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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.