Black Friday has come to be an unofficially recognized holiday for many. In between your shopping sprees and turkey-induced naps, take a break to enjoy some of the freight cars that keep the economy rolling.
Perhaps the distinctively black freight car most appropriate to this day were the Overnight service boxcars of the Southern Pacific. Like the more colorful Pacemaker, Timesaver and Merchandise Service cars of other roads, these cars were used to carry priority “LCL” (Less than Car Load) shipments. At this time of year, these cars would get quite the workout hauling packages from manufacturers to distributors and gifts being shipped all across the continent.
These cars, and others like them, were the parcel service of the day. Despite the priority schedules and special paint, these operations were very labor and capital-intensive and regularly performed at a loss for the railroads. By the 1960s, most of these loads began shifting from the rails to the roads. When they did come to the tracks, it was on board a trailer on a flatcar, not a boxcar.
The cars most quickly associated with the color black are usually hoppers. Black paint has been a popular choice for coal cars for more than a century. It is a logical choice for two reasons; it hides the coal dust well, and it’s cheap.
But black was not a universal choice for hoppers. Many railroads chose a brown or mineral red to match the rest of their rolling stock. Today, many stainless steel and aluminum cars are left largely unpainted to conserve costs.
Black is also a common choice for tank cars, where the color often serves a more practical use. The dark color absorbs the sun’s heat and helps keep the car, and its contents, warm. For some commodities, this is beneficial in unloading. Everything from asphalt to corn syrup is usually hauled in black tanks.
For other cars this heat and expansion can be a serious threat and those cars are painted white or light gray.
So whether your holidays hold something sweet, a precious package, or lumps of coal in your stocking – black freight cars have had a role in getting them there.