“What is that thing?” is a question I often hear trackside from friends less-familiar with trains when one of these passes by. Relative to most other freight cars, the centerbeam flatcar is a new creation. Furthermore, a loaded car looks much different than when empty.
The cars’ design is an extension of the better-known bulkhead flatcar which has large ends to prevent loads from shifting in transit. Center beam cars connect those two end bulkheads with a large wall down the center of the car.
Earlier cars had a nearly solid center partition with oval-shaped “windows” to reduce weight. These are often called “opera window” cars. Early cars were 63 feet in length but designs later grew to 72 feet.
As designs improved, the heavy opera window beam gave way to a lighter and more open structure of vertical and diagonal columns and braces.
In addition to using the centerbeam and bulkheads to secure the load, the cars have brackets along the top of the centerbeam and the sides of the flat car for tie-downs. Loads are bundled together in packages small enough to be handled by the forklifts then carefully stacked and finally tied down with the outer straps. Sometimes these straps will remain attached to the car after being emptied making for an interesting empty.
The cars are used to haul a variety of lumber and building products including boards, plywood and wallboard sheets. The products may be wrapped in bundles and covered in protective plastic sheeting. Other times, the entire load is protected by a plastic sheet. Unprotected loads can also be seen.
Loading and unloading these cars takes a little more care than traditional flatcars or boxcars. Workers must have access to both sides of the car to load / unload evenly. Otherwise the car would become off-balance and tip over. Often these cars are unloaded in the open so lifts have room to work. Enclosed work areas can also be found at larger industries.
The cars have become increasingly popular in the past two decades. Owned by railroads large and small as well as leasing companies, these cars generally operate in pools like autoracks and intermodal equipment. They travel wherever needed for their next load.
It is not uncommon to find different companies’ cars in the same train or even on the same siding. Also, because of the variety of products they can carry and the many different producers and receivers all across the country, it is easy to spot both loaded and empty cars in the same train.
From the variety of colors and roadnames of the cars themselves to the even greater spectrum of loads, these cars make an interesting addition to model railroads. It has been a while since Lionel last made our centerbeam models but they still turn up frequently on the secondary market. They’ll look right at home on model railroads nationwide.