nearly like boxcars but have open tops and are commonly used for lightweight materials like woodchips. Others have hatched tops to cover goods from the outside weather, and some even appear as the common hopper car which typically carries coal.

In this rather peculiar move two F7As and a string of first-generation Geeps tote a single gondola loaded with steel through a grade crossing at Waukegan, Illinois during April of 1962. The author notes that this is actually a local freight setting out the car for a local customer.

One of the first noticeable changes to the design occurred in 1905 when the Ralston Steel Car Company of Columbus, Ohio came up with a drop-bottom system with outward chutes that allowed the floor to be manually opened and use the force of gravity to quickly and efficiently remove the car's contents, which would disperse to the sides. Many railroads found this to be useful in a wide range of applications, such as in maintenance-of-way service operating as a ballast cars, which could dispense the stone to the sides of the rails. Today, gondolas designed this way are still used in such a fashion. During the second-half of the 20th century a similar version to this design came into use, the "Bathtub" gondola.

Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific RS11 #3605 pulls two gondolas and a caboose near rural Virginia, Minnesota, probably as part of a work train, on August 22, 1966.

This version employs wide, bottom "belly" doors that can be opened to immediately dispense their contents. Railroads found this design useful in coal service since the car could carry more product than the hopper (which is built with chutes within the structure for unloading) and yet still quickly be unloaded. Today, this gondola has become nearly as common as the hopper. Gons are sometimes mistaken for hopper cars. The reason that the car is still classified as a gondola is because it does not have angled drop-bottom hatches or chutes like open-top hopper cars (if gons are being used to haul coal they are usually emptied all at once by being tipped upside down or having their load immediately emptied from their 90-degree drop-bottom hatches). In other words, hoppers contain some type of angled or sloped drop-bottom chutes, which use the force of gravity to quickly unload their cargo without having to tilt or turn the car upside down in any way.

Other versions of the gondola that can techincally be classified as such due to their very design includes the coil car, used to haul large sheets of rolled steel (which typically are covered to remain out of the elements) and the well car, which has a depressed center and low sides to haul one or two intermodal ship containers. In recent years this car has become particularly in high demand due to the explosion in this market. While the original gondola design will likely always retain their image as the least respected of all railroad freight cars roaming our nation’s rails, they will also likely always retain their important function for the railroads by hauling either scrap metal and junk or dense bulk materials and general merchandise. Whatever its use may be on a day-to-day basis the gondola certainly will not be retired anytime soon.


An elderly Penn Central gondola soldiers on in maintenance service years after the carrier went under. The car is seen here tied down in Charlotte, North Carolina on April 12, 2006.

For more reading about gondolas 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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