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Atypical Train Car Loads: Shipping Boeing Airplane Components by Rail

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Bold and innovative, by 1966, the Boeing Company had been devised a plan for shipping partially completed jet airliner fuselage sections across six states by rail, a distance of nearly two-thousand miles.

Specifically constructed to produce 747 jumbo jets, prior to the 1967 opening of Boeing's Everett, Washington assembly plant, which had been announced by the firm in 1966, after a five hundred twenty-five million dollar contract to build twenty-five 747-100s for Pan Am was won, 737 fabrication was partially relocated to Wichita, Kansas, because of space constraints and a shortage of skilled workers.

The First Wichita-Built  Boeing 737-100 in December 1966 - Boeing Company Photo

The First Wichita-Built  Boeing 737-100 in December 1966 - Boeing Company Photo

While the remainder were constructed on mobile jigs at Boeing Field (which is named for company founder William E. Boeing and is officially called King County International Airport), three of the first ten 737 fuselage units (i.e., numbers six, eight, and ten) were fabricated in Wichita.

The First Wichita-Built Boeing 737-100 on February 15,1967 - Boeing Company Photo

The First Wichita-Built Boeing 737-100 on February 15,1967 - Boeing Company Photo

From the former Wichita/Tulsa division of Boeing Commercial Airplanes manufacturing facility that was acquired by Spirit AeroSystems in 2005, aircraft fuselage components have made their way to Boeing's production facility in Renton, Washington, where among other things, the wings for 737 airplanes are fabricated.

In a train consist that was headed by a 1,500 horse power Santa Fe EMD GP7 diesel locomotive, the first pair of 737 fuselage sections made their way west to Renton on fifty foot long flatcars in March 1967.

1967 Boeing Company Photo - Kansas Historical Society Collection

1967 Boeing Company Photo - Kansas Historical Society Collection

Since that time, wing sections and other oversized components for Boeing 707 through 777 series aircraft have been shipped by rail.

Containing subcontractor (e.g., Canadair Ltd., General Dynamics Corporation Convair Division, LTV Aerospace Corporation. and Northrop) produced aircraft subassemblies, Skybox cars with removable cowlings that were fitted over modified flatcars regularly plied the western rails between California and Washington throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

During this period of time, Burlington Northern, Great Northern, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific flatcars loaded with airframe components were commonly seen bearing colorful hoods that were emblazoned with subcontractor names, and/or logos, and/or slogans.

While the flatcars that were previously utilized for Skybox service were owned by the TTX Company, or various railroads, in the present day, devoid of any corporate markings, Boeing Company owned rolling-stock bear reporting numbers that are preceded by the letters "TBCX".

Santa Fe Flatcar ATSF 90428 with "General Dynamics Convair Division" Hood

Santa Fe Flatcar ATSF 90428 with "General Dynamics Convair Division" Hood

Santa Fe Flatcar ATSF 90431 with "Lockheed Aircraft Wing Assembly" Hood

Santa Fe Flatcar ATSF 90431 with "Lockheed Aircraft Wing Assembly" Hood

Southern Pacific Flatcar SP 598329 with "another Boeing 747 jetliner assembly from NORTHROP" Hood - Charles Lange Photo

 Southern Pacific Flatcar SP 598329 with "another Boeing 747 jetliner assembly from NORTHROP" Hood - Charles Lange Photo

Now defunct, both LBF Company and Hubert's Railroad Manufacturing Corp. (which acquired the assets of the latter firm) formerly sold HO and N-Scale models of Skybox cars that were used to transport aircraft subassemblies throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with Santa Fe Flatcar ATSF 90433 and "another Boeing 747 jetliner assembly from LTV Aerospace Corporation" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with Santa Fe Flatcar ATSF 90433 and "another Boeing 747 jetliner assembly from LTV Aerospace Corporation" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with Santa Fe Flatcar ATSF 90440 and "General Dynamics Convair Division" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with Santa Fe Flatcar ATSF 90440 and "General Dynamics Convair Division" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with Burlington Northern Flatcar BN 614277 and "Lockheed Aircraft Wing Assembly" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with Burlington Northern Flatcar BN 614277 and "Lockheed Aircraft Wing Assembly" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with Great Northern Flatcar GN 60718 and "Lockheed Aircraft Wing Assembly" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with Great Northern Flatcar GN 60718 and "Lockheed Aircraft Wing Assembly" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with TTX Flatcar MTTX 980-53 and "Boeing" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with TTX Flatcar MTTX 980-53 and "Boeing" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with with Southern Pacific Flatcar SP 598324 and "Hydra-Cushion Sky Box For Aircraft Stabilizers" Hood

Huberts N-Scale Skybox Car with with Southern Pacific Flatcar SP 598324 and "Hydra-Cushion Sky Box For Aircraft Stabilizers" Hood 

Designed for tunnel clearance, Skybox cars have beveled top sections that run along the upper portions of their cowling sides.

Once the hood has been removed from a Skybox car, the jigs, which are mounted to steel pallets that have been seated on the flatcar body are revealed.

With Hood Removed, Aircraft Vertical Stabilizer Assembly is Loaded Into a Southern Pacific Skybox Car

With Hood Removed, Aircraft Vertical Stabilizer Assembly is Loaded Into a Southern Pacific Skybox Car

Serving as both an alignment and assembly platforms, in transit, the protective rigging fixtures secure any attached aircraft fuselage components.

Once the aircraft components have reached their final destination, a gantry crane is used to remove the Skybox car cowlings and the assembly/transport jigs, with their attached parts.

Signal Light Productions Boeing Blog Photo of Boeing Facility Gantry Crane

Signal Light Productions Boeing Blog Photo of Boeing Facility Gantry Crane

Currently, Skybox well cars with removable or retractable hoods are used to transport exceptionally tall loads such as vertical stabilizer assemblies.

Although the single-aisle narrow-body fuselages for the 737 series airliners that are shipped to Renton arrive in one-piece, too large to travel on a flatcar as a single assembly, the components for the twin-aisle, wide-body 747, 767, and 777 aircraft that are assembled at Boeing's Everett plant arrive in several sections that travel by rail in specially designed Skybox cars, or, for those that have been sent on a ship by overseas subcontractors, moved in oversized intermodal containers that resemble several corrugated dry boxes that have been welded together.

BNSF EMD GP38-2 Locomotives 2080 and 2361 with Oversized Containers Headed For Boeing's Everett Plant

BNSF EMD GP38-2 Locomotives 2080 and 2361 with Oversized Containers Headed For Boeing's Everett Plant

Oversized Aircraft Component Containers Headed For Boeing's Everett Plant

Oversized Aircraft Component Containers Headed For Boeing's Everett Plant

Boeing has purchased some of its newest Skybox cars from West Seneca, New York based Ebenezer Railcar Services, Inc. and Pueblo West, Colorado based Liberty Railway Services Inc.

Liberty Railway Services Inc., Aircraft Component Skybox Car Boeing TBCX 777024

Liberty Railway Services Inc., Aircraft Component Skybox Car Boeing TBCX 777024

The ability to transport large single-piece fuselages by rail has required a lot of engineering.

With the introduction of Boeing's Next Generation series 737-700, 737-800, and 737-900 models, rail shipments of single-piece fuselages commenced in 1996.

Prior to Boeing moving the production of horizontal and vertical stabilizers from Wichita to China, BNSF fuselage trains formerly carried idler flatcars that were fitted with short, tapered roof component boxes for transporting nose and tail cones and/or aircraft tail surfaces.

TTMX 80857 Idler Flatcar with Aircraft Component Box

TTMX 80857 Idler Flatcar with Aircraft Component Box

Highly evolved since the rail shipments of fuselage sections commenced in the 1960s, along with the eighty-nine foot long load bearing and idler flatcars that are presently used to haul single-piece fuselages, modern consists typically include several aircraft component Skybox cars that are commonly used to carry the airplane fight decks that are manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems.

In order to prevent water damage and metal corrosion while in transit, prior to being loaded onto flatcars, all of the fuselage openings are sealed with specially designed and individually numbered plastic plugs, plastic film, and tape.

737 Fuselage Attached to BNSF 800134 Flatcar with Anti-Corrosive Primer, Plastic Film, and Tape Applied

737 Fuselage Attached to BNSF 800134 Flatcar with Anti-Corrosive Primer, Plastic Film, and Tape Applied

Previously assigned for each customer order, unique hull numbers are applied to each fuselage.

Clad in green colored anti-corrosive primer, the fuselages are attached to the eight-nine foot load bearing flatcars at several points that are located close to where the landing gear struts will eventually be mounted.

Each load bearing flat is fitted with a collapsible grip fixtures box that is used for shipping various aircraft mounting components back to Wichita for reuse.

Empty BNSF 80133 Fuselage Flatcar with Erected Grip Fixtures Box - Christopher Palmieri Photo

Empty BNSF 80133 Fuselage Flatcar with Erected Grip Fixtures Box - Christopher Palmieri Photo

Bearing BNSF markings, Micro-Trains Line released several sets of N-Scale models that depict a typical 1996 to 2006 era fuselage train flatcar configuration.

Stock Number 993 01 560 BNSF Fuselage Transportation 4-Pack Set - July 2017 Release

Stock Number 993 01 561 BNSF Fuselage Transportation 2-Pack Set - December 2017 Release

Stock Number 993 01 562 BNSF Fuselage Transportation 2-Pack Set - December 2017 Release

Stock Number 993 01 563 BNSF Fuselage Transportation 2-Pack Set - December 2017 Release

Bearing MTTX markings and deck printing, Micro-Trains Line released several sets of N-Scale models with enhanced decal sets and laser cut collapsed grip fixtures boxes that depict a typical contemporary fuselage train flatcar configuration.

Stock Number 993 01 781 TTX Fuselage Transportation 2-Pack Set - March 2019 Release

Stock Number 993 01 782 TTX Fuselage Transportation 2-Pack Set - March 2019 Release

Stock Number 993 01 783 TTX Fuselage Transportation 2-Pack Set - March 2019 Release

Micro-Trains Line BNSF Fuselage Transportation Sets Pre-Production ArtworkMicro-Trains Line BNSF Fuselage Transportation Sets Pre-Production Artwork

A must read for anyone looking to upgrade their Micro-Trains Line BNSF Fuselage Transportation set is a "Best Of" thread on The Railwire titled Detailing the Micro-Trains BNSF Fuselage Set.

Assembled Micro-Trains BNSF Fuselage Transportation Set with Modified Idler Flat Deck and Added Decals

Assembled Micro-Trains BNSF Fuselage Transportation Set with Modified Idler Flat Deck and Added Decals

Previously moved exclusively in special consists, Boeing fuselage shipments on the BNSF presently travel in general merchandise trains.

Owing to the their size, weight, and high value, followed by autorack, intermodal, and other types of rolling-stock, airliner airframes must travel at the head end of a train, directly behind the locomotives.

With transit time frames of around twelve days, the BNSF transports Boeing shipments in high priority "Z" symbol train consists.

Ben Ringnalda Photo of Cascade Tunnel Eastern Portal and Deck Bridge

Ben Ringnalda Photo of Cascade Tunnel Eastern Portal and Deck Bridge

Traveling from Kansas along the BNSF Hi-Line (a moniker derived from its northernmost geographical location in the United States) on the former mainline of the Great Northern Railway, typical routing takes the consist through the 7.8 mile (12.55 km) long Cascade Tunnel (which is approximately sixty-five miles east of Everett) and the cities of Wichita, Newton, Lincoln, Laurel (on Montana Rail Link trackage), Missoula (on Montana Rail Link trackage), Sand Point, Spokane, Wenatchee, and Seattle/Renton.

BNSF GE ES44AC 5719 and 5580 Locomotives Leading Fuselage Train Through Larkspur, Colorado

BNSF GE ES44AC 5719 and 5580 Locomotives Leading Fuselage Train Through Larkspur, Colorado

While the maximum number can be as high as six, pulled by several turbo charged, 4,400 horse power GE Dash 9-44CW or GE Evolution Series ES44AC locomotives, BNSF trains normally transport three or four fuselages at a time. .

Increasing the number of fuselages per train inevitably raises the risks for shipment damage and or the total loss of the load, as was the case in July 2014, when a BNSF train derailment near Rivulet, Montana resulted in the loss of six 737 fuselages, when three flatcars loaded with airframes careened down a steep embankment and landed in the Clark Fork River.

Boeing 737 Fuselages on Embankment and in Clark Fork River Following July 2014 BNSF Train Derailment

Boeing 737 Fuselages on Embankment and in Clark Fork River Following July 2014 BNSF Train Derailment

Although the route is inspected annually, impacts from rocks and wind-blown foliage can still occur while a train is in transit

In order to protect the precious cargo from tree limbs, contemporary load bearing flatcars are fitted with sturdy metal brush guards, which also minimizes the possibility of incurring ice damage when a tunnel portal is entered.

The fuselage shipment is monitored by several high definition cameras that are strategically placed on the brush guards.

Fuselage Flatcar Brush Guard with "Do Not Hump This Car Coupling Speed Not To Exceed 4 MPH" Placards

Fuselage Flatcar Brush Guard with "Do Not Hump This Car Coupling Speed Not To Exceed 4 MPH" Placards

After an inbound fuselage train has arrived from Wichita and been shunted, in a consist named the "Renton Rocket", 2,000 horse power BNSF EMD GP 38-2 diesels move the Skybox cars and fuselage bearing flatcars to Boeing's final assembly facility, where the locomotives are used to move rolling-stock within the huge complex.

The "Renton Rocket" at Boeing's Renton, Washington Plant

The "Renton Rocket" at Boeing's Renton, Washington Plant

With twenty-eight deliveries made per month, in January 2006, Boeing and BNSF commemorated the 5.000th 737 fuselage shipment.

By 2013, the addition of fourteen more dedicated railcars saw shipments rise to more than thirty-five per month.

On February 14, 2018, Spirit AeroSystems announced the previous day's shipment of the 10,000th Wichita-built fuselage, a fourth generation 737 Max 8 that was ordered by Southwest Airlines.

A Southwest Airlines 737 Max 8 Became the 10,000th Wichita-Built Fuselage - Spirit AeroSystems Photo

A Southwest Airlines 737 Max 8 Became the 10,000th Wichita-Built Fuselage - Spirit AeroSystems Photo

Designed to handle the one hundred forty-three foot long 737-10, the railway transport system that is currently in place will support the future aircraft production increases that are expected to take place in Wichita.