Freight Car Friday – Freight Cars that Changed the World: The “40 and 8”

19 04 2013

The role of railroads in wartime has been well documented. From the American Civil War to today’s conflicts around the globe, railroads remain important assets and targets. Perhaps no single type of car better signifies all of the many roles the rails have played in both war and peace than the “40 and 8.”


The 40&8 is a small car with a big story to tell.

The 40 and 8

Built for general service on the French National Railways in the 1870s, these small wagons were still in regular service when war swept Europe in 1911. With wartime traffic placing unprecedented demands on the railroads, these cars often transported more than just supplies. Their carrying capacity of forty men or eight horses gave them the nickname “40 and 8.”

brake cab

As the cars originally lacked air brakes, small cabs were provided for the brakemen near the handbrake visible just in front of the platform.

Even when compared to American cars of the same era, the 40 and 8s were small. The cars also featured a pair of fixed axles and link-and-hook couplers (buffers were added to the car ends for safety.) Built before the invention of airbrakes, a small cab for the brakeman was provided on one end of the car. Nevertheless, the cars were vital to moving supplies and troops to front lines.

Amazingly, upon returning to France again in World War II, American soldiers found the same cars still in service. Since France was already occupied upon our arrival, many of our troops’ first encounters with the cars came as German POWs. Needless to say, when being used for prisoner transport the aging cars exceeded their 40 man capacity.


The French coupling system was an enhanced version of the basic link-and-pin. By the time of its arrival in the US in 1949, this recently retired car stood in stark technological contrast to American equipment.

After the conflict not only did these cars help in the victory, they also became an iconic symbol of it. Following the war, the people of France sent a thank you gift to the United States. Known as the “Merci Train”, it included 50 of these 40 and 8’s (one for each state and one shared by the Territory of Hawaii and Washington D.C.) loaded with 52,000 gifts.


The remaining cars can be found in parks and museums in their home states. Pennsylvania’s car has its own pavilion surrounded by other military vehicles on the beautiful grounds of Fort Indiantown Gap.

The train arrived by ship in 1949 in New York and the cars were distributed across the country – carried for free on flatcars since they were narrow gauge. Today, 39 of the 50 survive, preserved in museums and parks across the United States. An additional car, used in POW transport, is preserved at Dayton Air Force Base.

While rail canon and armored trains may seem the icons of wartime railroading, the humble 40 and 8 is a lasting symbol of railroads’ role in both war and peace.



6 responses

19 04 2013

Very interesting piece! I’ve often wondered what the significance is of the railroad car as an emblem and the motto “40 and 8” with veterans organizations like the American Legion. Can you shed any light?

22 04 2013

This link should help:

23 04 2013
a.j. mednard

yes you can see a 40&8 at the woonsocket,rhode island 02838 culture they have a history movie in the 40&8 box car. its worth to see. aj menard

11 11 2013

Such informations are always great to read. They answer unasked questions and supply insight to unanswered questions. I say insight because this article leaves me with a nagging image.
The box next to the hand brake implies, at least to me, that the brakeman would “camp out” in that cabin. The North American brake wheel had, now-defunct, a walkway and a ladder. Both methods indicate temporary access. Thus my query as to WHY A SHELTER?

12 11 2013


In North America, by this time the handbrake was (and to this day still is) retained for use only when the car is standing still – the equivalent of the parking brake in your car. Air brakes eliminated the need to use the brakes to actually stop the train. The French railways were slower to adopt the new technology hence a brakeman was sill needed on the car to apply the brakes. Trains were typically much shorter than in the US, so the efficiency of converting the entire fleet to air was less economically convincing. The shelter provided a more secure riding platform for the brakemen. The brakeman stayed with the car as opposed to having to walk the roofs from either the caboose or locomotive.

10 07 2014

I’m with the 40&8, Voiture 269 in Chambers Hill,PA (near Harrisburg). We’re preparing to fabricate a Merci Train as close to the originals as possible. Any assistance will be appreciated. We will post our progress on this site and others as we begin our project.
Scott J. Fonner


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: