Freight Car Friday – Pennsylvania GLa Hoppers

1 08 2014

With Lionel’s forthcoming models of the GLa and its copies, it’s worth taking a more in-depth look at the car itself. If one only looks at production numbers alone, the GLa has to rank near the top of any list of notable coal car designs. But of course the big picture is so much more interesting than that.

PRR GL

The precursor to the GLa was the GL. These were the first all-steel hoppers on the PRR. Despite similar classes, the GLa represented a major shift in the engineering behind the cars.

Rapid Innovation

The PRR began building its roster of GLa hoppers in 1904. The design emerged from previous GL, GLc and GLca cars which date back as early as 1898 and marked the beginning of steel hoppers on the PRR. The “G” in GL stood for gondola and the hopper as a car type in general was still early enough in its evolution from the gondola that the name hadn’t yet become common. Also, like the drop-bottom gondolas from which they grew, the strength of these early cars was still found in the frame,  with the sides being just extensions to contain the load.

plans

The GLa introduced an important new design change which allowed the sides of the car to carry more of the load.

Although the  class nomenclature would make it appear that this was just another subset, the GLa was really the start of the next era of PRR hopper design. It lacked the “fishbelly” side sills of the earlier car and instead relied upon the side sheets and posts to provide the structural integrity and support the load. This reduced the light weight of the car and increased capacity. In just a few short years, engineers had already made major strides toward maximizing the efficiencies of steel car design.

By the end of production in 1911, the PRR owned 30,256 GLa cars. Some of these were purchased slightly used from several coal companies. They were among the most common hopper on the railroad for the next fifty years.

Unprecedented Longevity

GLa

By its numbers on the PRR alone, the GLa was the most common hopper in the world at one time.

Despite being an “early” design, the cars held up well and had long careers. How many other car types could have locked couplers with both a H3 Consolidation and an SD45?

From 1917 to 1932, the only retirements seem to be due to wreck damage or normal wear. In fact, the PRR bought some additional GLa cars from some of the coal companies which had clones built for their own service. The fleet dropped by about 4000 during the Depression and then again leveled off for about two decades. Large retirements did not begin until the late 1950s. In 1956, the roster still included some 21,840 cars. To put this into perspective, consider that in 1956 the coal-hauling Reading owned 13,015 hoppers total.

shadow keystone

The PRR introduced the “Shadow Keystone” scheme in 1954, hundreds of GLa’s were repainted.

As late as 1973, 77 cars of this class still showed on the record books for Penn Central. All were likely by that time in company service and so far, no photo of one in PC paint has ever surfaced.

There were some production changes over the years. The more modern Berwind cars for example had power hand brakes and straight profile side posts. Other cars were modified over the years with changes in door locks and coupler draft gear. They were also upgraded from K to AB brakes relatively early. Overall however, the design of the cars remained remarkably consistent over their long careers.

Only one of the 30,256 GLa cars is known to survive. It can be found at the Western New York Railway Historical Society in Hamburg, NY.

Setting the Standard

Berwind

Berwind White owned one of the largest fleets of GLa “clones.” They were a common sight on PRR trains.

The impact of the GLa on the PRR wouldn’t end with just these 30,000+ cars. The GLa also influenced future production on the PRR. Though at first glance they are very different, the H21 four-bay hopper design is essentially a stretched GLa. These cars, huge by standards of the day, made use of the steel manufacturing lessons learned with the GLa. When all subclasses are considered, the H21 represents an additional 39,699 car extension of GLa engineering.

To build its massive roster, the PRR farmed out construction to any builder who could handle the project (which for all-steel freight car construction was a relatively small pool in 1904.) Consequently, these builders each had access to the design and also began building similar or identical cars for other customers. Many of these customers were coal companies in the PRR’s own territory. Berwind White Coal was the largest and most well-known. It had new cars built to GLa dimensions as late as the 1930s and some of their cars lasted into the 1970s. Others would be bought second-hand by the PRR itself.

As builders refined and resold the design, a new “standard” hopper was being developed. Looking back it is easy to see the evolution of what is now known as the “1905 Common Design” cars. We’ll take a closer look at these as the next chapter of the GLa’s story in a future Freight Car Friday blog.

 

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Freight Car Friday – Bethlehem Steel

28 02 2014

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.

PPL

Pennsylvania Power and Light was one of the first utility companies to embrace the unit train concept – aided by Bethlehem Steel.

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.)

ppl hopper

A testament to construction and materials, the original side sheets of one of the first PP&L hoppers are seen here in 2010. The cars were not painted yet most of the original graphics applied to the Mayari R steel are still clearly visible nearly 50 years later.

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.

UP Gondolas

Bethlehem moved on from hoppers to gondolas as the industry evolved in the 1990s.

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.

CR gon

Conrail assembled many Bethlehem gondola “kits” in its Hollidaysburg Shops. The cars were rebuilt on the frames of older hoppers – most also built from BSC kits!

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.

autorack

BSC built more than coal cars. The flatcar under this autorack is another Bethlehem product.

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.