Railroads have been carrying finished automobiles since the days of the Model T. For nearly forty years, vehicles were carried in boxcars. Because of their large size and relatively light weight, conventional cars were very inefficient. Railroads attempted new boxcar designs, like the Pennsylvania’s X31, to increase capacity and added larger side and even end-doors to make loading and unloading easier.
In the 1960s however, after Trailer-on-Flatcar trains had paved the way for longer cars, railroads began looking at the same flat cars for transporting smaller vehicles. Platforms, or racks, attached to the deck of the flat car allowed vehicles to be stacked two or three high. Bi-level racks are used for trucks and vans, tri-levels for automobiles. The efficiency in loading and handling these cars made them an immediate success on railroads with the clearances to handle them.
In most cases, railroads purchased the racks and welded them onto flat cars leased from Trailer Train Corporation. Some railroads own the entire car. Autoracks, like intermodal equipment, are operated in pools. Railroads supply cars to the nationwide pool which simplifies billing and optimizes car utilization. The amount of cars supplied to the pool is proportional to the amount used. This means that any autorack can show up in any train, making auto trains a colorful mix of railroads from across the continent.
Beginning in the 1980s, railroads began adding protective side panels to the sides of the cars to prevent damage from vandals throwing rocks. End doors and roofs soon followed. These were all necessary to reduce damage claims caused by man and nature. The addition of car roofs however made them too tall again for many railroads and prompted some to raise clearances. The latest security features have been focused on reducing damage to the loads from spray paint which blows throw the ventilation holes in the panels when the racks are hit with graffiti.
Other changes to the cars include better coupler cushioning devices to reduce damage from coupling and slack. Articulated racks take the concept a step further and eliminate one coupling by joining two cars on an articulated joint. Even larger cars have also emerged, again filling the templates proven by larger intermodal cars. Cars capable of carrying three tiers of trucks and vans are now on the rails, running on the same routes that can handle double-stack containers.
The automotive industry continues to be one of the railroads’ best customers, both in receiving parts and shipping finished loads. Although short-haul delivery is often done by trucks, finished vehicle moves greater than 300 miles still generally move by rail. With production centered just a few assembly plants nationwide, the autorack should have a strong presence on the rails for years to come.