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 details.
"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 Association said.
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 capacity,"
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.