What Do Freight Trains Carry? This Will Blow Your Mind!

Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Feb 10, 2023 By Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Originally Published on Dec 01, 2021
Edited by Rhea Nischal
the tank car is used to move liquids
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Age: 3-18
Read time: 9.5 Min

Freight trains are used to haul commodities instead of human passengers.

Since the inception of the first steam-powered train in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, these large automobiles have become a common sight all around the world. A massive network of railroads can be found in all regions where trains are a common sight.

Freight trains, or goods trains, are one of the most common types of trains in the world, barring passenger trains. These trains are massive in length and are used to move commodities from one place to the other.

Freight trains haul almost any given material in daily use, from food items to raw materials for industrial purposes.

Because of their popularity as an easy mode of transport, freight trains have been divided into various categories that are used to move different commodities. Autoracks are an example of this, as these cars are used specifically to move finished vehicles in the form of new cars and trucks.

If you enjoyed reading this article about what do freight trains carry, be sure to check out articles about why do people travel and how fast does electricity travel too!

Loads That Freight Trains Carry

Rail transport has, over the years, become one of the most popular forms of transportation that individuals, as well as massive corporations, use to cover long distances.

Rail transportation can be a cost-effective method of moving things like food products, hazardous materials, or energy products from one point to the other, especially in rural areas that do not have many forms of transportation and are only connected to the rest of the country through a series of rail lines.

The form of rail freight transport makes use of the available rail network by using railroads and rails to transport bulk loads of cargo. Some of the cargo that is moved using a freight car is energy products like coal and wind turbines, raw construction materials, automotive, chemicals, and agricultural goods.

Due to the rail freight sector's being large in size, there are many railroads and companies that are widely popular all around the world. In North America, some of the best railroads include the Canadian Pacific, Canadian National, Union Pacific, and Kansas City Southern.

In the United Kingdom, some of the general freight carriers are Colas Rail Freight, Direct Rail Services, and Freightliner.

It is estimated that the rail freight rates on the North American railroads have an asking price of five cents per mile to move intermodal freight. The asking price to move mixed freight is around three cents per mile. If you are moving bulk commodities, the asking price will be around two cents per mile.

In general, there is no legal limit on the length of a freight train in the United States. Shipping containers weighing up to 15,500 U.S. tons (14061.3 tonnes) are moved using 295 cars, and the head of the train has at least four engines joined at the beginning of the train.

Compared to the rest of the world, the freight rail network of the United States is considered the world's largest freight system. This freight system runs almost 140,000 miles (225,308.1 km).

Based on the business valuation, the freight rail industry is valued at a staggering $80 billion!

It is operated by seven Class I railroads, and at least 584 local or short line railroads, and 22 regional railroads. Compared to other modes of transportation, the railroad has a wider range and is able to navigate through tough terrain that is sometimes unreachable by other sources.

The freight railroads in the United States are privately owned, and these owners take responsibility for maintaining and developing projects.

Containerization of rail freight is a large part of the cargo that undergoes transportation is managed as bulk cargo. This cargo can be poured or dropped into the freight cars.

However, the rail freight transportation system has adapted to using shipping containers. According to set regulations, the containers should be at least 20-40 ft (6-12.1 m), and thanks to this set size, incompatible rail gauge sizes can be used to ease rail freight transportation.

Speed On Which Freight Trains Carry Loads

The speed at which freight trains are allowed to move is based on the limits that have been set by the particular country where they are operating. For example, loaded freight trains in the United States have a maximum speed of 70-80 mph (112.6-128.7 kph).

Unloaded freight trains can move at a speed of 40-50 mph (64.3-80.4 kph). This slow-moving speed is to help with fuel consumption over long distances.

Freight trains usually carry freight worth 1 ton (1000 kg) over 500 miles (804.6 km). As rail-fans would say, using freight trains to move freight by rail is healthier for the ecosystem because of its low greenhouse gas emissions.

Rail transportation is efficient, especially for moving bulk commodities like food and raw materials.

Generally, one freight train is capable of hauling more than 200 cars, with each car carrying 110 U.S. ton (99,790.3 kg) of freight. Compared to this, trucks, be they light trucks or heavy-duty trucks, take a lot more trips to move the same quantity of cargo.

Unit trains are used to haul autoracks

Goods That Freight Trains Carry

Freight trains carry various goods, and there are different varieties of these trains that are suited for one particular use.

Some of the goods that freight trains carry are:

Autorack: Autoracks are used to carry trucks and cars. Autoracks are metal-based and are enclosed securely to shield the vehicles in them. The inside is made up of metal racks that serve as the deck in the rail car.

Multiple levels inside these rail cars are used to create a large space in which the vehicles are securely stacked during transportation. Autoracks are great for a large number of vehicles, from small cars to massive trucks and truck trailers. Unit trains are used to haul autoracks.

Hopper Car: The hopper car is used to transport various types of products, and these cars come in two different types, the open-top and the covered hopper car. Hopper cars are used to haul a variety of things, from iron ore to coal.

Unit trains are used in this case too, to move freight. These cars can be loaded from the top and unloaded from the bottom. Currently, the BHP Billiton iron ore train holds the record for the longest train in the world.

Covered hopper cars are commonly used to move food materials like wheat and grain, and since they are perfectly enclosed, they protect the food or the other commodities that they carry. Covered hopper cars are a common sight in unit trains and for moving other commodities in mixed freight.

Tank Car: The tank car is used to move liquids. The body is built solidly and has a more cylindrical shape compared to other rail cars. These cars usually carry 6,500-31,000 gal (24,605-117,347 l) of liquid. If you come across a cylindrical freight car, chances are you are looking at tank cars!

Gondola: Gondolas are created to be sturdy and have open tops with low sidewalls. These cars are used to move bulk commodities like scrap metal, steel, lumber, and copper.

Well Cars: Well cars, also known as 'well stack cars' are created to comfortably fit shipping containers in them. These cars have a rule where containers have to be stacked on top of each other, with a maximum of two vessels in a well car. This method is known as 'double stack'.

Tanker Cars: These cars are used to move various items, from corn syrup to natural gas products. These cars are known for moving crude oil, which comes from North Dakota. Crude oil is one of the most common commodities that is moved along the American railroads.

Boxcar: Boxcars are widely known as one of the most common types of freight cars. These cars move televisions, papers, and everything that comes in between. These cars have doors on the side that come in handy during the unloading process. In many cases, these doors help other vehicles securely empty the contents of the boxcar.

Before technological advancements brought the railroad business to the forefront of the world, boxcars were widely used to transport grain and coal. Today, the boxcar has become something of a relic, and it is being used less frequently than before. Refrigerated boxcars are still being used to transport frozen food and other perishable items.

Centerbeam: The center beam car comes with a center beam or a partition that strengthens gravity in the car and helps products be securely placed. These cars are used to move building supplies, lumber, and fence posts.

Did You Know...

Heavy materials such as wood, coal, and steel are some of the most common goods transported via rail.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, a total of 28% of goods are moved via rail in the United States.

Trains usually operate on steel tracks and have steel wheels that allow low friction. The wheels of the train car are attached using an axle, and this axle helps in maintaining a normal movement in the train wheels.

During the laying of train tracks by rail workers, a flat-bottom steel rail is mostly used. The rail has a broad base and a narrow web and head.

The weight of this steel rail is approximately 80-160 lb (36.2-72.5 kg) and it depends on the different types of trains operating in the area. Fishplates, known as rail track segments, connect with each other through the use of bolted plates.

The track beneath the rail is usually cushioned, and the foundation is created using concrete or sand. The elevated track helps in moving water from the drainage systems of the trains.

In many cases, these tracks are enclosed with fences to deter animals and people from stepping on them. In the case of electrical trains, the power rail is hung from the wires above to provide power to the trains.

The symmetry of tracks depends on the topography of an area, as curves or slight angles might be added to the tracks to help trains move smoothly on them. Switches are used to change tracks to move trains from one track to the other.

Much like a traffic light, trains also operate based on information provided to them on what lies ahead.

Signals are often sent to the train driver to inform them of any small issue that may deter them from completing their trip on time, and in many cases, these signals are used to prevent accidents from occurring on the massive railroad network that trains all across the world have.

The steel-on-steel grating that is found on tracks is lower in comparison to the rubber grating that is caused by trucks when they are on the move. Railway locomotives are much more energy-efficient, and this situation is compared to how gasoline generators are less efficient than massive industrial power plants.

A freight train has no particular schedule, and the only way to prepare for its arrival is to familiarize yourself with the area and figure out the pattern yourself.

An average electric train, including the coaches and the engines, can cost around $5,000,000, and this price depends on whether the train is powered by AC or DC friction. A diesel locomotive is usually in the price range of $500,000-$2 million.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for what do freight trains carry, then why not take a look at why do we stretch or how is cement made.

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Written by Rajnandini Roychoudhury

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

Rajnandini Roychoudhury picture

Rajnandini RoychoudhuryBachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

With a Master of Arts in English, Rajnandini has pursued her passion for the arts and has become an experienced content writer. She has worked with companies such as Writer's Zone and has had her writing skills recognized by publications such as The Telegraph. Rajnandini is also trilingual and enjoys various hobbies such as music, movies, travel, philanthropy, writing her blog, and reading classic British literature. 

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