Everyone loves locomotives and we thrill to the power of big machines doing big work hauling another line of cars headed for somewhere far away. Sometimes we might count the cars or, if it’s a passenger train, think about where the riders may be headed and what adventures await them.
The locomotives have us enthralled but it’s the cars running along behind that are really important. The engines serve as the power that moves them but it’s the cars that carry our goods and passengers. It’s the cars that make money for the railways and their business depends on how they can provide moving space for their customers. Their purpose is to collect, sort, move and then deliver cargo or passengers. Their overall quality of service, their energy efficiency is how we keep our costs down.
This is what railways do for local commerce and world trade and all carried by the freight car.
The first railway cars were British and looked a lot like horse wagons. They were predominantly made of wood and, since the quality of English track was very good, they didn’t have the steel springs that they developed later as speeds increased.
In North America, the poor quality of track and longer distances gave a much rougher ride and this led to some serious design changes. Instead of running on four wheels like the old horse wagons the new designs had two wheel trucks at either end with spring suspension. The cars were covered to protect loads from the weather. They also grew larger to take heavier loads longer distances.
We have several cars including an outside braced boxcar, a refrigerator car and a Pointe St. Charles steel caboose. The wooden boxcar was the old workhorse carrying all kinds of merchandise across country, often from major cities to rural towns. They also carried grain or coal the other way generating revenue in both directions. The refrigerator car is an ice box on wheels that revolutionized the North American diet by making it possible to grow food where it was efficient and transport it to the market. Thanks to refrigeration we could eat fresh Georgia peaches in Winnipeg. The caboose was the office at the other end of the train. The conductor managed the pickups and deliveries in addition to keeping an eye on the condition of the train from the viewing tower or cupola.