Every construction project, no matter its size, begins in pieces and parts.

Whether the project is composed of cement, steel, lumber or stone, even our tallest skyscrapers and busiest highways begin as a humble assortment of raw materials. Which means they often start inside a freight rail car.



Railroads use an impressive fleet of specialized rail cars to carry the diverse array of raw materials that are used by America’s construction industry. Designed to maximize efficiency, these cars help railroads deliver the materials customers need at a price that keeps them competitive. So, the next time you enter a football stadium or a shopping mall, remember the vital role railroads play in putting it there. Here are just four of the specialized rail cars that deliver for America’s construction industry:

1. Centerbeams

A bulkhead flatcar reinforced by a longitudinal I-beam.

In 2021, railroads moved 1.1 million carloads of lumber, paper and other forest products  in three different car types — centerbeams, boxcars and bulkhead flatcars. Centerbeams are preferred for lumber transport, because they can be loaded and unloaded simultaneously from both sides, getting them back into service quicker. The standard 73′ centerbeam flatcar can carry about 200,000 lbs. or more and is also used to carry other construction materials, such as wallboard. In fact, one centerbeam rail car carries enough framing lumber to build about 6 homes.

2. Flat Cars

Sturdy rail cars developed specifically for steel transportation.

Railroads haul all manner of steel, from the scrap and iron ore used at the steel mill to the steel slabs for manufacturing to finished products — like I-beams and various kinds of pipe — ready for use in construction projects. Steel slabs produced at the steel mill are transported to fabricators in specialized flat cars. A loaded flat car is extremely heavy — carrying approximately 110 tons of steel per car — but look nearly empty. To maximize efficiency, railroads have engineered a lighter weight flat car that can carry one additional steel slab per carload.

3. Small Covered Hopper Cars

Designed with a permanent roof and a bottom opening for unloading.

Bulk shipments of dry cement were among the first commodities to be hauled in covered hopper cars. Because of their sturdiness and ease of use, they are still the rail car of choice for cement transport today. Typically shipped in free flowing, dry form, 110 tons of cement can be conveniently piped directly into a hopper car. These covered hopper cars have outlets on the bottom that allow for easy unloading when the cement reaches its destination. More efficient loading and unloading ensures the equipment is turned more quickly, lowering costs for both railroads and shippers.

4. Gondolas

Longer, shallower cars carrying aggregate material and steel scrap.

Don’t think of a dainty boat on an Italian waterway. Sturdy gondola rail cars helped to transport 1.5 million carloads of “aggregate material” such as stone, sand and gravel in 2017. Aggregates are used as the foundation for highways, roadways and even railroads. To ensure that this important commodity is moved efficiently and cost-effectively, railroads move aggregates from origin to destination in dedicated trains, which minimizes switching, or reconfiguration of the train. While rail transport of aggregates is typically less than 300 miles, the importance of this commodity ensures that railroads will be in it for the long haul.

Collectively, these products are used to build and support infrastructure, buildings and more. The foundation of modern American cities and towns — and the infrastructure we use to travel between them — wouldn’t exist without the materials carried by America’s freight railroads.