Car float

A railroad car float or rail barge is an unpowered barge with rail tracks mounted on its deck. It is used to move railroad cars across water obstacles, or to locations they could not otherwise go, and is towed by a tugboat or pushed by a towboat. As such, the car float is a specialised form of the lighter,[1] as opposed to a train ferry, which is self-powered.

Historical operations

U.S. East Coast

During the Civil War Herman Haupt used huge barges fitted with tracks to enable military trains to cross the Rappahannock River in support of the Army of the Potomac.[2]

Beginning in the 1870s, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) operated a car float across the Potomac River, just south of Washington, D.C., between Shepherds Landing on the east shore, and Alexandria, Virginia on the west. The ferry operation ended in 1906.[3] (See Capital Subdivision.)

The B&O operated a car float across the Baltimore Inner Harbor until the mid-1890s. It connected trains from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. and points to the west. The operation ended after the opening of the Baltimore Belt Line in 1895.[3]

The Port of New York and New Jersey had many car float operations, which lost ground to the post-World War II expansion of trucking, but held out until and the rise of containerization in the 1970s.[4]

These car floats operated between the Class 1 railroads termini on the west bank of Hudson River in Hudson County, New Jersey and the numerous online and offline terminals located in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Bronx & Manhattan. [5] [6] Class 1 railroads in the New York Harbor area providing car float services were:

as well as the offline terminal railroads

Car float service was also provided to many pier stations and waterfront warehouse facilities (that did not engage in car floating service personally) by the above-mentioned railroads.

At their peak, the railroads had 3,400 employees operating small fleets totalling 323 car floats, plus 1,094 other barges, towed by 150 tugboats between New Jersey and New York City.

Abandoned float bridges are preserved as part of this history at:

Several other abandoned but unrestored float bridges exist in other locations around New York Harbor. A complete list is available at Surviving Float Bridges of New York Harbor

Freight cars do not run in the East River Tunnels nor the North River Tunnels (under the Hudson River), in part due to inadequate tunnel clearances of the New York Tunnel Extension.

The Bay Coast Railroad formerly operated a 2-barge car float connecting Virginia's Eastern Shore with the city of Norfolk, Virginia across the Chesapeake Bay.

U.S. Midwest

Between 1912–1936, the Erie Railroad operated a car float service on the Chicago River in Chicago, Illinois.[34]

U.S. West Coast


Existing operations


The Alaska Railroad provides the Alaska Rail Marine rail barge service from downtown Seattle, Washington to Whittier on the central Alaskan mainland.[36] Additionally, CN Rail provides the Aqua Train rail barge service from Prince Rupert, British Columbia to Whittier.[37]

New York / New Jersey

The only remaining car float service in operation in the Port of New York and New Jersey is operated by New York New Jersey Rail. This company, operated by the bi-state government agency Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is the successor to the New York Cross Harbor Railroad. Car float service operates between 65th Street / Bay Ridge Yard in Brooklyn, New York and Greenville Yard in Jersey City, New Jersey.[38]


See also


  1. Lederer, Eugene H. (1945). Port Terminal Operation: Port Terminal Management, Stevedoring, Stowage, Lighterage and Harbor Boats. New York, NY: Cornell Maritime Press. pp. 291–292.
  2. Wolmar, Christian (2012). Engines of War. London: Atlantic Books. p. 49. ISBN 9781848871731.
  3. Harwood, Jr., Herbert H. (1979). Impossible Challenge: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Maryland. Baltimore, MD: Barnard, Roberts. ISBN 0-934118-17-5.
  4. Cudahy, Brian J. (2006). Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. pp. 45–47. ISBN 0-8232-2568-2.
  5. Flagg, Thomas R. (2000). New York Harbor Railroads in Color, Volume 1. Scotch Plains, NJ: Morning Sun Books. ISBN 1-58248-082-6.
  6. Flagg, Thomas R. (2002). New York Harbor Railroads in Color, Volume 2. Scotch Plains, NJ: Morning Sun Books. ISBN 1-58248-048-6.
  7. Flagg, 2000, pp. 16–23.
  8. Flagg, 2002, pp. 26–29.
  9. Flagg, 2000, pp. 24–33.
  10. Flagg, 2002, pp. 38–39.
  11. Flagg, 2000, pp. 34–45.
  12. Flagg, 2002, pp. 40–51.
  13. Flagg, 2000, pp. 46–55.
  14. Flagg, 2002, pp. 52–57.
  15. Flagg, 2000, pp. 56–61.
  16. Flagg, 2002, pp. 58–63.
  17. Flagg, 2000, pp. 62–65.
  18. Flagg, 2002, pp. 64–67.
  19. Flagg, 2000, pp. 66–83.
  20. Flagg, 2002, pp. 68–93.
  21. Flagg, 2000, pp. 84–91.
  22. Flagg, 2002, pp. 94–97.
  23. Flagg, 2000, pp. 92–101.
  24. Flagg, 2002, pp. 98–109.
  25. Flagg, 2002, pp. 30–37.
  26. Flagg, 2002, pp. 110–116.
  27. Flagg, 2000, pp. 118–125.
  28. Flagg, 2002, pp. 120–127.
  29. Flagg, 2000, pp. 126–127.
  30. Flagg, 2002, p. 118.
  31. Flagg, 2000, pp. 110–117.
  32. Flagg, 2002, p. 119.
  33. Flagg, 2002, p. 117.
  34. Sennstrom, Bernard H. (1992). "Erie Railroad's Chicago River Service". The Diamond. 7 (1): 4–10.
  35. The Pere Marquette Marine Fleet, Pere Marquette Historical Society, 10-MAY-2011, accessed July 16, 2012
  36. Alaska Rail Marine Archived December 21, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  37. Aqua train
  38. "Route Map". New York New Jersey Rail, LLC. Retrieved 2017-06-03.
  39. Trains (Magazine) February 2009 p9
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