Most modelers may associate Bethlehem Steel with products they’d find loaded on a train car, not necessarily a builder of the cars themselves. But Bethlehem did have a long history of freight car construction.
Bethlehem Steel acquired it railcar operations through the acquisition of Midvale Steel in 1923. Railcar construction was based out of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Bethlehem continued production at this plant until 1991 when the division was sold and became Johnstown America. While the company built many different types of cars, it has always been best known for coal car production.
As a division of a steel manufacturer, it is no surprise that the company was always an innovator when it came to the steel make up of its cars. The company first used its Mayari R steel in an all-welded hopper for the Lehigh Valley in 1947. This highly resilient steel was well suited for coal cars as it resisted corrosion from the acidic coal loads. (Many later cars were not even painted except for the necessary markings.)
Bethlehem saw its markets explode in the 1960s. Working in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Railroad and Pennsylvania Power and Light, Bethlehem began construction of large numbers of 100 ton capacity hoppers for new unit coal trains. The origin of the design can be traced to a Norfolk and Western prototype. With the PRR being the common connection between all of the parties (owning a majority interest in the N&W, primary transportation provider to PP&L and a long-time partner with BSC whose Johnstown plant sat adjacent to their historic mainline) the 100 ton car quickly spread beyond the Virginia and Pennsylvania coal fields.
Besides selling finished cars, Bethlehem Steel often supplied its cars in “kit” form. Partially completed frames, sides, trucks and hardware were loaded into gondolas and flatcars and shipped to a railroad’s home shop for final assembly. This hastened production, cut costs and helped some railroads keep their own shop forces busy. Thousands of kits made the short trip over the mountain and around Horse Shoe Curve to the Pennsylvania’s own car shops in Hollidaysburg well into the Conrail era.
Bethlehem Steel followed on the success of their unit train hopper cars with pioneering coal gondolas in the late 1980s. This included cars built predominantly and somewhat ironically of aluminum. Like the hoppers before them, these rotary-dump coal gondolas would become the standard for many railroads and utilities. Some of Bethlehem / Johnstown America’s more interesting coal cars include the Burlington Northern’s experimental “Trough Train” – an articulated gondola.
Besides hoppers and gondolas, BSC’s most common cars were 89′ flatcars used in intermodal and other services.
Successor Johnstown American became FreightCar America in 2004. The company now has operations in four states. Today they are the leading builder of aluminum-bodied coal cars in the United States, with additional car designs for ore, aggregates, automotive and intermodal traffic – all continuing the strengths established decades before by Bethlehem Steel.