The Humble Boxcar

Kato WaMu 2850

The boxcar, also known as a “goods van” and by other names is one of the most basic of railway vehicles, simply a box on wheels, typically with doors located in the center of each side. The photo above is a Kato model (8033) of the common 380000 sub-series of the WaMu 80000 boxcar. This is a roughly 30-foot long, two-axle boxcar that has been the most common kind used in Japan for the past fifty years.

The boxcar is one of the earliest types of railway car, and they were in use in the U.S. in the 1830’s, almost as early as the first railways here. The earliest railway cars were probably flat cars or gondola cars, as the use of the latter to carry coal over rails predated the invention of steam propulsion (they were horse-drawn) by over two centuries, and possibly by much longer. But it didn’t take long for someone to realized that fully enclosing some cargo was important to protect it from the weather, or to keep it secure in transit.

Originally boxcars were used for both “less-than-carload” (LCL) shipments originating at freight stations and for whole-car shipments originating from private industry sidings. As LCL traffic shifted to trucks, or express baggage cars on passenger trains (essentially a specialized type of boxcar if you want to be pedantic) they were left to carry whole-car shipments that for one reason or another weren’t better carried in some other kind of car. Often a cargo first carried in boxcars would later have specialized cars developed to better meet its specific needs (automobiles were first shipped in boxcars, before multi-level autorack cars were developed).

For decades the boxcar was the backbone of railway fleets around the world. But with the widespread adoption of shipping containers in the 1960’s, the writing was on the wall for this general-purpose car.

The boxcar has a long history in Japan as well, and the earliest designs were probably imported from England along with other railway technology in the late 1800’s. By 1928 (and probably earlier) cars with a loading weight (capacity) of 14 tons, designated WaMu (ワム) were in use in Japan.

Freight cars in Japan are identified by two-character identifiers, where the first indicates the class (in this case “Wa”, which is used for general-use boxcars and some specialized derivatives) and the second the loading weight (the absence of a symbol means less than 14 tons, while the “Mu” symbol covers a range of 14 - 16 tons; for more, see the description on the Freight Car page).

The WaMu 80000 series, with a capacity of 15 tons, was introduced by the Japanese National Railway (JNR) in 1959 or 1960, with a design optimized for forklift loading of palletized cargo (earlier boxcars had been hand-loaded). The car was in production for 21 years, with over 26,000 manufactured (per Japanese Wikipedia). The earliest models were limited to a top speed of 65 kph, although later changes raised this to 75 kph.

In the 1960’s JNR also began substantial use of containerized cargo using a small domestic container suitable for transport on the small trucks most commonly used on Japanese roads. This rapidly eliminated LCL freight on Japanese rails, as express companies turned to containers. Although larger boxcars suitable for higher speeds were introduced, they eventually lost out to containers. Meanwhile, the humble WaMu 80000 and its many sub-classes soldiered on.

In 1992, as the express boxcars were fading, the last upgrade to the WaMu was made, with the 280000 subclass (built in 1975 and later) converted to roller bearing axles for reduced maintenance, and renumbered as the 380000 subclass. Both are still considered to be WaMu 80000 cars however. The 380000 cars were painted blue to distinguish them from earlier ones, which had been brown. Not all older cars were apparently converted, however, as brown cars remained in use until recently, and may still be in use.

Even before it was broken up in 1987, JNR had closed most if not all of its freight-classification yards (c. 1985), leaving only the container yards and other specialized yards for specific industrial sites. This appears to have coincided with or followed the end of freight shipments from ordinary stations. Carload freight from industry continued to exist, with mixed freight trains in use down to the present. But the last remaining general-use boxcars, the blue WaMu, remain in use largely, if not entirely, for a few routes carrying pallets of paper. Fortunately for me, some of this traffic is seen in Tōkyō, so it fits within my modeling scope. Mostly these travel in unit trains. Some other uses may still exist, as brown WaMu are sometimes visible in mixed freights, as are single or small numbers of the blue variety.

But the end is likely near. Although the Japanese government is now promoting the use of railroading as a way to lessen the environmental impact of freight transport, and JR Freight is investing in locomotives and rolling stock, this resurgence of freight takes the form of containerized cargo and other unit-trains (e.g., oil tanker trains). While some WaMu are kept for maintenance purposes (“rescue” cars stored at depots containing tools and other things needed to clean up after wrecks or derailments, for example), most other uses seem to have ended in the last twenty-five years, and it may not be long before the final cargo converts to containers, and one of the oldest railway cars disappears entirely from Japanese freight transport.

For more about the Kato model illustrated above, see the Freight Cars page of my Collection. For more about the prototype, see the Japanese Freight Cars page and the rest of my Freight section.

Other website changes:
- The tables still aren’t back together. Work continues on the Riverside Station scene, with work on the electrical block wiring being the most recent activity. This is described on the new “Phase 2k” Construction page. The Wiring Standards page has also been updated with a revised block diagram. In addition photos have been added to the Construction photo album, and the revised block diagram to the Diagrams album.
- I’ve updated the Reservations and Recent Arrivals pages to reflect trains on order and received, and also updated the collection Freight Car page as noted above. And I added some photos of the WaMu 80000 to the Train photo album.
- I added a new index page for the Freight section describing freight in Japan and providing links to all of my pages related to prototype freight lines and trains (formerly the separate pages had only been linked from each other, with a subset on the sidebar of the main Prototype page, which made them hard to find).

Apple appears to have fixed their problems with iWeb comments, although I’ve said that before. If the comment window opens with a mostly white background and squished to the left side of the screen, it’s broken and won’t post a comment, but if it opens mid-screen with a tinted background, it should work. If you want to reach me and the comments are broken, you can always send email to the address on the Who Am I page.