• U.S.

Railroads: Fighting Off the Pirates

3 minute read

Who on earth would want to pirate an empty boxcar? To hear the Interstate Commerce Commission tell it, many U.S. railroads would—and do. The ICC, at the urging of Midwestern roads, is knuckle-rapping some lines for holding onto boxcars from other lines for their own use. It has filed twelve suits against railroads and has five more upcoming, has already fined the Denver & Rio Grande for 14 violations. “Everybody’s crying for boxcars,” says Homer Wilson, superintendent of transportation for the Illinois Central.

The reason for the demand is that the U.S. boxcar population has dropped from 700,000 in 1958 to 571,367 today. In the normal flow of freight traffic, railroads usually handle a large number of one another’s boxcars, and rare is the half-mile-long freight train that is not a geographically fascinating string of many-colored U.S. railroad names. For each day that a line keeps another’s boxcar after it is unloaded, it pays an allowance of $2.88—a fee that has not changed since 1902. That price is cheaper than buying expensive new boxcars ($15,000) or having old ones repaired, so some lines just forget about sending the boxcars back to their owners.

Western railroads complain bitterly that, since so many terminals for their shipments are in the East, Eastern railroads are the major offenders. They charge that Eastern boxcar-napping has produced a shortage of cars for moving grain and lumber.

Railroadmen aim at having on hand the equivalent of the number of boxcars they own, even though they may be someone else’s. They use a “percentage of equivalent ownership” to show their boxcar wealth, worry when equivalence drops below 90%. While such Eastern roads as the Pennsylvania had a 137.4% rate in March, the New Haven 164.8%, and the Reading 182.2%, many Western roads were clearly suffering: the Burlington had only 66.6%, the Northern Pacific 62.3%, the Great Northern 53%.

Eastern railroads answer that their percentages are higher because three times as many cars terminate in their areas as move out. Car-short lines charge that the Eastern roads like to pirate the new, bigger, smoother-riding cars now going into service because they are easier to handle and unload. “Any new car that you build that leaves this area,” complains Illinois’ Wilson, “you don’t see again for a long time.” To discourage boxcar piracy, the Association of American Railroads will raise the rate for daily rentals, but it has little power to police its own members.

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