Freight Car Friday – TOFC Flatcars

7 03 2014

Today’s intermodal equipment takes many forms. For decades however, there was only one standard – the flatcar.

early flat

An early Trailer Train 75′ flatcar is preserved at the Virginia Museum of Transportation with a load of two Sea Land containers on chassis. It is hard to imagine a more perfect car to describe the heritage of the modern railroad era!

The origins of TOFC, or Trailer On FlatCar, service began in the Nineteenth Century. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s however that the service began to grow into the important traffic source we know today. The common term “Piggyback” as applied to this service actually originated with Pullman Standard advertising in 1954.

In the first decades of TOFC, two types of flatcars emerged. New cars dedicated for hauling trailers were built, most to a length of 75′. The cars were long enough to hold a pair of 35′ trailers. While the cars were long compared to conventional freight cars of the era, they were no longer than passenger equipment and few railroads had any issues with interchange of the cars in most traffic corridors.

PS-4

Lionel’s early TOFC flatcars represent common adaptations made to the PS-4.

By carrying two of what were at the time the largest trailers on the road, the 75′ flatcar offered a more efficient car weight / capacity ratio. And the new dedicated cars were designed for much more efficient loading and unloading, using collapsible “fifth wheel” hitches. The rub rails along the sides of the cars could be used for additional tie-downs and also to help prevent a trailer from being backed over the side when loading.

As the service took off, new cars could not be purchased fast enough. There were also roads that could not afford the new equipment. This led to a movement to convert older, standard designs for TOFC service. Most common were the conversion of 50′ cars which could hold two smaller 25′ trailers or a single larger trailer. While less efficient in service than the modern cars, these were cheaper and faster to put in service and had the advantage of equally quick to convert back into standard flatcars if demands changed again.

The 89' flatcar became an intermodal standard in the 1980s. The ACF-built "F89-J" class cars were some of the most distinctive. A modern 53' trailer creates a loading challenge however.

The 89′ flatcar became an intermodal standard in the 1980s. The ACF-built “F89-J” class cars were some of the most distinctive. A modern 53′ trailer creates a loading challenge however.

The balancing act between efficiency and production costs would continue to define TOFC flatcars over the coming decades. One of the biggest forces driving a constant change in the cars was the trailers themselves. As trailers grew ever larger, the flatcar also had to expand to keep pace. 40′ trailers pushed the development of an 85′ car. No sooner were these starting to be produced than trailers grew to 45′ and the 89′ car became the new standard intermodal flatcar.

The 89′ Flatcar became a versatile platform for many different types of loads. For TOFC service, most could haul a pair of trailers up to 45′ in length each (each overhung the end of the flatcar by a few inches – accommodated by a longer coupler shank.) Others were equipped with hitches for three smaller 28′ “pup” trailers favored by the LTL (Less than Truck Load) and parcel carriers. In addition to trailers, many flats were designed for the option of carrying containers as well. We’ll talk about these in a future blog.

NS flatcar

First built as a boxcar, then converted to a TOFC flatcar, this Norfolk Southern flatcar is in the shops for rebuilding once again into a crane idler car.

During the reign of the 89′ flat, many intermodals switched from the old “circus style” loading to using large cranes or special lifts to load the trailers. The 1980s saw the removal of the bridge plates from the ends of the cars which had allowed the trailers to be moved across the gaps during loading.

While the 89′ flatcar was the most common in this era, shorter “conversions” were also still found. Like the early days, these were done to fill a rapidly growing need at low cost using existing equipment. Most telling were conversions made not from flatcars, but older boxcars. The rise in TOFC traffic was seen as conventional boxcar traffic was in decline. Several railroads sent unused boxcars into their shops, cut them down and converted them into dedicated TOFC flats. To reduce weight further, and with trailers now being loaded by crane, many of these cars only had a partial floor – another sign of changes to come.

Long Runner

One solution to the challenge of growing trailers was the “Long Runner” – a pair of flatcars semi-permanently coupled. Notice how the center trailer spans the gap.

While the railroads enjoyed a fleet of tens of thousands of 89′ flatcars, the trucking company continued to push for even larger trailers. When 48′ and then 53′ trailers arrived on the scene, the utility of the 89′ flatcar had been exceeded. Extending the length of the car was no longer a practical option. Single-trailer loading offered not only a very poor weight efficiency, but add fuel costs as the large open spaces between trucks created additional wind drag.

scrapped flatcars

While many TOFC flatcars were repurposed, like so many important cars in the evolution of railroading, their ultimate fate is here.

In order to extend the life of many flatcars, companies like Trailer Train and Florida East Coast began joining a pair of cars with a drawbar. With a single trailer up to 57′ in length on each, a third could be placed across the gap. Some of Trailer Trains earlier “Long Runner” conversions also required widening the deck and sides to accommodate that center trailer’s bogie as it slid across the deck through curves.

By the early 1990s however, the need for non-conventional equipment for handling trailers had become obvious. Rather than adapting for intermodal use, many 89′ cars were modified for hauling other loads – everything from heavy equipment to pipe, to auto frames and rail. Articulated platforms offered much greater efficiency in operation than the traditional flatcar. While you will still see one occasionally in an intermodal train, the presence of a true flatcar is becoming quite a rarity.





Freight Car Friday – The Many Faces of Trailer Train

4 05 2012

If you stand trackside anywhere in North America, it is hard to miss the bright yellow cars of Trailer Train – now TTX Corporation. What originated as an equipment pool for new “piggyback” business has grown into a multi-faceted company serving the railroads’ needs for freight cars of all shapes and sizes.

Beginnings

brown flatcars

A few cars from the brown Trailer Train era survived into the next millennium - this one lasting long enough to be given a quick makeover with the newest logo in 2009.

Trailer Train Corporation began in 1955 as an independent railroad leasing company owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, Norfolk and Western and Rail-Trailer Corporation. These companies were all exploring the concept of Trailer on Flatcar (TOFC) or “Piggyback” trains to haul less-than-carload and express traffic in truck trailers aboard flatcars. One of the biggest drawbacks to starting the new service was the cost and risk associated with a major capital investment in new equipment. Although it was a separate company, the Pennsylvania contributed heavily to the corporation both in finances and staff. As time marched on, additional railroads bought into the company.

centerbeam flatcar

Along with a bold new color, Trailer Train continued to grow and diversify its business in the 1970s and 1980s

By creating a separate company, the individual railroads reduced their debt loads and risk while at the same time creating an even and efficient pool to simplify the car movements and improve service overall. The first Trailer Train cars were 75 foot flatcars designed to haul a pair of trailers. The cars, like the majority of freight equipment of the era, was painted a shade of “boxcar red.” There were of course many varieties on this reddish-brown color among railroads, and operating conditions and age also played a tremendous role in determining the color of the paint.

Growth

autoracks

Trailer Train expanded into the car carrying business in 1961. By then, only 10% of finished automobiles were moving by rail.

The piggyback business proved succesful, and Trailer Train continued to grow. Intermodal traffic is still at the heart of the company’s business today. Like the flatcars which started it all, today’s TTX roster is always on the forefront of innovative rollingstock. Now well and spine cars have largely replaced the standard flatcar in intermodal service, but there is no shortage of flatcars in the fleet.

Double Stack

From flatcars to doublestacks, TTX has always stayed on the edge of the always-changing intermodal industry.

In addition to growing to support the burgeoning intermodal business, Trailer Train expanded its services greatly in the 1960s and 1970s. Flat cars for new autocarriers were a natural expansion. Railroads could purchase their own racks and mount them on a Trailer Train flatcar. The cars then operated in pools just like the intermodal equipment to simplify billing and car utilization.

Additional flatcars were soon added to the roster including shorter general service cars, bulkhead flatcars, cars used for construction, farming and military equipment, and specialized heavy-duty and depressed-center cars for oversized loads.

Railbox

Trailer Train started Railbox service in 1974 - the bright yellow boxcars have been a fixture ever since.

In 1974, in response to a national shortage in boxcars, Trailer Train created Railbox to ease demand. The national pool operated like their flatcars on whatever railroad needed the car next. Five years later, Railgon was created for a similar problem with general service gondolas.

Changing Images

The most noticeable change in Trailer Train’s image from trackside started in 1970 when

New Image

TTX continues to stand for modern quality service everywhere.

the company began painting its cars in the now-familiar yellow and black paint scheme. The bold colors greatly improved the visibility of the cars and the company.

In 1991, Trailer Train became TTX Corporation. This created a change in markings but the color and operating plans of the equipment and company remained the same. Another logo change happened in 2009, and the new red TTX logo has begun showing up on well cars, autoracks and boxcars.

TTX remains a major player in the freight car market, and will be for decades to come. For more on the company’s history and equipment, check out the history page of their website.