The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Railroad Boxcar
For nearly 200 years, boxcars have been the symbol of the railroad and freight industry. While their specifications have evolved since their humble beginnings, they remain a valuable means of transporting goods across the contiguous United States. But in recent years, the use of boxcars has declined.
This article explores the history of the boxcar and the reasons why they’re fading from regular use.
History of Boxcars
Freight cars were already in widespread use during the early 1800s, but in upstate New York, Mohawk & Hudson Railroad introduced the idea of covering gondola cars to protect them from elements in the winter.
The M&H design was introduced during the snowy winter of 1833, but the design would later be adapted by Baltimore & Ohio to add length, height, and side doors.
By 1896, boxcars were a regular feature of the freight industry, and steel boxcars had replaced their wooden predecessors. The cars themselves had grown to the standard 40-foot car length of the 20th century, capable of hauling 40–50 metric tons.
During the 1930s the 50-foot boxcar was introduced, which would become the standard dimension for the next century.
Apart from these changes in capacity, boxcars have also seen innovations such as slotted cars for livestock and refrigerated cars for transporting perishable foods.
Advantages of Boxcars
Boxcars achieved early popularity as a means of protecting freight from the elements, but the locking door also provided security against thieves.
Even as other transportation methods became popular, boxcars have remained a regular component of intermodal transportation due to their ability to carry large quantities of goods across great distances. Plus, their standard size makes it easier for freight companies to plan shipments and routes.
Why Boxcars are in Decline Today
Despite their long history, boxcars are experiencing a period of decline. The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of boxcars decreased by 41% between 2005 and 2015, with few replacements being added.
Boxcars are declining for several reasons, including:
Changing Industry Demands
Simply put, there’s not much demand for boxcars today, at least compared to previous generations. Consumers demand speed, which means that merchants are relying on faster, convenient shipping methods such as trucks and air freight.
Specialized Freight Cars
Some materials were historically carried in boxcars but are now carried by specialty freight cars. For example, flat beam cars are better for hauling lumber than boxcars, since they hold more material and are easier to load and unload.
Shorter Shipping Distances
In some industries, the distance from factory to supplier isn’t long enough to justify the use of railroad transportation. For instance, auto manufacturers are setting up shops closer to suppliers, which means that trucks are often the more economic shipping option.
Older Infrastructure Can’t Accommodate Newer Boxcars
Older railroad infrastructure was designed for the types of boxcars that have been in use for decades. But the industry is struggling to adapt to modern boxcars that have larger cargo capacities, which is slowing the use of boxcars.
Railroads Aren’t Purchasing Additional Boxcars
Railroads own 75% of boxcars, and the average age of each boxcar is roughly 30 years. But railroad companies are slow to replace them, due to the rise of privately-owned boxcars. While railroads may offer incentives for private boxcars, the reality is that the largest owners of American boxcars aren’t investing in replacement units.
Fewer Railcar Shipments
Boxcar fleets are simply not in demand as they once were. For one thing, the average boxcar costs $135,000 and offers a relatively slow shipping time compared to trucks, air freight, or even unit trains that go point-to-point without stopping.
The Future of Boxcars
Some industry experts anticipate a resurgence in demand for boxcars in the coming years. For instance, experts at FTR Transportation Intelligence predict that railcar deliveries could increase to 49,000 by the end of 2022.
Indeed, the 2022 supply chain crisis is placing increased strain on shipping and logistics companies, leading to an all-hands-on-deck approach to the delivery of consumer and commercial goods.
This means that railcar delivery may endure for the foreseeable future, though integrated into a broader supply chain with an emphasis on intermodal delivery.
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