ON HER 2002 ALBUM “SWEET TALK AND GOOD LIES”, country music artist Heather Myles sings;

I like big cars,
Like the one that’s sittin’ in my Grandpa’s yard.
He’ll say: “they don’t make ’em like that no more,
“Not Pontiac, Cadillac, Chevy or Ford.”
Big cars.
Yeah, I like big cars.

Myles’ lament of bygone days describes a genre of American automobiles which have passed into history. The modern automobile is smaller, lighter and more efficient, much to her chagrin. On the Shiny Irons, though, we still got big cars!! In fact, the cars are getting BIGGER. Over the last half of the 20th Century, weights of standard American freight cars crept up from 220,000 pounds to 263,000, to the current gross rail load of 286,000 pounds (71,500 pounds per axle), while much of the new track and many of the bridges are being built to handle loads of 300,000 pounds and more!

How big is a train? A “rule of thumb” for size and power is, one ton of lading (lading is the commodity inside the rail car) requires one horsepower to move… a typical loaded railcar of the 1940s-1950s was 180,000 (74 tons when the weight of the car is deducted), and a typical train was 60 cars. With the 1500-2000 horsepower locomotives of that day, a barbershop quartet of pulling power would be required. Today’s more athletic locomotives are pumping out 4000-5000 horsepower (that’s a lot of time in the gym!), and thus, today’s Fab Four can pull 140 cars carrying around 125.5 tons each! Other logistic factors tend to limit the consist to around 100 cars, but the increase in lading weight per train is still very impressive!!

In the quarter-century after Richard Trevithick’s “Pen-y-Darren” proved the locomotive concept, the technology advanced rapidly. In 1829, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company went shopping for a locomotive for revenue service between the two eponymous towns. At trials held in the small village of Rainhill, a the father-son team of George and Robert Stephenson entered a locomotive with the perhaps optimistic sobriquet of “The Rocket”. Winning the bid, The Rocket inaugurated a continuing tradition of heavy hauling. At 8600 pounds, the puffer was heavy, indeed… for it’s day.

In the succeeding years, the speed and weight of the rolling stock outpaced the carrying capacity of the rail bed, necessitating a change from the iron surfaced wood track to iron rails and later steel rails. Performance increases even outstripped the braking capacity of the equipment, driving innovative technological advances. One of the most important changes was the shift from wood to coal as the primary fuel for the locomotives. Coal has a fuel value (measured in calories) nearly double that of wood, which allowed a locomotive to pull considerably more tonnage. Between 1860 and 1870, the percentage of ton-miles transported by coal-fired locomotives increased from 50% to 90%. Even in the early days when the locomotive fed on wood, the freight cars it dragged carried coal… a lot of coal, In Coal Age Empire: Pennsylvania Coal and Its Utilization to 1860, Frederick Moore Binder notes:

The rich Pennsylvania anthracite fields were close to the big eastern cities, and nearly every major railroad in the Eastern United States… extended lines into the anthracite fields. Many railroads began as mining company shortline railroads. By 1840, annual hard coal output had passed the million-short ton mark, and then quadrupled by 1850, and as it grew it pushed railroad construction, mining and steel production in a synergistic symbiosis.

The demand for coal drove the railroads and shippers to develop more, larger, and lighter coal cars. Additionally, innovative loading, handling, and unloading systems were developed for fast turn around of the coal cars in service. In the mid-nineteenth century, the railroad was pressed into a service which would really put the “big” in “big cars”….

US Civil War railway gun and crew

The military forces of the world realized early on the capacity of the railroad to move troops and equipment; the use of the Irons themselves as a weapon was not far behind. During the U.S. Civil war, naval guns and field howitzers were mounted on modified rail cars and transported to battlegrounds. In subsequent conflicts, ever larger and heavier guns were mounted on rail cars, and the size and weight of the installations threatened to overwhelm even the Irons’ heavy hauling prowess. In the above photo, note the number of wheels under the car.

How much Iron can the Irons carry? As noted above, the normal weight limit of a modern rail car in the U.S. is 286,000 pounds. This sits on a pair of two-axle trucks (the wheelsets the rail car rides on are called “trucks”), for a load per axle of 71,500. This “axle load” is the guiding metric for carrying larger loads, and, generally, if you want to carry more weight, just add more axles! This same principle is seen on highway equipment, and even very large transport aircraft can land on unimproved or “soft” runways simply by adding lots of wheels to the landing gear. This principle was employed to extreme as rail mounted artillery became more common. By World War One, railroad artillery weighing north of a half-million pounds was being deployed.

France’s Obusier de 520 modele 1916; 518,000 pounds

As the track, roadbed and general quality of the railroads of the time were not the equal of today’s construction, these cars rode on a nearly unbroken cushion of wheels. The American army took delivery in 1918 of a 14” railway gun mounted on a 72-foot, 535,000 pound carriage. Spreading the load to the Tortured Irons under the behemoth were trucks sporting a total of 24 axles. The railway gun reached the extent of its excess in World War Two with the German “Schwerer Gustav” 80 centimeter gun. Tipping the scales at nearly 3 million pounds, the portly field piece rode on 8 trucks totaling 40 axles! At 38 feet, Gustav was also one of the tallest rail cars ever built. While these heavies were riding the rails, military tactics were moving in a direction which would make rail-guided weapons obsolete; however the age of “big cars” was just beginning.

In 1958, the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad moved what was billed as “the highest and widest load ever moved by rail“, a steel reactor container for a nuclear power plant. The 91-ton load reached 21 feet, 4 inches above the Irons and was 14 feet, 11 3/4 inches wide. The stint on the NYC&StL was part of a nearly 1600 mile journey for the nuclear fuel tank… at 15mph! America’s appetite for energy has driven many “high, wide, heavy” loads onto the Overtaxed Irons. This page from a Santa Fe Railroad advertisement shows a 300,000 pound oil refinery component being moved on not one, but three flat cars, with two cars supporting the load while spanning a third which rides idly between them (…slacker…)!


The current overload of choice again comes from the energy industry, in the form of turbines and transformers for electric generation facilities. The transformers, known as Large Power Transformers (LPTs) are used to change the voltage output from a generating facility to a higher voltage for more efficient transmission over long distances, or to a lower voltage for use by end users. They are very heavy, with the larger ones clocking 410 tons, and very, very expensive… at ten bucks a pound, that’s $7.5 million on that rail car. Though there aren’t a lot of these made, the size and weight, not to mention the cost, means you can’t just toss it in the back of a pickup truck for delivery. This costly cargo drove the development of a specialty rail car engineered just for this job. Called a “Schnabel” Car, the heavyweight heavy hauler resulted from an idea regarding the “floor” on which the load rests. The epiphany? … “who needs a floor”??? As this photo shows,

Consumers Power Company CPOX820 Schnabel Car, photo by Terry Cantrel

the Schnable concept dispenses entirely with the load-bearing floor, instead using the load (the transformer in this case) as a structural member, with two “beak-like (‘Schnabel’ in German)” structures on either side transferring the load to the Irons through a complex array of span bolsters and trucks. With 20 axles under the load, a 670 ton gross weight Schnabel Car can cruise with the axle load kept to a comfortable 67,000 pounds. Though the weight rating isn’t up there with the largest rail guns of the past, the 155-foot Gustav would nestle snugly in the middle of CPOX820’s 167 foot 6 inch length!! BIG CARS, indeed! Here, crossing the Susquehanna River, is the biggest of the Big Cars (currently);

WECX 801 was built in 2012 to transport nuclear reactor containment vessels for Westinghouse Electric Corporation. The biggie weighs in at almost 400 tons light weight, and the top of the roof is 18 feet above the Irons. Loaded, the car can weigh over 2 million pounds!! Length, like gross rail weight, can vary with the load being carried, but with 18 two-axle trucks on each end, this big boy can span a couple of small counties!

Starfire Engineering is in the big car business, too. An 8-axle, 195 ton depressed center flat car for hauling heavy transformers appears on our web site, as well as a 12-axle straight deck flat car. See our web site and give us a call, we will design a car to meet your heaviest hauling needs!

In addition to the mundane, everyday 2-million pound power generation loads, the Brawny Irons have also seen some… less common loads. In the waning days of the 19th century, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, N.Y. was a swanky playground for the well-heeled New Yorker. The Hotel Brighton’s three-story opulence catered to this clientele, but by 1888, an uninvited guest threatened to close the doors. Erosion caused by ocean waves had pushed the beach inland until almost half the hotel was hanging over the edge! The proprietors were not to be undone, and hired the “biggest case of housemoving on record”. The hotel was raised, twenty-four sets of railroad tracks were laid under the building, six locomotives and 112 flat cars employed and the hotel was moved 500 feet back from the water’s edge.

A few years before the Stephenson family’s “Rocket” first hauled freight for profit, well, actually about 10,000 years before, an asteroid collided with northwestern Greenland. Famed Arctic (and Antarctic) explorer Robert Peary went looking for it in 1894, finding several sizable chunks of iron in Cape York, Greenland. Peary thought it would be a great idea to take them back to New York for display – but first he had to get them overland to the boat. With a total known weight of over 128,000 pounds, this overwhelmed the capacity the local heavy hauling service, which was done by dogsled, so Peary did the logical thing and built Greenland’s first (and only) railroad. A few of the pieces were too large even for the ambitious Arctic entrepreneur, but he did manage to get a 31 ton fragment known as “Ahnighito” onto the newly constructed Icy Irons. Now in the American Museum of Natural History, it sits on three pillar supports – which run clear down to the Manhattan Island bedrock!! This remains the largest meteorite ever relocated.

The railroad industry in the U.S. is eagerly eying the 300,000 pound gross rail limit for standard freight cars, and much trackage and several bridges can already handle this load. This will push the car builders and designers to add capacity to their designs (without adding weight to them – the Irons do not like carrying weight that does not pay!), and replacing the aging fleet with higher-load cars. Along with the burlier standard fleet, we will see ever more capable specialty cars to handle even the heaviest hotels and meteorites… er, generators and transformers…. Starfire Engineering is in the forefront of design engineering for standard revenue service freight cars AND for specialty hauling cars…

… ’cause we want to keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!

North to Alaska

Where the river is winding,
Big nuggets they’re finding.
North to Alaska,
They’re goin’ North, the rush is on.

Johnny Horton’s ode to nineteenth century prospector Sam McCord provides the musical interlude to the 1960 Henry Hathaway comedy/western movie “North to Alaska”. Based (… very loosely….) on actual events, it tells the tale of prospecting for gold in turn-of-the-century Alaska and Canada. Starting from west coast ports, prospective prospectors sailed to Skagway, then, toting the required one year’s supply of food and other goods, climbed the icy face of Chilkoot pass and vanished into the interior. The prospectors were a very hardy bunch, men (and some women) seasoned by the wilderness at the frozen end of the earth. After the initial shock of entering Grizzly Bear country, they began the four hundred mile hike to Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek), near Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada where, in 1896, miners had discovered huge reserves of gold.

For the Twenty-First Century hardies, the jaunt has been made somewhat easier. The Klondike Highway connects Skagway to Dawson, easing the burden on a miner’s tired sled dogs…. The Shiny Irons, however, recommends the wonderful White Pass and Yukon Route railroad for the portion from Skagway to Yukon capital Whitehorse. The “Railway Built Of Gold” was chartered in 1898 to run from Skagway to Fort Selkirk, Yukon Territory. In 1900, the last section of the Golden Irons closed the gap between Bennet and Carcross, and service began on August 1, 1900. By that time, most of the claims in the Dawson/Bonanza Creek area had been staked, and the “gold rush” had slowed to a trickle. There was still much serious mining for sulphur, lead, silver, and nickle, which kept the rails shiny and the railroad financially solvent for some time.

In 1982, the railroad suspended operations due to a collapse of mineral prices, but in 1988 the lure of the scenery prompted a repurposing of the Irons as a tourist route. WP&YR offers a multitude of excursion passes through what is an absolutely breathtaking exhibition of natural wonder. You can get to Skagway on a tramp steamer from Seattle or San Francisco, but don’t worry about the “year’s supply” of chow, the good folks at White Pass and Yukon Route have ya covered!!

Play a Train Song

Folk singer Mason Jennings is driving spikes on the Great Northern Railway, circa 1929… “Empire Builder”

from 2004’s album “Use Your Voice”

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