There aren’t many freight cars big enough to make it to the Supreme Court – but the Southern’s innovative Big John did. And it paved the way for a host of new freight car designs for multiple commodities, making the railroads competitive once again.
The Big John
Up until the 1960s, grain generally traveled by rail in 40 foot boxcars. Although they were harder to load and unload, the cars could be used throughout the year in general service when not needed for the grain rush. Faced with growing competition from trucks and barges on new Federally funded interstates and inland waterways, the railroads were loosing this business rapidly. Some railroads sought protection in rate regulation. The Southern would beat them with technology.
Engineers on the Southern, working with the Magor Car Company, developed a new super-sized covered hopper. The first Big Johns hit the rails in 1960. Made of light-weight aluminum, and with a carrying capacity of 97 tons, the cars featured four compartments so that multiple types of grain could be shipped in the same car. An additional order, with a 100 ton capacity, arrived in 1961-1962. Twelve round roof hatches were used for loading and there were eight discharge outlets on the bottom of the car (four on each side of the center sill.) In addition to the Southern, the Soo and Seaboard Coast Line purchased similar cars.
The cars were nearly double the size of the largest covered hoppers in regular use. This allowed the Southern to slash its rates for grain shipments from $10.50 / ton to as little as $3.97. Not only was this much cheaper than their old rail rates, it was also cheaper than the trucking or even Federally supported barge companies could offer. Now it was the competition filing injunctions with the ICC against the railroad’s lower “unfair” rates.
The ICC forced the Southern to maintain its rates in 1961 while it heard arguments. After nearly two years of deliberation, they allowed only a partial reduction. The Southern took the case to Federal Court and ultimately achieved victory in 1963. The first revenue movement of grain in the Big John’s came just days later from Cincinnati.
In 1965, Southern went back to Magor for 500 “Super Big Johns” with an even greater capacity of 130 tons. These cars were 61 feet long, 15 feet tall and came at a cost of nearly $12 million. These cars also featured a long center loading trough in the roof of the car.
The cars survived into the Norfolk Southern era. Although the aluminum sides showed the effects of years in the weather, it seems an appropriate badge for a battle hard-fought and a legacy well-earned. Their victory was not just for farmers using the Southern Railroad. The Big John paved the way for larger cars and lower rates for many commodities on the rails, helping lay the tracks for their resurgence in coming decades.