A Very Brief History of the Autorack car

(Photo courtesy of National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Autorack cars are a staple of railroads today, but they have a unique history many people may not realize.

The modern incarnation of autorack cars dates to the 20th century. However, the idea of transporting vehicles — initially wagons — dates to the earliest days of railroading.

Early Concepts

Joseph Ritter von Baader (1763-1835), a German engineer, is an oft-overlooked railroad pioneer. Circa 1822, he proposed hauling wagons on flat cars, much like the piggyback shipping process of the 20th century.

Evidence indicates that when the Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened in 1830, the railroad hauled coaches on flat cars.

Perfect for a President

Around this time, in the United States, former President John Quincy Adams traveled between Baltimore and the “Relay House.” For the journey, the railroad loaded Adams’ wagon onto a “four-wheel platform-car.”

By the following decade, in 1843, the Orleans Railway in France transported stagecoaches via flatcar between Orleans and Rouen. The railroad removed stagecoaches from their trucks to place on a flatcar for the rail journey.

A new need arises

The first autorack cars similar to the ones we know today entered the scene in the 1920s. But, it was not until the 1950s that railroads experienced a proliferation of autorack cars.

At the same time, as truck traffic increased, railroads developed a way to haul trailers.


By the latter half of the 1960s, piggyback cars were a common sight on the nation’s railroads. In 1967, railroads carried more than 1.2 million trailers, an increase of 3.8 percent over 1966, The Associated Press reported at the time.

By 1967, railroads carried half of all vehicles produced in the country to distribution centers.

The Auto Train

On Dec. 6, 1971, Auto-Train Corporation launched a new form of passenger rail when it began the original incarnation of the Auto Train between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla.

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