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 andspeculated 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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.