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Factory to Dealer--By Rail

Ever wonder how your car got from, oh, say, Marysville, Ohio or Wolfsburg, Germany to your friendly local dealership with only about 7 miles showing on the odometer? 


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.

Back when building automobiles first went from being something mechanical engineering nerds did in their spare time to a major industry producing consumer goods for a national (and international) market, there was really not much of an intercity highway network, and the railroad was the best available method of hauling anything heavy and/or valuable from one place to another on land.

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.

A typical 40 foot wood-sided boxcar built in 1919, and rebuilt in 1937.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.

Cutaway of an "XA"As you might expect, loading and unloading these cars was a complex and labor-intensive process.

Late-'40s DeSotos on the freight dock.1955 Nashes in the process of loading 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"

A Santa fe "Auto-Veyor" loaded with 1964 Mopars.A slightly different design, with only two decks instead of three, was developed for trucks and vans.

By the time this photo was taken in 1991, unenclosed rack cars were starting to get rare.Most of the auto carriers you see today are, more or less, the traditional "bi-level" or "tri-level" car with sides and a roof and end doors added to protect the contents from vandalism.

Amazing fun fact: the rack is owned by Norfolk Southern Railways, but the flat car underneath is owned by Trailer Train.The Canadian National Railway introduced enclosed bi-level cars in 1957. Enclosed "racks" started appearing in this country in the early 1970s, and are universal today.

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.

Autoracks in Los Angeles 3-22-99
This vintage publicity photo appeared on the cover of the Southern Pacific Technical and Historical Society's magazine. 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:

Auto-Max by GreenbrierIt can also be set up as a conventional tri-level car for transporting automobiles.

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.

UP builds the AutoFlex in its own car shops in Missouri.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."

Capacity: one MG or Triumph.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 giant number boxes were used to display the train's "headcode" until 1974. When the practice ended, the headcode boxes were set to all zeroes pending removal.This is Germany's version of the same concept, two four-wheeled units permanently coupled together:

Carspotters' challenge: what's the make and model of those minivans?The European railroads also developed single-unit car carriers such as this French example.

Renaults on the go....
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.

Hccrrss????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.

Click here to enlarge and read.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.

An epic of the disco era.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.

There are similar services in Europe, including trains that carry trucks and autos through the Alps and the Channel Tunnel.

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 The AutoFlex and Auto-Max illustrations are taken from the manufacturers' publicity materials. The illustration of the French car carrier came from, 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 All other images are from Wikipedia.


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Nice story, Cookie. When I worked at the Nissan plant, it was fun watching them take 1,000 new cars a day off of the grounds.

Maybe the most unique method of transporting car shells was when GM built the Allante bodies in Italy, then flew them to the USA for final assembly. Of course, rather than riding in boxcars, they flew First Class:

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