Freight Car Friday – USRA Double-Sheathed Boxcars

15 11 2013

Last week we took an overall look at the freight cars developed by the United States Railway Administration during World War I. Let’s follow up on that this week with a closer look at one of the USRA prototypes reproduced by Lionel – the double-sheathed boxcar.

What’s a Double-Sheathed Boxcar?


Plans for the USRA double-sheathed boxcar from the Railway Mechanical Engineer show the prominence of the fish-belly underframe.

A double-sheathed boxcar has sheathing, or siding, on both sides of the structural members which make up the sides of the car. This gives the car a smooth-sided appearance on the exterior. On the USRA’s double-sheathed car, those interior braces were made of wood, not steel. This reduced the weight of the car and construction costs, but it also lessened its capacity and durability.

To help compensate for the reduced strength of the wood construction of the walls compared to the single-sheathed design which had an exposed steel Warren Truss frame, the double-sheathed cars were rated at 40 tons while the single-sheathed version carried a 50 ton rating. Also, the double-sheathed cars featured a fish-belly underframe. This thicker casting was one of the distinctive features of the car.


The C&NW owned 1250 USRA double-sheathed boxcars – all given even numbers.

When the USRA was formed, the merits of single vs. double-sheathed designs were still very much in debate among the American railroads. (Such discord was more common than agreement in those years.) The same was true among members of the committee.

There were concerns over production costs and delays due to the special length of boards required for the single-sheath car. There was also great debate over the need for cars as large as 50 ton capacity. Consequently the USRA split their intended orders for boxcars and proceeded with both designs for production.

Roster of USRA Cars

The double-sheathed boxcar was initially assigned to 28 railroads. For a variety of reasons, some of these cars were not delivered and reallocated to other lines. 500 of the initial 25,000 car order were never delivered. Those 500 cars can be attributed to an order of ventilated boxcars for the Florida East Coast car Ferry Company.


USRA Double-Sheathed Boxcar Roster


The roster shown here includes the initial and final assignments. Not included are any of the “USRA clones” built after the war. Click here for a pdf version of the roster: USRA double sheathed boxcar roster *Data for the roster was compiled from “USRA Freight Cars: An Experiment in Standardization” by James E. Lane, DBA, CPA in Railroad History No. 128, published by the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society in Spring, 1973.

The vast majority of these cars were built by American Car and Foundry, with 11,000 assigned. Other builders included Keith Car and Manufacturing Co. (1500), Laconia Car Co. (1000), Lenoir Car Works (2000), Liberty Car and Equipment Co. (1000), McGuire-Cummings Manufacturing Co. (500), Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Co. (4000), Pacific Car and Foundry Co. (2000), Standard Steel Car Co. (2000).

After the War

ATSF box

Even after years of revenue service, many of the USRA cars ended their careers in company service. The Santa Fe had one of the largest fleets of these cars when new.

Following the war, these cars still had a lot of service life in them of course. Many railroads rebuilt their cars with steel sides. Often, they would retain the original fish-belly frame making these rebuilds much easier to spot. Some cars lasted long enough to help out in the war effort again in World War II. Rebuilding programs varied from road to road with some extending the height of the car, replacing roofs and or ends in addition to simply re-sheathing with steel.

While the USRA cars were not the last double-sheathed boxcars built, they were certainly the design’s final hurrah. As this design was on its way out of favor, the single-sheathed USRA boxcar design was the car of choice for railroads looking to build duplicates, although there were also duplicates of this design built at least as late as 1951. With the quantities and variety of operating roads, one of these cars should look right at home on just about any steam-era layout.



6 responses

15 11 2013
Andrew Falconer

If Lionel has not made Wabash yet, Wabash has to be one of the next railroads chosen. Wabash did not have a huge variety of freight cars, so anything to accompany all the O Scale Wabash locomotives would be good.

17 11 2013
Louis Bruette

I have a question. why were there no double sheathed Boxcars for the B&O and PRR? Thank you for the post!

18 11 2013

There were many reasons why some roads were not allocated cars. The primary reason was that the USRA had looked at their case and determined they had adequate resources to cover their traffic. Some roads requested cars and were denied, others had order quantities changed, and some didn’t order any but were allocated cars anyway. In the case of the PRR, they did receive some single-sheath boxcars. Most roads that received one type didn’t get the other. Both the B&O and PRR also received other types of USRA cars as well.

18 11 2013

I’m assuming that would be why The SOU, N&W and L&N aren’t listed either…
Interesting, are rosters like this available for all the USRA cars? Just curious…

18 11 2013

If you can track down an old issue of Railroad History, you’ll find complete rosters for all cars: “USRA Freight Cars: An Experiment in Standardization” by James E. Lane, DBA, CPA in Railroad History No. 128, published by the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society in Spring, 1973.

We may feature some of the other USRA cars in future articles here as well.

18 11 2013

Found an issue on amazon, thanks so much!

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: