New Product Spotlight – Western Union Telegraph Freight Set

2 06 2014

In a world where instant communication has become a center point to daily life, it is easy to understand the impact the railroads and telegraph had on  the world 150 years earlier. For the first time in recorded history, news could travel faster than the speed of a horse.

Western Unon Set

The Western Union Telegraph set combines the best of new technologies from two different eras!

The fact that both railroads and the telegraph emerged and matured as technologies nearly simultaneously was fortunate. The telegraph companies enjoyed the shared rights of way for their communications lines and stations as convenient hubs. The railroads, quickly adopting the telegraph for their own needs, had the critical tool necessary for allowing the rails to operate efficiently, safely and at greater capacity. The public stood the most to gain as a trip to the station could yield everything from overnight packages to the latest news and gossip off the wire.

Western Union had completed their first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861. By the 1870s the company had emerged as a leader in communications, absorbing many smaller companies as it expanded. In 1884, Western Union was one of the eleven companies used by Dow Jones for their first market average listing. (Nine of the others were railroads.)

western union

The station became the center of a much faster-paced life in town as the hub for both train and telegraph.

Building and maintaining thousands of miles of telegraph wire was not an easy task. Locating along rail lines offered advantages here for the telegraph companies as well. Like the railroads, Western Union maintained work trains which were dispatched to inspect and repair the lines. Although they sometimes used equipment from the railroads, Western Union also owned locomotives of their own.

Lionel’s latest train set captures the enduring style of the trains from this historic era and the excitement of both of these “new” technologies. Ironically, a set which pays tribute to communications by wire is operated with wireless remote control! With the LionChief™ remote, you simply plug the power pack into the wall and the track and you’re ready to go.

This is our first LionChief™ set featuring the “General” 4-4-0 locomotive. The set also includes two flatcars with removable loads and a baggage car, a 40″x60″ oval of FasTrack™, a wall-pack power supply and the hand-held LionChief™ remote control.

The locomotive features:

  • Remote control operation
  • Puffing smoke
  • Operating headlight
  • RailSounds RC™ with steam background sounds and steam chuffing in sync with locomotive speed, and remote-activated whistle, bell and announcements
  • On/Off switch for steam sounds
  • Powerful maintenance-free motor
  • Traction tires
  • Separately applied details
  • Operating coupler on tender
  • Die-cast archbar tender trucks

Rolling stock features:

  • Die-cast archbar trucks with operating couplers
  • Removable vats and tarped load on flatcars
  • Interior illumination in baggage car

The remote control has a speed control and direction knob and separate push buttons for the whistle, bell and announcements. It requires three AAA batteries, not included.

This new set is scheduled for delivery this Fall and has a suggested retail price of $369.99. So “dash” on over to your favorite dealer to place your order!

Freight Car Friday – Trinity Rail

30 05 2014

Trinity is one of today’s leading freight car builders. Despite not building their own equipment until the late 1960s, the company has been on an amazing path of growth over the past fifty years and through its acquisitions has one of the most experienced pedigrees in the business.

TILX 566304

Part of Trinity’s lease fleet, TILX 56304 traces its design back to earlier Pullman Standard designs.

Trinity didn’t start with railcars. The modern Trinity Industries formed in 1958 from a merger of the Dallas Tank Company and Trinity Steel. The company’s major focus was on tanks for the petroleum and natural gas industry as well as supporting equipment. This included building tanks for rail car use.

After supplying components, Trinity went all-in for their first complete tank car in 1977. Building the complete car offered better profit margins and the company expanded its construction aggressively. By 1980 they were among the top five builders in the US. While building their own line, the company expanded through the acquisition of other car builders through the highly turbulent markets of the 1980s.

Trincool Reefer

Reefers may not be as common as tank cars, but Trinity’s TRINCool reefers are certainly among the most recognizable modern freight cars.

This impressive list includes:

  • Pullman Standard – 1983
  • Greenville – 1986
  • Standard Forgings of Chicago – 1986
  • Ortner – 1987
  • Transcisco Industries – 1996
  • McConway and Torley – 1998
  • Thrall – 2001
Tank Car

Tank cars remain an important part of Trinity’s business and should be for years to come.

In addition to building rail cars, Trinity has been a leasing cars to the railroads and private companies since 1979. Rail car construction tends to run in hot / cold cycles. Having the lease operation provides a financial buffer for the lean years. Their lease cars, with TILX reporting marks, are a common sight on trains all across North America today.

bulkhead flatcar

Many of Trinity’s products retain a strong resemblance to their predecessors like this bulkhead flat inherited from Thrall.

As you would expect, many of Trinity’s cars look very similar to the designs previously built by the companies they have absorbed. This includes iconic designs like Pullman Standard’s boxcars, Ortner’s rapid-discharge hoppers and Thrall’s well cars. The contemporary Trinity product line includes autoracks, hoppers, boxcars, flatcars, tank cars, gondolas, covered hoppers, coil cars, and well cars. You would be hard pressed to find a freight train on a mainline in North America today that doesn’t include some of their products.

rapid discharge car

Trinity’s acquisition of Ortner gave them access to a proven rapid-discharge car design for aggregate service.

With the growth in crude oil and ethanol shipments in the past decade, Trinity’s roots in tank manufacturing are proving to be a great asset. Tank cars make up more than half of all new car orders today. With new regulations for cars due later this year however, expect to see some changes to the designs. You can also expect Trinity to adapt quickly to meet what might amount to unprecedented demand for the new cars. Earlier this month the company announced plans to reopen a plant in Cartersville, Georgia to build new tank cars.

While the tank car boom should prove lucrative for the company over the next several years, Trinity has hedged its bets for the long term with their other product lines and the leasing operations. In addition to their railcar operations, Trinity Industries still maintains its other industrial operations including tanks and piping, structural and marine products. By all forecasts, we should be seeing Trinity’s cars on the rails for decades to come.

Freight Car Friday – Pullman Standard

25 04 2014

Perhaps the most famous name in freight cars, Pullman Standard’s history of freight car design and construction is one of the oldest and richest in the industry. While the Pullman name will forever be associated with passenger trains, Pullman Standard also built many of the most common freight cars found on North American rails.

Corporate Background

Million boxcar

PS-1,000,000! Showcasing the production capabilities of Pullman Standard, this nondescript car is the one millionth to roll off the line – or at least one of the contenders for the title. This car is preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum.

Pullman Standard was formed through the consolidation of two of the largest car builders of their day. Pullman purchased a controlling interest in the Standard Steel Car Company in 1929. Pullman subsequently organized its own manufacturing divisions into one subsidiary and then merged the two assets together in 1934.

In addition to these two big names, there were many smaller companies which had already been incorporated into both Pullman and Standard Steel. Pullman had acquired Haskell & Barker in 1922 and Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad in 1928.

On the Standard Steel side of the family tree were the Middletown Car Works (acquired in 1909), South Baltimore Car & Foundry (c. 1910), Keith Car and Manufacturing (c. 1912), Osgood Bradley (c. 1913), Richmond Car Works (c. 1928), Siems-Stembel (c. 1928) and Canton Car Co (c. 1934 – after Pullman ownership but before consolidation.) This gave Standard Steel Car manufacturing facilities in seven states.


When introduced in 1947, the covered hopper was still a relatively rare design. Pullman Standard’s PS-2 became the first widely adopted standard.

For most of the years between the company’s consolidation in 1934 and the sale of its assets in 1982, Pullman Standard would build more freight cars than anyone else in North America. Operations from its predecessors were gradually consolidated and some new plants were built.

Pullman Standard’s production officially came to an end in 1982. The parent Pullman, Inc sold Pullman Standard’s car building assets to Trinity Industries. Pullman Standard also had a large freight car leasing subsidiary. This was sold to ITEL rail car, which is today a part of General Electric.

Freight Car Design and Production


The PS-1 was one of the most prolific freight cars of the 1950s.

In its early history, Pullman was slow to adopt to new steel car construction and was building the majority of its cars from wood as late as 1907. Haskell and Barker too was predominantly a wood car builder with its steel car shop not built until 1910. It is interesting to note that at the time Haskell was acquired, they were building more freight cars than Pullman itself. Standard Steel Car on the other hand was an early pioneer of the all-steel freight car since its incorporation in 1902.

There was nothing sluggish about Pullman Standard’s engineering and construction following the consolidation however. Among modelers, the company is certainly best known for its standard car designs which originated in the late 1940s. While there had been earlier examples of common designs proposed by railroad associations, the USRA and others, Pullman Standard’s standards quickly became the most widespread in use and represented a complete product line few other builders could match.

WP gon

The PS-5 was a versatile gondola and set the standard for “Mill Gons.”

The Pullman Standard designs included the PS-1 boxcar, PS-2 covered hopper, PS-3 hopper, PS-4 flatcar, and PS-5 gondola. While there were standards for each car type, there were still plenty of options for customers to choose from. For example, boxcars came in 40 and 50 foot lengths, there were different sizes of doors, and interiors could be fitted with a variety of load restraints, moveable bulkheads, floors, etc. But the cars all shared a familial look thanks to common parts and design features.

Production of Pullman Standard’s cars took place at record paces. In fact, production was so chaotic among the various plants that three “1,000,000th” commemorative boxcars were produced!

MILW Flatcar

The PS-4 flatcars hauled everything from timber to trailers.

As time progressed, more and more options were introduced and the PS- designations became just a part of the overall product name. Thanks to the limits of patentable parts of most freight car designs, the designs of these cars were also adopted by other car builders with very little change.

In 1951, Pullman Standard acquired the Trailmobile Company and operated it as a subsidiary which would become a leading builder of truck trailers. Many of these trailers would regularly ride on Pullman Standard flatcars in the growing intermodal markets in decades to follow.

60' Grand Trunk

Lionel’s 60′ boxcar represents typical Pullman Standard construction techniques of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Pullman Standard didn’t stop building passenger equipment either. The company continued to supply railroads with passenger equipment up until 1982. Its last passenger car was an Amtrak Superliner sleeper. The cars significance was honored by naming it the George Mortimer Pullman.

Milwaukee Road

The PS-2CD covered hoppers’ design allowed easier unloading by eliminating the center sill through the hoppers.

Although even the youngest Pullman Standard cars are now into their third decade of service, many can still be seen in today’s freight trains. Additional historic examples can be found preserved in railroad museums all across the country.

As common as they have been in the real world, so too have Pullman Standard’s products been a large part of the Lionel line. Scale versions of the PS-1 boxcar, 60′ boxcar, PS-2 2003 and PS-2CD covered hoppers, the PS-4 flatcar, PS-5 gondola and most recently the 86′ boxcar are all modeled directly from Pullman Standard plans. Don’t forget the waffle-side boxcar and of course all of those passenger cars in your fleet as well! The Pullman Standard legacy is sure to live on for a long time to come.

Freight Car Friday – Horse Cars

6 12 2013

When Lionel fans think of horse cars, stock cars and even a flat car probably come to mind. Railroads did transport horses, but these prized animals usually received much better treatment than other livestock.

Off to the Races

horse car

The Santa Fe once had a large fleet of horse cars. This one served the MOW department before preservation in Barstow, CA.

Railroads had a long history with horse racing. Some even sponsored races. Today, CSX and Norfolk Southern both still send special trains to the Kentucky Derby each year.

In addition to attending the races, the railroads were once the primary means for getting the horses there as well. Several railroads rostered special horse cars dedicated to these speedy equines.  The largest and best known fleets belonged to the Pennsylvania and Santa Fe.

Horse Cars looked more like baggage cars than stock cars. They were designed to be handled in passenger trains for the shortest travel times possible. These were very valuable loads and were treated accordingly.

end doors

End doors were common on horse cars to accommodate large props.

Most cars featured at three sets of large side doors. End doors at one end of the car were also a common feature. These were used primarily for the stalls and in some cases props used at the events. Horses used the side doors.

The interior of the cars could be arranged in different ways depending on the number of horses being moved. Stalls were typically arranged parallel to the tracks and when possible, horses were put 3 or 4 across in the car. The narrow space reduced their chances of falling over as the train rocked from side to side.

Saratoga Springs

The Pennsylvania named their cars after racetracks. “Saratoga Springs” is preserved at Strasburg, PA.

In addition to the horses there was room for water tanks and hay and of course a traveling attendant to tend to their needs. One has to imagine that this was a much more comfortable ride than those poultry car drovers experienced!

At their peak, these cars stayed quite busy hauling race horses. Not only did the railroad serve a region with numerous tracks and stables, but owners could also charter the PRR’s cars for use anywhere in the country – even between two points the Pennsy didn’t serve.

Beginning in the 1950s, trucks and even airplanes became the preferred travel method for race horses. Most of the railroad horse cars were converted into standard head-end cars for baggage, mail storage, etc. A few wound up in company service and a handful have found a home in museums across the United States today.

Freight Car Friday – Poultry Cars

22 11 2013

Over their long history, railroads have helped carry just about everything – including Thanksgiving dinner. The shipment of cattle and livestock is well-known, as is the traditional image of the slat-sided “cattle car” used to haul a great variety of animals to market. Poultry on the other hand was less common and required even more specialized equipment. So with Thanksgiving nearly upon us, what better time to look at the turkey – train connection?

Like other specialized cars, the origins of the poultry car date back to the late 19th Century. William Jenkins, a traveling freight agent for the Erie, and James Streeter, an Indiana poultry dealer, received the first patent for a live poultry car in 1884. By this time, Streeter’s business was already shipping 30,000 dozen eggs and 15,000 lbs of dressed chicken from Muncie to New York City weekly. The growing trade of refrigerated transportation by rail was already revolutionizing America. But  Jenkins and Streeter saw an ongoing need for fresh chicken and other fowl which could only be met by live transport.

poultry car

PPKX 5065 represents a typical “Poultry Palace” from the high-point of their success. Note that in addition to a road number many of these special cars were named like passenger equipment. This was the “Meierfeld.”

Previous attempts at shipping chickens and other birds by rail involved packing the live birds in small crates and shipping them aboard boxcars. Many did not survive the trip and those that did were emaciated and undesirable. Jenkins and Streeter’s new design put the lives and comfort of the birds as top priority.

The small compartments were retained (128 of them), but now were built against exterior walls lined with screen to let in fresh air. The boxes were also sloped towards the outside of the car as a “self cleaning” feature.  A single car could carry up to 1,400 turkeys – and even greater numbers of smaller fowl. The floors of the individual coops could be adjusted depending on the size of the bird. Chickens, turkeys, geese, even pigeons were all transported in these cars along with many other birds.

An isle ran down the center of the car, and in the middle of all of the cages was a small room for the traveling attendant who rode with the car to market. The attendant was responsible for seeing that the birds were watered (a 750 gallon tank was located on the roof) and fed. Feed was stored in a compartment beneath the floor of the carman’s room. Final feeding would be done shortly before arrival to fatten the birds as much as possible for market.

The attendant’s quarters included a small bunk, but one has to wonder how he ever got any sleep amid the constant noise and smell of more than 1000 birds being jostled about. The poultry cars were often called “cackle cars” with good reason. There are reports of boosting the car’s capacity by stacking an additional twelve coops inside the stateroom. This could increase the payload by as much as 432 chickens and one very irate attendant.

lionel car

Lionel has had its version of the poultry car in the line for years, including this latest Thanksgiving version cataloged in 2013. It is not as whimsical as you may have thought!

To ensure adequate air flow through the car, small vent doors were placed in the ends. Early cars had a clerestory roof like passenger cars. Later, this was replaced by a hinged running board on the roof which could be swung open to reveal a 27″ wide slot the length of the car. One has to pity the brakeman who walked the roofs of a freight train at night… Muslin curtains were also used on the outside of the car sides during the winter to help keep some warmth in. All of these vents and curtains were handled by the attendant.

By the 1920s, the Live Poultry Transit Company had a fleet of over 2,000 cars in operation in the U.S. New York City was the destination for more than 60% of this traffic, owing in part to a large Orthodox Jewish population whose dietary restrictions required Kosher meat freshly slaughtered by a Schochtim. During the holiday season, 60 to 80 cars arrived in Manhattan daily.

In an effort to promote new business along its line, in 1920 the Rock Island assembled a “Nebraska Poultry Special” – a forty car train which included a full-size poultry house on a flatcar, 72,000 live chickens and other special exhibits and lectures. These fowl were premium loads at premium prices for the railroads – which more than offset the extra troubles in their handling.

Turkeys were less accommodating to travel. By the 1920s, while the railroads rushed to “put a chicken in every pot,” most had given up on live turkey movements. The Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey was shipped already dressed in a reefer.


While the shipments of live turkeys fell off in the 1920s, much of the business was retained as dressed birds on board improved reefers.

At around its peak in 1928, 51% of America’s poultry traveled by rail. Following the Depression and WWII, the rise of motor carrier trucking quickly ate into this market. During the 1940s, with full carload shipments in rapid decline, some composite half poultry / half reefer cars emerged. (Similar prototypes had been tried in the 1890s as well.)

By the 1950, 15 cars remained in the roster of the Poultry Transit Company – the last in the corporate lineage of carriers –  and the last official shipment came in 1956. Some paltry poultry shipments may have continued through the express services like Railway Express Agency, but these would not have ridden in dedicated cars.

Only one poultry car is known to survive today; PTCX 423 is preserved at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation. After retirement from rail service, it remained in use as a stationary coop until 1986 when it was finally acquired by the Museum.

Surprisingly little has been recorded about this interesting venture. For more information on railroad poultry cars, see the primary source of information for this article, “Home to Roost: The Story of Live Poultry Transit by Rail” by John H. White, Jr published in Agricultural History, Vol. 63 No. 3 Summer 1989 by the Agricultural Historical Society. Another great article can be found on the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum’s website, “Turkeys & Trains” by Bob Barcus.

Freight Car Friday – USRA Double-Sheathed Boxcars

15 11 2013

Last week we took an overall look at the freight cars developed by the United States Railway Administration during World War I. Let’s follow up on that this week with a closer look at one of the USRA prototypes reproduced by Lionel – the double-sheathed boxcar.

What’s a Double-Sheathed Boxcar?


Plans for the USRA double-sheathed boxcar from the Railway Mechanical Engineer show the prominence of the fish-belly underframe.

A double-sheathed boxcar has sheathing, or siding, on both sides of the structural members which make up the sides of the car. This gives the car a smooth-sided appearance on the exterior. On the USRA’s double-sheathed car, those interior braces were made of wood, not steel. This reduced the weight of the car and construction costs, but it also lessened its capacity and durability.

To help compensate for the reduced strength of the wood construction of the walls compared to the single-sheathed design which had an exposed steel Warren Truss frame, the double-sheathed cars were rated at 40 tons while the single-sheathed version carried a 50 ton rating. Also, the double-sheathed cars featured a fish-belly underframe. This thicker casting was one of the distinctive features of the car.


The C&NW owned 1250 USRA double-sheathed boxcars – all given even numbers.

When the USRA was formed, the merits of single vs. double-sheathed designs were still very much in debate among the American railroads. (Such discord was more common than agreement in those years.) The same was true among members of the committee.

There were concerns over production costs and delays due to the special length of boards required for the single-sheath car. There was also great debate over the need for cars as large as 50 ton capacity. Consequently the USRA split their intended orders for boxcars and proceeded with both designs for production.

Roster of USRA Cars

The double-sheathed boxcar was initially assigned to 28 railroads. For a variety of reasons, some of these cars were not delivered and reallocated to other lines. 500 of the initial 25,000 car order were never delivered. Those 500 cars can be attributed to an order of ventilated boxcars for the Florida East Coast car Ferry Company.


USRA Double-Sheathed Boxcar Roster


The roster shown here includes the initial and final assignments. Not included are any of the “USRA clones” built after the war. Click here for a pdf version of the roster: USRA double sheathed boxcar roster *Data for the roster was compiled from “USRA Freight Cars: An Experiment in Standardization” by James E. Lane, DBA, CPA in Railroad History No. 128, published by the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society in Spring, 1973.

The vast majority of these cars were built by American Car and Foundry, with 11,000 assigned. Other builders included Keith Car and Manufacturing Co. (1500), Laconia Car Co. (1000), Lenoir Car Works (2000), Liberty Car and Equipment Co. (1000), McGuire-Cummings Manufacturing Co. (500), Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Co. (4000), Pacific Car and Foundry Co. (2000), Standard Steel Car Co. (2000).

After the War

ATSF box

Even after years of revenue service, many of the USRA cars ended their careers in company service. The Santa Fe had one of the largest fleets of these cars when new.

Following the war, these cars still had a lot of service life in them of course. Many railroads rebuilt their cars with steel sides. Often, they would retain the original fish-belly frame making these rebuilds much easier to spot. Some cars lasted long enough to help out in the war effort again in World War II. Rebuilding programs varied from road to road with some extending the height of the car, replacing roofs and or ends in addition to simply re-sheathing with steel.

While the USRA cars were not the last double-sheathed boxcars built, they were certainly the design’s final hurrah. As this design was on its way out of favor, the single-sheathed USRA boxcar design was the car of choice for railroads looking to build duplicates, although there were also duplicates of this design built at least as late as 1951. With the quantities and variety of operating roads, one of these cars should look right at home on just about any steam-era layout.

Freight Car Friday – USRA Standard Freight Cars

8 11 2013

On December 28, 1917, amid the chaos created on the rails from the unprecedented traffic demands of the “Great War,” President Woodrow Wilson shifted control of America’s railroads to the newly-created United States Railroad Administration. Most model railroaders are already familiar with the USRA’s standard steam locomotive designs. Much less has been written about the 100,000 USRA standard freight cars.


The need to create these freight cars is seen in the purpose of the USRA itself. In the months leading up to the government takeover, America’s railroads were grinding themselves and the entire industrial infrastructure to a halt. Much has been written and

USRA Mallet

The USRA’s standardized steam locomotives are well documented and widely accepted. The 100,000 freight cars ordered have received less attention and acclaim.

speculated as to the factors behind this failure; the causes were many and muddied. The result however was clear. Thousands of tons of goods were piling up on the ground and rotting in the fields because the railroads could not deliver them fast enough to the ports for shipment to our armies fighting in Europe.

Sighting the need for efficient rail transportation to the war effort, President Wilson used his wartime powers to place the private companies under temporary government control. It was no doubt as controversial in 1917 as it would be today but there was no time for debate.

single sheathed

The single-sheathed boxcar was the most common of the USRA designs.

Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo assumed control of the USRA in addition to his regular duties. The USRA set forth to improve the efficiency of railroads by implementing a number of local changes in line with a nation-wide plan and goal. Equipment would be pooled, terminals and yards shared, routings made more direct (except in cases where a circuitous routing would be more efficient due to congested areas like Pittsburgh) and operations like passenger ticketing and freight classifications centralized. And of course to meet the need for additional equipment the USRA would order thousands of locomotives and freight cars to standardized designs.

The Fight for Standardization

Railroads had made some minor moves towards national standards prior to WWI. The Master Car Builders Association had created universal standards for trucks, couplers and airbrake components – essential for the free interchange of cars between lines – in the first decades of the 1900s. Other roads that operated as part of “systems” or under common ownership also often adopted standardized car or locomotive designs among themselves.

composite gon

The composite gondola had unloading doors in the floor making it suitable for a variety of loads including coal.

But as far as the design and construction of cars and locomotives as a whole, each of the major railroads still considered its needs unique and its engineers superior to the competition. Indeed the efficacy of the USRA’s standardization was as much debated after the war as prior to the exercise.

Again, the USRA did not have time for the luxury of debate over the value of standardization as a whole. There would of course be plenty of dialog over what would constitute the “best” standard design. Despite this, the USRA announced designs for freight cars by the end of March, 1918 – just three months after its creation. This was in no small part to existing studies which had been performed by the American Railroad Association leading up to the war. The ARA’s findings were no less criticized by the railroads, but the USRA had the unmatched ability to put the debate into practice.

The Cars

Although more cars were designed, and as well there were some “non-standard” cars built under the USRA’s license and operation, the 100,000-delivered freight car fleet came down to just five designs:

  • 50 ton single-sheathed boxcar
  • 40 ton double-sheathed boxcar
  • 55 ton all-steel hopper
  • 50 ton composite drop-bottom gondola
  • 70 ton all-steel mill gondola

The 55 ton hopper was similar to several common hopper designs already in service in the Northeast. These drawings can be found in the April, 1918 issue of Railway Mechanical Engineer.

The designs are reflective on the standard practices of the era with a mixture of wood and steel being used. This was as much for fast assembly and availability of materials as for the still ongoing debate over the best uses of both materials – the strength of steel vs. the light weight of wood.

Note the lack of any flat, tank, stock, reefer, or covered hoppers from the list. Covered hoppers had not really come into vogue yet. Most of the commodities we now associate with them were hauled in boxcars in 1918. Existing fleets of the other designs must have been deemed adequate by the USRA and the railroads as no cars were ordered or produced although there were plans and recommendations for improvements for reefers and even baggage and passenger equipment.

The USRA placed an unprecedented order for 100,000 total cars with 17 different builders for a total cost of $289,453,450 on May 1, 1918. That’s over $4.3 billion in 2012 dollars!

Allocating the Cars

DLW double sheathed

The DL&W received 800 USRA 40-ton double-sheathed boxcars. We’ll take a closer look at the prototype for these Lionel models next week.

Perhaps the only thing more controversial to the railroads than the standards of the cars was who would get them. Some roads asked for cars the USRA determined they really didn’t need. Others did everything they could not to accept the cars they were assigned including going to court. Complicating all of this for the USRA was the fact that peace broke out before all of this construction and allocation could be completed.

Some cars were built before a buyer could be had. These were stenciled with the reporting marks GET (Government Equipment Trust) until the USRA could convince a railroad to take them. The cars were not gifts from Uncle Sam – each road paid for their allotment. Though one has to think that an inventory of excess cars on hand probably didn’t work to the taxpayers’ benefit when the disputed cars were finally sold.

Ultimately, 64 railroads received USRA cars. The breakdown included 50,000 boxcars (25,000 single and 24,500 double sheathed + 500 non-standard ventilated boxcars), 24,500 composite drop-bottom gons, 7,000 hoppers (4,500 standard cars, 500 non-standard twin hoppers and 3,000 non-standard 70 ton 3-bay hoppers) and 4,500 steel gons.


Were the standard freight car designs a success? Like the steam locomotives the grade you give the USRA’s freight cars depends on your perspective. As to the cars themselves, most were in service long enough to serve in the next World War. They were generally regarded as good cars of solid construction and could interchange between railroads without problem.

steel gon

The 70 ton steel gondola was built in relatively low numbers and delivered to only five railroads; all of whom served a large number of steel mills.

The steel hopper, produced in “small” numbers in comparison during the war was adopted with minor changes as a standard car design by the Association of American Railroads and cloned by the tens of thousands.

The boxcars were among the first cars to be rebuilt. The debate over the preferred boxcar design ended quickly after the war in favor of all steel or at the very least single-sheathed cars. Most of the USRA cars would be rebuilt however with improved ends and steel sides. Many of these rebuilt cars would see another 40 years of service.

Ultimately, the USRA may not have been able to settle the argument on the merits of standardization but they did at least open the eyes of many who had dismissed it outright. Over the coming decades the railroads and car builders would continue the trend.

Learning More

Very little has been written in modern publications on these cars. Some of the best information, including the plans shown in these images, can be found from the time of their production. See Volume 92 of the Railway Mechanical Engineer (1918) for lots of great information. An article with drawings can be found in the April issue, but you’ll find smaller news clips about both the standard cars and locomotives scattered throughout the year.

An excellent article on the cars also appeared in Railroad History, Volume 128 of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society (Spring, 1973.) James E. Lane’s history of the cars includes tables outlining both planned and final ownership allocations of the the entire fleet.