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The adoption of a braking system that was universal on American railroads was important for a number of reasons, of which the most important was probably the growth of through-traffic, as this led to the spread of cars belonging to different railroad operators all over the rail network. This tendency was also a direct reflection of the growth of freight operations’ size and importance. It also required the railroads to create car- accounting departments whose sole task was to keep track of the location of every one of the railroad’s cars: railroads were charged on a daily basis for the use of other companies’ cars, so the car accounting department was a vital tool in each railroads’ operations to ensure that the right rentals were charged for their own cars, and that other operators’ empty cars were returned as rapidly as possible.
Car-accounting is still a vital aspect of freight operations, but is now handled on an altogether more sophisticated basis by systems such as the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Total Operations Processing System (Southern Pacific is now Union Pacific). This is a computer-based system that is updated on a constant basis with data about every element of the railroad’s operation. This means that within seconds it can be established exactly where, on the operator’s 13,500 miles (21725km) of track, any one of its 120,000 cars is located. This allows the Southern Pacific Railroad’s management to keep a close eye on the efficient use of car resources and provide customers with precise data on the progress of their loads.
Over the years there has inevitably developed an increasing level of specialization in the cars used for freight transport. In the early days of freight transport by rail, the three most common types were the flatcar, the boxcar and the coal car, and cars of these types are still in widespread service. However, the cars of these three basic types are the results of constant improvement. Other types of car now in large-scale use include the refrigerated car for the movement of perishable farm produce, and an ever- enlarging number of role-specialized cars such as three-deck automobile carriers and tank cars for the carriage of liquid loads. Two other very important types of car for freight purposes are those designed for the carriage of standard containers, and those employed for ‘piggyback’ service, a system in which truck trailers are loaded complete with their loads onto a flatcar to minimize transfer time between road and rail at transhipment points. In recent years, piggyback traffic has witnessed the greatest growth of any aspect of freight operations.