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What is a Boxcar?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A boxcar is a type of railway car which is designed to carry freight. The advantage of the boxcar design is that it is incredibly versatile, since a boxcar is basically a gigantic box on wheels, allowing people to load the car in a wide variety of ways. Boxcars have started to fade from popularity due to the rise of the shipping container, but many railroads still maintain at least a few boxcars, especially smaller railroads, and numerous boxcars can be seen on display in railway museums.

Boxcars are fully enclosed with no windows, and a set of sliding doors is designed to provide access to the interior of the car. A boxcar can be loaded by hand, with railway workers stacking goods from the back of the boxcar to the front, or it may be loaded with the assistance of forklifts and other mechanized tools. Most boxcars have high ceiling clearance, ensuring that they can be used to carry a large volume of material, and specialized high cubic volume boxcars have especially high ceilings.

Historically, boxcars have been used to transport a wide variety of things. Specially designed boxcars have carried grain, while boxcars were once the transportation method of choice for livestock, although the enclosed nature of the boxcar made livestock transport unwise in hot weather. Boxcars have also been used to carry military material and troops; the classic “forty and eight” boxcar could fit forty men and their gear, or eight horses. Boxcars have had more sinister uses, as well: they were used to transport slaves in the Americas in the 1800s, and people destined for concentration camps in the 1940s.

Boxcars can still be quite useful for land transport, but major railway companies tend to use well cars, also known a double-stack cars. These railway cars are designed to accommodate modular shipping containers, which can be lifted with a crane from the deck of a ship directly onto the car. Container shipping is cheap and highly efficient, making it an appealing way of transporting large numbers of goods, from sacks of rice to automobiles.

Because the boxcar is one of the oldest railway car designs, the appearance of the boxcar has become a bit iconic for many people. Boxcars have been romanticized in stories about train hopping and the American West, and in books like the Boxcar Children series, so some people have a soft spot for the classic boxcar. Thanks to museum displays of these transportation icons, it is possible to see boxcars from a range of historical eras.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Wisedly33 — On Oct 05, 2014

I've noticed something about boxcars. Very often, they have elaborate graffiti spray painted on them. It makes me wonder where they have been.

A railroad track runs very close to our office, so I always see the trains going by. The graffiti on some of the boxcars is truly intricate. It makes me wish some of the young people who spent so much time creating that graffiti could go to art school and learn to use their artistic gifts in a way that might be profitable. It's a shame they have that talent, and probably no way to benefit from it, except for spraying graffiti on any flat surface.

By Scrbblchick — On Oct 04, 2014

When I was a kid, if we got caught by a train, we always watched to see what the railroad the boxcars were with: Southern, L&N, Chessie Systems, Burlington-Northern, etc. These days, they're nearly always CSX, no matter what railroad they're on.

I admit, though, I still like watching trains go by, and as long as I don't have to wait too long, I don't mind waiting for the occasional train to go by. It makes me slow down and pay attention to something besides the next destination or something like that. I always wonder where the train has been, where it's going and what it's hauling. I even count the boxcars like I used to what I was a little girl.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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