Flatcars are one of the most simple freight car designs, but also one of the easiest to adapt to special loads. One of the most common adaptations is the use of fixed ends, or bulkheads, to protect neighboring cars from a load that shifts during transit.
A large load, like a long train, has a lot of momentum. A quick start or a sudden stop caused by the slack action of the couplers at the end of a long train, an emergency brake application, or just a hard coupling in the yard may be enough to break the tie-down straps and send a flatcar’s load hurtling beyond the end of the car. This is dangerous in any circumstance, but if the flatcar and load are coupled to an occupied locomotive, caboose, or a car filled with hazardous materials the situation can become much worse.
Today, most railroads place restrictions on where a shiftable load may be placed in the train. But a bulkhead flatcar minimizes these dangers and eliminates this added operating headache.
Despite the fixed ends, the sides of these flatcars remain open to the deck and can otherwise be loaded and unloaded like any other flat. The loads must also be secured to the deck to prevent loss over the car sides. Like most flatcars, most bulkhead flats have rows of stake or tie-down pockets along the sides where these security devices can be attached.
Bulkhead flatcars are used to carry the same loads you would associate with other flatcars as well. Lumber, steel products of all shapes and sizes and large machinery are the most common. As long as the load fits within the length of the car and can be loaded / unloaded from the side, a bulkhead flatcar will serve well. Many loads are covered in tarps or wrapped in plastic for added protection. These “mystery loads” can be easy and enjoyable modeling projects. (See how to make your own in this previous blog.)
The bulkheads themselves come in many shapes and sizes. The main structural part of most bulkheads is steel. The wall facing the load may be made of steel or wood. With some loads, the bulkheads not only prevent shifting, they help support the stacks themselves such as pulpwood flatcars.
Most common are cars with ends as tall as the typical boxcar. Short and mid-sized bulkheads are also used for loads like steel slabs. These heavy loads fill the car’s weight capacity in only a few feet of vertical height. Lowering the ends reduces the light weight of the car, in turn offering some increased capacity for the load without sacrificing safety.
The Erie Lackawanna likely has the record for the lowest bulkheads with fixed bulkheads only 12″ tall! Because the ends were permanently attached, the cars carried the same “FB” designation used by all bulkhead flatcars.
No matter how tall or how small, bulkhead flatcars are an important part of the railroad freight car picture. With loads as diverse as the cars themselves, you never know what you may find.