Freight Car Friday – Santa Fe’s Water Tank Cars

27 06 2014

Railroads carry an amazing variety of liquids in their tank cars. As the summer season starts, it’s a reminder that one of the most basic tank car commodities can also be the most important – water.

water tank

An old Santa Fe water car stands ready in Victorville, California as a BNSF stack train hurries past on its way to Long Beach in 2014.

As railroads built their empires, particularly through the arid southwestern parts of the United States, the lack of suitable water quickly became a concern for thirsty workers and steam locomotives. In the earliest days, water cars were nothing more than large tanks mounted on flatcars. Once tank car designs became more common near the start of the 20th Century, new steel water tank cars came into service.

The lack of water wasn’t only a concern for the railroads during their construction phase. If the line hoped to encourage settlement and businesses to open along the new route, a fresh water supply was a critical necessity. When springs or natural sources couldn’t be found, the railroad was the most expeditious and reliable pipeline. Even as railroad’s improved the capacity of steam locomotive tenders and reduced the need for water stops, and even long after diesels replaced the need altogether, many of these towns still depended on tank cars for their own survival.


Lionel reproduced an earlier version of one of the Santa Fe’s water cars in 2009.

The Santa Fe had one of the largest and most visible fleets of water cars for public service. Filled at reservoirs and public water supplies, the tank cars were taken to remote towns in the eastern California and Arizona deserts where they were spotted by the local freight train at each town’s siding. Several cars would be kept on hand for quick delivery to ensure towns didn’t run dry.

Many of these tank cars survive and remain in service to this day. In addition to supplying the public, the cars can still be used for company service as well. The cars could also be pressed into service for any number of emergency operations. Adding one of these cars to your model railroad’s roster could provide some interesting operations.



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