A gondola car that can carry
scrap to the steel mill and then carry finished rolls or long
products outbound has been a shining vision for shippers,
carriers and mills for decades. But the devil is in the
"Historically, there have been
many ideas related to developing rail cars that can perform
multiple functions. In modular (gondola cars), there is the
issue of how to reposition the cradles to the mill since the
cars carrying the scrap will not have room for them.
Multi-purpose cars will generally carry some penalty in terms
of weight, capacity loss or costs that have made them
unattractive. That is not to say a future development would not
be successful," one member of the North American Freight Car
Nucor Corp. and Burlington
Northern Railroad collaborated in the 1980s on what was called
the BN-580 gondola, but little is known about the initiative.
More recently, "in the late 1990s and early 2000s Thrall (Car
Manufacturing Co.) built some standard 52-foot mill (gondolas)
with modular steel racks in the bottom," said an executive at
BNSF Railway Co., the successor to Burlington Northern. "The
intent was that the (gondolas) would come inbound to steel
mills with scrap. The steel mill would then load steel coils
outbound in the same cars. This latest attempt was not
successful, and given current loading and unloading practices
some of the reasons include getting all the scrap out of the
car, potential damage to coil racks and reducing loading
Undaunted, CSX Corp., which
serves most mills east of the Mississippi, is working with
Greenbrier Cos. Inc. subsidiary Gunderson Inc. to develop a
more efficient gondola. "Late last year we took some 66-foot
cars and cut them down to 62 feet to better handle the track
curvature for receivers in the Northeast," said Brenda Wheeler,
the railroads director of car management for metals.
"They worked fine for scrap, and we test loaded them at Nucor
with 60-foot structural steel outbound. That was okay, too. We
have six in testing service."
The two major challenges for
two-way gondolas are the accumulation of debris and the
abrasion of scrap on any fittings. "As long as the scrapyards
use front-end loaders to fill cars, they are going to
accumulate dirt," she said. "The big mills use magnets to
remove the scrap, leaving the debris."
As much as a ton of dirt can be
left after each cycle. Debris not only accumulates, but blocks
and damages any interior fittings for carrying finished
products. "We brought in all the major steel shippers and asked
them what they wanted in the perfect (gondola). There were a
lot of suggestions," Wheeler said. "Greenbrier tried a car a
few years ago with a longitudinal V-notch in the floor about 18
inches deep. That got filled with dirt. The mechanical
department rejected anything like a trap door because the
magnets bang around too much and dislodge them. Liners are too
expensive and time consuming."
The quest for the ideal mill
gondola car isnt just an idle pursuit. "The metals cars
are probably the least built in the past five to eight years,"
Wheeler said. "The cars in service today are very old and the
industry as a whole will need to replace them.