Soon after the energy potential of petroleum was discovered in the 1850s, the railroad tank car developed quickly to meet the boom. These “cans of energy” helped revolutionize the world.
The first noted transport of oil by rail took place in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1862. The shipment consisted of 44 barrels of oil loaded on a flatcar. By the end of the Civil War, these smaller barrels had given way to larger wooden vats – usually two or three per car.
Again, within just a few short years, those large barrels gave way to the single, horizontal tank that we still recognize as the common form of a tank car today. Most tanks were made of steel, heavily riveted and had a dome on the top to allow for expansion of the product.
Although the tank car has been used for many products from water to chemicals, the oil and petroleum products which hastened its development have dominated its history.
During World War II, solid trains of tank cars had top priority on the rails as enemies prevented safe use of coastal waterways. East coast ports alone required daily shipments of 1 million barrels – delivered in a fleet of some 74,000 tank cars. As this fuel was of vital need to our forces overseas, new systems of car utilization were developed to ensure the cars never sat idle. Many of those plans were retained and even extended to other commodities shipments after the armistice.
Following the war, demand for gasoline and other petroleum products continued to rise. Railroads faced new competition however in large pipelines which could deliver the refined products safely and seamlessly across the continent. Railroads continued to refine tank car designs to become larger, more efficient and specialized for specific loads.
Thanks to ethanol and new sources of North American crude oil however, the past decade has seen a tremendous growth in tank car construction and use. Once again on some rail lines, it is not uncommon to find two or more solid trains of loaded tank cars heading to ports and distribution centers each day. And the carrying capacity of these 70 to 100 car trains is more than double that of their 1940s predecessors.
These new trains are of course not only delivering energy, they’re pumping jobs back into the economy as well. Not only with more work for train crews but at the car foundries which are now once again rushing to keep up with new orders. The tank car will still be fueling the world’s economy for years to come.