Shipping Cars By Rail Helps Build Early Auto Industry

Since the automotive industry's earliest beginnings, railroads have been its strongest ally. America's unabashed love affair with the automobile can be, in large part, directly attributed to the railroad's ability to efficiently and economically transport new cars and trucks from manufacturing plants to eager buyers across the United States. From wooden boxcars to circus-style flat cars, the railroads continue to innovate to create more value for the auto industry and, ultimately, the consumer.

Auto Transport by Rail Fuels Car Industry's Early Growth

Reliable and affordable transport by rail was essential to the growth of the early automotive industry. Rail offered a number of important advantages over truck transport such as better access to markets and more efficient delivery.

In 1910, there were less than 15,000 miles of paved roads throughout the United States and only 10,000 commercial trucks on the road nationwide. Trucks could operate only during daylight hours, until 1912 when they were equipped with electric running lights.

Transcontinental rail transport, on the other hand, was possible over 40 years earlier in 1869 when the Union Pacific track from the East met that of the Central Pacific from the West at Promontory, Utah. Across the nation, miles of railroad track increased from just over 35,000 in 1865 to almost 167,000 in 1890. Michigan, the home of the fledgling auto industry, had nearly 7,000 miles of main track in addition to about 2,000 miles of spurs and side tracks. By the turn of the century, three railroads had already spanned Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

Early auto industry pioneers such as David Dunbar Buick, Ransom Olds and Henry Ford easily chose rail transport over trucking as the quickest and most cost effective way to transport their new horseless carriages to market.

Wooden Boxes on Open Rail Cars

Early Ford models were often shipped partially assembled, encased in large wooden boxes and loaded on open rail cars directly outside the Detroit Mack Avenue plant and later from the Highland Park, Michigan factory. The boxed vehicles were then shuttled to the Michigan Central, Grand Trunk or Soo Line terminals and rushed to waiting buyers. When they arrived at their final destination, a Ford mechanic would complete the final assembly of the vehicle often using pieces of the wooden box for the new car's floor and running boards.

The 1909 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog advertised the Sears Motor Buggy for 5, or 0 without fenders or top, plus shipping to the nearest train station.

To give some idea of how fast the auto industry grew: in 1902 there was one car for every 1.5 million people in the United States; two years later the ratio shrunk to one for every 65,000 people; and by 1909, after the introduction of the Model T, there was one car for every 800 people.

Throughout the early 1900s, shipping cars by rail continued to fuel the success of the auto industry. In 1920, Ford opened the River Rouge Manufacturing Complex. It included 90 different buildings and 93 miles of railroad track to bring in materials essential to manufacturing automobiles, as well as to transport the newly manufactured cars to market. Ford also acquired the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton (DT&I) Railroad with 454 miles of main track. The DT&I brought coal into the plant from Ford's privately owned mines in Kentucky and shipped automobiles from Detroit to Ironton, Ohio.

From Boxcars to Double-Deckers

Boxcars soon became the preferred method of auto transport because they offered increased protection from the elements. The loading process, however, was laborious and time consuming.

New automobiles were either manually or mechanically lifted. Two to three vehicles could be successfully loaded into one 28-foot long boxcar. Railroads soon extended boxcars to 36 feet in length to accommodate even more automobiles. To make loading easier, some railcars were modified with larger sliding double doors. Other railcars had doors added at one or both ends.

In 1923, railroads experimented by modifying a group of 61-foot long wood-frame flat cars. Collapsible frames were added to allow double-deck operation. Through the 1940s and 1950s other railroads also experimented with double-deckers, as well as loading assemblies, which would lift one car above the other.

The Circus Comes To Town

As America's fascination with new cars and trucks continued to grow, the railroad industry also continued to search for more efficient methods to load and unload new vehicles onto rail cars. The answer would come from another iconic American institution - the traveling circus.

Circuses, which were major haulers of wheeled vehicles from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, developed a simple and efficient process to load vehicles on rail cars. Rather than lift vehicles, they cleverly strung a number of flat cars together, set temporary bridge plates in place to span the gaps between each car, and simply drove or towed wheeled circus vehicles down the length of the train.

Railroads quickly adopted this method of loading new cars and trucks. The addition of foldaway bridges to the ends of the flat cars would soon lead to other innovations that would make transporting new cars and trucks by rail even more efficient.

Today, railroads account for 43 percent of intercity freight volume and a significant portion of rail intercity shipments involve finished automobiles. It is the most efficient and cost-effective transportation system, saving consumers billions of dollars according to the Association of American Railroads. Railroads still load vehicles using a version of the ramps first used by the traveling circus, but now automobiles move to market on auto trains that use specially designed, fully enclosed rail cars made just for shipping automobiles. Odds are high, if you are driving a brand new automobile, it was delivered to your dealer on our nation's rail network.

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