If there is anything that the railroad does well, it is moving large, heavy things from one place to another. In particular, very large things, such as the locomotive and car above. The technical name for such train operations is a High & Wide movement.
For commodities such as coal or grain, the railroad is a giant conveyor, hauling products from producer to purchaser. For container traffic, the railroad is the universal interface between truck and ship. But, when it comes to BIG, the railroad is unique. Certainly, there are trucks that haul these things, but over public roads at the risk of damage to taxpayer owned property. Given our predilection toward things railroad, we naturally think that the railroad does it best, and it probably does.
I suspect that railroaders love high and wide movements, if for no other reason than it is a rare opportunity for the railroad and its people. Not to mention that there are lots of cool cars to go with the operation itself.
If something big is going to operate on the railroad, you need a clearance car to figure out just how big a car load can be. In earlier times, the mechanical clearance car was just the ticket.
All the big railroads had at least one of these beauties, the sole possession of the engineering department. The clearance car generated no revenue itself, but it was a tool for generating revenue. Sometimes it was rented out to other railroads, but, regardless, this car was used to measure the side and vertical clearances of each railroad line.
The dimensions of each line were kept in the engineering department’s files, and when a high and wide movement was proposed, the engineering department was consulted before the large load ever hit the rails.
The car above had mechanical arms which were extended, then the car was pulled about the railroad. When a close clearance was encountered, the arms were pushed inward as the train passed by. The railroad’s civil engineers made little notes about these limited clearances for future reference.
Likewise, the civil engineers were aware of all of the bridges on their railroad and what weight that they were designed to support. Again, when a large load was proposed for haulage, the engineers made a mile-by-mile analysis of just what could be hauled by the railroad on that line.
Once the large load was booked, it usually was placed onto a flat car. Simply a flat surface with wheels and braking equipment, the flat is a flexible piece of equipment for just this sort of job. Many of the unusual loads are simply strapped onto the flat car, while others require specialized flat cars.
These photos from J. D. Jones of South Carolina:
Note the crew cabs at each end of the special transformer carrier car. Before they shipped the actual transformer, a test load was built to operate over the proposed train route:
The railroads later decided that having the transformer company employees riding on a potentially unstable car was a potential problem, so a special car was created for their comfort:
Other high & wides:
Some other examples from the web:
Models of High & Wide Cars
Lionel made a large number of special load cars. In addition to the rockets, helicopters, satellites and nuclear waste cars, they also made some reasonably realistic models:
Another cool toy for the high and wide operation is the Schnabel car. There are all sorts of Schnabel cars, and most are owned by the shippers rather than the railroads. There have been brass models of Schnabel cars in several different scales, but credit goes to Märklin for mass producing one in Z-Scale:
Of course, converting the car to an “empty” is irresistible: