Freight Car Friday – USRA Standard Freight Cars

8 11 2013

On December 28, 1917, amid the chaos created on the rails from the unprecedented traffic demands of the “Great War,” President Woodrow Wilson shifted control of America’s railroads to the newly-created United States Railroad Administration. Most model railroaders are already familiar with the USRA’s standard steam locomotive designs. Much less has been written about the 100,000 USRA standard freight cars.


The need to create these freight cars is seen in the purpose of the USRA itself. In the months leading up to the government takeover, America’s railroads were grinding themselves and the entire industrial infrastructure to a halt. Much has been written and

USRA Mallet

The USRA’s standardized steam locomotives are well documented and widely accepted. The 100,000 freight cars ordered have received less attention and acclaim.

speculated as to the factors behind this failure; the causes were many and muddied. The result however was clear. Thousands of tons of goods were piling up on the ground and rotting in the fields because the railroads could not deliver them fast enough to the ports for shipment to our armies fighting in Europe.

Sighting the need for efficient rail transportation to the war effort, President Wilson used his wartime powers to place the private companies under temporary government control. It was no doubt as controversial in 1917 as it would be today but there was no time for debate.

single sheathed

The single-sheathed boxcar was the most common of the USRA designs.

Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo assumed control of the USRA in addition to his regular duties. The USRA set forth to improve the efficiency of railroads by implementing a number of local changes in line with a nation-wide plan and goal. Equipment would be pooled, terminals and yards shared, routings made more direct (except in cases where a circuitous routing would be more efficient due to congested areas like Pittsburgh) and operations like passenger ticketing and freight classifications centralized. And of course to meet the need for additional equipment the USRA would order thousands of locomotives and freight cars to standardized designs.

The Fight for Standardization

Railroads had made some minor moves towards national standards prior to WWI. The Master Car Builders Association had created universal standards for trucks, couplers and airbrake components – essential for the free interchange of cars between lines – in the first decades of the 1900s. Other roads that operated as part of “systems” or under common ownership also often adopted standardized car or locomotive designs among themselves.

composite gon

The composite gondola had unloading doors in the floor making it suitable for a variety of loads including coal.

But as far as the design and construction of cars and locomotives as a whole, each of the major railroads still considered its needs unique and its engineers superior to the competition. Indeed the efficacy of the USRA’s standardization was as much debated after the war as prior to the exercise.

Again, the USRA did not have time for the luxury of debate over the value of standardization as a whole. There would of course be plenty of dialog over what would constitute the “best” standard design. Despite this, the USRA announced designs for freight cars by the end of March, 1918 – just three months after its creation. This was in no small part to existing studies which had been performed by the American Railroad Association leading up to the war. The ARA’s findings were no less criticized by the railroads, but the USRA had the unmatched ability to put the debate into practice.

The Cars

Although more cars were designed, and as well there were some “non-standard” cars built under the USRA’s license and operation, the 100,000-delivered freight car fleet came down to just five designs:

  • 50 ton single-sheathed boxcar
  • 40 ton double-sheathed boxcar
  • 55 ton all-steel hopper
  • 50 ton composite drop-bottom gondola
  • 70 ton all-steel mill gondola

The 55 ton hopper was similar to several common hopper designs already in service in the Northeast. These drawings can be found in the April, 1918 issue of Railway Mechanical Engineer.

The designs are reflective on the standard practices of the era with a mixture of wood and steel being used. This was as much for fast assembly and availability of materials as for the still ongoing debate over the best uses of both materials – the strength of steel vs. the light weight of wood.

Note the lack of any flat, tank, stock, reefer, or covered hoppers from the list. Covered hoppers had not really come into vogue yet. Most of the commodities we now associate with them were hauled in boxcars in 1918. Existing fleets of the other designs must have been deemed adequate by the USRA and the railroads as no cars were ordered or produced although there were plans and recommendations for improvements for reefers and even baggage and passenger equipment.

The USRA placed an unprecedented order for 100,000 total cars with 17 different builders for a total cost of $289,453,450 on May 1, 1918. That’s over $4.3 billion in 2012 dollars!

Allocating the Cars

DLW double sheathed

The DL&W received 800 USRA 40-ton double-sheathed boxcars. We’ll take a closer look at the prototype for these Lionel models next week.

Perhaps the only thing more controversial to the railroads than the standards of the cars was who would get them. Some roads asked for cars the USRA determined they really didn’t need. Others did everything they could not to accept the cars they were assigned including going to court. Complicating all of this for the USRA was the fact that peace broke out before all of this construction and allocation could be completed.

Some cars were built before a buyer could be had. These were stenciled with the reporting marks GET (Government Equipment Trust) until the USRA could convince a railroad to take them. The cars were not gifts from Uncle Sam – each road paid for their allotment. Though one has to think that an inventory of excess cars on hand probably didn’t work to the taxpayers’ benefit when the disputed cars were finally sold.

Ultimately, 64 railroads received USRA cars. The breakdown included 50,000 boxcars (25,000 single and 24,500 double sheathed + 500 non-standard ventilated boxcars), 24,500 composite drop-bottom gons, 7,000 hoppers (4,500 standard cars, 500 non-standard twin hoppers and 3,000 non-standard 70 ton 3-bay hoppers) and 4,500 steel gons.


Were the standard freight car designs a success? Like the steam locomotives the grade you give the USRA’s freight cars depends on your perspective. As to the cars themselves, most were in service long enough to serve in the next World War. They were generally regarded as good cars of solid construction and could interchange between railroads without problem.

steel gon

The 70 ton steel gondola was built in relatively low numbers and delivered to only five railroads; all of whom served a large number of steel mills.

The steel hopper, produced in “small” numbers in comparison during the war was adopted with minor changes as a standard car design by the Association of American Railroads and cloned by the tens of thousands.

The boxcars were among the first cars to be rebuilt. The debate over the preferred boxcar design ended quickly after the war in favor of all steel or at the very least single-sheathed cars. Most of the USRA cars would be rebuilt however with improved ends and steel sides. Many of these rebuilt cars would see another 40 years of service.

Ultimately, the USRA may not have been able to settle the argument on the merits of standardization but they did at least open the eyes of many who had dismissed it outright. Over the coming decades the railroads and car builders would continue the trend.

Learning More

Very little has been written in modern publications on these cars. Some of the best information, including the plans shown in these images, can be found from the time of their production. See Volume 92 of the Railway Mechanical Engineer (1918) for lots of great information. An article with drawings can be found in the April issue, but you’ll find smaller news clips about both the standard cars and locomotives scattered throughout the year.

An excellent article on the cars also appeared in Railroad History, Volume 128 of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society (Spring, 1973.) James E. Lane’s history of the cars includes tables outlining both planned and final ownership allocations of the the entire fleet.



3 responses

8 11 2013
Louis Bruette

Outstanding article! Thank you Lionel!

8 11 2013
Ed Moss

Thank you Lionel. My Grandfather was a Gandy Dancer for many different RR’s. He would talk about making trestles in Missouri after WWI, and the new fangled cars that came out of the USRA yards. He thought there was a lot of good ideas, and some what were you thinking of ideas. This article brought back memories of when Grandpa was here to explain what I was seeing when a fast freight went by. Thank you Lionel research staff, thank you.

11 11 2013
Paul E. Fischer

Very nice historical information here. I encourage Lionel to continue to provide special information regarding prototype railroads in this series. I would also really like to see Lionel produce a scale sized and detailed, Legacy Vision line model of a USRA Heavy Mikado. Many railroads used these engines from the mid-teens right until the end of steam. The Milwaukee Road had 100 of them.

Paul Fischer

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