The boxcar has been around since the earliest days of railroading. The basic form has remained relatively constant since the 1830s, but boxcars have seen many adaptations over the centuries. Originally boxcars hauled just about everything that needed protection from the elements. They remain among the most common cars on the rails today.
The General Service Boxcar
Basic boxcars are just that, large boxes on wheels usually with a door on each side. Originally constructed of wood, the addition of steel components began in the early 20th Century. Wood and composite cars were still comonly seen in service into the 1950s. From the 1920s to the 1960s, the most common size boxcar was 40 feet in length. Longer cars for more speciallized loads like finished automobiles began showing up as early as the 1930s. Today’s general service cars are 50 to 60 feet in length.
The standard no-frills boxcar offered tremendous flexibility in service. Lumber, bagged foods, finished manufactured goods, paper and more could all share the same car. This meant more loading opportunities and less empty moves. Some loads required extra care however.
Adaptations and Specializations
For better service, railroads began equipping boxcars with special equipment to better handle different loads. Sometimes these modifications couldn’t be seen from the outside like insulation and special load dividers / restraints on the interior walls. More noticeable but still moderate changes included larger or extra doors, special couplers and draft gear to cushion the car and extended heights.
Some boxcars were modified even further. Roof loading doors were added for grain, flour and clay service cars. This provided a car that was usefull during seasonal harvests but could be kept in service all year long. Insulated cars were useful for temperature-sensitive loads like foods that required stable conditions but not refrigeration. In the 1960s, enormous cars up to 86 feet in length began shipping light-density autoparts.
Over the past 60 years, more specialized cars like covered hoppers, autoracks and centerbeam flatcars have replaced many of these boxcars. And trucking has also had a large impact on boxcar ladings. Even still, the classic boxcar will remain a common sight on the rails for decades to come.