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What is a Flatcar?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A flatcar is a railroad car which consists of a flat deck mounted to a set of axles. The number of axles can vary, depending on the types of loads that the flatcar is designed to bear, and there are a few variations on the basic design for specialty uses. Flatcars were the original freight car and their history dates back to the very early days of railroading. People who happen to live in areas where freight trains pass have probably seen flatcars in action on numerous occasions.

The basic flatcar was developed to carry a wide variety of cargo. Railroad companies began expanding on the traditional flatcar as they dealt with unique or challenging loads. Bulkhead flat cars have large end rails on either end of the car which are designed to keep the load from shifting off, and centerbeam flatcars have a large beam which runs down the middle of the flatcar to reinforce it. Well and depressed center flatcars are designed for especially bulky and heavy loads, such as heavy industrial equipment or tanks full of chemicals.

Classically, flatcars are used when a load will not fit conveniently into a boxcar. The load may be exposed to the elements, or covered with a tarp. Some flatcars designed for heavy equipment have shells which are designed to fit over the car for protection, as is the case with cars custom-built to transport aircraft and aircraft components. Typically the deck of the flatcar has numerous tiedown points so the load can be organized properly and secured.

In addition to being used for bulky and cumbersome items, flatcars are also used for the transport of shipping containers. One or two containers can be stacked on top of a flatcar and locked down for transport. Trailers and trucks can also be transported on flatcars using this method. For unique loads, flatcars can be specially reinforced or designed for optimal performance, with additions like extra axles and reinforcing beams which will make the load more secure and ensure that the flatcar will be able to withstand the weight.

Flatcars remain popular among shipping companies because they are flexible and easy to configure to meet specific needs, unlike specialized shipping cars such as boxcars and tanker cars. Flatcars can carry the same loads carried by boxcars and tankers with minimal modifications, without being limited to specific types of loads, and this makes them a useful addition to the rolling stock at a shipping company. In addition to being used in shipping, flatcars are also used around rail yards to hold cranes and other equipment, and they are sometimes employed during rescue operations as a portable staging area.

WiseGeek 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 WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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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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