What Do Freight Trains Carry?

A freight train looks as if it could go on for miles, endless amounts of cars of all shapes and sizes pass by filled with goods from various industries. Have you even wondered what kind of products they carry?

So, what do freight trains carry? Freight trains can carry anything from automobiles and airplane parts, to grain and wheat. There are different types of cars for each type of freight carried, and each car serves a certain purpose. 


One of the most well-known railcars is the boxcar. A boxcar can carry anything from televisions to paper, and everything in between. Most boxcars have side doors for easy access during unloading. This helps forklifts and other vehicles to safety empty the boxcar of its contents.

In the early days of railroading, many boxcars were used to transport coal and grain, as specific cars for these commodities were not yet introduced. It was a tedious process unloading these types of loads, as the boxcar could be damaged during the unloading process, and constantly needed repairs.

During recent years the use of the boxcar has declined, this can be attributed to the increase of intermodal traffic, in which container loads transported in bulk. This is considered much easier, as the containers do not have to be unloaded until they are at their destination. These containers can travel anywhere in the world, and not have to be unloaded when switching between modes of transport.

Some boxcars were specially fitted with ribbed edges with openings in order to carry livestock such as horses, cows, and other farm animals. This was common practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, it is no longer commonplace.

Additionally, refrigerated boxcars, called reefers, are used to transport perishable items such as frozen food. These cars can carry anything perishable, including dairy products and vegetables.

Drew Jacksich

Tanker Car

Tanker cars can carry anything from natural gas to corn syrup. Many times, when a tanker is carrying hazardous material, a placard will be placed on the side. One of the most common types of tanker commodities is crude oil, which usually comes from North Dakota, and is shipped throughout North America. These types of loads are usually in a consist of 100+ cars, and operate as a unit train.

Placards in North America are as follows:

Placard NumberMaterial
1993Flammable liquid
1267Crude oil
1078Propane and petroleum gasses
1831Sulfuric acid
1824Sodium hydroxide
2187Carbon dioxide refrigerated liquid
1075Liquefied petroleum gas
Jeff Hampton

Centerbeam Car

A centerbeam car usually carries lumber, however it can carry other building materials, such as wallboard, or drywall, which is used in construction. Loading a centerbeam car can be a tedious task, as it requires the car to have equal weight on both sides to avoid tipping over, and must have an equal load on both sides of the center I-beam at all times. Most centerbeam cars are separated by a Vierendeel Truss or diagonal beams to reinforce the car, and keep the load secured during transit.

Hopper Car

A hopper car has many different kinds of uses, and can transport many different types of products. There are two different types of hopper cars, the open top hopper, and the covered hopper.

The open top hopper car can haul anything from coal to iron ore. Many hoppers cars carry these substances in unit trains, which are trains of the same commodity and car type. Hopper cars are loaded from the top, and can either be unloaded from the bottom, or enter a rotary dumper that tips the car over, emptying its contents. A train of hopper cars hauling iron ore currently holds the record for the longest train in the world, which was set in Australia, hauled by BHP Biliton iron ore.

The covered hopper carries commodities such as grain and wheat. These cars are meant to protect commodities that must stay away from the outside elements, as these cars are completely enclosed. These cars are also loaded from the top through hatches that open. These cars are usually unloaded on the bottom, as there are latches that allow the product to be released into their correct bins. Covered hoppers can be seen in a unit train, as well as found among other commodities in a mixed freight.

Bill Johnson

Flat Car

The flat car can carry anything from airplane fuselages, to construction equipment. Many flat cars are as simple as a metal frame with wooden panels placed on top. A flatcar can serve many purposes, and come in different forms. Some flatcars are depressed in the center to allow for heavy loads to be transported, such as electrical transformers and construction equipment. These types of flatcars are often able to carry over 100 short tons, and usually has up to eight axles.

Some flatcars carry wood, such as bulkhead flatcars, which have two bulkheads at either end to secure the load. These ends prevent the load from shifting, and hanging off the end of the car.

Some of the most unique loads that a flatcar carries are airplane parts. Beginning during World War II, flat cars began to be the standard way to move airplane parts by land, and became commonplace for many flatcars to be specially fitted to carry this type of load. Many of the cars receiving metals barriers on the ends to protect the fuselage in transit, and to prevent any damage that may occur. Additionally, the wings and tail are placed on additional flat cars for transport to assembly.

John Rus

Intermodal Well Car

The intermodal well car, and intermodal transport became ever popular throughout the late twentieth century. Developed by the Southern Pacific in 1977, the well car soon caught on as the future of rail transport with its versatility and reliability. This mode of transport is extremely versatile, and provided the convenience of not having to unload the product until it was delivered to the customer. Intermodal trains can stretch for miles, and are generally seen on most rail lines throughout North America. These containers have the versatility to travel on ships, trains, or trucks anywhere worldwide. It is commonplace to see many intermodal loading facilities near waterways, as the containers are offloaded from the ships and puts on trucks and trains. This has revolutionized freight transport throughout the world, as previously, freight cars such as the boxcar was needed to move this type of freight across land.

The well car is designed for a container to sit lower than the initial height of the car, in order for another container to be stacked on top. The containers are attached to each other using inter box connectors (IBC), and it is common practice to have four connectors in each corner of the railcar. Many wellcars are articulated, as they are semi-permanently coupled together using an articulated coupling that sits atop the truck, used to support both cars. These articulated cars are usually found in sets of three or five. Due to height restrictions, well cars are usually only able to be double stacked in North America.

Drew Jacksich

Autorack Car

An autorack car carries vehicles on their way to dealerships for delivery. Autorack cars are usually double tiered, and have the capacity to transport any vehicle, from a small compact car, to a large conversion van. Loading cars on the autorack is quite simple, as cars can be loaded on either side, and are driven up to their respective tier on the autorack via a ramp.  Autorack cars are usually hauled in unit trains, however, are occasionally seen on mixed freights. Before the autorack, automobiles were transported on flatcars, as the autorack was not yet in development. Early developments of the autorack had an open air design, however, due to acts of vandalism that was commonplace, the automobiles often received damage. With this in mind, later autoracks were enclosed and are commonplace on today’s North American railroads.

Bill Johnson

Related Questions

What are some common rail freight companies? In North America, Class 1 railroads include Norfolk Southern (NS), CSX, Union Pacific(UP), BNSF, Kansas City Southern(KCS), Canadian National (CN), and Canadian Pacific(CP).

In the UK, common freight carriers include, DB, GBRf, Freightliner, Direct Rail Services, and Colas Rail Freight. 

What are some common rail freight rates? In North America, rates for freight moved by rail is usually calculated by mile. For intermodal freight, the usual rate is about 5 cents per mile. Mixed freight is usually moved at about 3 cents per mile. For bulk commodities, it costs shippers around 2 cents per mile. 


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