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A steel-bodied boxcar built by the American Car and Foundry Company in 1926 for the South Australian Railways

A boxcar is the North American (AAR) term for a railroad car that is enclosed and generally used to carry freight. The boxcar, while not the simplest freight car design, is probably the most versatile since it can carry most loads. Boxcars have side doors of varying size and operation, and some include end doors and adjustable bulkheads to load very large items.

Similar covered freight cars outside North America are covered goods wagons and, depending on the region, are called goods van (UK and Australia), covered wagon (UIC and UK) or simply van (UIC, UK and Australia).[a]


Illustration of a boxcar being unloaded by hand

Boxcars can carry most kinds of freight. Originally they were hand-loaded, but in more recent years mechanical assistance such as forklifts have been used to load and empty them faster. Their generalized design is still slower to load and unload than specialized designs of car, and this partially explains the decline in boxcar numbers since World War II. The other cause for this decline is the dramatic shift of waterborne cargo transport to container shipping. Effectively a boxcar without the wheels and chassis, a container is designed to be amenable to intermodal freight transport, whether by container ships, trucks or flatcars, and can be delivered door-to-door.

Later grain transport would use metal reinforced cardboard which was nailed over the door and could be punctured by a grain auger for unloading. It was also impossible to mechanically load and unload. Grain can also be transported in boxcars designed specifically for that purpose; specialized equipment and procedures are required to load and unload the cars. However, the grain is better transported in covered hopper cars. Originally made of all wood construction, with beam frame, and frame sides and roofs, the cars were a fire hazard. The beam frame was limited to a 25-foot (7.62 m) length. In the 1930s, pressed steel ends were added as were steel under framing. In the late 1960s the Federal Railway Administration outlawed wood cars and they were slowly removed from the fleet. With steel frames, longer box cars were possible and thus forty-and-fifty-foot (12.192 and 15.240 m) cars emerged. Heavy loads of cement or beer can make a boxcar load in the 50-or-60-short-ton (44.6-or-53.6-long-ton; 45.4 or 54.4 t) range.

Livestock can be transported in boxcars, the standard practice in the U.S. until the mid-1880s. But, there is insufficient ventilation in warm weather. Specially-built stock cars or converted boxcars are preferable. Insulated boxcars are used for certain types of perishable loads that do not require the precise temperature control provided by a refrigerator car. Circuses used boxcars to transport their workers, supplies, and animals to get from town to town.

Box cars were used for bulk commodities such as coal, particularly in the Midwestern United States in the early 20th century. This use was sufficiently widespread that several companies developed competing box-car loaders to automate coal loading. By 1905, 350 to 400 such machines were in use, mostly at Midwestern coal mines.[2]


The most common boxcars are 50 ft 6 in (15.39 m) to 60 ft 9 in (18.52 m) in length, 9 ft 4 in (2.84 m) to 9 ft 6 in (2.90 m) wide, and 10 ft 10 in (3.30 m) to 11 ft 8 in (3.56 m) high. A hi-roof boxcar is 13 ft 0 in (3.96 m) in height. These are inside (interior) dimensions. Corresponding exterior dimensions would be 55 ft 5 in (16.89 m) to 67 ft 11 in (20.70 m) in length, and 10 ft 6 in (3.20 m) to 10 ft 8 in (3.25 m) in width.[3][4][5]

Double-door boxcar[edit]

A double-door boxcar passes through Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

A double-door boxcar has two sliding doors on each side instead of one. Double-door boxcars can be more convenient for household storage and passage uses. The double door gives the user a wider range of options than a standard one.

Hicube boxcar[edit]

In the 21st century, high cubic capacity (hicube) boxcars have become more common in the US. These are taller than regular boxcars and as such can only run on routes with increased clearance (see loading gauge and structure gauge). The excess height section of the car end is often painted with a white band to be easily visible if wrongly assigned to a low-clearance line.[6]

The internal height of the 86-foot (26.21 m) hicube boxcars originally used in automotive parts service was generally 12 feet 9 inches (3.89 m).[7]

Passenger use[edit]

Hobos have often used boxcars in their journeys (see freighthopping),[8] since they are enclosed and therefore they cannot be seen by railroad security or police, as well as being to some degree insulated from cold weather.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ An exception in Australia was the former South Australian Railways, which adopted US practices and terminologies; it used the term "boxcar".[1]: 1‑129 


  1. ^ McAuliffe, Des (1999). "The Snowtown to Port Pirie line". Proceedings of the 1999 Convention. Modelling the Railways of South Australia. Adelaide.
  2. ^ Affelder, William L. (March 1905). "Box-Car Loaders". Mines and Minerals. XXV (8): 372–377. Retrieved May 11, 2018.
  3. ^ "CSX Box Car Dimensions". OUPblog. CSX. November 12, 2008. Retrieved January 9, 2017.
  4. ^ Car and Locomotive Cyclopedia of American Practice. Association of American Railroads Mechanical Division. 1970. pp. 88–113. OCLC 5245643.
  5. ^ "AAR Open Top Loading Rules Manual, Section 1, Appendix A, Preload Inspection Checklist and Equipment Plate Diagrams" (PDF). Association of American Railroads. Archived (PDF) from the original on February 24, 2021. Retrieved February 24, 2021.
  6. ^ "60 ft Hicube boxcar" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on November 14, 2012. Retrieved June 6, 2011.
  7. ^ Chatfield, D. Scott (January 1994). "Athearn HO Scale and Arnold N Scale 86-foot Box Cars". Railmodel Journal. Denver, Colorado: Golden Bell Press. 5 (8): 32–39.
  8. ^ "On Hobos, Hautboys, and Other Beaus". Oxford University Press. November 12, 2008. Retrieved August 5, 2009.