The American Freight Train, By Jim Boyd

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

One of the most fascinating books describing the operations of freight trains is one named after them, The American Freight Train, written by the late Jim Boyd. This title was originally released in 2001 by Andover Junction Publications, owned by MBI Publishing, the latter of which has an entire library of books covering various aspects of the railroad industry. In Boyd's book you will learn about what kind of freight trains haul and the typical motive power used. Overall, it is more than 150 pages in length with eleven different chapters. It seems like that in most MBI train books there is a recurring theme of well-known authors/photographers who bring them to life and The American Freight Train is no different with names like Mike Schafer, Jim Shaughnessy, John Dziobko, and Brian Solomon contributing in some fashion. Additionally, as another of MBI's hardcover books that is filled with excellent, and often historic, images you can feature this one on the coffee table or give it to young loved one or family member with an interest in trains.

Jim's book opens with an acknowledgements where he gives thanks to those individuals mentioned above and others like J.J. Young (some of who's photos I have in my own collection), Dave Ingles, Warren Calloway, Mike Del Vecchio, and Herb Harwood. The book's foreword was written by Mike Schafer who talks about Mr. Boyd, first meeting him, and their long-lasting friendship over the years. In the introduction, entitled "The Invisible Freight Train", Jim talks about the amazing railroad system that operates throughout North America today despite the fact that most of the general public is unaware of it since its collapse during the 1970s and discontinuance of passenger operations. He concludes the section by quickly previewing what you will read about in his book making sure to mention that all areas of the country are highlighted at least once.

The American Freight Train's first chapter covers the earliest types of railroad, the tramway that dates back to England in the first few years of the 19th century. Here, Jim highlights the earliest known such company, the Swansea & Mumbles of Wales and also goes on to talk about other early companies in that region. Later, the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company is featured along with the transition of water and gravity powered lines to the first true steam powered railroads and locomotives (like the one purchased by Horatio Allen and George Stephenson from England). The book's second chapter completes its look at the industry's early years by talking about things like redundancy to improve efficiency (a la, a standard gauge), improved safety practices (like the automatic air brake), and government oversight.

In chapter three, entitled "What Makes A Freight Locomotive?", the book really gets into the actual freight operations of railroads and how it all works. Here, you will learn about the many types of steam locomotives, from small 4-4-0 Americans to large 2-10-2 Santa Fes, 4-8-4 Northerns, and massive Mallets and articulateds. Jim also offers a section describing a steamer's wheel arrangement and what the numbers and dashes mean. If you are confused about this or are interested in learning more you should certainly enjoy this reading. Most of the chapter, however, covers diesel locomotives beginning with the earliest versions found in the boxcab designs and articulated streamliners. Additionally, the Electro-Motive Corporations EA and FT cab models are covered as well as the road-switcher, Geeps, six-axle designs, second-generation units, and the latest locomotives being built today.

In chapter four, The American Freight Train provides a look at rail yards and their importance to operations. Jim covers topics such as switching moves, hump yards, and what you will typically find a standard yard. Overall, this is one of the shortest chapters in book although quite interesting, especially if you are not familiar with the inner workings of yards. By chapter five, entitled "King Coal," the book takes a bit of a different course and begins discussing various commodity types, how they are moved, and the cars used to do so. This essentially makes up the rest of The American Freight Train. In chapter six Mr. Boyd highlights the movement of steel/iron and chapter seven looks at the many types of boxcars and what you can usually find in them (from early cars to livestock, and everything in between).

In chapter eight the book discusses the movement of food-related products over the years from early refers that used ice to present-day covered hoppers for grain and mechanically refrigerated cars. Perhaps it was Jim's intention to save the best two chapters for last first by highlighting the often-forgotten logging railroads (and other movement of timber products) and finally taking a look at the classic caboose. Here, Mr. Boyd gives an ever-so-brief history of the car in about ten pages covering its earliest years of use to the final designs of the 1970s and early 1980s that offered sleeping quarters, restrooms, and in some cases even air-conditioning.

If you are not that familiar with trains or their history of operations in the United States, after reading through The American Freight Train you should at least have a good overview of the subject. Once again, I really can't stress enough just how good the photography is throughout the book. While several photographers' work is featured much of it comes from Jim's own collection and in the opening foreword Mike Schafer comments on just how good his stuff was, even decades ago upon first meeting him. If you are already pretty familiar with railroads but just want a book with excellent images you can't go wrong with this one.