Factory to Dealer--By Rail
Following up on my recent post on the Vert-A-Pac railroad cars built to transport the Chevrolet Vega, I'd like to present here the first chapter in a series on how automobiles get from the end of the assembly line to the showroom. In this installment, we'll look at rail transport.
At first, like most anything else that wasn't a live animal or a bulk commodity and moved by rail, autos were transported in general-purpose boxcars.
Within a few years, US railroads developed a special-purpose "automobile boxcar." This was a larger car--fifty feet long, when forty feet was the norm--with double sliding doors. Inside was a clever rack system which made it possible to carry four vehicles, two jacked up against the roof and the other two tucked in beneath them.
The other thing to remember was that while the "trucks" (what railroaders call those swiveling assemblies that hold the wheels) beneath the average mid-century boxcar had a total weight capacity (car plus contents) of 50 tons, a load of four of even the biggest large-barge American sedans came nowhere close to that, even though it completely filled a fifty-foot automobile boxcar.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, long 85- and 89-foot flatcars were developed for "piggyback" trains carrying semi trailers, a practice that eventually evolved into the modern scheme of "intermodal" freight containers that can be carried on trucks, trains, or ships. Someone soon realized that you could park four or five automobiles in the length of one "pig" flat. That would be a load well under the weight capacity for the flatcar--which had gone up to somewhere around 70 tons by now--but there was space enough within the "clearance diagram" (maximum allowable height and width for a railroad car) to add two more layers of autos plus a rack to hold them and still not exceed the maximum allowable weight. The result was the "tri-level auto rack"
Loading and unloading an auto rack is pretty simple. You set a ramp against the end of the railroad car and just drive the vehicles on or off. A whole string of cars can be loaded from one end by using "bridge plates" between cars.
A couple of alternative arrangements were tried that didn't quite catch on. We've previously discussed the Vert-A-Pac, which carried Chevy Vegas in a nose-down position; it appears to have been unsuitable for any car other than a General Motors H-body. Southern Pacific also came up with a container system called "Stac-Pac" for full-sized Cadilacs; it did everything the enclosed tri-level auto rack did, but was slower to load and unload and required a crane.
That's not to say that there haven't been improvements. When SUVs became popular in the 1990s, they presenetd a bit of a challenge: they were too tall to fit on a tri-level auto rack, but if you carried them on a bi-level, you couldn't help but notice there was a lot of wasted space and capacity.
The solution was to build cars with adjustable decks that could be shifted up and down to make better use of available space. When carrying SUVs, the 180-foot long "Auto-Max" built by Greenbrier Companies drops part of the lower deck down between the trucks and sneaks another six vehicles in beneath two full rows, as shown in this illustration from the manufacturer's promotional brochure:
Here's the manufacturer's promotional video for your viewing pleasure:
By the way, the technical term for a railroad car is made up of two segments hinged in the middle to go around curves is "articulated."
The "AutoFlex" designed and built by the Union Pacific Railroad isn't articulated, but it does have adjustable decks.
In Europe, the story of moving cars by rail follows a similar outline, but European railroads have much tighter clearances and have traditionally used smaller and lighter equipment. In the UK, the Great Western Railway came up with a variation on its standard four-wheel, 12-ton "van" (boxcar) with end doors that could be used to load a "motorcar," and side doors for conventional "goods" loading. They called it the "MOGO."
Conventional flatcars were also used for this traffic. In 1964, British Rail came up with a four unit articulated bi-level rack design called the "Cartic." Here's a train of empty Cartics photographed in Doncaster, England in 1976.
The European railroads also developed single-unit car carriers such as this French example.
As in North America, there's a modern trend toward fully enclosed carriers. This is Greenbrier Companies' articulated enclosed design for European railroads. The official designation for this car is the "Hccrrss," and no, I can't pronounce it either.
I also want to take a few paragraphs to mention the occasions when railroads offered a retail automobile transport service to individual consumers. In remote parts of Canada where the road net was not yet developed, history records that the railroads sometimes hung a flatcar on the rear of a train and carried the passengers' autos along for the ride.
In the summer of 1965, the Baltimore & Ohio extended a similar offer to passengers travelling between Washington and Chicago on one of its secondary passenger trains. The vehicles were carried on a bi-level autorack tacked on behind the last passenger car. The "Take-Your-Auto" service was only offered between the end points of the journey--loading and unloading vehicles at intermediate stops would have unacceptably slowed the train. As the contemporary newspaper article to the right relates, the people that used the service seemed to like it--but there really weren't enough customers riding the B&O who wanted to bring their cars with them to make it a paying proposition.
Still, it wasn't a bad idea. Inspired in large part by B&O's "Take-Your-Auto" experiment, Eugene Garfield, a lawyer who'd worked for the Department of Transportation, formed Auto-Train Corporation to operate a service between the Northeast and Florida. By 1970, the railroads were getting out of the retail passenger business as fast as they could--that's why we have Amtrak today--and Mr. Garfield was able to pick up some rather ritzy passenger cars at affordable prices. Auto-Train built two terminals, in northern Virginia and central Florida, acquired enclosed bi-level auto racks from Canadian National and brand new heavy freight diesels from GE, and blinged everything out in disco-era red, purple, and white. Passenger service started on December 6, 1971.
Nicknamed "Big Red" by the railroad crews, the Auto-Train was the longest passenger train ever to operate in North America. In peak travel periods, it could run to nearly a mile in length, and was sometimes split into two sections, passenger cars in one and auto carriers in the other.
Auto-Train did pretty well for itself for several years. The Virginia-Florida service was quite popular, especially with "snowbirds" who could take their cars to Florida for the winter without having to drive 20 hours each way.
A Louisville-Florida train started up in 1974, but lost money faster than the East Coast train could make it back. The Louisville route was discontinued in 1977, but the expenses from the Midwest service and some major accidents dragged the company down and it went bust in 1981. Amtrak acquired the assets of Auto-Train and restarted the service in 1983. It's still in operation, and one of Amtrak's few long-distance trains that actually makes money.
In our next installment, we'll talk about what happens to your car when it gets off the train.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
PHOTO CREDITS: The wood-sided boxcar photo came from the website of model railroad blogger Matt Forsyth. The photo of the late-'40 DeSotos being unloaded from (or is that loaded in?) automobile boxes came from the Station Wagon Forums, to which it was contributed by member "Jim 69cuda." The other automobile bocxar loading pictures are vintage publicity stills that came from Flickr user "PAcarhauler." The B&W publicity shot of a Santa Fe "Auto-Veyor" came from the history website Kansas Memory. Bill Weibel took the photo of the bi-level rack in 1991 and posted it at Northeast Railfan.net. The AutoFlex and Auto-Max illustrations are taken from the manufacturers' publicity materials. The illustration of the French car carrier came from makette.de, which sells a model of the car, The newspaper article on the B&O's "Take-Your-Auto" service ran in the October 9, 1965 Ludington, Kentucky Daily News, and was obtained from Google News. The Auto-Train photo was taken by Richard Wright in March of 1973, and came from themetrains.com. All other images are from Wikipedia.