High-cube boxes usually stand out in any train. Their extra height adds some diversity and visual interest to any consist. But even some of the cars that today seem to be standard height were once considered oversized.
Since the beginning of railroads, freight cars have continually grown heavier, longer and taller. This process isn’t as quick or easy as it seems. Larger cars require larger clearances – both on the railroad that owns them and all of the railroads it may travel over. This not only applies to bridges and tunnels but also to private clearance issues like utility lines and customers’ buildings over which the railroad may have little control. Consequently, it can take years or even decades until enough of the infrastructure is in place to make larger cars practical.
Cars like the Pennsylvania Railroad’s X-31 were among the first to push the clearance envelope in the 20th Century. These new cars made it possible to transport finished automobiles more efficiently. These paved the way for new “standard” height cars like the PS-1 boxcars that followed. Boxcars remained a fairly constant 15 foot height through the 1950s. In the 1960s, the interest in higher and longer cars renewed again, this time not for the shipment of finished autos, but auto parts.
The new 17 foot tall “High Cube” boxcars took their name from their height and squared-off design. Beyond this common feature, high cubes come in many lengths and body styles. Pullman Standard built some cars as short as 40 feet for appliance service and they and several others have built cars as long as 86 feet for auto parts. Add in cushioned coupler draft gear, and these cars come out at 92 feet in length! Other common lengths include 50 and 60 foot cars.
The first cars often came equipped with high-mounted hand brakes and roof walks like other conventional equipment of the era. These running boards were especially dangerous on these tall cars as they left little if any clearance should somebody actually be up there. Soon after the introduction of the early high-cubes, regulations requiring running boards on the roof – a hold over from the days when a brakemen needed to move from car to car to use hand brakes to stop the train – were eliminated. Running boards were removed from these cars and in most cases the ladders were shortened and handbrakes moved to a closer position near the ground. Future new construction on high cube and standard boxcars in the 1970s and beyond had this feature as standard.
Commonly identified with auto parts service, high cubes can be found hauling many commodities. Anything that is generally light weight for its size is a good candidate for these cars. Appliances and furniture, are common. With improvements in trucks and car structure, even heavier loads like paper rolls and lumber can be found in 50 to 60 foot high cubes.
Once the tallest thing on rails, covered auto racks and double-stack container cars have quickly passed the height of high-cube boxcars – at least for now!