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Freight train

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A Canadian National Railway freight train with three locomotives in the Canadian Rockies

A freight train, also called a goods train or cargo train, is a railway train that is used to carry cargo, as opposed to passengers. Freight trains are made up of one or more locomotives which provide propulsion, along with one or more railroad cars (also known as wagons) which carry freight. A wide variety of cargos are carried on trains, but the low friction inherent to rail transport means that freight trains are especially suited to carrying bulk and heavy loads over longer distances.


The first train on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825, including six cars of coal

The earliest recorded use of rail transport for freight was in Babylon, circa 2,200 B.C.E. This took the form of wagons pulled on wagonways by horses or even humans.[1]


Freight trains are almost universally powered by locomotives. Historically, steam locomotives were predominant, but beginning in the 1920s diesel and electric locomotives displaced steam due to their higher reliability, cleaner emissions, and lower costs.[2]

Freight cars[edit]

A unit train with cargo from a quarry in the United Kingdom
A tank car in Germany, used to carry liquids and gases

Freight trains carry cargo in freight cars, also known as goods wagons, which are unpowered and designed to carry various types of goods.

Different types of freight cars may be used by a train, such as:

As of April 2020, there were 1.6 million rail cars in North America.[3]


A BNSF Railway classification yard in Minnesota, USA

Freight trains often operate between classification yards, which are hubs where incoming freight trains are received, and then broken up, with the cars then being assembled into new trains for other destinations. In contrast to this type of operation, which is known as wagonload (or carload) freight, there are also unit trains, which exclusively carry one type of cargo. They normally operate directly between origin and destination points, such as a coal mine and a power plant, without any changes to the makeup of the freight cars in between.[4] This allows cargo to reach its destination faster, and increases utilization of freight cars, lowering operating costs.[4]

Unlike passenger trains, freight trains often do not follow fixed schedules, but are run as needed.[5] When sharing tracks with passenger trains, freight trains are scheduled to use lines during specific times to minimize their impact on passenger train operations, especially during the morning and evening rush hours.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Herring 2000, p. 8.
  2. ^ Nilsson, Jeff (May 11, 2013). "Why You Don't See Steam Locomotives Anymore". The Saturday Evening Post. Retrieved November 10, 2022.
  3. ^ Ricks, Emily (October 29, 2020). "Daily Infographic: Types of freight train cars". FreightWaves. Retrieved May 24, 2024.
  4. ^ a b Johnson, Art (March 13, 1983). "Unit train rolling fast in grain trade". The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved November 10, 2022.
  5. ^ a b "Freight demystified: five things you didn't know". Network Rail. December 19, 2019. Retrieved November 10, 2022.