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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Carload Considerations: Boxcars thrive as trucking issues persist… but for how long?

Carload Considerations: Boxcars thrive as trucking issues persist… but for how long?

By Chase Gunnoe | January 18, 2022

Supply-chain issues invites shippers back to rail, but aging car fleet could be a problem

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Graffiti-covered boxcars on rail spur
Graffiti-covered boxcars on rail spur
The 50′ standard boxcar is becoming obsolete as boxcar fleets approach their 50-year lifespan. As a result of pandemic related supply chain issues, shippers have found this fleet particularly useful. (Chase Gunnoe)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Supply-chain woes stemming from COVID-19’s economic rebound have been thoroughly scrutinized in the past year, specifically the interwovenness of intermodal container rail shipments and its role in the supply chain. Trains’ Bill Stephens summarized the topic as part of 2021’s year-end countdown of major stories: “News Wire Top 10, No. 3, a snarled supply chain,” Dec. 29, 2021.

One opportunity that has sprung from supply chain unknowns is renewed interest in the boxcar. As truck drivers flock to lucrative opportunities where logistics companies are paying high wages to move goods, some shippers can’t find drivers and are leaning on the reliable boxcar. This is exacerbated by higher freight rates and fuel costs that continue to rise in a transportation environment still relatively flush with uncertainty.

According to DAT Freight & Analytics trendlines for December 2021, van load-to-truck rates were up 35% year-over-year, flatbed load-to-truck up 27%, and fuel prices up nearly 41%. December capacity was particularly constrained as a result of expected holiday orders, further influencing escalated prices.

For shippers with the versatility to choose between trucks and railcars, this invites reconsideration of the benefits of the boxcar. Truckers were successful in pulling volume from railroads when U.S. highways were built, but periodic trucking capacity constraints may boost the rail option. Also, the move to Precision Scheduled Railroading has set rigorous railroad operating metrics that focus on delivery timeliness and reliability, which may bolster the shippers’ case for rail.

While these circumstances may aid interest in the boxcar, there is reason to wonder of these railcars will still be around in a few years.

Railroads own the majority of the boxcars used today, and a significant portion of today’s fleet was built in the early- to mid-1970s as the standard Plate C 50-foot boxcar. Many shippers who intermittently use rail, but mostly truck, may only have infrastructure that supports the 50-foot design. And with boxcars being the secondary choice, except in current anomalies, can shippers justify capital spending to accommodate larger 60-foot boxcars at warehouses and loading docks?

That decision lays in the hands of the business, and the railroads will not wait. It is estimated there are fewer than 100,000 boxcars in the U.S. today. About one third of the fleet has disappeared in the past 10 years, with thousands of additional boxcars approaching the end of their lifespan in the next half-decade. Boxcar construction is capital intensive for railroads and replenishing the fleet on a one-for-one basis likely isn’t practical, considering the volume of shipments that have more or less permanently migrated to highways since the last wave of boxcar builds, when railroads handled a larger share of manufactured products.

Customers whose needs rely heavily on rail have already migrated to 60-foot boxcars and infrastructure. These newer Plate F high-cube boxcars have many years of life remaining. Less frequent shippers, who may not be able to justify the spending to modify their facilities for the 60-foot cars, must rely on the dwindling pool of 50-foot cars. When trucking supply is tight in the future, there will be ever fewer boxcars to lessen the burden, and some of these shippers’ move to trucks will be permanent.

It’s a quandary that has shippers scrambling for boxcars at the same time a significant portion of the fleet is on its last days of life. For a Class I railroad today, these cars represent a respected return on investment, considering so much of today’s pool fleet was inherited from predecessor railroads. On the other hand, it’s odd to imagine a list of customers in desperate need of an old but otherwise sound 40-plus-year-old boxcar just as it’s rolled into a scrap yard.

— Chase Gunnoe works in marketing & sales for the freight rail industry and is the author of Carload Considerations, a new monthly commentary series at Trains News Wire. It will discuss the freight rail industry, commodities, and economic trends. Its views are the sole opinion of its author with no particular emphasis on a specific railroad or shipper.

15 thoughts on “Carload Considerations: Boxcars thrive as trucking issues persist… but for how long?

    1. If my memory serves me correct, the majority of the generic 50’ cars were rated for a 70,000 load where as the 60’s are usually 100,000 pound. So mix in a lot more cubic feet due to length and height increase and capacity increases the 60’ cars are much more efficient.
      One negative is loading docks at warehouses, been mentioned before in Trains how the change in multiple 60’ cars becomes a pain since the warehouses were laid out for multiple 50’ cars.

  1. Generally, just height. You will see a white stripe on the top of each end denoting excess height. But that extra 10 feet means that loading docks spaced for 50′ cars don’t fit the larger cars, so fewer cars can load or unload simultaneously on a long track at a warehouse. Tracks inside buildings may be too short as well.

    We have seen many loco rebuilding programs the past few years. I expect that we’ll now see major car rebuilding efforts – trucks, brake systems, doors, replacing rusted parts, and probably raising roofs to Plate F standards. May get another 10 to 20 years from the cars in best shape. When I watch a train today, some boxcars look so beaten and decrepit that I wonder if their graffiti is the only factor holding them together.

  2. “Precision Scheduled Railroading has set rigorous railroad operating metrics that focus on delivery timeliness and reliability”…🤣

    C’mon man…

  3. In the 1950s, 40-foot boxcars often dominated mile-long freight trains. Many of these cars were older than my mother. The basic difference from older wooden boxcars were steel construction.
    In the 1960s, boxcars were built larger as “Hi-Cube” and longer than 85-foot passenger cars.
    Railways must make an effort to eliminate graffiti on freight cars which become eyesores, casting a negative corporate image like landfills. Weathering and blemishes from road dirt and pollutants are understandable as in the past.

    1. I agree with you Penelope, I have always been a big fan of corporate image. Always put your best foot forward. Graffiti definitely detracts from the image.

  4. I agree with Roger. It seems rather than build new 50 foot boxcars, many could be refurbished and given an extended life for a lot less than building new freight cars.

  5. There is a difference in 50 and 60 when it comes to spotting cars at industries. Newer buildings are constructed for 60′ cars. When I worked for CSX one industry could spot 8 cars at a time. Get 8 60′ cars, stretch the slack and spot the last car right and they were all spotted. Start mixing in 50′ cars and more work. But a mix of 60 and 50 there you could still spot 8 cars. My question is why the railroads haven’t looked for a use for the auto parts boxes that are mostly in storage. Are they so old it’s not worth the effort? There are a lot of trucks hauling light loads but are maxed on space. One of the reasons trucking wants larger capacity trucks. How much could an auto parts boxcar haul of say plastic containers, fiberglass insulation, large foam blocks,, etc.?

  6. First off, shippers will only care about the condition of the car on the inside, the outside doesn’t contain the product, the inside does. Furthermore, 60 foot cars are not going to cut it in todays world. There needs to be a completely new boxcar design that allows for more product inside in both cubic capacity and weight. It really doesn’t make sense to use a car that can carry the same amount of material as a 53′ OTR trailer, or even if it only carries 10% more product. I know from experience if you’re shipping from west to east, even with back haul rates a domestic intermodal container that carries a product that cubes out before it weighs out will almost always win out over a back haul boxcar rate(the railroads still haven’t figure out marketing).

    When I worked for a logistics company we had a customer in California that made plastic bins for agriculture, these were replacements for wooden bins. The difference between what a 60′ Hi-cube boxcar could carry and a 53′ Hi-cube container(think JB Hunt) was roughly 10 – 20 items, depending on the bin. Granted this was 20 – 25 years ago, but the rules still apply. There was a movement from the southern part of Georgia on the NS in 60′ Hi-cubes to the Bay Area, those cars normally moved back empty(and the empty price was included in the origin rate, as is normal). Yes, they were in dedicated service to this customer, but a large portion of our customers bins went to Georgia and Florida, so the same direction that the empties needed go in the first place. It was like pulling teeth from a bear to get the rates from the UP – NS(and what ever regional/short line had a team track near the receiver) to move those cars loaded(almost pure profit) instead of them going via JB Hunt intermodal(at dirt cheap prices mind you).

    Always thought it was time to come out with a 70′ or 75′ boxcar with the next level maximum loaded weight of 310,000 lbs(currently 286,000). Everyone thinks the boxcar is dead though.

  7. I think one of my first Trains magazines I bought back around 1981, had an article about the boxcar being dead and probably being extinct before the 2000’s. Somehow this failed to happen. The territory I
    Work is still getting new boxcar business even in 2022. It still a great way to ship for many customers.

  8. I think as long as one was prudent , boxcars would provide a viable option to help but you have to look 5 10 15 years out. They can offer short term remedies and long term.

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