Introduction to Railcar Types

Rail freight transportation plays a crucial role in the supply chain of North America, allowing goods to travel across vast distances efficiently and cost-effectively. At the heart of this intricate network are various freight railcar types, each designed to transport specific cargo. Our rail freight experts wrote this blog to showcase the fascinating world of North American rail freight cars and shed light on the diverse array of railcar types and purposes that enable the seamless movement of goods throughout the continent.

Boxcars

Two brown rail boxcars along a track.

Boxcars have historically been the workhorses of the rail freight industry, commonly recognized by their rectangular shape and solid metal exterior. These versatile cars are used to transport a wide range of goods, including electronics, packaged goods, raw materials, and more. The rectangular design of boxcars allows for efficient loading and unloading of cargo through sliding or plug doors located on the sides or ends of the car. Some boxcars even feature multiple compartments, enabling the transportation of different types of goods in a single car.

With their robust construction, boxcars are designed to protect the contents from the elements and theft during transportation. This makes them particularly suitable for carrying sensitive or valuable merchandise. To enhance security, boxcars may also be equipped with locking mechanisms and seals.

However, over the last several years, boxcars have become less and less utilized. The more specialized railcar types that we’ll take a look at below are specially designed to transit specific commodities, and thus do a better job than boxcars. As a result, the United States’ boxcar fleet is older and not regularly maintained or repaired.

Hopper Cars

A line of grey hopper railcars with coal stored inside.

Hopper cars are specifically designed for the transportation of bulk goods such as coal, grains, and aggregates. These cars come in two main types: open-top and covered hopper cars. Open-top hopper cars are commonly used for materials that are resistant to weather conditions, such as coal or rock aggregates. The open-top design allows for easy loading and unloading of loose materials.

On the other hand, covered hopper cars are equipped with a roof and hatches to protect the cargo from rain, snow, and wind. Covered hoppers are commonly used for carrying grains, cement, and other materials susceptible to moisture damage. The roof and hatches prevent water infiltration and ensure the integrity of the cargo during transit.

Both open-top and covered hopper cars feature bottom discharge gates. These gates can be opened at designated facilities, allowing for precise and efficient unloading of bulk cargo. Some hopper cars, known as pneumatic hopper cars, even have the ability to self-unload, thanks to specialized mechanisms that allow the cargo to be released from the bottom of the car.

Tank Cars

Three brown and grey oil tanker railcars along a track next to woods.

Tank cars are purpose-built for the safe transportation of liquids and gases, making them essential in industries such as chemicals, petroleum, and food-grade products. These cylindrical cars have reinforced walls to withstand the pressures and movements associated with the transportation of hazardous materials.

Tank cars are equipped with multiple compartments, allowing different types of liquids or gases to be transported in a single car while maintaining segregation. The compartments are usually sealed and designed to prevent cross-contamination.

Safety is a top priority in the transportation of hazardous materials, and tank cars adhere to stringent regulations. Regular inspections are conducted to ensure the integrity of tank cars, minimizing the risk of leaks or accidents. Additional safety features, such as protective shields, pressure relief devices, and safety valves, further enhance the security of tank car shipments.

Flatcars

A rail flatcar with piles of lumber stored on it.

Flatcars are characterized by their flat, open design without any sides or roof. This feature makes them highly versatile for transporting oversized or heavy cargo that cannot fit inside traditional enclosed railcars. Flatcars are commonly used to transport shipping containers, construction machinery, vehicles, and other large objects.

To secure the cargo, flatcars are equipped with tie-down points, chains, and straps. These restraints prevent the load from shifting during transit and ensure safe delivery. Flatcars can be coupled together to accommodate extra-long cargo, allowing for efficient transportation of oversized goods.

Some flatcars are designed with specialized equipment to enhance stability and load capacity. For example, bulkhead flatcars have walls or bulkheads at either end, providing additional support for the cargo. Well-style flatcars feature lowered sections in the middle, allowing taller cargo to fit within the car’s height restrictions. These adaptations enable the transportation of diverse and irregularly shaped items across the rail network.

Refrigerator Cars

A white refrigerated railcar featuring the refrigeration device at the rear of the car.

Refrigerator cars, commonly known as reefers, are specifically designed to transport perishable goods that require temperature-controlled environments. These insulated rail cars play a vital role in the transportation of fresh produce, dairy products, pharmaceuticals, and other temperature-sensitive items.

Refrigerator cars are equipped with cooling systems to maintain low temperatures throughout the journey, ensuring the freshness and quality of the cargo. The cooling units can be powered by various sources, such as diesel generators or electric connections at rail yards.

The insulation of reefers helps regulate temperature and minimize heat transfer, allowing perishable goods to be transported over long distances without spoilage. Additionally, some refrigerator cars have multiple temperature zones, enabling the simultaneous transportation of goods with different temperature requirements.

Food safety is of utmost importance in refrigerator cars. These cars undergo regular cleaning and sanitization to meet stringent hygiene standards. Temperature monitoring systems and alarms provide real-time information about the condition of the cargo, allowing for timely adjustments and ensuring optimal storage conditions throughout the journey.

Autorack

An example of one of the railcar types, a line of new black and white automobiles on top of an autorack rail car.

Auto freight rail cars, also known as autoracks or automobile carriers, are specifically designed for transporting vehicles. These specialized rail cars provide a safe and efficient means of moving automobiles, trucks, and other motorized vehicles over long distances.

Autoracks have a multi-level design, with each level equipped with ramps or tracks to securely hold the vehicles in place during transit. The cars are typically enclosed, protecting the vehicles from external elements and road debris. Additionally, autoracks often feature protective walls and buffers between vehicles to prevent damage caused by shifting or collisions.

The design of auto freight rail cars maximizes the capacity and minimizes the risk of damage during transportation. They play a crucial role in the automotive industry’s supply chain, facilitating the movement of new vehicles from manufacturing plants to dealerships across North America. These specialized rail cars not only offer a cost-effective and environmentally friendly mode of transportation for automobiles but also contribute to reducing road congestion and wear-and-tear on highways.


North American railcar types are diverse in design and purpose, each serving a unique role in the efficient movement of goods across the continent. Whether it’s versatile boxcars, the specialized hopper cars and tank cars, the adaptable flatcars and autoracks, or the temperature-controlled refrigerator cars, each railcar type plays a crucial role in the logistics industry. By understanding the different freight railcar types, we gain a deeper appreciation for the intricate network that keeps our economies connected and products flowing across vast distances.

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Meet the Author: Matt Culver
Matt Culver is the Marketing Manager at RSI Logistics where he is responsible for content creation, managing RSI’s marketing, and developing digital strategies. On a mission to tell everyone about RSI, he is focused on implementing best practices and the fundamentals of marketing. His experience and knowledge have allowed him to focus on the growth of RSI's digital marketing and customer journey. Matt holds a Bachelor of Digital Marketing and Advertising and is a member of the American Marketing Association.