What is a Boxcar?

Boxcars were infamously used to carry people to German concentration camps.
Historically, boxcars were used to transport livestock.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2014
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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.


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