Greenbrier’s Diverse Railcar Portfolio Serves a Broad Range of Commodity Industries


Fri, Jan 20, 2017 04:10 PM


In the United States, the integrated transportation network of rail, barge, and trucks, moves an average 54 tons of freight per American per year. Diverse products such as automobiles, industrial chemicals, lumber, steel and smartphones reach their destination by means of different railcars. Dynamic demand changes across these industries underscore the importance of having a broad range of well-engineered rail equipment and services.

Railcar Design Basics

There are approximately 1.6 million active rail cars in North America. Key car types include covered hoppers, tank cars, regular and refrigerated box cars, intermodal cars, bulkhead flat cars, center beam cars and gondolas. Although covered hoppers and tank cars comprise 55% of the continent’s fleet, there are wide ranging engineering needs even within these two car types.

For instance, the industry Gross Rail Limit (GRL) greatly impacts railcar design. Presently, the maximum weight of a railcar plus its contents cannot exceed 286,000 pounds. This means denser commodities are typically shipped in railcars with smaller volume capacity. Rail shipments are optimized when the maximum weight is reached at the same point that the railcar becomes fully loaded as measured by cubic space.

However, as seasoned railcar veterans can attest, there is great variability in railcar design and in many cases, lighter designs do not necessarily translate into better railcars. Close attention must be paid to key features of each car type in order to:

  • Ensure safe transport of the commodity
  • Ensure safe conditions for the railcar operator
  • Prevent product contamination
  • Extend the life of the railcar
  • Expedite loading and unloading
Greenbrier's Focus on Engineering

With every railcar that Greenbrier manufactures, we pay close attention to the key features referenced above. As a leading supplier to the rail industry, Greenbrier’s North American product portfolio consists of over 50 different railcar types. Below are just a few examples how we optimize railcar designs for the car owner and operator.

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Plastic pellets are shipped in large covered hoppers and have a unique set of needs given the high value of the pellets and the importance of preventing product contamination. Great care is taken to design and build plastic pellet covered hoppers with long lasting interior lining and features that make loading, unloading and maintenance easy.

Greenbrier Plastic Pellet Covered Hopper Video

Greenbrier has been at the vanguard of intermodal well car design since the beginning of containerized transportation. In 1984, Greenbrier designed and built the first intermodal railcar to allow shipping containers to be “double stacked”. As transportation trends have evolved so have our designs, but we remain committed to operator safety and expedited loading and unloading. In January 2017, we will build our 100,000th intermodal double-stack railcar platform. This important milestone would not be possible without a strong focus on designing railcars to meet the changing needs of shippers.

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Automobile transportation within North America has changed over the past decade as automakers have largely “near-sourced” production of vehicles. Production mixes are also shifting as the big four auto makers shift more production from small cars to trucks, crossovers, and SUVs. All these trends have increased the need for flexible auto carrier rail transportation. Greenbrier’s Auto-Max ™ and Multi-Max ™ products continue to adapt to the changing needs of automakers. Special focus is given to operator safety and ergonomics, as well as efficiency of converting the decks.

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The North American rail industry has been moving freight for nearly 200 years, but as bulk transportation needs evolve, railcar designs must also adapt in order to keep up. Early rail freight primarily traveled in wooden boxcars and generic flat cars. As shippers’ needs evolved, railcar builders improved designs and added more specialized features. The rise in commodities such as hydraulic fracturing proppant and liquefied natural gas have introduced the need for even more specialized railcars. As the needs of industrial shippers become more complex, shipper-focused railcar design must increase. At Greenbrier, we aim to manufacture for the future and build features into our railcars for maximum safety and efficiency.