Apologies to Alfred Hitchcock for a play on the title of his 1951 Academy Award nominated motion picture, but there are some very unusual cargoes moved on the shiny irons. The “circus train” has been a metaphor for a century and a half, since P. T. Barnum decided in 1872 to travel by train, but the transport of lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) is only a small part of the unique lading to be found on the rails. How else, for example would you carry a live octopus… by the arms? Fisheries in Alaska rely on the railroad to get live seafood to market quickly and efficiently. Using 200 rail cars, a complete oil refinery was shipped from Tulsa to Seattle by rail. Prestressed concrete bridge beams went to Fairbanks Alaska on three rail cars… each end of the beams resting on a separate car, with the third car running idly between the two load-bearing cars. An unusual sight, a cement mixer full of cement… barrel turning all the way, was helped to Healy, Alaska. The peculiar portage was made necessary because the available road was insufficient for the weight of the ‘mixer. Very large and very heavy machines are commonly carried by rail, as they, too are simply too heavy for road transport. Starfire Engineering designed a 12-axle, 945,000 pound gross vehicle weight rail car (3.3 times normal gross weight) for a logistics company who needed a way to carry large generators.
A couple of industries that make heavy use of rail transport are automotive and aviation. Most people have seen the AutoRacks which carry your new car from the factory to your dealership. As soon as the paint dried on the first production automobile, shipping headaches needed to be addressed. In those early days, roads to drive the car on were rare enough, and shipping by any mode other than rail was impossible. Boxcars were available, and three or four of Mr. Ford’s horseless carriages were strapped into each and “problem solved”. This solution was not long viable and as production quantities rose, increased shipping efficiencies were needed. The first hints of today’s AutoRack were seen in a long line of flatcars with “bridges” between them. The cars were ramped up onto the first car and then driven to the end of the consist, this long-distance loading continuing until all the flatcars were full. At some point it was noted that there was a great deal of wasted space above the autos, and a “second floor” was installed, with its own ramp and bridges. Lightweight perforated metal protective covers were fitted to the car and the modern AutoRack had arrived. Even this simple parking garage on wheels morphed into a strange configuration as General Motors, in an effort to cut shipping costs on Chevrolet Vegas, stacked them on end!
Not so familiar to most people is the shipment of aircraft by rail.
In this interesting marriage of the newest motorized transport with the oldest, large completed aircraft sub-assemblies are shipped from sub-contractor’s assembly plants to the aircraft manufacturer’s final assembly facility.
In this photo, completed Boeing 737 airliner fuselages are shipped by rail from Wichita, Kansas to Seattle, Washington. This practice was born during World War 2 when complete airplanes from assembly plants in the Midwest and on the West Coast were disassembled and sent cross-country to the East Coast for overseas shipping. Success in this endeavor led eventually to the “Sky Box” container system for shipping fuselage, wing and other subassemblies for Boeing 747s. Starfire Engineering has been involved in developing and modifying railcars and lading restraint systems to move aircraft parts on the irons. While aircraft can certainly be moved over roads, the cost efficiencies inherent in rail transport make this the viable alternative for shipping production quantities of components.
Indeed, for overall efficiency, rail transport can beat any other land transport system,
473 miles: How far a freight train can move a ton of freight on one gallon of fuel
75 percent: The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions achieved by moving freight by rail instead of truck
and some very creative configurations have been developed over the decades to facilitate the shipment of some very curious cargoes.
Thanks for joining us and keep the rails shiny!
Play a Train Song
We here at “Shiny Irons” love trains… famed Nashville musician and music producer Jack Clement did, too. “I’ve Got a Thing About Trains”
with Bobby Bare, from Clement’s final album “For Once and For All”