Chapter 4: Rail Equipment

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In this section, we look at the freight railcar types in use today and identify some of the types of material each carries.  We also look at how to identify cars by their markings and understand some of the rail car parts that cause the bad order notifications that IntelliTrans receives. Understanding this helps us to better serve our customers.

Railcar Classifications:

There are eight primary different railcar classifications; each is used for different types of material loading.  We manage shipments in almost all the classifications shown below, and our team understands what each of them is designed to haul.

BOXCARS can be used to haul many different things, from food to paper, to auto parts. They come in many different sizes, from 40 to 86 feet and were once the most common freight car.

FLATCARS can be used for many different things from hauling truck trailers, to army tanks, to logs and poles. There are many different types of flat cars. Bulkhead flats have a bulkhead at each end. Some flat cars are specially designed to carry very heavy loads and may have recessed or dropped-deck centers, or as many as 16 axles.

REFRIGERATED CARS are used to haul foods that must be kept cold. Currently most 'refers' are equipped with diesel-powered cooling units, in the past, trains had to make ice stops to load cars with ice. Refrigerated cars are rare these days as most refrigerated cargo now moves by truck.

GONDOLA CARS can also be used for a variety of things. In railroad Maintenance of Way service, they are used to transport discarded tie plates, cross ties, and even sections of pre-built track. In revenue service, they are used to haul scrap metal and large, thick sheets of steel.

COVERED HOPPER cars are used to carry grain, sand, plastic pellets, and other things that cannot get wet. They have round hatches at the top for loading and large hopper doors underneath for unloading.  Most covered hopper cars are custom built and equipped to carry specific commodities.

OPEN HOPPERS (open tops) are used to haul wood chips, coal, ballast, or other types of rock. In Maintenance of Way service, hoppers carry ballast. In revenue service, they usually haul coal. Hoppers can differ in the number of bays they have. Small ones have 2 bays; large hoppers have 4 to 6 bays. Modern hopper cars don't have hopper doors for unloading; they are simply rotated upside-down to dump.

TANK CARS can come in many different sizes and carry many different things from corrosives to lighter than air gasses. Small tank cars have capacities of a few thousand gallons. Large tank cars can carry very heavy loads and can have 8 or more axles. Tank cars for lighter than air gasses, such as helium, can have a loaded weight less than their tare weight.  Tank cars are specialized equipment for the shipment of bulk liquids.  Cars are supplied with various linings, loading and unloading fittings, safety appliances, and other characteristics as dictated by regulations.

Other types of cars are:

  • AUTORACK is a large excess height car used to haul road vehicles by rail. They are very tall and very long. There are basically three types, double level, triple-level, and Automax. The double level models are most common. The Automax car is an articulated double-level autorack. Amtrak uses a version of an autorack on its Auto Train.

  • CENTERBEAM cars are usually used to ship sheets of wood or drywall on either side of a center beam.  Centerbeam cars are specialized flat cars.

  • COILED STEEL cars are specially outfitted to haul coiled steel. Most of the time they are moved with covers on to keep water off the steel and protect from unwinding of the steel coils.  Coiled steel cars fall into the gondola car category.

  • WELL CARS are also known as double-stack cars. They can haul one container on top of another. Many well cars are articulated and come in one, three, or five sections. They are considered one car since the sections always remain together and each piece is dependent on another.