Their era ended long ago, but the last 40-foot boxcars endure

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A BN 40-foot boxcar in work train service in Missoula, Mont., in September 2006. Tom Danneman photo.

Just for the record, I like watching an entire train go by, from the power to the EOT. We all enjoy seeing locomotives pass, but I also like to see the rest of the train. The consist is 95 percent of a train, after all. Not watching the whole train, to me, is like buying tickets for a major movie and failing to stick around for the credits. You’re bound to miss something noteworthy if you don’t keep your eyes open to the end.

In the spirit of the American freight train, here’s an interesting fact, courtesy of friends at the Association of American Railroads: Of the 1.55 million freight cars in service in North America, we’re down to 18 or fewer 40-foot boxcars that are still listed in UMLER, the service that tracks freight cars in revenue service in North America.

Of the 18, eight carry Burlington Northern reporting marks, seven carry Canadian Pacific, two carry Ferromex, and one is listed at New England preservation railroad Naugatuck. Dozens of others are also preserved at museums or tourist railroads, but just not listed in UMLER.

That’s pretty amazing, considering that most 40-foot boxcars left the railroading scene about 30 years ago and that the peak for these boxcars goes all the way back to 1942.

The AAR shared details with us about the cars, which are all too old now for interchange service.

All of the BN cars, save for one condemned to scrap, are listed as active. The last one moved in June 2012 when No. 200147 was switched in Everett, Wash. Before that, the only movement of any of these cars was in 2009 when two were active, and one went to a steel mill in Pueblo, Colo., most likely for scrap. Prior to that, two cars moved in 2008, one in 1996, one in 1997, and one in, O.K., get ready for this, 1981. The other seven are BN 200112, 200161, 200184, 200194, 200223, 200294, and 281467.

All seven CP cars are shown as inactive, and the last move was in 1985. All are or were (if they still exist) in Quebec, save for one in Detroit. Again, they may be ghosts, but if you’ve seen them, they are Nos. 50020, 52525, 53496, 53547, 54849, 55587, and 55709.

Only one of the two Ferromex cars is active, and if you can believe it, No. 850007 moved earlier this month on May 2 to Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, and actually appears to have been under load. So this one appears to be the last active 40-foot boxcar in North America. Reporting marks are FXE and the other car is No. 850034.

Naugatuck’s car, No. 445, last moved in 2002 from Montpelier

Junction, Vt., to the tourist line and museum in Connecticut.

Boxcars have been around since the 1830s, and the height of 40-foot boxcars was in 1942, when the fleet peaked at 754,322.

“After 1949, you were beginning to have a very significant number of 50-foot cars joining the fleet,” says AAR’s John Gray. “Before 1940, the Great Depression kept the number of cars depressed and before the Depression you were in the 1920s when there were a very large number of 36-foot and smaller cars still in the fleet.”

Of the freight cars running today in North America, covered hoppers rule the day with almost 400,000. Tank cars make up about 300,000 (and are growing fast due to the crude oil boom). Gons come in third at about 200,000. Of the 90,000 or so boxcars, fewer than 18 40-foot boxcars are still around, and only one has turned a wheel lately, far out of sight, and out of mind, the last of its kind.

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